Third Party Prospects and Alternatives: A Democratic Socialist Perspective

The following invited speech was delivered at Intersections – Cedar Rapids, hosted by the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, on November 3, 2017. 

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I very much appreciate the mission and work of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. Your commitment to providing a forum for people of various faith and non-faith traditions to engage in civil discourse about the role of religion in our public life and explore the often fraught intersections of politics and religion is necessary and a source of hope for those of us who are committed to the promotion of democracy and peace. While my focus today will be on politics, I am speaking as someone who is both professionally and personally engaged in the work of building interfaith solidarity, and my own political commitments flow from my faith commitments.

What I’d like to do today is assess the prospects of third-party efforts within our electoral system and, on that basis, describe an alternative pragmatic approach to partisan politics, which is utilized by the Democratic Socialists of America.

I offer this view with the understanding that many leftists and progressives are currently deeply dissatisfied with the Democratic Party, and they believe that the time is ripe to engage in renewed third-party efforts. Their hopes are buoyed by polling, which suggests broad support in the electorate for progressive policies concerning gun control, universal health care, the decriminalization of drug use, mental health and drug treatment, workers’ rights, and the regulation and taxation of corporations.1 Within the activist left, many believe that it may be time to reorganize disaffected voters under a party that adopts a consensus progressive agenda.

Both proponents and opponents of third-party political efforts often look to the history of minor parties to support their views. On first glance, it seems rather grim. Throughout our history, there have been hundreds of minor parties, but they have almost universally been ephemeral, lasting only for very brief periods of time. Very few have been electorally competitive. But there is another side to that history: minor parties have exerted sometimes profound influence on the broader political landscape than their ephemeral nature might imply. In the 19th Century, for example, the Liberty Party advanced an anti-slavery position on constitutional grounds—that is, they argued that the constitution should be read as an anti-slavery document—and many of its members later joined with northern Whigs in forming the Free Soil Party, which organized around the platform of opposing the western expansion of slavery. Many of those associated with these parties were later folded into a coalition that supported another then-minor party, namely, the Republican Party. As another example, in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the Socialist Party of America, the Bull Moose Party, and the Progressive Party were instrumental in creating electoral support for many of the progressive successes that we now cherish, including universal suffrage, unemployment insurance, health and safety regulations, the end of child labor, and so forth.

The noteworthy exception to the historical rule that third parties have been unable to secure a path to meaningful power is the one which inspires the most hope for present-day progressives. As I just mentioned, Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was, at the time he was elected to the presidency, a minor party. Prior to the 1856 election, in which the first Republican presidential candidate, John Fremont, lost to James Buchanan, the previously dominate Whig Party had disintegrated, opening a space for a legitimate third-party contender. In the election of 1860, Lincoln was able to secure a plurality (but not a majority) of the electoral votes owing to the fact that John Breckinridge, Stephen Douglas, and John Bell split the southern vote.

This year, progressives dissatisfied with the Democratic Party launched a new third-party effort, which they argue is modeled on the success of the Republican Party in the mid-19th century. This effort, which is known as Draft Bernie for a People’s Party, argues that other third-party attempts, including those of the Greens and the Libertarians, have pursued an ineffective strategy of attempting to slowly attract members over long periods of time, with the hopes of becoming a true third major party. Leaders of the People’s Party reject this on grounds that I will examine momentary. Rather than looking to the Green Party or Libertarian Party as models, they look to Republican Party of the 1850s and 1860s and recognize that the Republicans succeeded in major part due to three factors: (1) the Whigs failed to articulate an anti-slavery stance, in defiance of a major segment of its electoral base, thereby spurring an exodus from the party and creating a void in the two-party system; (2) the Republicans nominated a candidate who was able to attract a sufficiently diverse electoral coalition in the North; and (3) the other major segment of the electorate, the South, was fractured, and it split its vote. Republican success was, then, not achieved by gradually winning hearts and minds; rather, its rapid ascendancy was a function of the disarray in the existing parties, a mass exodus from the previously dominant party, and the assembling of a coalition around a leader who was responsive to the spurned electorate.

