The Party after the Party

Like a lot of “progressives” I’m pretty disgusted with the Democratic Party. It’s not that I expect to get my way in American politics, far from it. It’s that the Democratic Party seems absolutely unable to articulate progressive positions in an affirmative way. It seems to mostly accept the conservative critique of big government and taxes, and so it’s constantly defensive, apologetic and appeasing. It’s always backing away while moving to the right. As a result, the right controls our public discourse.

It often reminds me of the Whig Party, which collapsed in the 1850s. At that point, slavery and western expansion dominated politics. The South and northern Democrats were aggressively, loudly and even violently in favor of slavery and its expansion: the Whigs tended to dislike slavery and not want to see it expand but were mostly mild, vacillating and timid in their opposition, always seeking compromise. In the 1850s The Whig Party finally lost out to a new party, the Republicans, firmly opposed to slavery and its spread. Lincoln was a Whig who hated slavery: the Republicans gave his strong and passionate anti slavery feelings a home.

Lincoln hated slavery but had no fondness for black people: he favored slavery’s gradual abolition. Lincoln was no radical, but the point is, the Whigs simply could not bring themselves to actually condemn slavery en masse. They weakened their tea to the point where voters dumped it out in favor of a stronger, hotter brew that actually did something. Lincoln’s election led to war, but it ended slavery as well.

It sometimes seems to me that the Democratic Party is the Whigs: it no longer has any positive answers, it only has apologetic defense, and so it’s doomed in the way the Whigs were doomed. For example: let’s assume that growing income inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor, is a problem. Higher taxes on the wealthy would address that. Historically, higher taxes on the wealthy were the norm–taxes on the very wealthy were much, much higher in the 40s, 50s and 60s than they are now. You might think strongly progressive taxes are a good idea, or a bad idea, but in the present climate, simply returning tax rates on the very wealthy to the level they enjoyed in 2000–the lowest level in nearly 100 years–appears unthinkable. It’s never seriously advanced, even though it’d be the easiest way (for most Americans ) to reduce the deficit.

People who share my politics sometimes argue for working within the Democratic party–agitate in primaries, elect more progressive congressmen, etc. I don’t think that’s possible anymore. The Democratic Party is the zombie child of lobbyists, wedded to conservative “Blue Dogs” who aren’t quite conservative enough for the modern GOP.  If you need an example, look only at the election of 2008–a landslide in which the Democratic Party won the White House, the Senate, and the House, but still could not get much done, and produced a health care bill that closely resembles what the Heritage Foundation was proposing in the 1990s as the conservative alternative. The Democratic Party largely exists to prevent progressive arguments from gaining a hearing.

So more and more I think a third party is the only solution. The usual argument, which Democrats have been making since 1980 at least, is that 3rd parties cost you elections: better to have a bad Democrat than a Republican.  Remember 2000? Nader cost Al Gore the election!

Well let’s not forget Al Gore won, and Nader’s presence in the race pushed the debate to the left. A third party would change the discourse–it would allow for new ideas, and kick the Democratic donkey in the ass. The strategy we’ve pursued since 1980–holding one’s nose and voting–has not worked. We’re fighting a modern war with the last war’s tactics.

Third parties almost always lose, but they always change the debate. The most famous example is the People’s Party of the 1880s/1890s. The Populist Party proposed a very wide range of sweeping and radical reforms. It made steady electroal gains until the early 1890s, when it “fused with the Democrats and went down in flames in the election of  1896. Ten years later, a significant number of their proposals (graduated income tax, direct election of senators, flexible currency) had been enacted.

The Progressive Party, which Theodore Roosevelt joined to run for another term in the White House, cost the GOP the election of 1912. But it ushered in an era of unprecedented social reform.

It works the other way–Ross Perot in the 80s, and George Wallace in the 60s/70s both pushed debate to the right. The “tea party isn’t a real third party, I don’t think, but it’s had the same effect.

I like Richard Hofstadter’s quote, from The Age of Reform, way back in the 1950s:

Forming a third party was no way to win office, but given some patience, it proved a good way of getting things done

I’m not someone who insists he’s always right: I just want some real debate about a range of ideas, not what we have now, which is GOP craziness and Democratic apology. It’s not necessarily about winning elections: just changing the terms of our national debate would do us all good. A left wing alternative would balance the crazy right and the craven “center.”

