The New Red Menace: Obama and the Crisis of the Communist Party

Toward the end of the 2008 presidential election season, one of the McCain campaign's favored talking points aimed to undermine Obama's rising popularity by recalling his lack of experience in politics while implying that the Senator from Illinois had something to hide. "Who is the real Barack Obama?" Mccain asked time and again. The query became something of a political refrain among Obama's political opponents on the right, and one can still see its lingering effects in the obsession, among some, with the question of the president's birthplace. For many others, however, there is no longer any question as to who, or rather, what, precisely, the president is: Obama is a left-wing radical, a Socialist, a Marxist, an anti-American Communist, who "pals around" with terrorists. Such assertions are, of course, dismissed outright by liberal and progressive Democrats, who have been continually frustrated by the Obama administration's unwillingness or inability to deliver the "change" they believe he promised them. Indeed, some of them have even begun calling for third party agitation, adding to the growing left-wing opposition to the Democratic majority. Ironically, however, the leadership of the Communist Party sees things somewhat differently.

In a presentation on 'American Communism' for a lecture series organized by the Chautauqua Institute earlier this summer, the National Chair of the CPUSA, Sam Webb, sketched out his vision for the future of socialism in the United States, and the role to be played by the Communist Party in 21st century American politics. He argues that dedicated Communists must reject what he calls the "mentality of marginalization" and adapt to changes in both the structure of global capitalism and the face of US government:
Since the beginning of this decade, the Communist Party has been reconfiguring its theory, politics, structures of organization, and, not least, finances to the turbulent times in which we live. We did so because we had no other choice. Necessity was the mother of invention . . . We are shedding, what I call, a “mentality of marginalization" . . . Because of the new political landscape, the left has an opportunity to step from the edges into the mainstream of U.S. politics. It has a chance to become a player of consequence; a player whose voice is seriously considered in the debates bearing on the future of the country; a player that is able to mobilize and influence the thinking and actions of millions . . .

So far Obama’s presidency has both broken from the right-wing extremist policies of the Bush administration and taken steps domestically and internationally that go in a progressive direction. At the same time, the administration hasn’t gone as far as we would have liked on a number of issues. He is neither a socialist nor a revolutionary despite the incessant claims of the far right. All in all, however, the new President in deeds and words – and words do matter – has created new democratic space for peace, equality, and economic justice struggles. Whether this continues and takes on a consistently progressive, pro-people, radical reform direction depends in large measure on whether the movement that elected him fills and expands this space . . .
Clearly, Webb foresaw the possibility of a backlash against his reform-minded position among the more radical party rank-and-file. He continues:
“What’s all this talk about reform?” you may be asking. “Aren’t you a communist? Isn’t socialism your objective?” Yes, socialism is the objective of the Communist Party and—according to recent public opinion polls—it is increasingly attractive to the American people . . . President Obama and progressive Congress people can’t be the only change agents and will be change agents only up to a point. Our responsibility is to support them, prod them, and constructively take issue with them when we have differing views. But more importantly—and this is the heart of the matter—we have to reach, activate, unite, educate, and turn millions of Americans into “change agents” who can make the political difference in upcoming struggles.
The history of socialist thought may be understood in terms of the long-standing debate between reformists and revolutionaries. That dynamic is, apparently, no less operative today than it was a century ago. In two articles on 'The Crisis of the CPUSA' for Marxism-Leninism Today, Edward Drummond argues that Webb's reformist strategy represents nothing less than a plan for the liquidation of the party, accusing its leadership of opportunistically "tailing" the Democrats:
Mounting evidence shows that Party liquidation – the dismantling of the CPUSA -- has begun in earnest . . . “Tailism” is to follow the political line and to accept the ideological leadership of a section of the capitalist class. It is a form of class collaboration. Up until spring 2008 the foremost manifestation of the present opportunist Party general line has been 1) to tail the Democrats by dropping any CPUSA struggle for political independence, and 2) to tail the Democrats specifically on the Iraq War, uncritically endorsing them as the vehicle for ending the war.

Since 2008 when Barack Obama emerged as the leading candidate, the CPUSA controlling group has tailed the Obama campaign and now the Obama White House . . . The ideological unity of the party is a thing of the past. De facto there are two trends, the dominant one, is that of the rightward-moving top leadership. The other trend, struggling, is the Marxism-Leninism of many members and leaders . . . it is a plea to continue the tail Obama CPUSA general line that Webb has been pursuing since Obama emerged as Democratic front-runner in early 2008. Before then, the tailing of the Democrats took the form of all-out, uncritical electoral support for Democrats in 2006 and 2008, supposedly as a way of ending the Iraq War and reversing attacks on the US people by ending Republican ("ultra-right") control of the White House and Congress. The Democrats came into office in 2006 and 2008 all right, but neither the wars nor domestic attacks on working people have let up.
Late last week, Webb responded to Drummond's critique in the classic Communist style, so much so, in fact, that one wonders whether it is not rather a clever parody. From the 'Official Site of the National Board of the CPUSA':
If I ever find out who this Edward Drummond guy is he will be immediately expelled from the CPUSA. This ultra-leftist had the nerve to try to instigate an uprising against my leadership. This is an outright attack on me personally and my very good leadership abilities. I order this insubordination to cease and desist immediately. Let me be clear; there is no crisis in our Party. Membership is holding firm or at least it is not dropping as rapidly as the U.S. economy is shedding jobs. All members are fully satisfied. Don't believe anything you read or hear it is lies, all lies.
Sam Webb
National Chair, CPUSA

Poli-Tea on BlogTalkRadio (Update)

Just a reminder, and as I mentioned the other day, Nancy Hanks of The Hankster has invited me to discuss independent and third party politics for a BlogTalkRadio broadcast this evening. In the past, Nancy has hosted discussions of Democracy and Technology, Independent Black Politics and Third Party Movements in the US, and The Future of Politics in America. Our conversation is scheduled to begin at 8:30pm Eastern Time, you can listen live and even call in if you want to take part in the discussion, as I understand it, and it will also be available in The Hankster archive thereafter.

Update: Here's the audio from the interview and discussion. I thought it went well. I'd never done anything like radio before. It's strange to hear yourself in the third person as opposed to reading something you've written. Thanks Nancy!

Ted Kennedy Funeral Mass: Religion or Mind Control?

Obviously, Ted Kennedy's funeral mass, which aired live on MSNBC yesterday, was not part of the network's regularly scheduled programming. Ironically, however, it preempted a show entitled "Religion or Mind Control?" You can imagine my surprise then, when I happened to turn on the television during President Obama's eulogy for the late Senator:

Opposition or Infiltration?

The progressive declaration of independence from the Democratic Party posted at Docudharma, and excerpted here yesterday, has provoked a response from The Dog, who argues in favor of infiltrating the Democratic Party in the guise of challenging progressives to build an effective progressive opposition to the global warfare and corporate welfare state. The Dog helpfully summarizes the party building process from foundation, through candidate and staff recruitment to acquiring ballot access and ensuring funding, but the intention of the piece is to dissuade others from engaging in third party activism by framing it as a virtually impossible task. Of course, there is no need for progressives to build a new party from scratch. If, as The Dog argues, progressives would be better served by working within the structure of an already existing party, there are any number of progressive, left-wing alternatives to the Democrats, from the Greens to the various Socialist Parties, which, unlike the Democrats, are sympathetic to or explicitly advocate a progressive agenda and are not invested in the reproduction of the political status quo.

