Two-Party System and the Left
by Jack Rabbit
In recent years, political pundits from all sides have commented
on the increasingly conservative nature of American politics.
There should be no doubt the the center of American politics
today is further to the right than before. However, two upstart
parties, the Reform Party and the Green Party, have risen
to challenge the two existing established American political
parties. Whatever their pronounced goals may be, both of these
parties have come into being to answer the rightward shift
of each of the established parties. That phenomenon in itself
may suggest that the rightwing has reached its high water
mark - in fact, passed it long ago - and that the center should
now shift leftwards.
This week and next, we will examine the how the rightward
slouch in American politics might be effectively and decisively
countered. This week, we will examine the role of third parties
in contemporary American politics.
The major difference between a multi-party system and the
two-party system is that in one the coalitions are formed
after the election and in the other they exist beforehand.
In a multi-party democracy, most of the parties represent
narrow economic or ideological constituencies. After elections
are held, the leader of the party that won the most seats
invites other parties into his ruling colaition so that he
will have a majority in parliament. In a two-party system,
instead of organized parties, the coalitions are loose, informal
blocks of voters. In the United States, racial minorities
have long been associated with the Democratic Party and wealthy
whites with the Republicans.
Over time, some voting blocks may switch from one party to
another or become identified as "swing" voters, voting for
one party in one election and the other in the next. The white
working class, once solidly Democratic, is an interesting
case. Although the Republicans have often laid claim to these
voters in recent years, they are really swing voters nowadays.
We will have much to say about this voting block next week.
Now and then, an upstart third party will rise to challenge
the authority of one or both of the two established parties.
We are talking here not about a narrow, specialized party
like the Prohibitionist Party or the Socialist Workers, but
about a political movement that made its influence felt by
the political establishment.
For the most part, there have been four possible fates for
such a party: it could supplant one of the existing parties;
it could die out leaving no lasting effects; it could become
absorbed into one of the existing major parties; or it could
live on at the fringes of the political system. An example
of the first case is the Republican Party which was founded
in 1854 and soon supplanted the Whigs. An example of the second
case is the Bull Moose Party of 1912. The Republicans were
badly split between the incumbent occupant of the White House,
William Howard Taft, and former President Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt, having made his point by allowing the election
to be thown to the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, rejoined the
GOP and supported the Republican ticket in 1916.
An example of the third case is the Populist Party of James
Weaver in the 1880's and 1890's. Weaver ran for president
on a platform of mildly inflationary monetary policies; this
appealed to farmers, who were in debt to large banks. The
Democrats took the hint and adopted many of Weaver's policies
in 1896, nominated a populist candidate in William Jennings
Bryan and took most of Weaver's voters into their fold. The
final case has no real precedent in American history, but
can be seen across the Atlantic in Great Britian. The British
Liberal Democratic Party, an upshot of disputes within the
Labour Party during the eighties, holds several seats in Commons.
The Reform Party, founded in 1992, appears to have met its
demise. If so, its demise was brought about in a manner unlike
any of the others. We shall treat this as a fluke that is
unlikely to be repeated.
The Reform Party grew out of the presidential ambitions of
Texas millionaire Ross Perot. Perot's strengths and weaknesses
as a potential President that are not as important here as
how and why his message resonated with Americans in the nineties.
Perot advocated fiscal responsibility and a vague social liberalism.
As an example of Perot's stand on a specific social issue,
he favored the status quo on abortion laws; this is not because
he thought abortion itself to be a good thing, but because
he held it to be none of the government's business if a woman
decided to terminate her pregnancy. This, of course, won Perot
no votes on the far right, but the far right was not Perot's
target. What Perot particularly wanted to discuss was fiscal
matters. He was opposed to runaway deficit spending.
To understand Perot's appeal on this issue, one must look
at the change that has taken place in the Republican Party.
Once, the GOP stood for lower taxes and less government spending.
That changed in the eighties under Reagan. Reagan advocated
lower taxes and less government spending on social programs,
but increased government spending on military programs. The
result was no reduction in spending to offset reduced revenues
from tax cuts, thus ballooning the size of federal budget
Under Reagan, the Republicans ceased to be what they had
been for years, the party of fiscal responsibility. Reagan's
successor, the elder George Bush, seemed unwilling or unable
to deal with the problems arising out of increased budget
deficits, like unemployment and higher interest rates. Perot's
movement, by adressing budget deficits, was intended to be
an antidote for this ill. The Reform Party appealed to some
conservative Democrats, but for the most part it attracted
moderate Republicans and sober conservatives.
