Third Party Blues


Since 1856, every U.S. president has been the candidate of either the Democratic or Republican Party. Despite their differences, these two parties share a fundamental stake in promoting the interests of big business and the economic, political and military dominance of the U.S. over the rest of the world.

Together, the Democrats and Republicans control both Houses of Congress and, since the end of the Second World War, have shared an average of 95 percent of the popular vote each election year.

Between them, the two ruling parties closely safeguard their shared control of the political system, forcing third-party candidates to gather the signatures of tens of thousands of registered voters to appear on state ballots, denying funding for third-party campaigns while offering millions of taxpayer dollars to the Democratic and Republican candidates, and locking independent candidates out of the presidential debates.

For this reason, “kick the bum out” is the most radical form of political expression on offer to voters in any typical election–only to be replaced by the “bum” from the other ruling-class party. No wonder more than half of the adult population stays home on Election Day.

This two-party duopoly is generally regarded as an inescapable fact of life, even among some of its harshest critics, while efforts to build social democratic or labor parties that exist elsewhere in the industrialized world–even Canada–are dismissed as doomed to failure.

Some on the left believe that the U.S.’s unique system of voting, the Electoral College, prevents the possibility of any genuine reform. The lack of democracy inherent in the Electoral College system allowed George W. Bush to gain the White House after losing the popular vote to Al Gore.

“[T]he current system,” wrote liberal columnist Katha Pollitt in the Nation recently, “will never change, because the small states would have to approve a constitutional amendment and why would they do that?–Kansas matters, and Kansans care about values.” Left-wing labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein argues in his recent book, State of the Union: A Century of American Labor, that no labor party has ever developed in the U.S. “because the distinctive federalism of the U.S. electoral system fatally penalizes those political/organizational gambits that stray too far beyond the two-party straightjacket.”

On this basis, he concludes, “[L]abor must function as an independent, and sometimes as a disloyal, component of the Democratic Party Coalition, at least until a reassessment of its political options can take place.” This has been the self-defeating motto of the U.S. left and labor union leadership for more than a century now, which has ensnared both in the trap of Democratic Party politics and effectively prevented the formation of a viable third-party alternative.

LESSER-EVILISM IS a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the U.S. left has consistently aided and abetted the Democratic Party in selling its candidates, while sabotaging efforts to build a genuine alternative. There is nothing unique about the “Anybody But Bush” (ABB) left in 2004, despite claims that the Bush administration represents a growing “fascist” threat that requires the left’s single-minded dedication to its defeat in the coming election.

The “fascist” label has been pinned on nearly every conservative Republican candidate since Herbert Hoover in 1932–including Barry Goldwater in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1968, Ronald Reagan in both 1980 and ’84 and even Bush Sr. in 1992. Last year, Ted Glick, the National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics Network declared, without apparent irony, an election year goal of “replacing Bush with a Democrat (since we’re not yet strong or organized enough to replace him with a Green or an independent).”

But the ABB chorus that has busied itself denouncing independent candidate Ralph Nader as a “spoiler” in this election year is just the latest in a long list of self-described political “independents” over the last century who have ended up inside the Democratic Party. Entire movements have collapsed in this manner–from the Populist Party of the 1890s to the 1960s movements for civil rights and women’s and gay liberation.

But history shows this outcome was far from necessary. Eugene Debs garnered nearly a million votes–roughly 6 percent of the total–when he ran on the Socialist Party ticket in 1912. The same year, the Socialist Party candidate for president of the American Federation of Labor won a third of the vote.

The Great Depression of the 1930s marked the greatest era of class struggle in U.S. history, with a mass radicalization among U.S. workers in which tens of thousands joined the Communist Party. A 1937 Gallup poll showed that at least 21 percent of the population supported the formation of a national farmer-labor party as an alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties.

This sentiment was even more pronounced inside the unions that led the sit-down strikes that shook the country and built the industrial union movement in the mid-1930s. At the1935 United Auto Workers (UAW) convention, delegates voted overwhelmingly to “actively support and give assistance to the formation of a National Farmer Labor Party.”

Significantly, UAW delegates voted down a resolution supporting Roosevelt for president in the 1936 election. This vote was reversed only after the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) leadership threatened to withdraw all funding for the UAW to organize the auto industry unless the convention agreed to support Roosevelt.

Union leaders even created a pseudo-labor party, the American Labor Party, to help channel votes toward Roosevelt in 1936 among New York’s garment workers who refused to vote Democrat. The Communist Party itself helped secure Roosevelt’s re-election that year, and by 1938, party publications abandoned the idea of forming a third political party in the U.S., arguing for “operating insofar as electoral activity is concerned, chiefly through the Democratic Party.”

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THE EXPERIENCE of the 1930s era of class struggle provides the most important lessons of the disastrous consequences of supporting the Democratic Party. Perhaps the most disastrous effect of Democratic Party politics on the U.S. left is that it allows the left’s collective memory to stretch no further back than the last election, so political lessons such as those from the 1930s have been lost on current generations.

The left cannot build a third-party between election years, but must embark on a long-term project whose success or failure can be measured not simply in terms of ballots, but on whether the party advances and strengthens a political alternative based on working-class interests.

Nor should a third-party effort accept the legitimacy of the Electoral College, for it can only succeed by ultimately shifting the balance of forces away from the dominance of the two ruling-class parties. There is nothing fundamentally different about the U.S. political system that should make this project impossible.

Nor is there a fatal flaw in the political character of the U.S. population that makes Americans too “apathetic” or too “content” to fight for an alternative, as so many assume. As recently as 1995, a Gallup poll found that 62 percent of the U.S. public favored the formation of a third-party alternative. Even in 2004, according to Gallup, 38 percent of Americans consider themselves “independents”–more than the 34 percent who regard themselves as Democrats and the 28 percent who say they are Republicans.

Unfortunately, by latching itself to the coattails of the Democratic Party, the U.S. left has followed the Democrats rightward as they chase after the votes of “swing voters.” Even many of those on the left, including the Green Party, whose principled support of Nader helped make a third-party alternative seem within reach in 2000, have succumbed to the pressure to support pro-war, neoliberal John Kerry–simply because he is a Democrat–in 2004.

The ABB left in this election year just provides more evidence that the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements.

SHARON SMITH writes for the Socialist Worker.


SHARON SMITH is the author of Women and Socialism and Subterranean Fire: a History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. She can be reached at: