Yes, But…

Scott Lemieux sez:

Most of us can agree that the current Democratic Party is suboptimal in many respects; the question is about how to change it. Social movements that alter public opinion, mobilize voters, and create different incentives for parties are a good strategy. Third parties (at least those that don’t cross-cut existing, or represent dying, coalitions a la Perot or Wallace) are not, because 1)the incentives they provide are trivial, and 2)they carry massive disadvantages (most notably ending up in the worst option being elected.)

Then he quotes Mike Tomasky:

First, if it was the intention of Nader voters in New York or Massachusetts (or any state Al Gore was certain to win in 2000) to send a message to the Democrats, that’s an understandable and respectable intention. But as the Christian Coalition model shows, such messages are far more effectively sent inside the party than outside it — the Greens really influence almost nothing in this country, whereas the Christian Coalition, with its power in the GOP, influences almost everything. I’d have actual respect for the Greens if they were working within the Democratic Party to take it over. You can say that’s impossible, but it seemed impossible in 1958 that archconservatives could take over a Republican Party that was very accommodating to both New Deal and internationalist priorities. Within six years, though, they’d gained control of the party to the point that their guy, Barry Goldwater, became its presidential nominee. Real success took another 16 years, but to good dialecticians, there should be no hurry.

I agree with both, but would submit that we have structural problems far more significant than what the Rethugs had to overcome. Specifically — how to reconcile the viciously entrenched corporate wing of the party (DLC, centrists, “Sensible Liberals”) with the populist wing?

By contrast, the Eisenhower Republicans from whom the hardcore conservatives took back the GOP were a relatively new — and therefore more easily eradicated or coopted — type of Republican. Goldwater easily appealed to a still-seething hatred of the New Deal among the Bob Taft crowd. Similarly Nixon, in restructuring the Republicans, appealed to the racism of the Wallace people — a very natural thing for him to do, and it was more deeply ingrained in the Wallace folks than were their good traits (an enthusiastic, hyper-New Dealish desire for social progams), which he ignored.

Pandering to irrational biases makes it easier for Rethugs to consolidate their Party; of course it also makes their Party more radical. Their “contradictions” are and were easily sorted; there is and was no true dialectical process. In contrast, our contradictions are profound. We have one wing of the party that is basically laissez-faire, corporate, for free trade. We have another wing that is populist, sympathetic to unions, for fair trade. We have one wing that is or was pro-war. We have another wing that is anti-war and has been since Iraq was first spoken of. Usually the economic conservatives and the hawks are the same people. Likewise, the populists and the doves are often the same people.

Making matters worse is that within the current system it takes mucho dinero to run a Party. That fact alone makes the conservative wing of the Party far more powerful than its numbers alone would dictate: he who writes the check calls the shots. Since the conservative element must exist in the Party for financial reasons, the Democrats will always have an internal braking mechanism against its radical element that the Rethugs simply have no analog to. Thus the True Left will always feel thwarted and disaffected (because it is) while the Radical Right will feel as if it’s in the driver’s seat (because it is). So the Left looks for alternatives not because it doesn’t want to be a part of the Demcratic Party, but because it’s driven to desperation.

I agree that as a practical matter, supporting a third party is suicidal. But until it’s acknowledged what drives the Left into the arms of third parties and something’s done about it, it’ll keep happening. The Left always gets killed; the height of cruelty is to demand that it shouldn’t die at least on its own terms.


Comments: 15

verplanck colvin

The DLC is a fairly recent org, compared with the New Deal Dems, correct? A pincer attack from the old guard and the new recruits could squeeze out the mushy middle Democrats.

In any event, aught-six seems to be sizing up to be a year of change. Many of the senate candidates are left-er than their predecessors (e.g. Sanders-VT, Tester-MT). That will hopefully change (in time) what is considered “center”, and we can pull back from the brink of far-right wing hysteria.


Since the conservative element must exist in the Party for financial reasons, the Democrats will always have an internal braking mechanism against its radical element that the Rethugs simply have no analog to. Thus the True Left will always feel thwarted and disaffected (because it is) while the Radical Right will feel as if it’s in the driver’s seat (because it is).

It’s almost spooky, man, you plucked these words right outta my head from just a few hours ago. Nicely done.


Electoral reforms such as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) get rid of the so-called spoiler problem and make third parties much more viable as a strategy for change.

The central problem those on the left face is the logic of the two party system, which constantly forces voters who represent even large minorities — and sometimes on individual issues like withdrawing from Iraq actual majorities — of the electorate to settle for the lesser evil.

Passing electoral reform measures is of course difficult. But as Retardo correctly points out, the left’s capturing the Democratic Party is essentially impossible.

Third parties plus electoral reform are an eminently sensible strategy. Indeed, the nice thing about IRV is that it is in the self-interest of major parties threatened by third parties that might, under our current first-past-the post system, throw the election to the rival major party. At the end of the day, the U.S. might replace its two-party system (an accidental outcome of our political history that was certainly not intended by the founders) with a modern, multiparty one that provides much more effective ways for minority opinions to express themselves politically.


Mordant, there seems to be something going around; BenA took the words right out of my mouth.

As an outsider looking in, it seems rather self-evident that the most crucial hindrance to political change in the US nowadays is not the media, nor the evil corporates, nor AIPAC or even The Terrorist-cuddling Left, but the electoral system itself. Abandoning the electoral college and replacing it with a genuinely popular vote for the presidency with some sort of runoff system (Irish-ish preferential, Frenchified second ballot, or whatever), and proportional, national rather than single district, first-past-the-goalpost elections for congress would make it possible to field viable alternatives to the two major parties with less risk of damaging “the cause”.
Under the current system, I don’t think a third party is possible, which may be part of the reason the incumbent parties aren’t too keen on changing the rules of the game.

