The system that keeps out third parties

November 3, 2015

It's taken as a matter of common sense that the U.S. political system is dominated by two parties, both representing corporate interests: the Democrats and the Republicans. But there is a long history of objective and subjective factors that discouraged the emergence of a left-wing third party in the U.S. Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History and a longtime contributor to Socialist Worker, examines this question in an article based on sections of an interview for the Black Sheep podcast hosted by Madison-based independent socialist activist Andrew Sernatinger.

WHY DID no labor party emerge in the U.S., unlike other industrialized countries? For the better part of a century and more, the union movement has loyally aligned itself with the Democratic Party, which remains, in spite of relying on labor's support, ruled by corporate interests.

This question is a staple among American political scientists and historians, who have produced long structural and sociological arguments to explain why the U.S. has been barren ground for social democratic or labor parties.

A lot of theories have been advanced: The U.S. doesn't have a feudal tradition; universal suffrage for white men came fairly early in the U.S., so there wasn't the same struggle for the working class to get the ballot as in other countries; the U.S. system is based on first-past-the-post elections; it's not a parliamentary system; America's population is famously multiethnic; plus there's the legacy of slavery.

There are elements of truth in all of these explanations. But common to the arguments is the idea that there is something different about the U.S. that makes its political system hostile to any form of socialism, even its milder social democratic form.

Ralph Nader during his independent presidential campaign in 2000
Ralph Nader during his independent presidential campaign in 2000

A famous book written nearly 100 years ago by the German socialist Werner Sombart was titled Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? Sombart's conclusion was that the U.S. was an exceptionally prosperous country, where working people could make it in a generation or two, so socialism never gained much purchase.

There was always a lot of mythology in those claims. In the early 1900s, when the Socialist Party of America was becoming a factor in the political system--when Eugene V. Debs won millions of votes--the U.S. wasn't so different at that time from other countries where socialist or labor parties developed as major parties later down the road.

But today, we're talking about a society where the gap between rich and poor is at its most extreme point since the 1910s and where it's well documented that social mobility has become more and more restricted. So that argument doesn't hold much water.

There are a lot of historically specific points about what took place in the U.S. in the era parties of labor emerged in other countries. But I think one decisive factor with particular relevance for today is that the Democratic Party has managed--at least since the New Deal--to pose itself as a kind of populist opposition. It has succeeded in co-opting a lot of social movements that would have been the foundation of a social democratic party.

In the 1930s, which produced labor's greatest upsurge and the formation of the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO), there was the possibility of a left-wing, third-party alternative, and an open discussion in a lot of unions about forming a farmer-labor party in some form. But that discussion was shut down soon afterward, essentially because the leaders of the CIO decided they would rather be junior partners in the New Deal coalition led by the Democrats than leaders of a new labor party.

There have been various attempts since then to form a third party of the left or run independent candidacies, with varying degrees of success, but if we're talking about the social forces that could actually create a labor or social democratic party, the 1930s is the era that's crucial to consider.

But rather than produce a labor party, it's the moment when the Democratic Party got a major popular boost. Before this, the Democrats were associated most of all with the Southern ruling class presiding over slavery and Jim Crow. From the 1930s and after, the Democrats were seen as the party of the organized working class, with the prominence of the Southern Dixiecrats eclipsed.

THAT'S ONE reason for the lack of a social democratic alternative in the U.S.--the ability of the Democratic Party to occupy that political space in mainstream politics. But there are others, of course.

From early on, the rules of the U.S. political system were written to discourage third parties from forming, much less succeeding. This is true in every country and in every political system: the dominant parties try to write the rules so that they stay on top.

A contemporary case in point: In states where Republicans have taken over the governor's office and legislatures, they've passed voter ID laws to make it harder for people to vote against them. These laws blatantly affect poor people and people of color disproportionately--exactly the groups of voters most likely to oppose them.

In other states, the Republicans have gone even farther and tried to do away with public-sector unions, which are often a main source of money and especially foot soldiers for the Democratic Party.

When the leaders of political parties get into a position where they can rewrite the rules to benefit themselves, they do it. In Illinois, where I live, we have a Democratic-dominated government, which was engineered that way through redistricting and other mechanisms. The Republicans play the manipulation game more effectively, but the Democrats play it as well.

Whether the Democrats or Republicans are in charge, third parties lose out. Over the years, their lawmakers have written arcane election rules that only the two main parties--with their existing breadth of support among voters and their legal firepower--can meet.

Thus, third parties have to get a certain number of signatures from disparate parts of a state, or they face systematic challenges about whether those signatures are legitimate. That's the small-scale nuts and bolts of how the mainstream parties operate together to keep challengers off the ballot.