Today, Nick Brana, the founder and director of Draft Bernie for a People’s Party, argues that we are potentially facing an analogous situation. First, as previously alluded to, polling suggests that a significant majority of Americans support a wide variety of progressive policies which neither the Republican nor Democratic Parties are representing, including Medicare for All and corporate regulation. Second, they believe that Bernie Sanders’s campaign demonstrates that a significant portion of the electorate is positioned to support a candidate who runs on these consensus issues. And third, the conservative vote may plausibly split during the next election. The thinking goes that if the Republicans continue to fall into ever greater disarray, then a third party with a progressive, anti-corporate, social democratic platform and a charismatic leader at is helm may be able to garner a plurality of votes.

Against these and other calls for third-party organizing, many in the Democratic Party argue progressives need to maintain party loyalty and work within the existing framework of the Democratic Party. Their worry is that it is not the right wing that will fracture and split the electorate, but rather the left wing.

Now, I don’t wish to comment on the question of whether the aforementioned hopes and aspirations—nor the objections to them—are well-founded or not, nor do I wish to endorse either perspective. Rather, I take the fact that these organizing efforts and debates concerning third parties are underway to be an occasion for considering the broader question of how progressives and leftists in particular (but really voters in general) ought to think about partisan politics and third party prospects. Doing so requires that we understand some of the key dynamics of our electoral system.

As we all know, our electoral system is one which features only two major parties at any given time. There are reasons for that. Whereas many countries use a proportional voting system in which parties are awarded seats in parliament in proportion to the votes they receive, in our country, most of our elections—including those for both houses of our legislature—are winner-take-all elections for single-member districts. In other words, candidates compete for a single seat and the winner is the candidate that garners a mere plurality (that is, the most) votes.

When the goal is to win a plurality of votes, a party has a strong motivation to engage in a number of strategies, which together make two-party dominance basically inevitable, particularly at the highest levels of government. First, to expand their appeal, a party will attempt to position itself as a “big tent” that is sufficiently, if not perfectly, responsive to a broad coalition of interests, with a platform that appeases a wide variety of constituencies. This is particularly necessary when it comes to the presidential election, since the presidency is a massively large single-member district in which all voters reside. The party has a related incentive to neutralize or convert potential minor-party voters by appropriating key elements of the platforms and positions of those minor parties.

Both of these factors played a role in the development of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the 1930s, there was renewed anti-capitalist sentiment and demands for social democratic reforms. While Roosevelt’s New Deal was ultimately aimed at saving capitalism, it was sufficiently appealing to many leftists and progressives, including some in the Socialist Party of America and other minor parties, to convince them to join the New Deal coalition.

Beyond coalition building and neutralizing minor party challengers, the electoral system also incentivizes a number of morally objectionable strategies and tactics, such as disenfranchising groups that constitute an opposing voting bloc, or using redistricting to either diluting the impact of opposing votes or concentrate friendly votes. Gerrymandering of this last sort has been credited with securing the Democrats’ decades-long control of Congress in the period from 1955 to 1995.2 In recent years, the Republicans have rightly drawn the ire of voting rights advocates for their partisan redistricting efforts and for successfully implementing voter ID laws.

Funding constitutes another salient factor. Since the presidency is a massively large single-district election, staging an effective campaign requires a vast amount of capital, and this serves as an incentive to build a coalition that includes large-dollar donors, such as corporations, national labor unions, industry groups, etc.

In light of these factors, it is very difficult for candidates from minor parties, and particularly progressive or leftist minor parties, to have a real shot at winning federal and state elections outside of the major party structure. There are structural hurdles and strategy incentives which more or less guarantee that we will never have a viable third party. That having been said, if the optimistic speculations offered by Brana and those involved in the People’s Party effort are correct, there may be a way forward for replacing a now dominant party with a new dominant party. But that is very different than imagining a party system with three or more major parties.