But then again, we still have monarchy and state religion, so who am I to talk?


I just don’t think it’s true that the two wings you’re talking about are that deeply in conflict. The New Republic and the DLC notwithstanding, I really think that most democrats who are centrist on the economy agree with you on the war. That’s what makes Democratic politicians’ refusal to really contest foreign policy so baffling.
More on my blog.

Smiling Mortician

The meme (reality-based though it may be) that republicans have party discipline while democrats are splintered is evidenced by noting that republicans practice strict ideological obedience while democrats disagree with each other at the drop of a hat. But this difference in the degree to which people toe the party line might in fact follow from another, more crucial difference: generally, democrats (or at least the leftier democrats) learn while republicans don’t, won’t, or can’t learn.

Learning involves changing either outlook or behavior based on the observation of new evidence. Lefties do that all the time — witness how often commenters here at Sadly, No! post comments like “hadn’t thought of that” or “thanks for clearing that up.” How often do we see similar examples of broadened horizons among right-wing comment threads?

Learning is, by its nature, uncomfortable. It’s messy. It makes people vulnerable in many ways, including leaving them open to accusations of flip-flopping (the single most asinine complaint I’ve ever heard — it’s like saying “You mean you examined the available data and modified your original position accordingly? You evil bastard!”)

Republicans have neither the time nor the inclination to consider carefully the reality around them in order to come to sound conclusions, so busy are they gripping the reins of power. No wonder they’re Machiavellian: they work so hard getting into power, of course they feel entitled to say that the prince can do no wrong. He’s the prince, dammit! Who cares what his policies are? He earned the top spot and now gets to make the rules. And if his followers want to continue to wield power, they’ll shut up and agree with him. Learning is for the weak.

ahem. Wow. I really got my republican on in that last section. Sorry.


“Since the conservative element must exist in the Party for financial reasons, the Democrats will always have an internal braking mechanism against its radical element that the Rethugs simply have no analog to.”

This isn’t entirely true. The religious right wields a lot of its influence on the GOP through the power of churches and PACs to combine lots of small donations into identifiable large chunks of donation. Without that, many of the theologues would be in the same position relative to their party as you argue the Greens are.


I disagree, Lollius. While what you describe is true, the true value of the RR to the Rethug Party isn’t money. It’s organisation-skillz and a steady, show-up rain or shine voting bloc that makes the RR valuable. The money they provide is not insignificant, but i think it ought to be seen as icing.


I’m kinda worried that it doesn’t matter. It seems to me that the bush/cheney cabal has funamentally changed the nature of political leadership in America. That even if the Democrats were to win back the leadership of a branch or two, they will discover that it no longer works the way they have come to understand. That the the office of the Executive can invoke an endless state of war and refuse to allow oversight. Congress will have little choice but to rubber-stamp his policies, for, with tools like signing statements and recess appointments and the like to be used in bad faith, but just as legally, our system will move more to an autocratic type of rule and nobody with the power to roll these changes back is going to have the will to do so…


Smiling Mortician

Mikey, that’s really sad. I see your point: we can’t unring the bell. Just like we can’t pretend nobody ever developed nuclear weapons, we can’t pretend that the Bush administration never latched onto the growing trend of executive overreaching and ran with it to the point that our system of checks and balances is now . . . well . . . a system of no checks and balances. But if I really believed, deep down, that nobody with the power to roll these changes back is going to have the will to do so… I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. So I choose to believe in the ebb and flow of relationships between the people and their leadership. I choose to believe we’re getting close enough to the bottom of this particular trough that the people will rise up against the sheer lunacy of it all and, if necessary, force a leader to stand up and fight.


Goddam it, Mortician, if the people will actually make their voices heard, I will happily join you on the barricades, sniffing up tear gas. I really want you to be right – if I see ANY movement at all I’ll latch onto it in a heartbeat…


Smiling Mortician

It’s a deal, Mikey. You’re my first call when I catch sight of the People on the move. In the meantime, we should probably start identifying the leader we will draft into the service of reclaiming democracy . . . ideas?


Can I just vent my unhappiness with the designation of the creeps in the Democratic party as “centrist” for a second? I know y’all are too smart to actually think people like Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton are anything other than politicians with a platform that is better characterized as on the right of the political spectrum than in the center, and “centrist democrat” is more a term of art than anything else, but still. They’re only “centrist” because of the insane shifting of the center of balance in American politics.

Unless, of course, “centrist” is referencing some concept like how your asshole is in the center of your two buttocks or something. Because I could get behind that.


I too agree with BenA. The key is to secure election reform first. Then they Greens (and other marginalized parties on the left and the right) will have new leverage even if they can’t win flat out, the other parties will have to negotiate to secure their votes. It is a modifier that improves democracy and it is already in place in many countries.


[…] Yet there is a distinction between the Kleimans (and Kevin Drums, for that matter) and the DLC/TNR goons like Will Marshall, Peter Beinart, Marshall Wittman. The Kleiman-Drum-WashingtonMonthly sort of “Sensible Liberalism” is opportunist and therefore capable of change (as indeed, you do see Drum changing in his dolorous way just as Josh Marshall has changed in his slightly more spritely way) while the DLC-TNR sort of “Sensible Liberalism” is reactionary and recalcitrant. The netroots can therefore find a compromise with the former (at least in theory; I have some misgivings) but will have to battle to the death the latter. […]


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