Campaign Finance Reform as Duopolist Farce

This week a federal judge struck a blow for equality of political opportunity in a ruling which found Connecticut's public funding system for political campaigns unconstitutional because it discriminates against minor parties. Ballot Access News quotes the summary from the decision:
The CEP (Citizens Election Program) enhances the relative strength of major party candidates in ways that represent a severe burden on the political opportunity of minor party candidates for the following reasons: (1) it provides participating major party candidates public funding at windfall levels, well beyond what most major party candidates would typically be able to raise on their own from private fundraising sources; (2) it permits major party candidates who are as equally ‘hopeless’ as minor party candidates in many districts to become eligible for full funding without first requiring such hopeless major party candidates to make the same threshold showing of public support required of minor party candidates through the additional qualifying criteria; (3) the additional qualifying criteria for minor party candidates are nearly impossible to achieve, thus ensuring that minor party candidates will only very rarely qualify for the ‘enhancing’ benefits made available by CEP participation; and (4) in the event a minor party candidate does qualify for partial CEP funding, it handicaps that participating minor party candidate by automatically granting full funding to his or her participating major party opponent, and by prohibiting the partially-funded minor party candidate from raising private contributions, up to the full grant amount, in increments greater than $100.

A Progressive's Declaration of Independence from the Democratic Party

Earlier this summer, it was a common meme among opponent's of the Democratic reform plan that it would be "Obama's Waterloo." Many progressive and liberal Democrats, however, are also drawing a line in the sand on health care reform. Could it be their Lexington and Concord? At Docudharma, Rusty 1776 has drafted a progressive Declaration of Independence from the Democratic Party:
If Democrats cave again and pass a travesty of a health care reform bill without a strong public option, there will no longer be any doubt that the two-party system has been corrupted beyond salvage. If that happens, I believe progressives will have no choice but to dissolve all ties with the Democratic Party, establish the Progressive Party, and ask progressive Democrats in Congress and across this country to join us.

When in the course of Democratic betrayals it becomes necessary for Progressives to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with the Democratic Party, and to establish ourselves as a New Party in the political system, our respect for the Constitution and the rule of law compels us to declare the causes which impel us to this separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that the Democratic Party is complicit in war crimes, that it is complicit in illegal NSA spying, that it is complicit in massive Wall Street fraud, that it no longer believes that all men are created equal, that it serves only the corporate masters of America, that it has granted them unalienable Rights, that among these are the right to plunder the Treasury, the right to control the media, the right to subvert the banking system, to corrupt the electoral system, to ravage our economy and reap the illicit profits of shock doctrine capitalism.

To enable the voices of citizens to be heard in the corridors of power, political parties have been instituted among Men, deriving their power from the support of their members. Whenever any political party becomes destructive of these ends, its supporters have the right to withdraw their support, and to establish a new party. As Progressives, we have no choice left but to establish a new party, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in accordance with our responsibility to preserve, protect, and defend progressive values.

Present circumstances dictate that a political party long established should not be rejected for light and transient causes; but when a long train of abuses and betrayals, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce an entire nation under corporate Despotism, it is the right of Progressives, it is the duty of Progressives, to condemn that party, and to establish a new party for their future security.

Politics and the Information Age

At Scoop 44, Ryan O'Neal foresees "the rise of the third party" as a likely consequence of the transformation of social and political relations in the information age. Some excerpts:
I can’t wait until one of the two major political parties implodes . . . The power to create information is in the hands of more people than ever before. The amount of information in the world is now much larger – and gets dispersed much faster – than fifteen years ago. In one year, the amount of new information discovered or created is 37,000 times that which resides in the Library of Congress. The possibilities for fifteen years from now are mind-boggling.

That sheer abundance of information is what will eventually lead to a party implosion. Copious amounts of information leads to copious amounts of different opinions, which leads to Republicans who can’t find a figurehead to rally around and Democrats who can’t decide what to include in a health bill that may or may not even get passed, despite a heavy congressional majority . . . There are many well-educated people out there whose views lie somewhere in that blurry area between acceptable Washington fare and lunatic delusions, ideas that most of American society understands but voters in some of those key demographic categories don’t, thoughts that would enrich American life if it weren’t for a small number of power players in Washington . . . with a rise of new leaders and new modus operandi, a third or fourth party offers us something that Barack Obama – who turned out to be just another Democrat – couldn’t quite follow through on: Hope that there was someone in Washington that would help us do it our way . . . as those conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans mingle online with those libertarians, those progressives, or those moderates, we’ll see something that has been promised to us for a while now: change.

It’s inevitable. The people will demand a new party sooner or later, and it will most likely stem from one of the two that already exist. I’m not saying it will be the Libertarians or Greens – it may be a party that doesn’t exist yet. I’m not saying that they will take over Congress or win the presidency. But one of the many subgroups of American politics will see its voice grow to a degree that the District of Columbia will have no choice but to respect it.

Political Utopianism and Duopoly Ideology

One indicator of the weakness, if not the political bankruptcy, of the two-party system are the justifications marshaled to support the idea of working within either of the ruling parties. Indeed, the very fact that it is deemed necessary to defend such a decision, which not long ago would have simply been viewed as a matter of course, demonstrates the depth of the public's discontent with the duopoly system of government. This is not to say, however, that these apologia are convincing, at least as intended. Rather, they serve to underscore the debility of Democratic-Republican politics and the corresponding ideology of the duopoly.

One Democratic candidate for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives in 2010, Jim Nichols, justifies his membership in the Democratic Party in the following terms:
Its generational . . . I came of age during the Bush years. If you are looking for a short and sweet reason why--in the two party system world--where you have to choice a lesser of two evils--I choose to get involved in Democratic Party politics because Bush Conservatives have done a great deal of damage to our national and economic security.
This rationale reveals not only the negativity but also the invalidity of the lesser-of-two-evils argument. Not only is it a purely negative position, i.e. the Democratic Party is superior because it's not the Republican Party and vice versa, in the above form it is also completely arbitrary: if the perceived problem is that the Republican Party has "done a great deal of damage" to the country, then one could also reason that the appropriate solution is not to oppose the GOP, but rather to join it, and change it from the inside. The latter argument is put forward, for instance, by Jordan at Generation Patriot in a post entitled 'Why I Joined the GOP.' He writes:
I'm not a big fan of our two parties. I think the Democrats are just like they were at the turn of the century. Big money, big power, big ideas with little room for the views for consequences . . . The Republicans are no better though . . . And that's a reason I joined: to fix the GOP.
Though he correctly identifies the form and structure of the duopoly system as a primary cause and elementary part of the many political problems facing the country, he considers the possibility of third party activism only to dismiss it:
Third parties are dead and will be dead for a while due because of GOP/Democrat “bi-partisanship” on campaign finance laws that restrict such parties from ever gaining any power. I joined the GOP because, honestly, I had no other choice . . . I'd rather star the ball rolling with a current party than spend decades working a third party that'll barely get noticed at all.
It is highly ironic that the prospect of third party activism is so often rejected on the basis of the assertion that it would take too long to build up actual opposition parties, while it is implicitly maintained that the Republican and Democratic Parties can somehow be "fixed" over the course of the next election cycle. For some reason though, it's third party activists who are considered utopians! As Jordan himself admits:
For most of the 20th century, Republican presidents and Republican congresses have hardly held to their word on things like entitlements, spending, corruption, cutting down decades of old Progressive/new liberal fat off the Constitution.
Arguably, it would take much longer to reverse such a long-standing historical trend than it would to build a new organizational network that is already moving in the right direction, and is neither burdened by the monstrous apparatus of the mass parties nor subject to the dictates of their apparatchiks. As James Hogan points out at Average Noone, the Republican and Democratic Parties represent their own interests first, and those of their constituents second, if at all. The Educated Imagination supplies an apropos quote from Northrop Frye:
It will be too bad, I think, if democracy suffers from a sense of fixation about its own political machinery. It is possible that voting on grossly oversimplified issues for candidates who are controlled by political machines rather than by electors may be something that in time to come we shall decide is a bit expendable.

Poli-Tea on BlogTalkRadio

Nancy Hanks of The Hankster has invited me to discuss independent and third party politics for a BlogTalkRadio broadcast this Sunday evening. In the past, Nancy has hosted discussions of Democracy and Technology, Independent Black Politics and Third Party Movements in the US, and The Future of Politics in America. Our conversation is scheduled to begin at 8:30pm Eastern Time, you can listen live and even call in if you want to take part in the discussion, as I understand it, and it will also be available in The Hankster archive thereafter.

