“Once new possibilities for change that are within reach of ordinary people become evident, or at least once people think they are evident and within reach, popular aspirations also expand.”
— Francis Fox Piven, Challenging Authority (2006, 141–2)
Crisis can open the door to opportunities previously seen as desirable but impossible. As 2021 unfolds, more Americans could actively support a true alternative to corrupt major party politics as usual—if they come to believe that it has what it takes to succeed.
A long-standing decline of U.S. society advanced by both the Republican and Democratic parties has reached a striking low point. Over the past year our government has failed to contain a deadly virus, protect many people from economic ruin, prevent a particularly overt wave of racist violence, and dissuade nearly half of voters from supporting the reelection of a quasi-fascist president (Trump). And that is in addition to many years of politics that have greatly exacerbated social inequality and ecological destruction. Both parties have had a hand in leading us here, through largely favoring the privileged and disregarding the common good. But if our nation had had at least one major party clearly committed to social, economic and environmental justice (i.e., real progressive change), we would not be in this situation.
Now, if at least one of the two existing dominant parties does not change course dramatically, which neither seems capable of doing, this could be a good year to start diligently building a different party that can save our country. Any such party would faithfully fight for all ordinary people, and it would not be beholden to the super-advantaged. It also would be electorally serious, meaning it would clearly emphasize winning elections (without abandoning its principles). And by gaining power and influence one step and place at a time, it would show that it could eventually become a new major party. This is the only kind of third party that could attract widespread public support. In the abstract many people already want such a party, and emerging events may reinforce that desire. But this party may only develop if the right steps are taken to convince essential sympathizers that it is possible.
Popular Desire and Doubt
According to polls, for decades most Americans have supported many progressive policies, and for years the majority has wanted a new major party. That’s not surprising, given the impact of half a century of increasingly pro-corporate Republican and Democratic rule—often referred to as U.S. neoliberalism. This politics for the privileged has steadily enriched wealthy elites, made economic life harder for most people, corrupted our healthcare system, caused grave harm to the environment, and heightened racial and gender oppression in critical ways, among other negative effects. Under the thumb of big campaign contributors, general elections have mostly given voters a bad choice—between the right-wing Republican and centrist Democratic forms of neoliberalism. Whether through elections or in the legislative process, both parties have suppressed the progressive agenda. For instance, they have quashed demands for substantial tax hikes on the rich and corporations, single payer health care, strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions, free child care and college tuition, large cuts to the military budget, and deep reforms of the criminal justice system. Republicans have enthusiastically attacked these ideas as a package, what they refer to as a Democratic-led socialist conspiracy. But leading Democrats themselves have either rejected these proposals or substantially watered them down one by one, while stifling the few politicians in their party who are truly committed to them. This bipartisan hostility toward the public good has already prepared many citizens to look beyond the two-party system.
However, 2020 may have started to push the public even further. Amidst a pandemic and deep economic crisis in which many ordinary people have suffered greatly, and stand to suffer more, the need for government help has become larger than at any time since the Great Depression. But the U.S. has done much less than various other countries to minimize risks and consequences for the general population. Even after the defeat of Trump, Republican lawmakers still openly oppose more aggressive action. And for similar underlying reasons, we cannot rely on Democrats as a whole—who now control the presidency and (barely) the Congress—to go far enough or fight hard enough on behalf of effective and just solutions: Having prospered enormously for the last half a century, the wealthy and big business do not want to pay for a new New Deal. Nor do they want the generous government spigot of tax breaks, subsidies, inflated contracts, and regulatory restraint for those at the top to be turned down. Accordingly, in 2019 Joe Biden himself promised his rich donors that if he were elected president, “Nothing would fundamentally change.” We can count on him and the rest of the Democratic elite to keep that promise. Already almost all of his Cabinet picks are members or friends of the neoliberal establishment. So, at best we can expect limited or compromised efforts to fix our broken society. As the fallout of the crisis and pre-existing inequities persists, public discontent with both parties and openness to electoral alternatives may grow.
Still, the vast majority of Americans, regardless of how politically dissatisfied they become, won’t actively back third parties if they don’t think they are viable. Instead, without a credible alternative, people generally will have to hope for the best they can get from the duopoly, and if it isn’t good enough, many may merely shift their support from one major party to the other in the next general election.
It is rational to doubt that third parties have the potential to win. Clearly our system puts big obstacles in their way, including winner-take-all elections, steep ballot access hurdles in many places, and a money-driven campaign system. Equally if not more important, much of what is published and broadcast about third parties focuses on their so-called failures. The mainstream media highlights longshot races they often lose by giant margins, particularly instances in which their candidates are characterized as possible “spoilers” in a fight between major party contenders.
Hidden Achievements and Possibilities
Most people hear much less if anything about third party successes, of which there are plenty. For instance, in recent decades Greens, Vermont Progressives, and a few independent socialists have regularly won scores of elections per year combined, mostly but not entirely at lower levels in different parts of the country. In select municipalities and states, this has led to higher wages, fairer taxes, more tenant protections, enlightened changes to policing, and stronger environmental regulations, among other progressive reforms.
One of the more stunning but lesser known success stories is that of Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant. First elected in 2013 and affiliated with the group Socialist Alternative, Sawant played a key role in mobilizing support the following year for the nation’s first $15 per hour minimum wage, which inspired more such breakthroughs across the country afterwards. Also, just last year Sawant made a similar pivotal contribution to a successful movement to make big business (including Amazon) pay hundreds of millions of dollars per year in new municipal taxes, to be used for building affordable housing in Seattle. The above reforms faced great opposition from establishment forces aligned with the local Democratic Party, but Sawant and her allies ultimately prevailed. This shows how even a small third party presence in government has the power to leverage big policy changes, through its ability to marshal public pressure against the major party status quo.
