Two Parties Rule Everything Around Me
Many of the reasons for why we haven’t seen an independent, third party emerge in the United States are not due to any lack of willpower, but are the result of deep structural roadblocks to forming a competitive third party.
Imagine you have 15% of the public on your side: do you stay outside the political system or start your own party? The answer has much less to do with what you want to do, but more to do with what kind of electoral system you find yourself in.
In a Proportional Representation system, as seen in much of the rest of the world, you get as many seats in parliament as you win a share of votes (ie. 15% of the votes = 15% of the seats). It might makes sense to start your own party to compete with the existing parties.
In a First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) or winner-take-all system, as we have in the United States, you need to win 50% plus one to win anything. It probably makes sense to work outside the official political system or as a faction within an existing party.
In our system, members of Congress are elected in single-member districts, meaning that the candidate and party with the most votes is the winner of the congressional seat. The losing party wins absolutely no representation at all. In a FPTP system, a third party can only be effective if it wins over a majority of voters–and in the United States this typically means over 50% of them. Over time, the FPTP rule tends to produce a two-party system as smaller parties begin to see their ineffectiveness and throw their weight behind larger parties.
And for those who are afraid of splitting up the Democratic vote and giving the election away to someone like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz have a point. Third parties can easily play a “spoiler role” within a FPTP system. Unless a third party is offering something completely unique and absent from the two major parties, they will often take away votes from the party whose ideology is closest to them.
“The first-past-the-post character of the American electoral system makes any third party…all but impossible,” says Robert Brenner. ”An electoral strategy of voting for a third party could never be sustained, as the right-wing party would typically win greater electoral majorities as the third party increased its vote share.”
The relationship between movements and parties is almost entirely shaped by the political system. In proportional representation systems, which tend to have lower barriers to entry for new parties, movements and parties have a much more fluid relationship than in the United States and there are many incentives for movements to start their own parties.
For example, the environmental movement in Europe has legislative representation through Green Parties all across Europe. But with higher impediments to entry in a FPTP system, there are structural incentives for movements to operate outside formal structures or join existing parties.
Obstacles to launching a successful third party are numerous in the United States. Over a thousand third parties have been formed in the United States since the 1860s, only a handful have ever polled more than a fraction of the electorate and most die out after a couple of cycles. While new parties might play an influential role particularly in places where there is de facto one-party rule, they confront immense barriers when attempting to scale up to the national scene.
A Field of Struggle
In a country with proportional representation like Sweden, voters on the left side of the political spectrum have four left-wing choices in a nine-party system: the Social Democrats, the Greens, the Left Party, and Feminist Initiative. But in the United States, progressives have only one realistic way to express their vote: the Democratic Party. Left-wing aversion to electoral politics and the Democratic Party can therefore be seen largely as a symptom of these systemic barriers. When there is virtually no alternative to electoral politics besides getting involved with unreliable Democrats, radical activists are led to wholly reject the electoral and party terrain.
“Much of the radical left…[put] its energies into the politics of the street, largely dismissing party-building as a waste of time,” writes Paul Heideman in Jacobin. “The alternative — going it alone with a new party of the left — was extremely difficult to get off the ground, especially in first-past-the-post voting systems.”
These activists are rightfully skeptical of a party that too often represents business interests and not the interests of ordinary people, but visionary calls for an independent or third party do not grapple with the reality of a confined system.
“I hold little hope that a political revolution will occur within the Democratic Party without a sustained outside movement forcing truly transformational change,” wrote Michelle Alexander in a recent piece critical of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. “I am inclined to believe that it would be easier to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself.”
Alexander is right in both her skepticism of the Democratic Party and her call for a sustained outside movement. But despite legitimacy to her aversion to electoral politics and the Democrats, there is no way to compete in elections without some informal or formal relationship to the Democratic Party.
An overlooked aspect of our two-party system is the largely administrative role that political parties take up. In a parliamentary system, parties develop candidate-lists up and down the ballot from school board to parliament. But in our system, candidates can theoretically gather the required number of signatures on an official party form and be placed on a ballot in a primary election. The party then plays a purely administrative function to foster electoral functions of the state, rather than a programmatic or disciplinary role.
