|Photo: Alice Bacon/NYC-DSA
by Luke Elliott- Negri
In 1920 the Socialist Party hit its national peak, when nearly one million people gave Eugene Debs some 6% of the popular vote for president. But you have to dial back a few decades more to find a truly successful third party in the U.S. electoral system – not to the People’s Party of the 1890s, but all the way back to the Republican Party of the 1850s.
The moral, economic and political crisis posed by the expansion of slavery westward threw the country into turmoil. The Republican Party articulated a clear anti-slavery position, and filled the void left by a fumbling Whig Party. A century and a half later, as Ray Moore’s comments suggest, the Party is no longer a bastion of abolition – but the GOP is intact as an organization.
Perhaps it is wrong, however. to call the Republican Party a “third” party. What is notable about the Republican experience is not that it’s the only nationally successful third party in the U.S. in the last 170 years, but that it rapidly became one of the two umbrella parties. 1860 did not inaugurate a multi-party system, just a realigned two-party system.
Understanding the resiliency of the two-party electoral system is pivotal to grasping the direction that left electoral work should take in the current moment.
The U.S. Electoral System
There is one industrialized country on the planet that combines down ballot plurality (“winner take all”) voting with single round (no “run off,” as in France) presidential voting: the United States. When it is possible to win a race with less than a majority of a given electorate, strong but unsuccessful third-party challenges are likely to damage their ideologically closest opponents (i.e. the Greens draw votes from Democrats, not Republicans – hence the oft-cited “spoiler effect”). This is not true in all times and places – in Vermont for example, Progressives have become one of the two major parties in Burlington – but it’s effects are pervasive enough that it is important to grasp.
The second key feature of the U.S. system is even more reinforcing of the two-party system than down- ballot plurality. The men who created the U.S. presidency intended it to be a non-partisan, quasi-aristocratic position, insulated from democratic decision-making by the electoral college. They were successful in creating an aristocratic position, but not in making it non-partisan. In short order, the two major parties battled intensely for the presidency, the most high-stakes single-round plurality race in history. Every four years, more voters come to the polls than in any year between, and the salience of the race – and the legitimate fear of losing – cements party identity and voting behavior. The left may not have loved Hillary Clinton, but recent ICE raids and the upcoming Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court case are the dead serious consequences of a Republican White House.
Much is made of the role that a host of state-level reforms have played in bolstering the two-party system and depressing voter engagement: the Australian ballot, anti-fusion laws, voter registration and the like. These laws no doubt matter. However, the rapid decline of the Whigs demonstrates the resilience of the two-party system even absent such changes, which did not begin until the 1890s.
The U.S. electoral system can of course be shaken. The political scientist James Sundquist argues that there are five possible outcomes when a new “line of cleavage” like slavery cuts across the two major U.S. parties, one of which is one party replacing another, as happened with the Republican Party in 1860. (Chapter two of his Dynamics of the Party System works through these scenarios in imaginative detail and is essential reading for left electoral strategists).
Sundquist, however, does not see multi-partism as a possible outcome of a new line of cleavage: “Whatever the factors that have caused the American two-party system to reestablish itself after each upheaval, there is no evidence to suggest that they have lost their force.”
How might multi-partism emerge in response to a new cleavage? Ultimately, a majoritarian coalition would need to transform the substantive energy directed toward the cleavage into a procedural energy directed toward electoral reform. This is no small task. Abolitionists in the 1850s were concerned with slavery, not the boring minutia of electoral law, just as the working class in the 1930s wanted the right to organize and protection from corporate violence.
Moreover, the European experience should give us pause. The rightward drift of many socialists and labor parties across the continent is telling – having your own legally recognized political party representing a socialist minority is nice, but it’s not the end-all. But then what is the left to do in 2018?
Build Power, Build Majorities
Though there is a long “Marxist” tradition of trying to predict the future, it turns out that the future is existentially unknowable. Instead of guessing what will come next, we must look for openings and build power now. At the economic level this means organizing in sectors like logistics, which have powerful economic choke points. And at the electoral level, given the constraints of the U.S. system, a serious attempt to hold multiple, significant positions of power within the state involves straddling the inside and the outside of the Democratic Party.
Ackerman provides one possible approach to U.S.-specific left electoralism, and groups like the Vermont Progressive Party and the Working Families Party are actually existing, if imperfect, models. The VPP is fully independent in Burlington. The party uses the Democratic ballot line in state races, but their legislators caucus independently in the state house. It is noteworthy that Democrats are often angry at Progressives when they run in “their” primaries. No doubt some have walked this inside/outside path and fallen into short-term, purely instrumental politics. But as many or more have tumbled into ultra-leftism and sectarianism, failing to read the nature of the U.S. two party system.
So, if not pure absorption, what is the endgame? The billionaire venture capitalist Nick Hanauer thinks we might be headed for the pitchforks. Perhaps. But a host of other possibilities seem more likely: the Sanders primary run suggests that Harrington’s realignment strategy may not be dead after all; or perhaps widening inequality will develop into the kind of cleavage issue that tore the Whigs in two, and a new umbrella party will rise while an old party falls; perhaps in a crisis moment, some clever coalition will ram through proportional representation and the left can have a party of its own without building a majority in any given electorate.
No single organization can control which of these will come to pass. In the meanwhile, we must engage in an unceasing effort to build socialist majorities by running strong, accountable candidates for office on whatever ballot line is most tactically advantageous, by organizing on the shop floor in strategic sectors, and by joining with and supporting social movements as they arise. In short, we need the kind of power that will be useful in whatever future unfolds. If we can do this without being annoying and sectarian and while having some fun, we might even be able to build a bit of socialism – just like the millennials are hoping for.
Luke Elliott-Negri is a DSA member, elected to the executive council of his union, and has published in Jacobin, In These Times, Labor Notes etc.
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