In 1992, Perot received 19% of the popular vote, becoming
the most successful third-party presidential candidate since
Teddy Roosevelt ran on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912. The
Reform Party died a horrible and unnatural death in 2000.
The success of Perot's presidential campaigns in 1992 and
1996 left the Reformists eligible for federal matching funds
worth millions of dollars to its nominee in 2000. Perot was
no longer interested in running for President, so the Reformists
were in need of a candidate.
Meanwhile, Pat Buchanan, the perennial presidential candidate
of the Republican right, had to decide whether he was going
to outpoll more established GOP candidates or run in November
as a third-party candidate. The first option seemed unlikely
and, therefore, Buchanan was a candidate in need of a party.
Were this a business deal, the solution might seem easy. However,
a political party and a presidential candidate both presumably
stand for a set of principles and proposed policies and programs.
This presented a problem. The Reform Party stood for moderate
conservatism that leaned towards the political center, while
Buchanan and his rightwing hoards repudiated anything hinting
of moderation. Nevertheless, Buchanan was able to persuade
his minions to join the Reform Party in large enough numbers
which enabled Buchanan, over the loud objections of Perot's
followers, to seize the Reformist nomination and its federal
campaign funds. In the election, Buchanan failed miserably.
He drew only about 1% of the popular vote, far short of the
5% that would have qualified the Reform Party for federal
campaign funds in 2004. This has effectively killed the Reform
Party as a political force in American politics.
The Green Party, the other upstart political party in America,
pulls on the Democrats from the left. Unlike the Reformists,
which drew support from Democrats as well as Republicans,
the Greens are a coalition of leftwing radicals who generally
reject conventional electoral politics altogether, and disaffected
progressive Democrats who feel the Democratic Party has sold
its soul in pursuit of electoral victories under Clinton.
Ralph Nader, the Greens' presidential candidate in 1996 and
2000, adopted the rhetoric of the radical Greens in asserting
that there was no difference between the Democratic and Republican
parties; how much he actually believes that is a question
only he can answer. Nader is from the disaffected progressive
Democratic wing of the party, a group that largely holds that
the Democratic Party is at least marginally preferable to
Republicans, but that the difference has diminished over the
years to the point that it is no longer worth the effort for
voting for a Democrat simply out of fear of a Republican victory.
An example of the reasoning of this last group can be seen
by focusing on the issue of trade. What is important to the
Greens is that trade agreements respect the rights of workers
and address environmental protection. The disaffected progressives
in the Green Party know very well that Bush's attitude towards
these matters is indifferent at best and more often hostile.
When negotiating a trade agreement, Bush will not raise these
issues. Gore, on the other hand, would bring these issues
to the table. However, the progressives didn't trust Gore
not to negotiate them away. Their perception is that at the
end of the day, Bush and Gore would have negotiated the same
trade agreement, an agreement they would find unacceptable.
Why shouldn't a progressive feel that way? The trade agreements
negotiated by Clinton were like that. By this reasoning, there
is some justification to say that there is no longer any practical
difference between the Democratic and Republican parties.
The two wings of the Green Party see the party as serving
different purposes. For the radical Leftists, the Green Party
is to start a viable third-party movement on the Left, one
more broad-based then narrowly-defined splinter parties like
the Socialist Workers; the purpose of the party for the disaffected
progressives is to pull the Democratic Party towards the Left
by withholding support for its candidates and providing a
more tangible form of expression for that lost support than
simply not voting. Barring real concessions from the Democrats,
the disaffected progressives will continue to work with the
radicals to make the Greens a viable third party; but many
would be just as happy to rejoin a Democratic Party more committed
to their agenda.
The question after the election of 2000 is to what extent
did the Greens cost Al Gore the presidency. Under one theory
of the 2000 vote, Ralph Nader and the Greens are directly
responsible for Gore's defeat by drawing enough votes away
from him to tip the balance to Bush in closely contested states,
including Florida. This theory simply cites the vote as cast;
add Nader's to Gore's, and Gore would have carried Florida
and some other states. Had Gore carried any state carried
by Bush, he would be President.
This theory may be overly simple. For instance, it does not
take into account that some of Nader's vote - the vote from
the radical Greens - would have not have gone to Gore even
if Nader had not been on the ballot; these people either would
have stayed home or voted for a splinter candidate. However,
it does seem reasonable that there were enough disaffected
progressives who would have otherwise voted for Gore to make
However, there is another theory, which is more complicated.
Under this theory, endorsed during the campaign by Ralph Nader
himself, Al Gore is responsible for his own defeat because
he ran an inept campaign. This theory begins by looking at
the advantages Gore had but of which he made little or no
use. Gore had served as Vice President in an administration
during which there was a long period of economic growth, at
least on paper. The last man who ran with that distinction
was the elder George Bush, in 1988. He defeated his Democratic
opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, by a margin
of about 10%.
