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Supporters of Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders cheer during a Sanders rally at Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington March 25, 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

Third Party Loyalists: Insanity Redefined or Political Attention Deficit Disorder?

Tom Gallagher

One audience member on the comment line following a recent Oakland, CA Green Party discussion panel—titled "Growing the Political Revolution: What's Beyond Bernie?"—cited Albert Einstein for having once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting things to turn out differently. This maxim is actually invoked with some regularity these days as a caution against American left efforts within the Democratic Party. As the argument goes, these endeavors have been so obviously unsuccessful that any non-insane observer can see the futility of their continuation and recognize the need for a "third party" candidacy instead. The presence of this viewpoint at a Green Party event is to be expected, naturally. Nonetheless, standards of evidence should still prevail and it seems fair to pose the question of what you call it when someone fails to notice that things have turned out differently.

Insanity? Perhaps not.

Political attention deficit disorder? Maybe.

"Some who caution against the insanity of repeated efforts within the Democratic Party see nothing of repetitive failure in this history of third party presidential runs."

It wouldn’t be fair to say that the people there hadn’t noticed that something big had just happened. The Bernie Sanders campaign was, after all, in the event title and they did invite a couple of us Sanders people to speak. But so far as most comments went, the just-completed campaign didn’t appear to have shaken the inclinations of many of the people there. In fact, if you had arrived at this meeting after, say, waking up from a year-long coma and heard how the left’s latest effort to take power through the Democratic Party had only made it more obvious than ever that we needed to leave behind the corporate Democrats (who never wanted us in their party in the first place) and build a party of our own – you might have thought Sanders must have fared quite poorly, maybe scraping for 5 percent of the vote or something.

As we know, however, the reality was not like that at all: The longest serving independent in congressional history actually won 45 percent of the delegates elected in the Democratic Party primaries and caucuses. Yes, we were never expected to win the nomination and, yes, we did not win the nomination in the end. At the same time, most everyone heavily involved in the Sanders campaign recognized they were in a power struggle very unlike the "Come the revolution" meetings they may have previously attended. And a lot of people came out of it with ideas about how we could do it even better next time. So why wouldn’t we be looking toward a next time, then? Presumably because the third party presidential route held more promise.


So what’s the record there? Well, among the numerous independent, third party presidential candidates of the left, none has won so much as 3 percent of the vote since Wisconsin Senator Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette took 16.6 percent. But that was in 1924—ninety-two years ago! But as Einstein definitely did say, everything is relative. And somehow, some who caution against the insanity of repeated efforts within the Democratic Party see nothing of repetitive failure in this history of third party presidential runs.

To be fair, the vagaries of the American Electoral College system do promote a certain fuzziness in the way we think about all of this. Since our presidential election is run on a state-by-state basis, the non-competitive nature of most of them gives people leeway to vote third party in their state without it ever becoming anything more than a protest vote on the national level. And to be sure, we don’t know how the next few months will turn out – we never do. Perhaps the prospects of a Donald Trump presidency will wither to the point where more voters than usual will go third party. Perhaps Jill Stein’s vote will surpass Ralph Nader’s 2.7 percent in 2000. Maybe even reach the 5 percent plateau that qualifies a party for future federal funding. But would any of this even come close to accomplishing what Sanders did in the Democratic primaries?

"So let’s not overlook the obvious: The Bernie Sanders campaign just ran 15 times stronger in the race for the Democratic nomination than any third party of the left has run in a final election for nearly a century."

And while we’re at it, let’s not neglect the fact that this is not the first time a left-wing Democratic presidential campaign has outstripped any similar third party effort of the last century. In 1972, South Dakota Senator George McGovern actually won the nomination. And with all due respect to Bernie Sanders’s quite reasonable claim that the 2016 Democratic Party platform – which his campaign so heavily influenced – was the party’s most progressive ever, there were aspects in which it was not. The McGovern platform, in addition to its centerpiece demand to end the Vietnam War by "The immediate total withdrawal of all Americans from Southeast Asia," also acknowledged that the American people "feel that the government is run for the privileged few rather than for the many – and they are right." Therefore, it declared that "Full employment – a guaranteed job for all – is the primary economic objective of the Democratic Party," in other words, "a job with decent pay and good working conditions for everyone willing and able to work and an adequate income for those unable to work."

The party also advocated "universal National Health Insurance" to be "federally-financed and federally-administered" covering "Americans with a comprehensive set of benefits including preventive medicine, mental and emotional disorders, and complete protection against catastrophic costs," with "the rule of free choice for both provider and consumer ... protected," and "incentives and controls to curb inflation in health care costs and to assure efficient delivery of all services."

The big takeaway here is that the size of McGovern’s loss to the soon-to-be impeached Richard Nixon convinced a lot of his supporters that the campaign had been too much of a good thing; it had stood for the public interest to a degree too great to survive in the national political arena; it had been too left-wing. Henceforth many would only opt for supporting roles. This was a mistake the corporate world and the Republican right have not made.

Pumping up a modest effort as a major success may be annoying, but doing the opposite—treating a major success as evidence that you can’t succeed—counts as the political equivalent of criminal negligence. So let’s not overlook the obvious: The Bernie Sanders campaign just ran 15 times stronger in the race for the Democratic nomination than any third party of the left has run in a final election for nearly a century. It’s true enough that if we were in, say, Denmark we would be in a different party than the Clintons, but as Hillary Clinton astutely pointed out in a primary season debate, "This isn’t Denmark." Here we’re stuck in the same party with each other. And if one of the factions is going to split off for a third party that struggles for a single-digit vote in November, let’s let it be the Clinton people! So far as presidential elections go, our future direction should be clear.

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

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of 'The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.' He lives in San Francisco.

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