Theory and Practice

At A Green State of Mind, Darin Robbins posts the text of a thought provoking presentation he gave at New York's 2009 Green Fest earlier this month on 'The Importance of Theory in Independent Progressive Politics.' Some excerpts:
Those who engage in progressive activism and electoral politics can take up what others have already studied in order to find new applications of theory. This theoretical background and application can work in tandem in order to promote an understanding of power, meaning, and production as well as a self-awareness of the human role in these systems. In other words, the immediate goal of theory is to advance knowledge, and that is a very important factor in political action . . .

It goes without saying that the old adage “knowledge is power” is as true today as it ever was. Incorporating theory into action is something that is more of a necessity for our goals than just a slight supplement to the Green Party . . .

Political action is the ability to practice a transformation of the social, political, cultural, and economic fields of reality. A successful transformation requires the interaction of theory and practice . . .

The vital aspect to point out is that action without a theoretical foundation can be disbursed into isolated things by the structure of power, and theory without its expression into concrete action can be seen simply as academic conversation . . .

the fact that the anti-globalization movement grew outside of the two-party system is significant. It demonstrated that theory and practice can find fertile ground, and this is a characteristic which the Green Party can handily emulate . . .
Robbins goes on to summarize the work of three prominent French philosophers of the twentieth century, Michel Foucault, Alain Badiou and Gilles Deleuze, concluding:
Because these theorists deal specifically with issues of power, meaning, and production, they are just as important in our work as running candidates in elections, staging protests, and addressing our grievances to democratically elected governments that is supposedly insured by our Constitution. It can be said that our melding of theory and action is an implementation of populism in a more progressive and radical fashion.

Australia: Duopoly Government vs. Proportional Representation

The United States is, of course, not the only country where voters are faced with a duopolized government and forced to choose between the lesser and greater of two relative evils. In an editorial for Australia's Canberra Times, Bede Harris argues that the country would be served well by the adoption of proportional representation in a piece entitled "Our Democratic System Fails Us":
Australian parliaments are controlled by a Coalition/Labor duopoly, whose participants happily alternate in power, and whose ministers need fear no independent thinking or scrutiny from their cowed backbenchers . . .

First, in order to break the Labor/Coalition duopoly, it is necessary to adopt proportional representation for the House of Representatives. Unlike electoral systems based solely on geographic electorates, which favour parties with concentrations of support, proportional representation gives minor parties and independents a real chance of obtaining representation. This makes it far more difficult for large, monolithic parties to survive unless they act in a far more consultative way internally, because disaffected members can simply leave and form their own party.

Under proportional representation we could probably anticipate four or five parties (rumps of the current ones, plus new parties at the centre and on the radical fringes of the political spectrum) competing for votes. Furthermore, since under proportional representation parties obtain seats in parliament directly proportional to their nationwide vote, it is extremely difficult for a single party to govern on its own. Coalition governments would be the norm, and this would lead to politics based on consensus and negotiation . . .

Of course, the two major parties would make common cause to fight to the death to avoid electoral reform which is perhaps the best advertisement for the project. [Emphasis added.] Predictably, they will argue that coalition governments are unstable. This ignores the fact that it is in the interest of coalition partners to compromise with each other in order to remain in power. Germany, which has proportional representation, has had fewer post-war governments than has Britain, which does not. In New Zealand, which has used the same proportional representation system as Germany since 1996, every government has lasted its full term.

John McCain: I Don't Know Why Americans Continue to Support the Two-Party System

In an exchange that, unsurprisingly, has not received much if any attention in the duopolized media, John McCain was asked at a town hall meeting in Sun City, Arizona, why voters should continue to support the major party candidates and the two-party system. Transcript from the video below:
Citizen: I'm 64 years old and have observed Congress for many of those years. I have watched them slip from a body that has worked to represent their constituents into a partisan body that seems hell bent on achieving party objectives and reelection more, and voter representation less. (Applause.) Today I view congress as arrogant, self serving, fiscally irresponsible and now even vindictive. (Applause.) To me the two-party system has failed our nation miserably. Why should voters continue to support major party candidates when their ability to achieve results on these tough issues has been far less than satisfactory? (Applause.)

McCain: I don't know. (Laughter.) I think you may be seeing the beginning of a peaceful revolt in America against – I've seen involvement and engagement on the part of Americans that I've never seen the likes of which before. Let me tell you an example of the frustration that you feel. The special interests have gone to the White House and gotten a seat at the table and they've said we'll need your support then when we're finished we'll take care of you. There's no better example than the drug companies . . . Has anyone here been invited to the White House for a deal lately? . . . We've got to take back our government from the special interests.
Variations on this question should be asked of every politician at every available opportunity. Though McCain's extended answer was essentially a non sequitur, it may also be understood as a textbook example of psychological displacement, redirecting the discussion away from the radical implications of the question and McCain's initial response to it, and toward the more acceptable criticism of 'special interests.' Nonetheless, McCain is right, if only inadvertently. Government must be "taken back" from the "special interests." And the most powerful special interests in Washington D.C. are, of course, the Republican and Democratic Parties. The question for voters is thus not why should they continue to support the major parties, but rather why do they continue to support the major parties?

Via Today With Barack Obama:

Ideology Trumps Ideology

If and when it is called, the special election in New York's 23rd CD will likely be a three-way race between Democratic candidate Bill Owens, Republican Dede Scozzafava and Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. In my first post on the contest, as you might recall, I quoted Red State's Eric Erickson saying, "If Dede Scozzafava is the best the New York Republicans can come up with, let’s just hand the district over to the Democrats." In response, I noted that Hoffman entered the race specifically in opposition to Scozzafava's liberal positions on a host of issues before the Democrats had even named their candidate, and wrote that Erickson's attitude:
perfectly encapsulates the duopolist mentality fostered by the binary ideology of the two-party system. However, unlike the Red State Republican ideologue, conservatives in New York do not give up so easily.
It is therefore worth mentioning that Erickson has now come out in support of Hoffman. The post is worth quoting at length, if only for the novelty of reading a dogmatic duopolist make a strong case for a third party candidate:

I am on record repeatedly saying that disaffected conservatives should not agitate for a third party. It truly makes no sense. Ballot access laws in the fifty states make it extremely impractical to mount a third party challenge except in very rare cases. Historically, those cases are premised on individuals who, once off the national stage, see their third party collapse, see e.g. Teddy Roosevelt and Ross Perot.

There are, however, some situations where exceptions must be made in order to pressure the Republican Party of a particular state into doing what is right. The opportunities rarely arise because there are not a lot of viable third parties out there. One state where there is an exception to my “no third parties” rule is New York.

In that state, the local Republican Party did everything possible to screw the national Republican Party . . . Now the race in NY-23 pits two liberals against each other in the two major parties. Sadly, the person furthest to the left is the Republican, Dede Scozzafava . . .

Conservatives and Republicans should rally around Doug Hoffman as a viable alternative to Dede Scozzafava. Hoffman has more in common with the people in NY-23 and is closer to the Republican Party on issues across the board.

We don’t need a third party in this country. And it is too hard to set one up anyway. But there is a viable third party in New York that conservatives can use to remind the GOP what happens when the local Republican Party rejects the Republican platform. Above all else, we must make sure Scozzafava is defeated.

Having a Democrat in that seat would be better than Scozzafava because the media could not resist the story line that the GOP is moving left just when Americans are moving back to the right. Scozzafava would hurt NY-23 and she would hurt the GOP brand nationally. Doug Hoffman is the guy we should rally around.

Let's catalog his arguments for and against third party activism. Against third parties, he states: 1) they are not viable, 2) they are impractical, 3) historically, they have not been particularly successful, and 4) the US does not need a third party. Fortunately, it is not necessary in this case to refute each of these assertions point by point, since Erickson supplies the counter-arguments himself. In support of the Conservative Party candidate, he writes: 1) the candidate is viable, 2) he is reliably conservative, 3) his election would pressure the Republican Party to move in a more conservative direction, while punishing the local party branch for straying to the left, and 4) it would undermine predictable narratives in the mainstream media.

