Beyond Bernie: The Hidden Potential of Progressive Third Parties

Although the 2016 Democratic Convention came and went quickly this summer, disturbing questions that it raised for many U.S. progressives linger. How could Bernie Sanders, one of the most vocal critics of plutocracy, enthusiastically endorse Hillary Clinton? She is a classic corporate Democrat who defeated him in a blatantly rigged primary. And now that Bernie has backed such an establishment figure, is there any hope for a political revolution, if there ever was? To address these questions, we must look beyond Bernie as an individual and towards the larger left-liberal culture of which he is a part. Therein lays an insidious myth that binds most progressives to the political status quo, and an underlying truth that can help set them and the nation free.

Bernie justified his turn to Clinton with the same belief that keeps many left-leaning people firmly in the Democratic Party fold—the certainty that there are no viable alternatives. In fact, from the beginning of his presidential campaign he explained that running outside of the Democratic Party would be too hard, that he did not want to indirectly help elect a Republican, and that therefore he would endorse the Democratic nominee if he didn’t win the primary.

Yet Bernie, a self-identified independent socialist, rose politically from the progressive third party movement in his own state. He used to strongly advocate third party politics. But that diminished after his election to Congress and growing collaboration with national Democrats.

What Bernie no longer articulates, and what relatively few of his new fans may realize, is that left third parties can be effective. Resisting the two-party system, even against the so-called odds, is not futile or irrational. Contrary to popular myth, it is a proven and still relevant method for advancing progressive change in the United States. Much evidence (documented in my new book and elsewhere) counters the pervasive dogma that progressive third parties “can’t win” and “can’t make a difference.”

Early Successes

Remarkably, the Republican Party itself offers the first and most striking example of what can be accomplished. In the mid-19th century it actually began as a third party with a central goal that was fairly progressive for its time. Galvanized by a national crisis over slavery, it opposed expansion of the practice, quickly replaced one of the two major pro-slavery parties, and elected a president who eventually signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Subsequent achievements by third parties further to the left are also particularly illustrative. Defending those hurt by corporate industrialization, Populists in the late 19th century and Socialists in the early 20th century won well over a thousand political offices combined. Most were at the municipal and county level, while more than a hundred were state legislators, governors, and members of Congress. Populists and Socialists thus gained enough power in some localities, leverage at higher levels, and public support in general to help bring about key progressive reforms that they originally proposed. Such nationwide advances included “the abolition of child labor, limitation of work hours, establishment of minimum wages and graduated income taxes, broadening of access to public education, expansion of suffrage to previously excluded groups, institution of direct election of U.S. senators, use of public referenda, and a variety of other changes beneficial to low and moderate income people” (as stated in the introduction of my book). More contemporary left third parties, addressing modern inequities, also have demonstrated what may be achieved.

Recent Successes

In the 1980s, Bernie Sanders and his allied Progressive Coalition gained enough power in Burlington, Vermont to implement a variety of substantial reforms that benefited ordinary residents. This required overcoming a deeply entrenched incumbent Democratic mayor and his network of cronies. Accomplishments by Mayor Sanders and Burlington Progressives included enlightened policies in the arts, youth services, child care, housing, economic development, land use, urban finance, and other areas.

In later decades, the broader Vermont Progressive Party has made other breakthroughs. It routinely has elected several state legislators across Vermont. These statehouse members have advanced important initiatives on gay rights, workers’ rights, tax equity, campaign finance, health care, GMO labeling, marijuana decriminalization, and more.

Elsewhere in the country, the Green Party has also made significant gains. Since founding their party about 30 years ago, Greens have elected more than a thousand candidates—most of them to municipal and county positions, but also several to state legislative offices. The party currently holds over 100 elected seats.

One of the Green Party’s more dramatic success stories concerns Gayle McLaughlin, a Green from Richmond, California—a mid-sized San Francisco Bay city. Having served as a Richmond city councilor for a term, McLaughlin successfully ran for mayor in 2006 against an establishment-oriented Democratic incumbent. She got re-elected and served until reaching her term limit in 2014. As mayor, she was strongly opposed by the powerful local Chevron Corporation and its imbedded Democratic allies. But backed by a coalition of committed progressives, she spearheaded a number of successful efforts on behalf of common citizens. These included passing a substantial minimum wage increase; getting Chevron to pay millions of dollars in back taxes; blocking construction of a casino; creating an effective crime intervention program staffed by ex-convicts; and making critical additions and improvements to outdoor public facilities. Today, McLaughlin continues her work as a key member of the progressive majority on Richmond’s city council.

A final contemporary illustration of grassroots left third party potential comes from Seattle, yet another place that had been dominated by Democrats. There, Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant won a 2013 city council race against a longtime Democratic incumbent, and she got re-elected in 2015. Once in office, Sawant quickly made an impact with big ripple effects. Among several progressive reforms that she helped orchestrate was the nation’s first $15 an hour minimum wage (passed in June 2014). It required mobilizing much public support to overcome substantial resistance by the local political establishment. Since then, this breakthrough has inspired similar struggles and victories elsewhere in the nation. In turn, that has heightened pressure for an increase in the national minimum wage. The surprising success of Sawant and the other candidates profiled above suggests that there could be additional left third party openings yet to be fully exploited.