When independent candidates like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump compete in primaries, the decision has much less to do their feelings about either party, but more to do with what the party’s mechanisms allow access to. It’s the same as when citizens register to vote and select a party designation in order to participate in the primary season. Registering as a Democrat does not make people into party members in any way. It’s simply another way that the party holds a bureaucratic function to organize electoral activity.
A new party could therefore have its own accountability mechanisms, membership models, and decision making structures, but would immensely benefit from using the existing tools of the major party’s administrative machinery: primaries, ballot access, petitions, conventions, and the party line vote used by an increasing number of voters.
Over time political parties in the United States have grown more permeable to outside forces. Progresive forces have informally or formally anchored themselves within the Democratic Party over the past near century. Compared to parliamentary parties, the Democratic Party does not unilaterally shape a political agenda, but is relatively responsive to the perceived desires of a coalition representing a majority of an electorate. Unite and activate public opinion in favor of a different direction and the Party tends to move, as Hillary Clinton’s slow drift leftward has already demonstrated. As Bill Fletcher put it in 2005, “activists should look upon the Democratic Party as a field of struggle.”
Parties Move With The Winds of Change
Unlike in many parliamentary systems where debate over party platform and leadership often happens through an internal process of party insiders behind closed doors, the primary process in the United States offers an open, public debate about the platform and leadership of both the Democratic and Republican Party. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton represent factions within the Democratic Party’s electorate fighting for its soul while Donald Trump and Ted Cruz do the same for the Republican Party.
As Democratic Party candidates attempt to outperform each other on who is most progressive and Republican candidates outdo each other on who is most conservative, this primary season has shown us the critical role that movements on the left and right can play in shifting the political winds–particularly in a moment of high polarization–and forcing the party to redefine themselves in the wake of outside pressure.
Still, social movements and political parties serve different and sometimes conflicting purposes. Movements work outside formal political institutions and are vehicles for protest, disruption, moral vision, and changing the terms of debate. Parties work inside formal political institutions and are vehicles for negotiation and transforming vision into legislation. While movements can loudly say “no” or offer a transformative vision of society, parties seek compromise and transaction not because they want to, but because they must work with those who disagree with them and attempt to form a majority in order to pass legislation.
In the United States, movements are often the conveyer belt through which challenges to the status quo move from the margins to the center of society by winning over public opinion. Political parties react to deep shifts in public opinion, factions form, and parties realign. If all goes well, popular sentiment is translated into law that makes societal change concrete and lasting. Movements move the ball down the field, parties join to push the ball into the endzone, often claiming that they had been part of the team the whole time. But for those who wish to build independent electoral power and utilize a set of tactics one step beyond “outside pressure,” look no further than the Tea Party’s playbook.
Inside and Outside
In proportional systems, new parties often translate protest in the streets into political institutions. In our system which features high barriers to entry for new parties, protest movements manifest themselves through the formation of emergent factions within existing political parties.
Progressives disenchanted with the Democratic Party but who don’t want to act as spoilers might take a page from the kind of inside-outside strategy embraced by the Tea Party movement that has all but transformed–if not taken over–the GOP. The comparison might alarm progressives, but the biggest lesson to be learned from the Tea Party’s playbook is that they don’t work for the Republicans--they make the Republicans work for them. Bernie has already begun to do the same with the Democrats.
The Tea Party movement, which emerged in 2009 following Barack Obama’s inauguration, has all but transformed–if not taken over–the GOP. It functions much like an independent third party: an ideologically uncompromising alternative for conservatives frustrated by the big business and immigration reform wing of the GOP. But instead of creating a third party to challenge Republicans in general elections and risk conservative defeat, they challenge incumbents in primaries—redefining the mainstream of the party in the process. Tea Party primary challenges have moved the GOP rightward toward a more aggressive agenda of cutting government spending and blocking immigration reform at whatever cost–including a government shutdown. As one right-wing blogger put it: “The Tea Party’s impact in primaries is largely about putting fear into establishment candidates, whether they knock them off or not.”