Arguably, each of these points could be said to hold in virtually every election featuring third party or independent candidates on the ballot. First, viability is a matter of perception. Paradoxically, third party and independent candidates are often not perceived as viable precisely because people who say they would vote for a viable third party or independent candidate do not support them. Just voicing support for, or consideration of, a third party or independent candidate changes their viability quotient, for lack of a better term. Hoffman, for instance, is now likely a more viable candidate simply because Erickson has come out in support of him. Next, third party and independent candidates are more reliable than representatives of the Republican and Democratic Parties because they are not beholden to a massive party apparatus and the wide array of lobbyists and special interest groups that fund it. Moreover, the inclusion of any third voice in a duopolized debate will necessarily provoke a reaction on the part of the major party candidates, pushing them in one direction or another. And this, finally, of itself, would force a change in the media's stock narrative plot-arc for any given election.

By far, Erickson's most sweeping claim is that: "We don’t need a third party in this country." Ironically, however, he proves the opposite. Defending himself against potential backlash from partisan Republicans, he thus asserts that his support for Hoffman's third party candidacy is the exception that proves the rule against third party activism. And sometimes ideology trumps ideology.

Short Handed, Short Changed

As is the case with much of our everyday political shorthand, it is not entirely true to say that the United States has a "two-party system." It is probably more correct to say that it has a weak multi-party system: in the last election, citizens voted for Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, Independents etc. However, in the final instance, it should be maintained that the United States does not technically have any party system whatsoever, since none is mandated by the Constitution. Nonetheless, widely believed to be the result of winner-take-all, single-member district plurality voting, the two-party system structures the field of political representation, collapsing a multiplicity of positions and perspectives into a simple binary form. The result is the duopoly of Democratic-Republican ideology over all political discourse and activity via the medium of the party apparatuses in conjunction with the state, the willing press, and a reluctant public.

At The Columbian (WA), John Laird argues that the United States effectively has a three-party system, and that, as a result, it is inherently unreliable because it is thrown off balance by the spoiler effect. "A three-party political system is precarious and unreliable. Often, the opposite of the desired effect occurs," he writes. To exemplify his point, he names Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000. But Laird is no fan of the two-party state, and thus proposes that a four-party system would be necessary to break the duopoly maintained by the Republican and Democratic Parties:
Instead of a third party involuntarily helping the party it hates most — indeed, altering presidential elections in the worst way — perhaps four parties could concurrently tap the power of both Republicans and Democrats.
Resigning himself to the unlikelihood of such a development, Laird concludes that there will be no change to the structure of the party system without change to the voting system, and he therefore advocates the abolition of the Electoral College:
which instead of distributing electoral votes proportionately, assigns those votes in winner-take-all fashion in almost all of the states. Until we abolish that abomination, even the most outstanding third- or fourth-party candidate has no chance.
Unfortunately, in the guise of defending multi-party politics, Laird reinforces the logic of two-party ideology: "third-party candidacies are worse than disastrous, they're calamitously counter-productive." Yet, if the election of both Democrats (1992) and Republicans (2000) represents disaster and calamity, one might reasonably wonder what difference it makes whether the contest spoils in one way or the other. The false assumption at the heart of Laird's analysis is, of course, the assertion that the United States has a three-party system, as based on his interpretation of a handful of presidential contests featuring a prominent third party candidate. But the spoiler effect is not evidence of a three-party system. It is rather symptomatic of a defect in the two-party system, marking the inherent limits of its capacity to effectively represent the people of the United States.

Dispel the Myth of the 'Myth of the Independent Voter'

With the ranks of self-identified independents swelling across the country, and, hence, renewed media attention devoted to the group as a bloc, a number of recent studies and commentaries have questioned received notions of the independent voter, arguing that 'the independent voter' is little more than a myth. This position holds that, since a large percentage of independent voters "lean" toward one major party or the other, and vote in a manner consistent with that preference, independent voters are in effect no different from "weak" partisans of the duopoly parties. To put this in other words, when made to choose between the Republican and Democratic Parties independents tend to side with one over the other, whichever that one may be for a given individual. However, this does not necessarily imply partisanship on the part of the voter, but it does suggest that independents are not an ideological monolith. To gauge the independence of independents, the crucial question is where their preference lies and how they vote, not when they are forced to choose between the lesser and greater of two relative evils, but rather when they are offered a choice between a Democrat, a Republican and someone else – a third party candidate or even another independent, imagine that. That this may not be immediately apparent is likely just one more effect of bi-partisan bias in academia, the media and polling organizations.

Certainly, though, one of the more perplexing paradoxes of two-party politics is the chasm between the number of people who describe themselves as independents and the number of people who vote for candidates other than those representing the Republican and Democratic Parties. There are numerous potential explanations of this contradiction. It is supposed that many voters are simply not as independently minded as they think they are; or that they practice a form of defensive politics by voting for the lesser of two evils, or against the greater of two evils. Yet many people say they would support or even consider voting for a "viable" third party or independent candidate for office, if there were one. This is the infamous viability hurdle.

There are at least two conditions to the perception of viability, both of which presuppose name recognition of the candidate in question: 1) others deem the candidate worthy of consideration, and 2) the individual agrees with this estimation. Bipartisan, duopolist bias then introduces the additional supposition that only representatives of the Democratic and Republican Parties are viable candidates for office. But there is some amount of resistance to this presumption. This year has witnessed a growing discontent with both Democratic and Republican leadership and a decline in identification with both of the major parties. The rise in independent identification has been documented by numerous polling organizations over the course of 2009, and is already apparent in voter registration rolls. These developments have certainly figured into the political calculus of the many independents who have launched or are currently exploring promising campaigns for office at all levels of government. The elections of 2009 and 2010 will thus put independents to the test.

Take the Northeast, for instance. Though it is considered a Democratic bastion, the region has an independent streak. In the last thirty years, Maine has had two independent governors and Connecticut has had one (kind of). Both Vermont and Connecticut have sitting independent Senators. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg withdrew from the Republican Party and registered as an independent. In New Jersey, independent candidate Chris Daggett has raised a significant amount of money and obtained a place in the state's gubernatorial debates. There is wide array of gubernatorial candidates lining up for Maine's 2010 contest, among them independents Alex Hammer and Sam Bailey. Sitting legislators in New Hampshire are reportedly considering independent runs for office next year. Lincoln Chafee is running for governor of Rhode Island as an independent. There is speculation that state Treasurer Tim Cahill is planning an independent run for the same office in Massachusetts. And this trend is not confined to the Northeast. Jana Kemp has launched an independent campaign for governor in Idaho and Trevor Drown is exploring an independent run for Senate in Arkansas.

If these candidates can capitalize on the public's discontent with the two-party system, and voters, in turn, resist falling prey to the steady diet of duopolist propaganda fed to us by the major parties and their enablers in the mainstream media, independents could dispel the myth of 'the myth of the independent voter' in 2009 and 2010.

[Guest post for The Hankster.]

The Growing Left-Wing Opposition to the Democratic Majority

The Obama administration's failure to deliver the change many believed he had promised has led to disillusionment among liberal Democrats, but it seems to have energized and emboldened third party and independent activists on the left. Last week, I noted David Lindorff's call for a unified, broad-based left-wing party. Yesterday, IPR reported on a widely read challenge to Green Party activists, arguing that a "radical populist movement" is necessary to effect meaningful change in the current political climate. ZZ's Blog indicates that Communists are also amenable to such a strategy:
Now is not the time for bitterness, anger, blame (or even “I told you so”). It is the time, however, for thinking hard and seriously about alternatives to the two-party monopoly of political power. It is the time to press aggressively for an independent people’s agenda, beginning today with an all-out effort to force single-payer, universal health care – an urgent and immediate need – on to the legislative front burner… with or without President Obama.