And there is a long history of third-party achievements. For example, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Populists and Socialists elected well over a thousand candidates at local, state and federal levels. That enabled them to help sway the government to enact many of their forward-thinking proposals—for the abolition of child labor, minimum wages, graduated income taxes, broader access to public education, expansion of voting rights, and more, resulting in enduring progressive reforms. And decades earlier, the Republican Party itself began as a third party that swiftly rose to ruling major party status and played a crucial role in ending slavery.
Today, contrary to popular myth, abundant opportunities exist to add to this legacy of accomplishment. In addition to the favorable aspects of public opinion and changing social conditions described earlier, other hidden openings for third parties await. In many places throughout the country, uncontested one-party domination allows third parties to effectively become the second party, eliminating any need to vote for a “lesser evil” major party candidate. Moreover, third parties still have the chance to develop a record of effectiveness and build a base at the local level through easier to win races and policy fights. And local victories may in time become springboards for running viable campaigns at higher levels. Finally, the Internet, a broadly accessible organizing and fundraising tool, enables third parties to quickly reach many more voters than in the past.
However, these inspiring facts may not matter much to most people if they aren’t aware of them, and especially if they don’t see concrete evidence of third-party power in their own everyday lives. Thus, third parties have to emphasize doing what it takes to win more often, even if just at lower levels for the time being.
Unfortunately, despite having made some notable breakthroughs, prominent national third parties today—including the only progressive one, the Green Party—don’t focus enough on winning. As mentioned above, these parties frequently run non-viable candidates, many at higher levels, who perform very poorly. This supposedly is necessary for educating the public, recruiting members, pushing major party candidates on the issues, and gaining or maintaining ballot access. But such campaigns typically fail to reach many people or get the attention of leading candidates. And state ballot access has little value when viable state-level candidates don’t already exist to make good use of a third-party ballot line. Running weak candidates for state ballot access so still more weak candidates can do the same later wastes precious resources and energy. It traps third parties in a discrediting and demoralizing cycle of losing.
In fact, candidates at the lowest electoral level, municipal politics, normally don’t even need their party to have state ballot status in order to run. Third parties first must build a solid bench of successful local candidates because it can supply more ambitious races with viable competitors. Strong community connections and the ability to activate them with a vigorous campaign typically enable local candidates to make a good showing or win, and thereby attract many new, committed party members. Finding or creating candidates with these qualities should therefore be a top priority.
But running non-competitive candidates in extreme longshot races has become a bad third-party habit that is hard to break. It not only has firmly taken hold of prevailing national parties. It also has begun to seduce groups aiming to build new parties, sometimes referred to as proto-parties. The founder of the most visible left proto-party, the Movement for a People’s Party (MPP), has already made grandiose predictions about high-profile, unwinnable campaigns soon to come.
Of course, any forming party should be viewed skeptically if, like the MPP, it is planning to run its first candidates at very competitive statewide or federal levels, or claiming that it can become an overnight electoral sensation (winning high offices and gaining mass appeal within a few years). Particular new third parties did quickly gain power in the mid-19th through the early 20th centuries in cases cited above. But that depended on conditions that still are a long way from recurring—including the complete fracturing of elites nationally and a much higher level of organization and mobilization from below.
A Way Forward
How then can today’s progressive third-party builders become more strategically realistic and effective? Strong efforts must be made to pull them away from the losing addiction to non-viable and top-down campaigning, and toward the dedicated bottom-up pursuit of achievable electoral gains. Sympathetic activists within or outside of third-party groups should band together and conduct viability campaigns to promote third-party strategies that really can work (and challenge ones that have failed).
That’s what one new organization, Progressive Party Builders (PPB) intends to do. Created by veterans of various progressive third parties and proto-parties, and the Sanders presidential campaigns, PPB will concentrate on the following:
* educating independent left activists about why electoral viability matters;
* highlighting what makes a third party and its candidates competitive;
* identifying, recruiting and supporting strong local progressive party candidates;
* encouraging the formation of winning local progressive proto-parties; and
* training others to do the above.
Viability campaigns by PPB and others may ultimately help produce a new, more effective progressive third party; alternatively, they may put pressure on underperforming left parties and proto-parties to either shape up or lose members to more serious competitors. Over time these campaigns might also foster cooperation among like-minded organizations around a common results-oriented approach. However, if such efforts only boost a single third party, that still could be worthwhile. It may only take a small but growing series of electrifying election breakthroughs by one party, even at lower levels, to begin to popularize the belief that a winning alternative to Demopublican rule is possible on a larger scale.
While 2020 plunged Americans into a severe crisis, it also may have paved the way for a political awakening. To the extent that the corporate duopoly fails to deliver under duress going forward, more people may become receptive to left third party alternatives.
But are progressive third-party activists capable of doing what is needed to show these options can be truly viable? That is the key to their popular appeal and success. It is how Bernie Sanders himself was able to become an influential independent left U.S. Senator—by demonstrating first that he could win elections and make popular changes at the municipal level (as a mayor working with local third-party allies). Yet after Sanders’s second Democratic presidential campaign loss last year, it is clearer than ever that he and his movement cannot take over a deeply corrupt Democratic Party. Another better party has to be built from the ground up. The evolving crisis challenges us to either rapidly reform a leading progressive third party or proto-party into a serious, competent operation or join another party-building group that doesn’t need reforming.
Potential changemakers should resist the temptation to sit back and let the left third-party movement stay stuck. Now is the time to connect and stand up with others interested in creating the winning independent progressive politics that many Americans want.
* A previous version of this article was published by Nation of Change. The author thanks Peter Leighton, Lynette McClain, Meg Lovejoy, and Gerry Martin for their feedback on drafts.