The above considerations also suggest a further point. The major parties are, in some sense, essentially coalition-building and electoral-controlling organizations. As the sociologist G. William Domhoff has explained, neither the Democratic nor the Republican Parties are political parties in the traditional sense. What he means is that they do not have substantive missions; they are not structured around a manifesto, support of which is a criterion for membership. Rather, each of the two dominant parties constitutes what he calls “a government controlled pathway into government. [Each] is just a structural shell, and the label ‘Democrat’ [for instance] is merely the name for one of two government-mandated avenues into elected office.”3

So, here is where we are at: in light of both these challenges and the past successes I’ve surveyed, the question can be fairly put as to whether minor-party efforts are worthy of our support and if so, to what degree and in what manner? It may seem that the answer is clearly “no.” As I just mentioned, it is practically impossible for us to ever have a system with three or more major parties. But here’s the main point I want to make today: that doesn’t really settle the question at hand. There are many reasons people might engage in what we call “third-party” efforts; we assume they are in it to win—that is to become a third major party. Some Greens and Libertarians, for example, undoubtedly do have this goal, however misplaced it might be. But what I want to draw attention to is the fact that there are other reasons that can motivate and justify support of third parties. Most obviously, third parties can serve to place external pressure on the major parties. In fact, this is what they have historically been good at. So, again, the question is, “Is it worth it and to what degree and in what manner?”

These questions are particularly salient for people like me. I am the chair of the Dubuque Local of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a national activist organization that seeks to facilitate the transition to a more democratic and socialist society. We are egalitarians and “small ‘d’” democrats, which means that we value democracy, or participatory decision-making, as an end in itself, since such forms of self-governance are both reflective of, and a fulfillment of, our equal dignity as persons. We are socialists insofar as we believe that the productive capacity of society should be immediately ordered toward the promotion of human well-being or welfare, not toward producing profits for owners. Unlike certain kinds of other socialists, we reject totalitarian means of implementing or achieving social ownership and control.

At present, DSA is the largest socialist organization in the United States, and our membership has more than tripled in the past year, due in major part to Bernie Sanders’s identification as a democratic socialist. (I should note: when Sanders says this, it is a bit like a Republican saying they are a conservative or a Democrat saying they are a liberal. In other words, it doesn’t name his party or even straightforwardly indicate how his votes will align. It is, rather, a way of expressing his underlying political values.) Unlike other socialist and progressive organizations, such as the Socialist Party USA (1973-present) and the Green Party (1991-present), the Democratic Socialists of America is not a political party. Rather, we have, since our founding in 1982, utilized an “inside/outside” strategy with respect to the Democratic Party. In other words, we are independent of the Democratic Party (something the DNC really wants you to know!), but we support Democratic Party candidates who are democratic socialists or who favor reforms consistent with our mission, while also endorsing and supporting independent or minor party candidates who do so.

At present, DSA’s long-standing “inside/outside” strategy is being robustly discussed and evaluated at both the local and national levels of our organization. With the influx of thousands of new members, many of whom are millennials who have a deep distrust of the Democratic Party, there is renewed interest in the possibility of pursuing a new, independent left party. Some of my comrades advocate DSA becoming a political party itself. Others want to see us join the People’s Party effort. Many at least want us to stop working with the Democratic Party.

Taking stock of the structural issues surveyed above, I believe that the “inside/outside” strategy of DSA is appropriate. Domhoff is correct to claim that the Democratic and Republican Parties aren’t really parties in the traditional sense, and I believe we need to take him seriously when he encourages us to think of them as “structural shells” that form coalitions and establish pathways into government. Even if one of the parties was replaced with a new party, as happened in the 1850s and 1860s, eventually, that party would, itself, come to serve as a structural shell.

