Democratic Underground

The Two-Party System and the Left
January 2, 2002
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 deficits.

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 a difference.

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 granted.

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.

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