Crisis can sometimes spark a dramatic minor party upsurge. This is how the Republicans, Populists and Socialists were born. In the future, increasing economic inequality, accelerating environmental destruction, or other mounting problems could encourage the rapid growth of progressive third parties. That especially could happen if these parties can demonstrate more often that they can be effective, even on a limited scale. They need to build a more critical mass of small successes, and in fact, there are considerable opportunities for them to do so.

Across the country, conditions are ripe for third party candidates to make local breakthroughs. In many locales, a one-party machine or old boy network has ruled so easily for so long that it has become overconfident, lazy, and vulnerable (as actually occurred in Burlington, Richmond and Seattle). Correspondingly, in recent elections about 40% of state legislative races have had only one (unopposed) major party candidate! Such absence of partisan competition prevents non-major party candidates from simply being dismissed as “spoilers” and “fringe” operators. Non-partisan municipal races, which are very common, can have similar advantages. Moreover, bottom-rung offices can sometimes be gotten very easily, such as when a low-profile municipal committee doesn’t have any other candidate for an open seat. Importantly, serving at this level can help strengthen one’s community connections, which usually are essential to being a viable candidate for other, more powerful offices.

The above local opportunities may present a gateway to higher level seats. The multi-step ascent of Bernie Sanders from mayor to congressman to U.S. senator illustrates that most vividly. Bernie’s long tenure and accomplishments at the municipal level in his state’s largest city gave him the reputation he needed to become a competitive candidate for federal office. Something similar could happen elsewhere. Kshama Sawant is a popular city councilor in the largest city in her own state. She could become a viable candidate for mayor or state legislator, potential springboards to running competitive races for governor or member of Congress. The fact that Gayle McLaughlin has been a well-liked city councilor and mayor in one of her state’s biggest metropolitan areas may also enable her to work her way up to a statewide or federal office. Other successful left third party officials at the local level could make a similar ascent.

Additionally, the possibility persists that certain longshot higher level candidates can help thrust progressive third parties forward. Such candidates who are better known, organized and funded can become significant party builders. For example, Ralph Nader did this for the Green Party through his 2000 presidential campaign. The myth that it “spoiled” the opposing bid of a Democrat (lackluster centrist Al Gore) obscures that fact. Nader’s rousing campaign actually fostered a large, enduring growth in Green Party members, chapters, funding, and candidates. Gayle McLaughlin says that his effort inspired her to run for office, and many other successful Greens have also stood on his shoulders. Since Nader had this sort of impact, so might other eminent progressives—if they run for any number of statewide or federal seats via a third party. Of course, these individuals would have to ignore perpetual pleas to focus instead on keeping Democrats in power.

Finally, ordinary progressives not running for office can help make all of the above breakthroughs possible. They can try to recruit a promising candidate, join or help fund a compelling campaign, or become active in a party chapter (which may spawn and support viable candidacies). In sum, from the grassroots upward there are many opportunities to sow seeds of a more powerful progressive third party movement.

Toward Political Revolution

The coming years could be fertile ones for much needed change in our political system. Popular demand for progressive reform is growing, especially among the young. However, irrespective of presidential campaign promises and the 2016 election outcome, the corporate core of the national Democratic Party will not lead a progressive revival. At best, it may make watered down gestures to the left, as it has done since at least the Bill Clinton era. Undoubtedly, it will keep using its vast electoral machine to seduce and suppress Bernie supporters by any means necessary. Consequently, more of them may become irreversibly disillusioned with the Democrats and start considering third party alternatives more seriously.

Meanwhile, progressive third party organizing has already been increasing. This year the Vermont Progressive Party has been running a larger number of state legislative candidates and a highly competitive candidate for lieutenant governor. Baltimore has had a spike in left third party candidates, including several Greens and one affiliated with the Black-led Ujima People’s Progress Party. Jill Stein has been attracting the most interest and grassroots participation in a Green presidential campaign since Ralph Nader’s 2000 run. At the same time, Kshama Sawant has been actively calling for a new national umbrella “party for the 99%,” which she and Socialist Alternative plan to launch sometime after the election. Stein herself has endorsed the idea. Last, the Bernie or Bust community has been making a few of its own attempts to form a new progressive party, initially via Facebook. The most serious, sustained one is known as the Progressive Independent Party.

Such efforts address a rising public yearning for alternatives to the corrupt duopoly, which has tarnished even Bernie Sanders. These or other left third party challenges could spark a real political revolution—if enough progressives can see their true potential.

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Jonathan H. Martin is Professor of Sociology at Framingham State University. He is the editor of and a contributor to the book Empowering Progressive Third Parties in the United States (Routledge 2016). He can be reached at jmartin50@framingham.edu or his book’s Facebook page.

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