History’s hints for third parties

Originally published in the Green Horizon Quarterly

Sam Smith, 2012 – Added to all the other obstacles faced by third party activists is a paucity of analytical and historical guidebooks for their struggles. The media tends to be dismissive of third parties and lacking in understanding of their contributions to American politics. While some academics have done fine studies of individual movements and parties, scholars aren’t particularly interested in the aggregated effect of third parties. Further, as with journalists, one finds on campus a deep and uncritical reverence for a ‘two party system’ that has, in fact, formed America’s largest conspiracy for the restraint of trade – the trade in political ideas. Finally, activists themselves are usually so involved in what should be that they can forget to look closely at what is and how it works for and against their efforts.

This windshield appraisal of America’s third party movements is not for the purpose of proving a thesis, arguing a point or suggesting reforms, but rather to help activists gain a better sense of the political environment in which they have to work. And to help them recognize both the potential and the limits that present themselves.

First, the good news: America’s third parties have been immensely important to the country as catalysts of political and social progress. Their efforts lent weight to the anti-slavery movement, to the institution of an income tax, and to women’s rights. While most of the power in 20th century politics was held by centrist or conservative white Protestants and Irish Catholics, the major reforms of that period stemmed from three third party movements: the Populists, the Progressives and the Socialists.

One reason journalists and historians tend to discount the impact of third parties is because of their obsession with apexes of power and those who inhabit them. In reality, however, change often comes not from the top or the center but from the edges. Ecologists and biologists appreciate the importance of edges as sources of life and change, whether they be the boundary of a forest, the shore of a bay or the earth’s patina so essential to our being that we call the atmosphere. The political edge, at least metaphorically, has many of the same critical attributes.

Third parties have come in all sorts of shapes and colors. Some have aimed at a single issue such as slavery or drinking. Some have been driven by the popularity of an individual such as Teddy Roosevelt or Ross Perot. The ones with the deepest effect on the country’s history have tended to be both parties and movements spreading like a virus throughout American culture, such as the Populists, Progressives and Socialists. To be any of these represented a commitment far beyond today’s membership in one of the major parties. Finally, there have been statewide parties such as the Farmer Labor Party, New York’s Liberal and Conservatives, and the DC Statehood Party that were far more successful within their constituency than many national third parties.

By far the most successful third party in history was the Republican Party which four years after its first run for the White House elected a president, Abraham Lincoln. But this is only part of the story, because two third parties helped lay the groundwork beginning 20 years earlier with the presidential campaigns of the anti-slavery Liberty Party and Free Soilers.

Two other 19th third parties served either as precursors of something bigger, with the Greenbacks, with its emphasis on monetary policy, a warm-up band for the Populists and the Prohibition Party, which got only 2% in its best presidential bid, but won a whole constitutional amendment 50 years after its founding.

In the 20th century, if you wanted to make a big splash in national third party politics, the best way to do it was with a major icon such as Roosevelt, Wallace or Perot. Here are the best numbers for various third party candidates:

Theodore Roosevelt 28%
Perot (1992): 19%
LaFolette: 17%
George Wallace: 14%
Debs (1912): 11%
Perot (1996): 9%
Anderson: 7%

All other 20th century third party candidates got 3% or less, including Debs in three additional runs and Thurmond and Henry Wallace in the hot 1948 race. It is useful to note that all the leading third party candidates – with the exception of George Wallace and Debs – drew heavily from mainstream constituencies rather than running as radical reformers.

Obviously the numbers don’t tell the whole story. For example, the New Deal drew from Populist, Progressive and Socialist ideas despite low turnouts for their candidates. The Populists, despite topping out a 9% in a presidential race, influenced the politics of two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin.

Still, if you want to affect national politics with a national third party presidential run, history suggests that getting over 5% – preferably closer to 10% – is a good way to start. Otherwise, you can probably expect a less direct impact for your efforts, perhaps decades in the future. And, in any case, you can expect your swing at presidential politics to be fairly short-lived.