News Tips and General Comments Page

Ever want to share a link or a news tip, provide an update on an ongoing story, or just make a suggestion, but don't feel like sending an email and don't want to add an unrelated comment to a recent post? Put it here. Over the past few months, I have received a number of good comments – often in the form of updates from supporters for a third party or independent candidate for office – which have, however, been more or less unrelated to the content of the post they were attached to. I thought it would make more sense to provide a single page for the collection and dissemination of such information, rather than have it dispersed throughout unrelated posts. So, welcome to Poli-Tea's news tip and general comment page. The comments feed from this post is featured in the sidebar. The first few words of the most recent comments will appear as linked headlines in the corresponding widget (just under Plato's Cave), along with a date stamp and your handle. Start things off if you're so inclined. And, in future, click the most recent headline to jump to the comment form.

* To embed links in comment text, use HTML 'a' tags.

Live Free or Die: A Declaration of Independence in New Hampshire

Independents continue to make headlines in the Northeast. In New Hampshire's Eagle Tribune, James Kimble reports on the prospects of independent candidates for office in the Granite State. It seems politicians are beginning to follow the voters' lead and declare their independence from the two-party system:
A recent Gallup poll said roughly 50 percent of New Hampshire's voters identify themselves as independent. New Hampshire and Rhode Island are tied nationally for having the most independent voters, according to the poll.

After some bruising battles at the State House in recent months, some candidates are starting to consider moving away from their party to break away from its most extreme members.

Rep. Anthony DiFruscia, R-Windham, said he is planning to switch his party affiliation to Independent when he runs for re-election in 2010.

Since making his announcement a few weeks ago, DiFruscia said he has spoken to other several legislators, Republicans and Democrats, who are considering the move away from their party and running as Independents, but no one else has officially taken the leap.

Significantly, the bulk of the article's analysis is provided by Fergus Cullen, former head of the state Republican Party. The conclusion:

Only an independently wealthy candidate or a current elected official with a strong base could really wage a successful Independent campaign for higher office. Infrastructure and money continue to be two key ingredients to win . . . If a major third party candidate steps forward in 2010, Cullen said, he or she will have to weigh whether the benefits of being viewed as an Independent outweigh having the political infrastructure provided by Democrats or Republicans.

According to registration tallies, 38% of voters in New Hampshire are not affiliated with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

Spoiling for a Fight III

One of the great ironies of the duopoly system of government is that precisely because third party and independent candidates for office are systematically marginalized by a wide array of exclusionary political practices, their power is magnified beyond all proportion to their actual relative strength. The so-called spoiler effect might be considered as proof of this proposition. We're all familiar with the scenario: if the number of votes received by a third party or independent candidate exceeds the margin of victory between the Republican and Democratic candidates, assuming one of them wins the race, and this third party or independent candidate's positions are said to approximate those of the losing duopolist, it is concluded that the contest was spoiled. The implicit – and likely false – assumption here is that the third party and independent voters in question would have voted for the losing duopolist candidate were it not for the alternative choice on the ballot. Hence the bipartisan fervor to keep third party and independent candidates off our ballots at all costs. But this is pure speculation and cannot be known with any reasonable degree of certainty, unless one were to interview the great majority of those voters. That the latter is not done is yet another example of the ways in which third party and independent voters are marginalized by everyday duopolist praxis.

If the spoiler argument has any merit, it is to be found in what it reveals about the psychology of disappointed and disenchanted partisans of the duopoly parties. The spoiler argument rationalizes their loss by scapegoating third parties and independents, and thus allows them to avoid assuming responsibility for that loss, while robbing their opponents of responsibility for their success. The power of such rationalizations in still apparent today among liberal Democrats who bristle a the thought of Ralph Nader's presidential campaign in the 2000 election. Consider, for instance, this recent post by Digby at Hullabaloo:
nobody believed that an incumbent Vice President in a roaring economy would have a race so close that the Republicans could steal it. But we know differently now don't we? And you would think that the Democratic establishment would also know that because of that, it may not be a good idea to alienate the left to the point where they become apathetic or even well... you know. It can happen. It did happen. Why the Democrats persist in believing that it can't happen again is beyond me . . . the fact remains that if a slice of the left hadn't been so disgusted by the New Democratic, mushy centrism of the Clinton years, he would have won. [Emphasis added.]
While Digby finds it incomprehensible that the leadership of the Democratic Party would not implement a progressive, left-wing agenda, the assumption that they would do so is equally mystifying. 'Credo quia absurdum' is among the most powerful tenets of the duopolist's political faith. On the right, there are still many who believe that the Republican Party stands for, and is capable of delivering, small government conservatism. At Gay Patriot, B. Daniel Blatt argues that the GOP can succeed if it returns to its principles, and in the process provides us with virtual a mirror image of Digby's position:
since the first Tea Parties in February, growing numbers of Americans have publicly expressed their opposition to increased government spending . . . With a Republican President and Congress not holding the line on spending, many of those conservatives became disenchanted with the GOP and either didn’t bother to vote or registered their disapproval by pulling the lever for a Third Party candidate or even the Democrat . . . With polls showing a growing distaste for big government and a solid conservative plurality, Republicans have great opportunity to recover from the losses of the preceding two election cycles.
Duopolist are fond of the historical argument against third party activism, which states that, if history is any guide, third parties do not stand a good chance of success in attaining their stated political goals. However, if recent history is any guide, neither do the duopoly parties. And progressives and conservatives alike will certainly revisit the record.

Organized Crime: Ballot Access Law and the Politics of Petitioning

The case of Carl Romanelli provides a window into the politics of petitioning and organized discrimination against third party candidates for office. In 2006, the would-be Green Party candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania waged a petition campaign to get his name on the ballot. He collected almost 100,000 signatures, well surpassing the required minimum of 60,070, but Democrats challenged almost 70,000, many of which were then discarded on technical grounds, and successfully keeping Romanelli off the ballot. The fallout from the legal battle that ensued is still making its way through the courts. The most recent judicial directive has ordered Romanelli to pay $80,000 to the parties that challenged his nominating petition – perhaps to thank them for the trouble! Moreover, and at the same time, Romanelli's case features prominently in an action brought by the State Attorney General against staffers to the state House Democratic Caucus, who "were charged with illegally giving state-funded bonuses to state employees for performing partisan political work, such as campaigning and challenging nomination petitions." Steve Mocarsky has the story at the Times Leader:
Days after the state Supreme Court denied his appeal, Carl Romanelli – a 2006 Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senate – says he will continue to fight a Commonwealth Court decision directing him to pay more than $80,000 to the parties that challenged his nomination petition. . . . The day Romanelli filed his nominating petitions, which included 94,544 signatures – well over the 67,070 required – a caucus employee obtained copies of the petitions from the Department of State, and an army of caucus staffers went to work trying to find signatures to challenge, according to Corbett’s presentation. The goal was to enhance the election chances of the Democratic nominee, Robert Casey, by removing from the ballot a challenger whose vote tally would likely come at the expense of the Democratic candidate . . .

“If they allow this to become settled law, it will allow a precedent to be set,” Romanelli said of the state Supreme Court’s decision. “The next time a third-party candidate’s nomination petition is challenged, they can look at this case and say, ‘We know crimes were committed against the candidate, but that didn’t stop Democrats from collecting court costs in the Romanelli case.’ ”

Shawn Gallagher, an attorney representing the challengers of the nomination petition, said the court ruled appropriately. Gallagher said Commonwealth Court found that Romanelli and his attorney acted in bad faith during the proceedings.

Conspiracy is Politics as Usual: Who Needs a Theory When There's a History?

Continuing with the theme of duopolist bias against advocates of third party and independent politics, consider the case of former New Mexico Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, who has been indicted by a grand jury for "money laundering, fraud, soliciting or receiving kickbacks and tax evasion." She and the bevy of contractors and lobbyists among her alleged co-conspirators stand accused of "bilking taxpayers out of millions of dollars between 2004 and 2006 by falsifying invoices to the secretary of state’s office," according to the New Mexico Independent. At Ballot Access News, Richard Winger details Vigil-Giron's history of abusing the powers of her office to discriminate against third parties:

Vigil-Giron served three four-year terms as Secretary of State. She was elected in 1986, 1998, and 2002. She is a Democrat. She made some rulings that were hostile to minor parties. During her second term, in 1999, the Libertarian Party was conducting a registration drive. Her office disallowed all new Libertarian registrants in any particular county, if even one person in that county complained that he or she had been tricked into registering into the party. However, a state court judge disallowed that ruling and restored the registrations.