Is there a viable third Party out there? I’m looking. Any suggestions?


  • Is this posting incomplete? It is a good read that I can identify with, but it seems to trail off …

  • I would like to see a progressive leftist party that isn’t completely radical. Frankly, I consider myself more centrist than leftist, but I agree, the Democrats are moving right faster and faster and are leaving voters me out to dry. And the Dems’ accusations of voter apathy among young people and women just make me even angrier. I’ve voted in every election since I was in college, I think about candidates and issues, and I vote with my conscience, but it feels like Democrats would rather whine about how young women just don’t care and won’t vote rather than recognizing that they’re driving us away.

    I don’t think I’m asking too much when I ask for a reduced deficit, fiscal responsibility in government, AND social reform like universal health care and state support for child care. I don’t know if there’s a party for us, or if we’d even be in the same hypothetical party. But I agree – we need to change the discourse. Standing in my corner of the Internet and talking to the 6 people who read my blog isn’t much, but it’s all I have right now.

  • Mike Bottoms wrote:

    36% top marginal tax rate=free market nirvana.
    39% top marginal tax rate=atheistic socialist hell.

    It seems to me that you’re asking two different questions. The first–how do we shift the conversation to the left?–is one worth having, and on that count I am wholly sympathetic to the sentiment you’ve expressed. The second–is there a viable third party?–is a fool’s errand.

    There is not now, nor has there ever been, a viable third party in American politics. Our winner-take-all electoral system actually precludes it by ensuring that the coalition-building process required in any democracy takes place before the election rather than after, as is the case in most parliamentary systems. Powerful third party movements are either folded into the main party of closest political affinity or they split the vote. Always.

    I’m just not sure the history really supports your argument. The Republican Party is sometimes cast as a third party, but this is a rather ham-fisted description of the break-up of the Whig party that plays havoc with chronology. By the time the Republicans mounted a presidential campaign, the Whig Party had been dead for two years. The election of 1960 pitted the Republican Party against a fractured Democratic coalition. Moreover, was it really the Republican Party that shifted the discussion, or did they simply benefit from growing disgust over the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Dred Scott–i.e. from Democratic overreach? By the 1912 both major parties were saturated by believers in the Progressive ethos–the Progressive Party was more a matter of Roosevelt’s pique than it was a truly different expression of progressive politics. Nader didn’t shift the discussion left, Gore did that with his DNC speech, which earned him 20 points in the polls in the closing weeks of the election and put him over the top. Nader talked a great game about corporate control, but he never gave a rat’s ass about women’s issues or race–every Nader supporter you ever met was a middle-class white boy who would be fine regardless who won. Nader’s real legacy is visible in the wreckage strewn all around us.

    I think the debate over whether change should be fomented from the inside or the outside is worth having, but it seems to me that relying on a third party as the outside solution is a dead end because it’s structurally limited. It is also a weak solution because it focuses on voters. The key to institutional change these days lies in freeing candidates from the need for corporate/establishment money.

  • Crabby comments! I feel like a real blogger!

    I completely agree that third parties don’t win and probably can’t win, but they shift the terms of the debate. The Populists get creamed, laughed off the national stage, and ten years later significant chunks of their platform were law. They shifted the debate. And why were there so many progressives?

    Really, the Party is just a new way of talking about politics. The one we have is useless.

  • Carl Sexton wrote:


    I’m with you in feeling that the dems are making concession in the name of getting things done, but buy doing this there compromising there ideas. This wrong, and I think the healthcare bill is the biggest example. I’m registered Dem, but I consider myself more of a libertarian. Nader was/is right in everything he was saying n the 2000 election,but he’s also bat shit crazy. Good to see you writing keep going. I’m reading.

  • As long as 3rd parties feel they need to run for the Presidency, they will be irrelevant.

    But if the objective were to gain 15-30 seats in the House, there would be a foothold for public debate and a way to clog up the machinery between the Dempublicans and Republicrats.

    Nothing wrong with starting small, rather than overly ambitious.

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