That does not mean, however, that these parties – like certain insects – were merely born, had sex, and then died. In fact, some of the third parties had long, healthy lives, in large part because they were as concerned with local as with national results. The Socialist Party is the most dramatic recent example, with a history dating back over 100 years. The party’s own history suggest that eclecticism didn’t hurt:

‘From the beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of “reform vs. revolution,” the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making “immediate demands” of a reformist nature. A perennially unresolved issue was whether revolutionary change could come about without violence; there were always pacifists and evolutionists in the Party as well as those opposed to both those views. The Socialist Party historically stressed cooperatives as much as labor unions, and included the concepts of revolution by education and of ‘building the new society within the shell of the old.'”

By World War I it had elected 70 mayors, two members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials. Milwaukee alone had three Socialist mayors in the last century, including Frank Zeidler who held office for 12 years ending in 1960. And the party reports that Karen Kubby, Socialist councilwoman, won her re-election bid in 1992 with the highest vote total in Iowa City history.

Some highly successful third parties never ran anyone for president (except in fusion with one of the major parties). Albeit in a confused and weakened status at the moment, the Liberal Party of New York remains the longest lived third party next the to the Socialists. Founded in 1944 – in a break with the more radical American Labor Party – the Liberals benefited immensely from New York’s fusion-friendly election laws, which allowed it to support Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and to claim credit for giving Kennedy enough votes for his presidential victory. Other nominees of the party have included Averill Harriman, Mario Cuomo, Jacob Javits, Robert Kennedy, Fiorello LaGuardia and John Lindsey. Swinging the gate of New York politics made it exceptionally important.

The Farmer Labor Party in Minnesota lasted 26 years before merging with the Democrats. During that time it elected a senator and a governor. And in DC, the Statehood Party held an elected position for 25 years and some years later merged with the DC Green Party.

As for the Greens, the recent near victory of Matt Gonzalez for San Francisco mayor is the latest sign of success in viral politics of a party that had already elected a score of mayors elsewhere. While SF mayoralty may not seem as important as a Green presidential run, I was shakened from that assumption a few days after election when it suddenly dawned that Gonzalez’ race was not just local; for me it meant that there somewhere in America there was a city roughly the size of my own in which 47% of the voters agreed with me. It was a remarkably cheering revelation.

There is, it appears, no one right way to run a third party in the U.S. It always has to be a form of guerilla politics because the rules are so thoroughly stacked against those not Democrats or Republicans. Thus the judging the right tactics at the right time, as opposed to planning moves strictly on the basis of their presumed virtue, would seem to be the wisest course. To slow down traffic I might be morally justified in stepping into the Interstate, spreading my arms, and shouting, “stop,” but it is probably not the most useful thing I could do for the cause. Besides, like some third party presidential candidates, I might not have another opportunity. My initial virtue might turn out to have been terminal.

For example, the question of fusion arises periodically. History clearly shows that there is no clear answer as to whether fusion is useful or not as a general principle because sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. The Liberal Party of New York used it magnificently (thanks in part to the laws of that state) while many feel fusion helped bring down the Populist Party. Beginning in the late 19th century state legislatures began taking action against fusion because, presumably, they thought it was working. And it can be argued that the moves against fusion were part of a broader counter-revolution that included the end of Reconstruction and giving corporations rights of the individual. In any case, today forty states and DC ban fusion.

One may oppose fusion on principal – for it certainly degrades the message of one’s party – but how is it that unprincipled opponents of reform also see it as such a danger? These are the sort of questions that Greens need to answer pragmatically without tying themselves into all sorts of moral and ideological knots. The impact could be profound. For example, the ban on fusion is the only thing preventing a third party from running its own candidate for vice president along with, say, the Democratic candidate for president. If Nader had run for vice president in 2000, his vote total would have been much higher and might have revealed far more sympathy for Green politics than is apparent today. Instead of being blamed for 2000, the Greens might have been actively courted for 2004.

Similarly, the question of whether or how to run a presidential candidate needs to be subjected to the lens of history. Again, the lessons are multiple and far from clear. To me, they suggest that a good third party presidential run should be reserved for when the stars are aligned – a major party weak, an unusually popular voice for your own, and a social revolt in the making.