For progressives, the biggest lesson to be learned from the Tea Party’s playbook is that they don’t work for the Republicans—they make the Republicans work for them. Bernie has already begun to do the same with the Democrats, and his primary race should encourage others to challenge establishment Democrats from the left. The progressive formation that has perhaps made the most headway in this regard is the one I work for: the Working Families Party. The WFP is a coalition of community organizing groups and labor unions that push progressive policies, like paid sick leave, and help elect a new generation of leaders on the state and local level. While we're proud of what we've built, we're a long way from the ideological and electoral power that the Tea Party exercises. The WFP has figured out how to maneuver inside and outside the two-party system without falling prey to the usual failures of third parties, and is now organizing in 11 states. But the Tea Party has taken over Congress, and done so without an institutionalized party apparatus. Neither the WFP nor a prior, important effort to launch a Tea Party of the left—Rebuild the Dream—have generated the kind of momentum and mass participation of the Tea Party.
Giving Away The Keys
An overlooked aspect of Tea Party’s success has been its decentralized and open-source brand. The party doesn’t belong to any one politician or organization; it belongs to the conservative movement. Such an approach has enabled the Tea Party to gain so much popularity that 17% of Americans identify as party members even though there is no institutionalized “party” or ballot line to speak of. Rebuild the Dream attempted to launch an open-source progressive counterweight in 2011, but the project was largely oriented toward giving existing institutions a shared identity and framework rather than organizing ordinary people.
Part of the Tea Party’s success has been its ability to rally a conservative base and have institutions follow their lead. By generating headlines through large anti-tax marches, heralding defeats of members of the Republican establishment, and polarizing events like government shutdowns, the Tea Party is constantly oriented toward boisterous, asymmetric political drama capable of activating its own base.
Decentralized movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter have similarly enabled mass participation among Millennials by giving away ownership of the movement brand for anyone to run with. But more established progressive institutions have been reluctant to turn over the keys to party-building and electoral organizing to a mass base.
But no existing progressive organization has the capacity to adequately absorb and engage the base that has coalesced around Sanders, but they could support the new formations that will inevitably emerge. None of the existing organizations could sustainably fund the number of organizers to manage and direct a volunteer base of this magnitude–but more importantly, the Millennials that are driving the Sanders campaign wouldn’t join a traditional organizational structure, it’s not what they are looking for. They are looking for channels that allow them to unleash their creativity and passion through self-organization and co-creation.
Instead of attempting to grab hold of the Sanders base in one swift move, progressive organizations should ask themselves what role they can play in the next stage of the political revolution and its developing network. Many organizations exist within the Tea Party network: Americans for Prosperity, Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks, Tea Party Express, etc. But the institutions that make up the Tea Party network are not the same thing as the participatory Tea Party movement. While virtually anyone can claim to be a member of the Tea Party, not everyone can be a member of hugely influential organizations like Americans for Prosperity or FreedomWorks. Institutions in the Tea Party network have helped incubate, launch, finance, and ultimately engage directly in “member-led” campaigns based on their comfort level, something labor organizer Stephen Lerner has been pitching progressives for years. While most of these conservative institutions play a critical role in the Tea Party network, none of these institutions have a unilateral ability to command, control, or stop grassroots activity.
But the Tea Party is just a front group funded by billionaires, right? Sort of. While the Tea Party is backed by a number of wealthy contributors, hundreds of local Tea Party chapters exist all around the country and are run in a grassroots manner. Dave Brat, the no-name right-wing professor who famously defeated Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, was outspent 26-to-1. The brand of the party has been given away to the base, allowing members to feel more ownership and responsibility over it. To its members, the Tea Party feels like it belongs to the people, instead of paid party operatives and staff.
A “party” made up of a New American Majority also requires new leadership. It requires white male progressive leaders willing to step back in order for there to be space for people of color and women to lead. But it also requires leaders of color to step up and help lead a coalition that includes many white people in order to form a winning electoral majority.
The rise of the Sanders campaign has also shown the appeal of a populist platform with working class white voters who do not typically refer to themselves as progressives or even Democrats. A multiracial coalition that speaks directly to the relationship between racism and oligarchy could provoke a transformative political realignment. Such an approach could put together an independent coalition that the Democratic Party could not take for granted.
Such a party would will limit itself if it only resonated with a small set of constituencies. It requires not a laundry list of grievances and identities, but a new collective identity and compelling narrative–an “us”–that is much greater than the sum of its parts. It means conveying a new sense of “the people” not solely on the basis of shared suffering, but through a shared will to craft their own democratic destiny. It must give its base a real sense that they are the creators of the path toward a democracy that works toward freedom and justice for all Americans against those in our country who have in every era stood by the belief that freedom and justice were only meant for a select few.