If that is the case, it seems that the proper approach to take with respect to the parties is that they are structures that can be modified, tweaked, and fixed. Like a machine, they can potentially be harnessed and used in some cases and for some purposes, but they can be set aside in others. And as with other machines, we can and should relate to them on purely pragmatic grounds; that is to say, we can use them to the extent that we are able and tinker with them to make them more productive to our ends. But they are not the object of loyalty or fidelity. To the contrary, I believe that we are justified in being a bit promiscuous in our partisan political efforts, particularly if and when supporting minor parties has the potential to place external pressure on the parties to realign or undergo restructuring.

Of course, it wouldn’t do for each of us, individually, to adopt a pragmatic, functionalist stance toward the political parties. In the absence of coordination and collective action, such a stance would simply result in an ineffectual disengagement with the party machine. What we need, instead, is to subsume our party politics and party involvements—however promiscuous they may be—under a much broader and more expansive movement, part of which will involve tinkering with the party machine and trying to make it more responsive.

This is the approach we take in the Democratic Socialists of America. For us, electoral action is only a part of what we do. The bulk of our work is ordered toward education, incubating alternative socialist economic arrangements, and building solidarity on the part of those who are marginalized.

Let me illustrate what I have in mind with some examples of our work in Dubuque. Since part of our mission is to both educate and empower ordinary people, we organize and offer a free school, which is modeled on the Freedom Schools that were established during the civil rights movement. Free School is a place where ordinary people can teach or take classes for free. We also founded the Dubuque Area Timebank, which is a non-monetary reciprocal exchange network in which people exchange time rather than money. One person spends an hour doing something for another, and she earns an hour credit. She can then credit that hour to someone else who helps her at a later time. The timebank is an example of what we call “socialism in the cracks of capitalism.” It is socialist, since it is a form of production without profit. But it isn’t revolutionary in the normal sense; it exists alongside the traditional economy. Our local is also presently involved in forming a Renters’ Union in Dubuque. The landlords in our city are eligible to be members of the Dubuque Area Landlords Association, which advocates for their interests. We believe that renters should be similarly organized and engaging in self-advocacy.

Beyond these major initiatives, our strategic plan also involves placing our members in party, union, and government organizations. We now have four members serving on city council-appointed boards and commissions in the City of Dubuque. Three are members of, and interested in establishing a branch of, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). At the same time, a number of our members serve on the Dubuque Democratic Party Central Committee as precinct delegates, while others have connections with the Green Party, the Socialist Party, and the Peoples’ Party movement.

All of these efforts are mission-driven; they are part of the broader egalitarian, democratic socialist movement that we are seeking to revitalize. Our hope—admittedly somewhat ambitious and not in any sense assured of success—is to attract enough people to our movement and into our organization that we will become a constituency that the major parties—realistically, the Democratic Party—will need to cater to. But we don’t simply wait for them to come to us. We are working both within the party and outside of it to try to force it to change.

Now, I don’t say this in an effort to recruit you. Rather, I mention our work as a potential model for others who are dissatisfied with the major parties and wary of third party prospects, which by all indications is a majority of Americans. If we want to fix our broken party system, I believe this is a strategy worth replicating. It has certainly been used by the right wing with success. The Moral Majority in the 1980s exemplified subsuming partisan politics under a broader movement, and they very successfully reshaped the Republican Party to align with their vision.

I believe a proliferation of social movements that seek to make our party machines responsive to their demands is very much needed. To the extent that the parties stay in place, but become more responsive to active social movements the better. That would be a win for democracy. Should one or both major parties falter and disintegrate, those involved in the social movements would be a ready constituency for coalition building. And that, too, would be a win for democracy.

In the absence of such coordinated external pressure and internal tinkering, I worry that we will continue to see both parties used as vehicles for celebrity candidates to forge a pathway to power. And that would not be a win for democracy.