There is one other factor that is truly new in America: the destruction of constitutional government in the wake of September 11. Besides all its other horrors, the developments make it even more difficult for a third party national campaign. But the war or terror is in many ways a war to protect a tiny percentage of the American elite and their capitals of politics and business – much as only ten percent of those in Orwell’s 1984 were actually members of the party; the rest lived in a countryside living relatively normal lives.

Oddly, however, this presents an opportunity for the Greens. As I wrote recently:
“At present the Green Party seems exceedingly concerned with whom it will run for president, if anyone. This is a time-consuming, agenda-skewing, image-monopolizing business. . . But what if the Green Party declared itself the party of the countryside, of free America, and set its sights on organizing not just the survival, resistance, and rebellion of the unoccupied homeland, but its revival, its discovery of self-reliance, and its energetic practice of democracy and decency? There is a wealth of electoral opportunity. For example, in 15 states more than half the state legislative seats are presently won without a contest.
“There is a logic to the Greens becoming the party of free America. After all Greens are the party most in the American tradition of decentralization, democracy, and cooperative communities. And they have ample precedent in the grassroots Populist Party which took on robber barons of startling similarity to those now served by the Bush regime.”

The important thing, however, in discussing such matters is for Greens to remember that they are members of the same team, selecting the next play not to prove their virtue but to improve their position. The virtue they can take for granted; the position will be determined by each day’s practical choices. If there is any virtue to be observed during these difficult decisions it is that of gentleness towards each other. And while there is much to be learned from the past, perhaps the most important is an appreciation for the magnificent uncertainty of the whole adventure.

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It’s not easy being Green, but. . .

Sam Smith
2010

It’s not easy being Green but it sure is easier than being a Democrat these days.

I was reminded of this as I scanned some proposed changes and additions to the Green platform. Over and over I found myself reading stuff that not only fit my views but those of many Democrats. The sort of things that would have been standard for the New Deal and Great Society.

Unfortunately, however, the Democratic Party has become the Bernie Madoff of politics. It gets unsuspecting individuals to trust it with their money, beliefs and future, and then immediately starts ripping them off.

There was, for example, Barack Obama’s Madoff moment at the liberal Netroots conference in which he admitted their returns had been slow, but it would improve if they would just be patient. In politics, however, what in fiscal fraud would be considered criminal evidence, is simply treated as “reassurance.”

If the only things that mattered in politics were the issues and you opposed the war in Afghanistan, wanted single payer health insurance, wished to preserve Social Security and thought the jobless should get more federal assistance than a handful of Wall Street bankers, there would be no doubt you’d be a Green.

But it gets complicated by the fact that Greens don’t do all that well in elections, there are a lot of close races that test loyalty, and liberal voters have been trained to believe that any deviation is a de facto gift to the Republicans.

Greens demand a lot of fidelity as well, enough that when I was invited to my first Green conference in the 1990s, I already felt compelled to tell organizer John Rensenbrink that I didn’t think I was good enough to be a Green. He repled, “That’s okay. We’re going to have a Libertarian there as well.”

I went on to help get the Greens organized but designated myself chair of the Big Mac caucus of the party, dedicated to all wishing to be Green without being perfect.

I’ve had my problems with the Greens over the years. I didn’t like how much emphasis was placed on presidential elections. I’m sorry the Greens haven’t formed more alliances with other interests including labor and ethnic coaltions. And I know from the history of American third parties that their effectiveness lies in mass local organizing, which hasn’t happened with the Greens.

But they still seemed great compared to the alternatives, especially when the Democrats repeatedly treated Greens not as part of a progressive coalition but as traitors and other forms of scum – changing laws, denying them rights, altering districts, and even blaming them for Al Gore’s failed presidential campaign (a clear statistical lie).

But now that we’ve had two presidents double-cross their own constituents, it looks like the Democratic party is far more in need of therapy than loyalty. And the first rule when around the dysfunctional is: don’t let them call the shots.