AS FOR other structural questions, many writers on the question of the labor party raise America's "first past the post" system: Whoever wins the plurality in a particular election gets the office. So, for example, if a left-wing third party candidate draws enough votes that might otherwise have gone to a Democrat, the Republican can be elected with the support of only a minority of voters.

Under this system, third parties with rising support still get no representation until they break through on a mass basis. And in the meanwhile, the "spoiler" argument comes into play--that if they aren't in a position to win outright, third-party candidates can be portrayed as taking votes away from the Democrats.

This is another way that third parties are discouraged under the U.S. system. But it should be said that this doesn't necessarily preclude a left-of-center party from emerging. Britain, for example, has a parliamentary system, but it also has "first past the post" elections, and that didn't stop the rise of the Labour Party in the last century.

Then there's the Electoral College--the system of formally selecting the president that insulates the process from the popular vote. We're already in the midst of a presidential campaign--what Noam Chomsky calls the "quadrennial electoral extravaganza"--and it brings up an issue that anyone with a democratic bone in their body has to be in favor of: abolishing.

Because of the Electoral College, in four cases in U.S. history, the candidate that lost the popular vote ended up winning the presidency--because of winning full slates of electors in just enough states by a thin majority. The last time was 2000, when George W. Bush lost the popular vote by more than half a million, but stole the White House by holding on in Florida to get all of that state's electors.

In that election, Ralph Nader, running for the Green Party, won 2.7 percent of the popular vote and was blamed by Democrats for costing Al Gore the election in Florida. I think that's a completely bankrupt argument: Gore and the Democrats have only themselves to blame for running a lackluster campaign and not fighting to have every vote counted in Florida. But it's an argument that enough people believe that it has intimidated people about the possibility of building something to the left of the Democrats ever since.

This is the logic of lesser evilism: The Democrats may be terrible, we better stick with them because the Republicans are even worse. There are structural considerations that feed this logic, like the "first past the post" system. But that's not the only thing that explains its hold. Lesser evilism is so hardwired into liberals and Democrats that it really will take quite a substantial social movement to shake it loose.

WE'RE TAUGHT to think of political parties as a collection of individuals--average citizens and voters who are connected to each other based on their shared political beliefs and positions. Candidates of these parties are then supposed to run for office based on the platforms of these parties and try to get people to vote for them.

That's the conventional idea of what a party is, straight out of a civics class, but in most countries--and the U.S. is no exception--political parties are mostly the formations of economic-political elites who then collectively try to convince people to vote for their formation. It's not democracy from the bottom up thing--it's more from the top down.

The partial exception to this in the history of capitalist democracy is the labor and social democratic parties of the late 1800s and early 1900s. These were actually membership parties: people would join them and participate in all sorts of social organizations connected to the parties themselves, which almost formed states within a state. The archetype here is the Social Democratic Party in Germany.

But even membership parties didn't preclude the development of a group of professional politicians that ended up dashing the hopes and betraying the interests of the ordinary working people who made up the rank and file of these parties.

The Democrats can't be compared to these mass social democratic parties. A person is considered a Democrat in the U.S. if they vote for the Democratic Party, but in the following election, they're perfectly free to vote for a Republican.

They may get an e-mail now and again--and sometimes lots of them!--if they happen to sign up on a list connected to the Democrats at some level. But it's not as if there are local Democratic Party clubs, where people from different neighborhoods or towns get together to debate issues. Generally speaking, the Democratic Party is a marketing operation and a fundraising machine, in the form of a political party.

This is connected to the question that any Democratic Party supporter who has seen its candidates betray a campaign promise: What is a political party good for if officeholders do whatever they like and aren't held accountable in any way?

You could paper the walls with all the Democratic promises of major projects and policies that the candidates never had any intention of pursuing. Campaign promises, and even party platforms passed at each presidential-year national convention, are formulated for electoral purposes--they're not governing documents.

It's important that we think of political parties--especially the mainstream capitalist parties--as mostly networks of business and political elites who figure out ways to get their agenda put in place. That means operating at all levels of government--federal, state and local.

The Constitution that founded the U.S. political system was put together to create a centralized state, but it was explicitly designed to protect the institution of slavery in the Southern states. That led to the federalist system. There are multiple access points for business to intervene, from local to state to federal, in getting its interests met.

One byproduct of this is that, unlike most other countries, there isn't a centralized institution or agency to run U.S. elections. What we do have is a rickety system where more than 3,000 counties in all the states are in charge of making elections happen. There's no national set of standards--everything is determined at the state level. Fifty years ago, that meant that Blacks were barred from voting in the Democratic-controlled states of the South.

This is one of grim ironies of the U.S. system: Elections in the so-called "world's greatest democracy" are a ramshackle operation that are open to manipulation and prone to breakdowns and injustices.

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