The Third-Party Delusion and the Need for a Mass Movement for Progressive Change

I can't count how many people have bombarded me with criticisms,
usually laced with insults and often obscenities, when I have written
articles calling for pressure on Democratic politicians to do the right
thing, whether that is impeaching the last president and vice president
for war crimes or in the case of our new president, standing and
fighting for a people's bailout, instead of a Wall Street bailout.

The common refrain I hear is that the Democrats and Republicans are
the same, and that we need a third party. Another common refrain is
that "all you suckers" who voted for Obama are to blame. We should have
voted for Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader, they say.

Now I have nothing against McKinney and Nader. That ticket would
make for a wonderful administration, I agree. But I also have to point
out that there is zero chance of these two people being elected in my
lifetime (I'm 59 and pretty healthy) or theirs.

Third parties have not played a significant role in American
politics since the 1930s and earlier, when the Socialist Party of
Eugene Debs (and Norman Thomas to a lesser extent) managed to make a
significant dent in the political equation, though even it had no shot
at winning. And that was back in a time when there were millions of
immigrants from Europe who had socialist ideas in their blood, and when
American workers were not afraid of the idea either.

Today, there is no mass base for a socialist party. Valiant efforts
by some labor leaders like the late Ray Mazzochi to forge a Labor Party
failed abysmally. The Green Party is a well-meaning but hopelessly
internally fragmented group of people that has for years failed to
appeal to any mass base and doesn't appear to have a clue of how to
accomplish that.

I don't fault third parties for their failure to rise to a position
of political relevance. The system of winner-take-all elections is
structured against them. But calls to change that system so that third
parties might have a chance bump up against the reality that the two
parties that have a duopoly on power have no interest in changing the
rules of the game to make it easier to bump them off. It simply ain't
gonna happen.

This brings me to my main point, which is that all this formalistic
arguing about the virtues of supporting a third party is an infantile
diversion. Valuable energy is being wasted on trying to organize little
parties which, because they are doomed to insignificance, end up being
riven by petty internal power struggles (it has always been the case
that the most bitter struggles for power occur in organizations with
the least power and significance).

The truth is that enormous progressive change has been wrought in
the US, within the two-party system, not by third parties coming to
power, but by mass movements that have forced the more liberal of the
two parties-the Democrats-to grudgingly do the right thing. It was a
mass movement of workers that forced Franklin Roosevelt and the
Democratic Party to establish the Social Security Program, and to pass
labor laws making it easier for workers to organize. It was a mass
movement that led to passage of the Civil Rights Act and that ended Jim
Crow. It was a mass movement that helped bring an end to the US War in
Indochina. It was a mass movement that led to the establishment of
Medicare and Medicaid and other elements of the Johnson War on Poverty.

The people who criticize a policy of building a mass movement to
pressure Obama and the Democrats to end the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, or to create a single-payer national health system, or to
pass a progressive economic recovery program instead of a corporate
bailout program, because it means dealing with the Democrats would
probably have been criticizing Martin Luther King for seeking to
pressure Johnson and the Democrats, for that is what Dr. King was
doing-working within the two-party system, but by way of building a
mass movement outside of party politics.

In a way, the obsession of some people on the left with third party
politics is like a perfect safety valve to prevent real change within
the Democratic Party. On the historic evidence, absent a powerful labor
movement, which might permit the creation of a real Labor
Party alternative as we had in the 1920s and 30s, third parties of the
left have accomplished nothing except to draw support away from the
Democrats and help elect conservative governments.

I know there are those, like Nader, who suggest that candidacies
like his force Democrats running for office to adopt more liberal
positions, but I see scant evidence of this. The most one can say is
that a candidate like Al Gore, in order to prevent voters from straying
to a Nader, might say a few more progressive things on the campaign
trail, but once in office, such politicians quickly revert to form.
Third party campaigns in the end accomplish very little, and yet can,
in key states, as we saw in Florida in 2000, do a lot of harm. (I know,
I know, the real vote went to Gore, but remember: if Nader hadn't run,
there wouldn't have even had to be a recount, folks.)

So, while I expect to be deluged again with verbal brickbats, let
me say it straight: third parties are a useless, and even dangerous
diversion. What we need to be focusing on is building a mass movement
for progressive change-a movement that will bring masses of people onto
the streets, especially in Washington, but in every city and town, too,
to demand an end to this country's pointless wars, a huge cut in the
military budget, a national health care system, a jobs program, a
break-up of the large banking and other corporate monopolies, an end to
the national security state, reform of the labor laws, and a
restoration of a real progressive tax system.

It is not third parties that make history in America. It is mass movements.

We need one badly.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.