There are, to be sure, practical problems. But they’re not as complicated as they seem. Here’s a good plan of action:

1. Join the Green Party. Just because you join a party doesn’t mean you always have to vote for it. Whether for ideological or pragmatic reasons you can make that choice on election day. You join a party for a political home. So you want to join one whose beliefs reflect your own. For a large number of Democrats and independents this would be the Green Party. Besides, if you leave the Democrats and join the Greens, you are no longer liable under the RICO fraud statutes.

2. Do as little or as much as you want. Political organizations function much like the Episcopal church’s three factions: the high and crazy, the low and lazy and the broad and hazy. Find your own level.

3. Argue with the Green Party when it does the wrong thing. Or does nothing and that’s the wrong thing to do. Every good party needs some good fights.

4. If you want to get into a Democratic primary battle, temporarily switch your registration. I’ve done this lots of time, becoming a Democrat for a day. Just don’t forget to switch back.

5. Remember that fusion politics – in which parties come temporarily together to reach a common goal – was so effective in American history that nearly all states passed laws to eliminate it. You can create your own fusion politics by aligning with the Democrats on specific issues while not hiding the fact that you’re a Green.

6. Just because you’re a Green doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect, noble or idealistic. There are plenty of contrary role models in the party, such as myself.

7. There is nothing radical about the Green party. It actually quite conservative. It wishes to conserve the Constitution, the environment, communities, free speech, and numerous other threatened virtues we used to take for granted.

8. Finally, one of the great joys of being a Green is that you never again have to defend stupid things said or done by Obama, Reid, Pelosi or the Clintons.

These are bad times with few happy solutions. In such moments, finding oases of sanity and decency is extremely important, and in politics you won’t find a better one than the Greens.

Greening America

SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES – In 1995, as an active member of the Green Politics Network, I joined a number of other Greens in hosting a conference of third party activists. Over a hundred showed up, ranging from one of the founders of the ancient American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers, and Democratic Socialists of America. It was a recklessly dangerous idea for a Washington weekend, but Green activists John Rensenbrink, Linda Martin and Tony Affigne seemed to know what they were doing and I was happy to go along.

We established two basic rules:

– We would only discuss issues on which we might find some agreement.

– We would reach that agreement by consensus.

We broke the body into tables of ten or so, each dealing with a different topic. All policies that were proposed were written on newsprint posters. Then participants were given three color stick-on dots with their names on them. Everyone then went up to the board and placed their dots on their favorite issues (cumulative voting style, so that all three dots could, if desired, be placed on one issue). After the vote, those with only their dots on a particular issue were allowed to move them to their second choice (a la instant run-off voting) and so forth until a clear consensus of three issues emerged. This scheme not only produced a consensus, but one that was physical and visual as well as intellectual and was fun to watch.

When the various groups produced their recommendations, they were turned over to what was known as a “fishbowl negotiation.” Each small group selected a representative to negotiate for it with representatives of all the other tables. The representatives sat in a circle with those they represented behind them. Anyone could stop their representative and request a small group conference but only the representative could speak in the larger assembly. It worked remarkably well.

The small group that had the most difficulty with such techniques was comprised mainly of Marxists who had selected economics as their area of concern. We were, one suggested, guilty of what the Master had called “parliamentary cretinism,” and the socialists resisted it firmly. One result, ironically, was that the weakest section of the final statement was that dealing with economics. On the other hand, the libertarians came to the organizers at one point and offered to leave the meeting so a full consensus could be maintained. We encouraged them to stick around, changing our own rules to accept several levels of consensus.

Despite the wide range of views present, despite the near total absence of Robert’s Rules of Order, the final document, with full consensus, called for nothing less than a major transformation. The group unanimously agreed to support proportional representation, campaign finance reform “to provide a level playing field in elections;” initiative, referendum and recall; better ballot access; the end of corporate welfare; strong environmental policies; sexual and reproductive freedom; an end to the war on drugs and treatment of addiction as a health matter rather than as a crime; a dramatic cut in military expenditures; workplace democracy and the maximum empowerment of people in their communities “consistent with fairness, social responsibilities and human rights.”

