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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why a Third Party Campaign is a Weak Option for Leftists

A constant feature of dialogue among left-progressives is whether it is time to launch a serious national third party campaign. In his article, “Why Leftists Should Also Be Democrats,” Michael Kazin, co-editor of Dissent addresses the question in the context of today’s politics.
Kazin decries the ‘self-defeating” denial of many leftists that the Democratic party has on numerous occasions proven to be an effective advocate for progressive change benefitting millions of working people. Indeed, has any major social or economic reform of the last century in the U.S. been accomplished without the benefit of Democratic Party leadership?
Dismissing the Democratic Party and its rank and file as hopelessly irrelevant to the quest for a more just society as do some leftists is making the good the enemy of the perfect. As Kazin says, “If you neglect the Dems–or simply denounce them–you are saying, in effect, that the carefully considered strategies of all these people who are trying to transform the nation for the better are simply mistaken.”
Kazin also emphasizes the increasing extremism of the modern GOP as a compelling reason for a unified opposition, and the only real-world alternative at present is the Democratic party. Thus, “any leftist who discourages people from engaging in electoral politics or wastes her vote on a third party is doing her bit, however small, to help Republicans win.” And it’s not all that much of a stretch to add that any eligible voter who chooses to stay home on election day is, in effect, voting Republican.
Taking it a step further, before 2000 you could make a case that a third party vote for purely ideological reasons in certain “safe” blue or lost red states in presidential elections need not do any damage to prospects for progressive change. But the nightmare in Florida in 2000, with its horrific and still-reverberating human and economic consequences, continues to wreak destruction in the U.S. and world-wide. The stakes of ill-considered third party dalliances are now too high to seriously consider.
The Democratic party is not the rigidly-corrupt institution of purist left fantasy. The successful campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, for example, indicates that there is a prominent place of influence in the Party for advocates of Democratic socialism. Win or lose, Sanders has already pushed his Democratic opposition substantially to the left, and he has been a hell of a lot more effective in doing so than any third party effort since the Progressive party lead by Henry Wallace in 1948.
As Kazin notes, “the Democrats are also an institution that’s quite open to participation by individuals and groups at nearly every level–from county committees to campaign staffs to elections of delegates to the quadrennial nominating convention. That means there are plenty of opportunities to nudge, or push, the party to the left…Bernie Sanders knows all this–which is why he decided to run for president as a Democrat.”
None of this is to argue that third parties are always counter-productive as advocates for progressive change. They are essential components of progressive coalitions in parliamentary systems and the day may come when they are equally important in the U.S. At present, however, that is not the case. As Kazin writes,

It would be wonderful to belong to and vote for a party that stood unambiguously for democratic socialist principles, articulated them to diverse constituencies in fresh and thrilling ways, and had the ability to compete for every office from mayor to legislator to governor to senator to president. But not many Americans speak Norwegian.
In the United States, there are innumerable obstacles to starting and sustaining a serious new party on the left: the electoral laws work against it, most of the media would ignore it, the expenses of building the infrastructure are prohibitive, and the constituency for such a party doesn’t currently exist. A majority of Americans do say they would like to have a third party to vote for. But at least as many of those people stand on the right as on the left, and many others just despise “politics as usual” and seldom, if ever, vote.

Kazin boils down the choice facing progressives considering involvement in third party activism:

It’s a pragmatic question: can one do more to make the United States a more just and humane society and help people in other societies by working inside, as well as outside, the party, or by ignoring or denouncing it? Of course, leftists in the United States should continue to do what they have always done: stage protests, build movements, educate people, lobby politicians, and create institutions that try to improve the lives of the people whom they serve. But political parties are essential to a healthy democracy. And right now, the Democrats are the only party we have.

Part of meeting this challenge is for Democrats to encourage stronger caucuses in party structure, so different factions will feel they have a real voice — and a stake — in the Democratic Party and its victories. In this way, the divisions Democrats are struggling with now can become their electoral edge in the future.

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