During her third term, when the Green Party was entitled to a primary in 2004 (because it had polled over 5% for Governor in 2002), she ruled all Green candidates who were running for public office off the Green Party primary ballot, so that the Green Party was left with no nominees except for president and vice-president in 2004. Also, starting with the 2006 election, she removed the straight-ticket device from the general election ballot for all parties except the Democratic and Republican Parties, even though nothing in the law authorizes such discriminatory treatment. Also, while she was Secretary of State, the Secretary of State’s webpage was set up to show voter registration data by political party, but omitted any mention of the qualified minor parties, thus giving the impression that they didn’t exist.

Media Bias and Independent Politics

Media bias against third party and independent perspectives unnecessarily limits the sphere of legitimate opinion to fit the ideological frame most conducive to the reproduction of the duopoly system of government. However, calls for consideration of alternatives to the impasse of Democratic-Republican politics just might be having an effect on the nation's duopolized dialogue. At Maine's Kennebec Journal, Kay Rand makes the case for an independent governor and greater consideration of independent candidates for executive office:
If credible candidates for governor choose to run as an independent, let's spend more time debating their positions and approach to solving important matters of public policy than on the question of whether an independent can govern. In fact, there are reasons why it's easier for an independent to govern. First, there isn't an automatic hostile group of partisans . . . Second, to overcome the skepticism on the part of the Legislature -- and all the Mainers they represented -- an independent governor has to do his homework . . . Third, every partisan governor will admit that being the titular head of the party is sometimes a burden that requires balancing a lot of interests and demands -- and a lot of political egos.
Yet, Rand closes by arguing explicitly against a chief executive who represents a third party, on the basis of the supposition that this would weaken the two-party system. Rand sees the independent as non-partisan, floating above the political fray of bipartisan politics, and so a duopolist bias creeps back into the piece:
Extolling the virtues of an independent candidacy does not lead to the call for the creation of a third party. That would eliminate the strengths of an independent chief executive candidacy and bring on burdens even greater than those borne by a Republican or Democrat because . . . A strong two-party system is important for effective legislating, if not governing.
There is thus a tension, if not a contradiction, to be found in the article's respective orientations toward third party and independent executives: on the one hand, the excesses of the two-party system make the prospect of an independent governor attractive or advantageous, while, on the other hand, a third party governor is seen as less desirable because it would undermine the structure of bi-partisan politics. In other words, the two-party system is both the cause of and the solution to the problem of government.

The Anti-War Left and the Democratic Party: A Warning to Conservative Activists

Considering the results of a straw poll at this year's DailyKos Netroots Nation conference, Byron York wonders what happened to the anti-war movement. He writes:
As part of a straw poll done at the convention, the Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg presented participants with a list of policy priorities like health care and the environment. He asked people to list the two priorities they believed "progressive activists should be focusing their attention and efforts on the most." The winner, by far, was "passing comprehensive health care reform." . . . And what about "working to end our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan"? It was way down the list, in eighth place . . . It's an extraordinary change in the mindset of the left. I attended the first YearlyKos convention, and have kept up with later ones, and it's safe to say that for many self-styled "progressives," the war in Iraq was the animating cause of their activism. They hated the war, and they hated George W. Bush for starting it. Or maybe they hated the war because George W. Bush started it.
Reading York's piece I was reminded of an old joke, maybe you've heard it. Late one night, a drunkard is searching for his lost keys under a street lamp with great difficulty. A passerby comes to the man's aid and asks him where he dropped them. The drunk unsteadily points to the other side of the street. Perplexed, the stranger asks: "Well, why are you looking for them here then?" The drunk replies: "Because there's no light over there." In seeking out the anti-war movement at what amounts to a minor Democratic Party conference, York is effectively no different from the drunk looking for his lost keys under the lamppost because the light is better there. So far as I can remember, the Democratic Party was rarely, if ever, involved in organizing the various mobilizations against the Iraq war. Their presidential candidate in 2004 did not even oppose the war, he opposed the Bush administration's handling and management of it.

To his credit, York does point out that Cindy Sheehan continues to protest the Democratic-Republican warfare state, writing: "She's still protesting the war, and on Monday she announced plans to demonstrate at Martha's Vineyard, where President Obama will be vacationing." Sheehan, of course, left the Democratic Party years ago for its unwillingness to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and even ran against Nancy Pelosi, from the left, for a seat in Congress in 2008, garnering a respectable 16% of the vote. Sheehan got in contact with York following the publication of his article. In his follow-up post, he writes:
Sheehan will be in Washington October 5, for a protest at the White House to mark the eight anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan. Not only is the president escalating the war there, she said, but he's not withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq as quickly as he originally promised. "That's why I was opposed to him," she said.
From the very beginning the anti-war movement was organized by a coalition of third party organizations and independent left-wing groups. Having successfully hijacked the message and momentum of this movement in the elections of 2006 and 2008, the Democrats have ceased paying lip service to the countless grassroots activists who did the work to create that momentum in the first place. This outcome should serve as a lesson to the many newly energized activists on the conservative right, who may be tempted to throw in their lot with the Republican Party in future elections. Nonetheless, the anti-war movement is still alive and well. This past April, upwards of 10,000 people marched against the global warfare and corporate welfare state in NYC, as reported at United for Peace and Justice. The coalition of labor groups, peace organizations and third party activists denounced Republicans and Democrats alike. The Socialist Workers Party, for instance, was out in force. Their candidate for mayor, Dan Fein, addressed the crowds with a bullhorn, stating in part: "You can't have capitalism without war . . . The right wing, the Republicans, that's not our problem, the two party system is our enemy." From the video below:

Update: The anti-war position also continues to gather strength. The Washington Post reports today: "Public Opinion in US turns Against the War".
A majority of Americans now see the war in Afghanistan as not worth fighting, and just a quarter say more U.S. troops should be sent to the country . . . Among all adults, 51 percent now say the war is not worth fighting, up six percentage points since last month and 10 since March. Less than half, 47 percent, say the war is worth its costs. Those strongly opposed (41 percent) outweigh strong proponents (31 percent). Opposition to the Iraq war reached similar levels in the summer of 2004 and deteriorated further, through the 2006 midterm elections, becoming issue No. 1 in many congressional races that year.

The Appearance of Impossibility

As Kimberly Wilder notes at On the Wilder Side, Tuesday August 18th was the last day to file an "independent nominating petition" to run for elected office in New York State this November. Downstate, the wide array of third party and independent candidates for mayor of New York City have garnered a fair amount of attention in the media. Incumbent Michael Bloomberg has been endorsed by the Independence Party, while performance activist and Green Party hopeful Billy Talen submitted more than twice the number of requisite signatures, as did the slate of candidates running on the Socialist Worker's Party ticket, headed by Dan Fein. Here at Poli-Tea though, news from upstate also hit close to home, as it were. Michael O'Connor of the Rotterdam Windmill reports that the No New Tax Party filed petitions to establish an independent ballot line for a number of elected offices in the Town of Rotterdam and Schenectady Country for elections this fall. In a guest post here in June, if you recall, Michael wrote:
I’ve been told more than once a run like mine can’t succeed . . .I couldn’t possibly hope to deliver any coherent message to voters, let alone get my name placed on the ballot. I was wasting my time, they told me.
Today at the Windmill, he states: "Many thought this effort was an impossible task. Guess what? The impossible task just became possible." In the two-party state, the appearance of impossibility is often only an appearance. Congrats, Michael! It can be done.

Political Fragmentation and Partisan Realignment: Promise, not Threat

At Open Left, Paul Rosenberg has a piece on political realignments in the two-party system over the course of US history. Though the post focuses on the realignments of 1828 and 1860, it also contains a number of graphs detailing partisan balance with respect to the Presidency, House and Senate from 1794 to 2006. As is customary at Open Left, Rosenberg ends by arguing that third party activism is not conducive to effective issue advocacy, and thus makes a case for pursuing primary campaigns to oust insufficiently progressive Democrats in upcoming elections, stating: "Party fragmentation is a very real political threat." Yet it is also a promise.

