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Wednesday, November 17, 2010


As I prepare to go up to Rochester, NY [well, actually, it is 3:30 a.m., and I have just gotten off the phone with a Time Warner Cable techie who got me back on line, but us old guys get up a lot in the middle of the night], let me respond briefly on MurfMensch's comment about third parties. [Where do you folks get your internet names from?!] Briefly, he/she suggests taking seriously the idea of forming third parties, taking our lead from the familiar European and Asian model.

There is no question that third parties can exercise influence on policy, even though they cannot hope to win general elections, so long as some form of voting is adopted that gives such parties representation either at the Federal or State level. But the obstacles are enormous in America, as I am sure everyone understands. To win some sort of proportional representation at the national level would require a Constitutional amendment, which is just out of the question. State elections are governed by state law, a more feasible option. Each state has its own laws, so one would need a great deal of local expertise, which is tailored made for a movement organized on the internet. Could a left wing third party win a local election, or even a Congressional election? I don't know, but the existence of such a party would force the major parties to adjust in one way or another. There are, of course, several good examples of viable third parties at the state level, in New York and elsewhere.

The major problem all political parties face in the United States is generating the turnout of their supporters. Could an uncompromising leftwing third party with a serious agenda pull into the voting booths the supporters who polls show are out there? Very possibly.

I must say, I like the idea of starting a discussion in which it is not incumbent upon me to have all the answers -- unusual, for me, but rather relaxing. Let's keep talking about this and other ideas, and see where they take us.


Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

At one point, I used to hold out great hope for the prospects of a third party. However, the two-party system is simply so biased against third parties that they really are not feasible at this point and time. Individuals from various sides of the spectrum (i.e.: Bernie Sanders, Joe Lieberman) wind up running as independents (that is, as members of no party) but then must rely on democrats or republicans to allow them to serve on committees once elected to office. The two dominant parties have steadily restricted third party ballot access via increasing regulations and eligibility requirements. The history of third parties in America during the twentieth century has borne this out. I would prefer not to be a naysayer, but lacking a mass public movement, I just can’t envision third parties having much of an effective impact on U.S. politics.

Murfmensch said...

Let me be clear. I am not arguing for readers here to join a third party or vote for one. (I don't mind it.)

I think more people on the left need to agitate for reforms (mostly at the state level) that would enable third parties to compete more effectively. Something like "Democrats for Democracy".

Instant Run-off voting is a big start. (Small party members ought also to be allowed to choose their own candidates without a primary but I shouldn't take the time to argue for that now.)

This does not require joining a third party or seeing one that is clearly desirable. Unions, enviro groups, and international solidarity organizations would benefit from having viable opponents arise in some districts. The Democrats now treat them like poison. Witness their atrocious lack of defense for ACORN.

Third parties aren't going away. They will continue to nip one to five percent of the vote, with random effects on outcomes unless the parties wise up. This makes reform more likely. If the Mass House were %5 Green and %5 per cent some other leftie party. That is possible and interesting.

One problem: most Dem party leaders (not voters) would prefer to see Republicans elected than Greens or Socialists. All I have here is a wealth of anecdotal evidence. They have to see the same sort of pressure that other issues require.

Michael said...

I have to say I'm intrigued by the idea of developing third parties at the state level. Speaking from my own (limited) experience, the political machinery within the larger states (like New York, where I'm from) is very different from that of smaller states (like Vermont, where I go to school)which seem more amenable to the election of third party candidates. This isn't to say that progressives should focus their attention on small states, but it does suggest that ideologically driven third party candidates would have a greater chance of success if they concentrated on smaller districts. In New York, for example, maybe such parties would be better off establishing a presence in the state legislature before even attempting to run for national election.
I don't have any data to back this up, though. Just gut feeling. Anyway, it's something I'd like to see happen (especially considering how broken the New York state legislature has been lately).

Murfmensch said...

Michael, your point comes up often. Why not start locally? There are a couple of points to remember.

1.) When you run a presidential candidate, people come out to see what is happening. It is a massive organizing opportunity. The Greens grew despite rejection many very fundamental organizational principles. (Dues were treated like "poll taxes" for one thing.) They have improved on this front.

Look at the guy from "The Rent is Too Damn High". He got national press just because he ran for governor.

2.) We shouldn't be armchair third party organizers. They will run candidates for president because it helps keep them on the ballot for future elections. Some of their candidates will be poor. Some candidates are not interested in the third party. These parties are hostage to bad election laws.

3.) We should stop saying they might someday contribute. A tremendous number of activists are moved from inaction to action by third parties. Many leave them behind later.

4.) Many of the people we recruited for the Greens were looking for a third party. They would have gone to the right if we hadn't been around. These folks are burned out and looking to join any opposition party.

What I would like to see is a stronger concentration on removing obstacles to third party campaigning and representation.

I would least like to see a new third party.

Chris said...

Third parties is one option, although another option equally mandatory and conducive to serious change would be to organize around actual campaign financing reform; figure out a way to truly get corporate dollars out of political funding and campaigning.

Jim said...

Chris –

It appears that any significant hopes for substantive campaign finance reform were effectively dashed by the recent Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Calling it a “free speech” issue, the court’s conservative majority ruled that the federal government has no business regulating political speech – even if that includes unlimited corporate spending on an issue or candidate. Until there is a shift in that basic idea, I don’t hold out much promise for effective campaign finance reform. Ralph Nader always said that we don’t live in a democracy, but in a plutocracy. I tend to agree with him.

Chris said...

I completely agree. But I differ from the other posters here, I don't hold out hope any real leftist strategy can work anymore in this dying empire.