Duopolist Prejudice and Progressive Politics

At Open Left, Paul Rosenberg argues against third party and independent activism in a piece entitled "Putting Third Party Folly into Historical Perspective." In Rosenberg's variation on the historical argument, national third party activism is doomed to failure in the future because it has only rarely been successful in the past. He writes:
(1) National third parties can be deemed to succeed in one of two ways-either they elect a government (president and working majority of Congress), or they influence one or both major parties to significantly change their politics to include the goals that third party is organized about. Neither of these forms of success is the least bit plausible at the this time.

(1a) The only time that national third parties have come to power has been when one of the two major parties utterly disintegrated, which has happened just twice, with the demise of the Federalists circa 1820, and the demise of the Whigs in the mid 1850s. Although both parties are looking pretty messed up at present, there is simply no parallel to what happened to the Federalists or the Whigs. Things might be different a few years down the line, but for now it's purely a pipe dream.

(1b) The only time that national third parties have pressured the two major parties into modifying their policies in any significant degree has been when they were built on much broader political movements. But the problem we face right now is precisely that of turning a range of progressive tendencies into a coherent movement. So, again, this strategy might have some historical precedent going for it several years down the road, but it would be putting the cart way before the horse to engage in national third party activism today on this basis.
If the goal of national third party activism is to fundamentally change the two-party system of political representation, providing a greater range of options for the voting public, in order to represent a wider array of views among the populace, then Rosenberg's point (1a) is highly misleading, as the goal of independent and third party activism is not to replace one of the two duopoly parties, thus reproducing the duopoly form, but rather to break it open and create a space for the emergence of new political formations. As for point (1b), national third parties constantly influence the policies forwarded by the Democratic-Republican Party. In calling for universal single payer health care, for instance, liberal and progressive Democrats have done little more than appropriate decades-old policy prescriptions of Socialists, Communists and Green Party activists.

Rosenberg admits that "Today's national Democratic Party is a piece of shit," as he puts it, and continues:
The miserable state of the Democratic Party is due to the larger failure of our political system as a whole. We need to direct both critical attention and political organizing effort to altering the system as a whole, in order to create a different political context in which the Democratic Party can be significantly improved over its current pathetic state.
The question is thus: how can the system as a whole be changed in order to effect this end? Rosenberg proposes a series of local organizing efforts from the development of community oriented blogs to the creation of neighborhood councils nationwide. However, despite his claim that he does not identify "primarily as [a] party activist," Rosenberg's duopolist prejudice in favor of the Democratic Party rules out, from the very beginning, forms of activism that stand the greatest chance of upending "the system as a whole," namely, third party and independent organizing.

The latter is demonstrated by another Open Left diarist, David Sirota, who sees in the efforts of the Working Families Party an effective "instrument of raw progressive power":
that's exactly the WFP's formula - they focus their work not on glam or celebrity politics, but on the local races where the rubber hits the road.

Just as important, they have succeeded in a crucial task for progressives: Holding Democrats accountable once we help elect them. From its inception, the Working Families Party has used the power of fusion to improve the lives of the non-wealthy - minimum wage, reform of the racist Rockefeller Drug Laws, tax reform, paid sick days and a groundbreaking Green Jobs bill, to name just a few . . .

The more groups like the WFP build capacity, the more likely we are to see significant legislative and political results. Indeed, the WFP - despite flying under the radar and not getting lots of big D.C. headlines - is perhaps today's most encouraging model for achieving those results over the long haul. You don't have to look at its successes to know that - you just have to look at the intensifying vitriol being aimed at it by the right-wing. The fact that Big Money Republicans and Rupert Murdoch's media machine are now constantly railing on the WFP and trying to manufacture controversies about it shows how frightened the political establishment is of genuine progressive power.


broken ladder said...

If you don't like duopoly, then getting score voting or approval voting should be your only focus. Period.

d.eris said...

Unfortunately, many locales that have begun to experiment with different voting methods seem to be attracted first and foremost to IRV, which suffers from many of the same problems as simple plurality voting. Do you know of any districts where there is a push toward SV?

Samuel Wilson said...

Where I live, Working Families has become a joke because in local elections it has proven consistently vulnerable to takeover by stooges of the major parties who then set up dummy candidates who aren't taken seriously by anybody. The problem is that WFP focuses on cross-endorsement to build up a voter base and earn a spot on the ballot, but in relatively small locales like mine there aren't enough full-time true believers to fend off primary challenges from Bipolarchy puppets. Whether the strategy itself or the failures of local activists are to blame is open to debate.

d.eris said...

That is definitely a major weakness of the cross endorsement strategy, it seems also simply to substitute for running actual opposition candidates in many cases. With the Sirota piece, however, I wanted explicitly to counter the negative press that the WFP has been getting of late, especially since he also notes a number of electoral successes they've achieved over the years.