At Least of All Evils, Dale Sheldon continues his series of posts on the history of partisan realignments in the US, written with the specific purpose of highlighting the drawbacks and deadlocks of the two-party system, while emphasizing weaknesses that could be or have been exploited in the interest of third party and independent activism. Some excerpts from his conclusions:

Part I (1792-1822):
that's one way to shift the two-party system that's been shown to work; take an existing major party in wide-spread popular decline, resign to 12 years of defeat, during which you infiltrate the opposition, then use parliamentary shenanigans to exacerbate "intra"-party resentment, and be re-born with a slightly new direction. This also perfectly highlights one of the big drivers of the two-party systems: when there are more than two strong candidates, vote-splitting leads to unexpected (and unpopular) results.
Part II: (1826-1858)
Another way to disrupt the two-party system is to find an issue both major parties are split over, so strongly that you can cause nomination fights in both in rapid succession. Then, while the parties fracture you can promote one of the pieces as your new third party, building it on a coalition from both parties that support your issue . . . But watch out for war. This is painful lesson on the inevitable, almost predictably periodic failures of a two-party system.
Part III (1860-1894):
So we see the same strategy repeated from before: Pick an issue ignored by the major parties, and run on it. The important lesson here is, it doesn't always work, at least not necessarily like you planned. Even though a major party picked up the issue, they lost the election, and the movement died out . . . pick your issue, and your allies, carefully.
Part IV (1896-1930):
To succeed, a third party needs to divide, and then build from the pieces, a coalition from both (or as we saw in part I, the only) existing major parties. And it's not enough to build "in the middle", as Roosevelt tried; you have to be completely outside the axis of partisan identification.
Part V, on the realignments from the 1930's to the present, is still to come.

The Journey of 1000 Miles and the Single Step

Reflecting on George Washington's Farewell Address, and his warning against the spirit of faction, smijer of Tete-a-Tete-Tete argues that the two-party system lies at the root of a number of problems plaguing US politics:
1) The fact of the two party system. The economics of power prevent the entry of a third or fourth party until an existing party fails . . .

2) Unaccountability . . . The actual will of the people is – or should be – bigger than any two platforms can contain or express . . . The worst that can happen to a bad political party is that its equally bad mirror image will get a short turn in the driver’s seat. There is no risk of actually losing the stranglehold it has gained on power.

3) The polarization of agenda and obstruction . . . As often as “bipartisanship” and “compromise” and “gangs of ‘centrists’ ” are touted in the media, it is a rarity that there is any level of sophistication in terms of advancing the common interests of disparate groups in the process . . .

4) The Universal Echo Chamber . . . The ideal is a variety of interest groups, with a variety of concerns and a variety of well-informed opinions having a national conversation in an effort to enlighten everyone and reach an outcome of a rising tide that lifts all boats. Instead, there are precisely two national conversations, predictable in theme, engineered to appeal to the least common denominator and to encourage ignorance.
Smijer concludes that the appropriate course of action is thus to develop a "multiplicity of parties" to provide accountability in government, nuance in the national conversation, and to foster compromise and collaboration in the passage of legislation. However, he closes with the following line: "Doing that requires changing the electoral system. And that means changing 50 state constitutions and/or one federal one." This position is held by many independent and third party activists and it is certainly a worthy goal. Arguably, however, to set oneself such a monumental task is to put the cart before the horse. Yet the first step toward achieving it lies squarely within the realm of possibility: breaking open the two-party system – from town to town, district to district, and state to state.

Jake Towne's Open Office

In Pennsylvania's 15th Congressional District, independent libertarian candidate Jake Towne is seeking to unseat Republican Charlie Dent in 2010. Running on a platform of accountability and transparency, Towne has developed a concept he terms 'Our Open Office,' which contains a number of interesting proposals aimed at informing and empowering his constituency while opening up the business of government to wider scrutiny. The 'open office' promises to create an online public feedback and debate forum, issue a monthly report on his activities in the House as well as those of constituents on the forum, provide an online bill submission service and offer town hall style discussions on-demand. Summarizing the plan, Towne writes:
  • Empower the Citizen

    • Each resident has a real public voice – to comment, vote, debate, and criticize

    • Each constituent will have a way to publicly demand I address their ideas and concerns by submitting bills online

    • Citizens can summon me to a town hall discussion by reaching a threshold level on topics they feel I am not addressing timely enough or to their satisfaction

    • By incorporating the feedback of specialists in different fields and interests, particularly with the bill submission ability, our office will be far more efficient with better ideas than other districts because our work force will be larger and more specialized. Those “working” outside of my office will be working voluntarily on issues that have the most importance to them, empowering the individual citizen.

  • Accountability and Transparency

    • All residents can receive a monthly report from my office detailing each house floor vote taken, each bill introduced, and each bill co-sponsored. Feedback from the forum will be summarized. Most importantly, I, the representative, will be forced to outline WHY I voted each way.

    • My office's budget report will be publicized and readily available on the website so citizens can see how their tax dollars are spent.

    • Empowering citizens to public discourse and enabling open, visible criticism of my actions makes me more accountable to the people.

However, Towne also points out that "the incumbent, Congressman Dent, could start implementing this right now, and save me the trouble of doing it myself after I win the November 2010 election."

Faction and Unity: Discontent on the Left

In an opinion piece at the Baltimore Chronicle, Dave Lindorff argues that "third parties on the left need to drop their individual agendas and work towards unity in order to create a real progressive agenda." He begins with a thoroughgoing left-wing critique of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress that hits all the major issues:
On the issue of war and peace, he has sided with the military-industrial complex . . On civil liberties, he has sided with the police state . . . On torture, the Obama administration is continuing the imprisonment and torture of captives in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world at Bagram Air Base . . . Health care reform has become a sad joke . . . Instead of taking on the insurance industry, the hospital companies and the pharmaceutical industry and other parts of the profit-making medical-industrial complex, Obama cut deals with all of them . . . Climate change action, too, has been sold out, with Obama adopting the approach favored by the energy industry—“cap and trade” . . . Finally, there’s economy and banking reform. Here Obama didn’t even make a pretense of taking a progressive approach. There is a stimulus program, but half of it was in the form of tax cuts . . . Meanwhile, bankers were the recipients of trillions of dollars in bailout assistance, while nothing was done to break up the huge mega-bank holding companies that brought on the financial and economic crisis in the first place . . . Obama has been a corporatist through and through on all the major issues that matter.
Lindorff concludes the piece with a call for withdrawing support from the Democratic Party as a whole, and for unity among the many left wing and left-leaning parties in the United States:
That leaves the question of what to do, and where those frustrated progressives will turn. I don’t claim to have the answer to that. Clearly the labor movement needs to recognize that hitching its fortunes to the Democratic Party has been and will continue to be a dismal failure. It needs to pull all its political money back and only support those who are 100% allies in the struggle for the rights of workers. No money for the party as a whole . . . Other third parties on the left need to drop their individual agendas and work towards unity, especially with the labor movement, in order to create a broad-based left party that doesn’t have litmus tests for inclusion—just broad principles like steeply progressive taxation, an end to NAFTA and the WTO, democratization of the Federal Reserve Bank, national health care, a wholesale slashing of the military budget, by perhaps two-thirds or more, free education through four years of college for all, and a crisis plan to attack climate change. If the ever fractious US left, and the somnolent labor movement, cannot come together as one, there is little hope of political change in America.
In related news, California's Peace and Freedom Party has named an interim chair to head its committee tasked with building "a new national political party of the left."