One can point out that Dukakis ran a bad campaign - did he
look silly in that tank or what? - but Bush tied one hand
behind his back by picking Dan Quayle for a running mate.
That was shown to have a five percent drag on the Republican
ticket. Under this theory, Gore should have run well ahead
of the younger Bush in the polls throughout the campaign and
the Nader vote should not have been a factor.
There is something to be said for this theory as well. Gore,
fearing that President Clinton's personal scandals would drag
him down, chose not to closely associate himself with the
administration. However, Clinton's scandals were personal;
it should not have been too difficult to point out that Gore
is a man of greater personal virtue than Clinton. Related
to this were silly attacks by the Republicans on Gore. Apparently,
Gore thought these were so absurd as not to deserve comment.
While these attacks were absurd, Gore (or a spokesman) nevertheless
should have taken time to shoot them down and even turn them
against the Republicans. How many people still think that
Al Gore claims to have invented the Internet? That hurt.
In the actual election, Gore closed the gap in the final
days of the campaign because many disaffected progressives
who had planned to cast a protest vote for Nader changed their
minds and voted for Gore. Of course, if Gore were never in
any danger of losing, these disaffected progressives would
have voted for Nader. Thus, under the inept Gore campaign
theory, not only is Gore responsible for his own defeat, but
possibly he is also responsible for the Nader's failure to
receive 5% of the vote that would have qualified the Greens
for federal funds in 2004.
Both of these theories have merit and one does not exclude
the other. Adherents of one may argue all day with adherents
of the other and never reach a conclusion as to who is right.
The facts are that Bush is president, that he stole the election,
that he is turning the budget surplus to his cronies and assaulting
civil liberties; and that the Greens aren't going to roll
over for the Democrats just in order to defeat Bush in 2004.
What will happen to the Green Party now? It would be absurd
to believe that they will supplant the Democrats as the opposition
to the Republicans. It is possible that the Greens, like the
Bull Moose ticket of 1912, are the kind of movement that makes
itself felt in one election and then goes away. However, that
seems unlikely and in any case the Democrats shouldn't count
on it. That means that the Greens and parts of their platform
will either be absorbed into the Democratic Party or that
they will remain as a viable third party, with at least enough
votes to deny the Democrats a victory, although the Greens
would like to be able to elect candidates in their own right.
If the Greens were able to grow into a viable third party
that could elect a small contingent of members to state legislatures
and Congress, they could become like the British Liberal Democratic
Party is at present. Currently, the Liberal Democrats are
not a big factor in Britain, but if the make up of Parliament
were to change so that neither Labour nor the Conservatives
had an outright majority, they would hold the balance of power.
The natural tendency of the Liberal Democrats would be to
support Labour, but that is something that by no means should
be taken for granted; furthermore, it would be wise if the
Liberal Democrats made certain that Labour not take them for
Also, the existence of two parties on the Left in Britain
at a time when the party on the right slides further towards
the general direction of Attila the Hun has given many Left-leaning
British voters a commitment to a strategy called tactical
voting. In this, a voter who actually prefers Labour, but
lives in a district where the Labour candidate is unlikely
to win, will vote for the Liberal Democrat in order to exclude
the Conservatives to the greatest extent possible. It would
be easy to imagine Greens and Democrats at the grass roots
level behaving in such a manner in order to exclude Republicans.
More interesting would be if the Reform Party were to make
a comeback as the party Ross Perot intended it to be, America
would become a multi-party democracy with the Republicans
on the far Right, the Reformits in the center Right, the Democrats
in the center Left and the Greens on the Left.
This kind of behavior works well in legislative races; however,
in America, the big political prize is the chief executive.
Ambitious American politicians want to be Governor or President,
not Speaker of the House. This encourages a two-party mentality,
since the chief executive is in some way elected by all the
people at large. If the Democrats wish to recapture the White
House in 2004, they will have to determine what is the best
way to maximize the number of their potential voters.
An alternative for disaffected progressives who would otherwise
vote for a Democrat is not in their interests. If the Democrats
were to commit to principles of fair trade (abandoning Clinton's
commitment to furthering the free trade agenda), they might
be able to draw the disaffected progressives back to the fold.
However, Democrats must weigh this against the possibility
of losing support on the right; with the Reform Party seemingly
dead, there will be no place for conservative Democrats to
go except the GOP.
These will be hard choices for the Democrats, but they must
be made. Next week, we'll discuss how the Democrats might
draw the disaffected progressives back without losing support
from some conservative voters in the short run.