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.
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?