They're Both Right

Independent candidates for office have the potential to alter the political calculus of a given race, but, perhaps more importantly, they can also change our very notions of what constitutes the liberal and conservative positions on a whole host of issues, at least so far as these are defined by the duopoly actors in the contest. In New Jersey's gubernatorial race, independent candidate Chris Daggett may be able to accomplish something along these lines, and arguably, he already has. Last week, Dagget unveiled his plans for a major overhaul of New Jersey's educational system. At The Examiner, Anthony Walko argued that Dagget was "more conservative than the Republican [Chris Christie] on education . . . Christie’s proposal for education just throws money at the problem." If Republicans feared that Daggett's candidacy would likely only siphon votes away from Christie, today they may be heartened, it has become clear that the independent is an equal opportunity spoiler. The New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club has endorsed Daggett for governor. Eric Kleefield states at TPMDC, "With state environmental activists backing him, it would seem more likely that he would take votes away from the Democrats as opposed to the Republicans." However, as Josh Margolin notes at the Star-Ledger, "Both Cozine [D] and Christie [R] believe the other is hurt more by the presence of a strong independent candidate." Maybe they're both right.

Independent in a One-Party State: Arkansas Edition

Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln stirred up some ire earlier this month when she referred to town hall protesters across the country as "un-American" in a conference call with reporters, and was quickly forced to issue an apology and retraction. John Lyon reported at Arkansas News:
Efforts to disrupt town hall meetings on health care reform are un-American, U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., said today, though she later issued a statement retracting the remark. “It’s so sad, because it’s diminishing to the process, it’s diminishing to our outcome,” Lincoln said in a conference call with reporters. “I think it’s sad that they choose to do that. I think it’s un-American and disrespectful.”

A few hours later, Lincoln issued the following statement: “Although I do believe that some of these protesters are disrespectful of other citizens in the audience who truly want to ask questions about health care, I shouldn’t have used the term ‘un-American.’”
There is nothing new about politicians – not to mention everyday duopolist hacks – referring to opposition protesters as "un-American" or "anti-American," as the case may be, from which we might draw a few conclusions regarding the reactionary character of the nation's ruling political class, who equate being an American with subservient obedience to the state, so long as their preferred party happens to control it. But perhaps, like so many of her colleagues, Lincoln simply cannot recognize one of her own if he or she is not wearing a suit and carrying a checkbook. As Down with Tyranny notes, she is no friend to progressives:
She has vowed to join the Republicans to filibuster the Employee Free Choice Act, she has come out against climate change legislation, and she has been a prime behind the scenes operator in replacing progressive initiatives in health care reform with the self-serving agenda drawn up by her generous campaign donors among CEOs and lobbyists from Big Insurance. This week . . . she told demonstrators at a health care town hall in Benton County that she opposes the public option because "We cannot afford it" and then went on citing Republican talking points prepared by Insurance Industry lobbyists.
Is it necessary to point out that conservatives and Republicans are not enamored of her either? David Sanders reports in a commentary that:
One GOP political consultant predicted this week that Mrs. Lincoln’s “un-American” comment would be front and center in voters’ minds next year. That was his way of saying that there will be plenty of television ads coming.
Lincoln's gaffe will surely affect her poll numbers among Arkansans, which are not very strong. A recent survey by Talk Business revealed that just under half of Arkansas's respondents approve of the job she's doing in the Senate, while 60% stated that they would not vote to re-elect her. As Robert McLarty writes in his "Democratic Analysis" of the poll: "while most people believe themselves to be Democrats, a solid bloc of Independents are really who move state politics forward or put a stop to things they don't like" (see the PDF at the link). This might even be something of an understatement. In 2006, 1.5 million people in Arkansas opted not to declare a party affiliation when they registered to vote, while Republicans and Democrats together only garnered the explicit support of just over 100,000 registrants, according to the state's 2006 Voices of Arkansas voting trends analysis (p. 26).

Given the relative weakness of the GOP in the state, the situation bodes well for Independent Senate candidate Trevor Drown who is aiming to unseat Lincoln in next year's election. Tellingly, the above-mentioned post at Down with Tyranny favorably compares Drown with Lincoln, despite the independent's conservative tendencies:
1- he isn't corrupt and he won't have his head up the asses of every corporate CEO waving a check under his nose;
2- he genuinely cares about ordinary American working families and will look to put their interests ahead of the special interests;
3- no matter how he votes on issues, he won't be working behind the scenes to undermine progressives within the Democratic caucus-- since he won't be in the Democratic caucus;
4- no one trying to persuade him about the merits of a progressive stand on an issue is going to face a closed mind or a door closed to all but corporate donors.
Incidentally, it should be noted, Poli-Tea was recently featured as a 'Friend of the Week' at Dare to Make a Difference, Drown's online grassroots organization, which is well worth checking out.

Poli-Tea Rough Guide and Candidates List (Update)

As you might have noticed, the Poli-Tea Rough Guide to the Third Party and Independent Blogosphere and my rundown of Third Party and Independent Candidates for Office, 2010 were posted at the Independent Political Report last week (here and here), which resulted in a few more suggestions and corrections than in the original comments to the pieces. I have since updated the posts and linked them in the sidebar. Thanks to everyone for all the feedback and Paulie Cannoli for the wider exposure.

Duopoly Ideology and the Language of Politics

When they rail against the evils of the two-party system, advocates of third party and independent activism are often derided for engaging in a form of conspiracy theory. In this way, partisans of the duopoly parties defend themselves against substantive critique by seeking to discredit their detractors rather than addressing reasonable criticism. There is no conspiracy, the duopolists argue, Republicans and Democrats just control 98% of elected offices. However, while there is in fact strong evidence to support the claim that the duopoly parties do indeed work together to marginalize third party and independent candidates and campaigns for elected office, their collusion is only part of the story. As Sam Wilson of Think 3 writes:
The more I think about the American Bipolarchy, the more convinced I become that it is a structural rather than a conspiratorial phenomenon, the result of a sequence of decisions of policies, few of which were designed consciously to exclude rival parties.
The very language of our politics is strong evidence in favor of the structural argument. Aside from a number of old cliches (ex. there's not a dime's worth of difference between the major parties, American politics runs the gamut from A to B etc.), in many ways we lack the vocabulary to speak critically about the two-party system. It is no coincidence that critics of the two-party state are fond of neologisms: duopoly, bipolarchy, bipoligarchy, Republicrat, Demoblican etc. One result of this discursive deficit is that many Americans cannot conceive or imagine a politics divorced from the frame forced upon it by the Republican and Democratic Parties simply because we do not have the language and common dialect that would be necessary to do so. Two recent articles make this point plain.

At The D.C. Writeup, George Bianchi considers the prospects for Lincoln Chafee and Tim Cahill's independent runs for governor in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, respectively, arguing that "both have a reasonable chance of winning."
Both candidates have been elected to local and statewide offices, both are budget hawks and social liberals, and both are looking to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with their Democratic and Republican opponents.
Bianchi concludes: "The popularity of Chafee and Cahill suggests that the Rockefeller Republican model of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism remains viable in New England." This would be true, except – and perhaps to the chagrin of actual Rockefeller Republicans – they are not Republicans, they are independents! If anything, Chafee and Cahill's independent campaigns for governor suggest that the Rockefeller Republican model is no longer viable in New England. Considering a wider regional frame, taking into account Chris Daggett's independent campaign for governor in New Jersey as well as the numerous independents seeking the office in Maine and even Michael Bloomberg's switch to the independent line as mayor of New York, this suspicion becomes all the more plausible. What this makes clear is the importance and the difficulty of breaking with the language and ideology of the duopoly when talking about third party and independent politics.

A post at The Plank provides another example of the ways in which speakers often unconsciously slip back into the language of the duopoly even as they consciously attempt to engage in a multi-partisan discourse. Earlier this year, you might recall, Newt Gingrich, Al Sharpton and Michael Bloomberg met with President Obama to discuss education reform. Sharpton and Gingrich appeared on the Today Show this week to discuss their common effort. During the interview, Gingrich praised Obama, saying: "If the president's right on something, I think, it's a terrific thing to bring together this tripartisan group of independents, Democrats and Republicans" (emphasis added). Yet, as The Plank notes, Gingrich proved incapable of maintaining his initial stance and fell back into the language of the duopoly, stating, "I think there will be real bipartisanship on education" (emphasis added).