Not bad for a group ranging from one of the founders of the ancient American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers and Democratic Socialists of America. It shouldn’t have worked at all, but because the rules we had used felt fair to those present, it did. By ignoring topics of obvious disagreement, we even surprised ourselves with the level of consensus.

We had also discovered the possibility of a political transformation, of moving beyond left and right. We understood that these were different times — not the thirties, not the sixties — times that required different imaginations and different risks. We had reached out and had found that we were not alone.

Something else happened that weekend. As a gaggle of Greens gathered on my front porch for beer and pizza, I heard strange sounds. Some of those present were actually talking about running Ralph Nader for president. What had I gotten myself into? They don’t even have a national organization and already they’re talking about a presidential campaign.

Not too many months later, we staged another conference — this one just for Greens — aimed at building further support for a national association and — at least for some — launching a Nader presidential campaign. Halfway through the weekend, however, one of Washington’s rare blizzards occurred, trapping Greens in homes around the area. I found eight phones and two lines in my house and for hours those huddled on Newark Street plotted with those similarly confined elsewhere in the metropolitan region. Everything else was closed but the Greens were open for business.

Out of this curious beginning, and within months, the skeleton of a national Green political movement was formed, eventually strong enough to wage a presidential campaign and create parties in a score of states.

By December 1996, eight months after the snow-bound conference, the Greens had actually run a presidential campaign. The first Nader campaign, hampered by the candidate’s refusal to raise significant funds, had produced a low vote but nonetheless proved invaluable as an organizing tool in about a score of states. It would be dismissed in the media, but it had created the skeleton of an national organization.

Now it was time to do something about it. After a Friday night gathering at which key Greens and their friends, including Nader, Bill Greider, and Ronnie Dugger jammed my living room to toss ideas with  each other, we headed the next day for Middleburg, Virginia.

Strictly speaking, you probably shouldn’t create a national Green Party in the pool house of a farm in the middle of Virginia hunt country. But a third party that spent less than a penny per vote on its presidential campaign, had no fixed address and whose candidate wouldn’t even support its platform, was not about to get uptight about minor matters of ambiance. Besides, owner Elaine Broadhead had invited us.

And so, years after the European Greens had been born, some 30 state Green parties came not just to join together, not just to offer a few new policies, but to declare the old liberal-conservative dichotomy irrelevant, tautological and just plain dead.

That’s a lot to do in one weekend. Yet the participants seemed neither particularly driven nor harried. A stranger might even have imagined that they had come in triumph. They clearly viewed the one percent of the national vote their candidate received not as the media had — statistically insignificant — but with the boundless pleasure of parents observing a new baby. They transformed the tiny, fragile specifics before them into an infinity of hope and dreams.

Further, in state after state, the Greens had gotten on the ballot by beating down arcane, dupoloistic rules that left voters to choose only between two deeply defective parties. And despite appearing on just 21 state ballots, the Greens had beaten the Libertarians, their full pocketbook notwithstanding. In some places, such as DC, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, Nader even ran ahead of Perot and in Madison, WI, he came in second.

People from thirty states, many of whom had never met previously, had come together and formed a union and a plan. They had created an important new political option for America. Yet only after it was over, did I notice something truly unusual: nobody had really run the conference. The planning committee had been so unobtrusive it was invisible, the individual sessions were moderated by a rotating squad of volunteers, and matters were discussed according to the unspoken Green rules of considerate anarchy.

It was clear in retrospect that nobody had been in charge. Yet it had happened anyway. A national Green Party had been formed.

Liberals and Greens

Sam Smith
2006

ALTHOUGH LIBERALISM HAS been on the skids for more than two decades, it has become the new fashion in that desiccated sect to blame Greens for the problem. Liberals don’t worry about the dropping memberships and dramatic aging of groups like Common Cause and Americans for Democratic Action or the irrelevance of archaic liberal journals like the Nation (kept alive in part by charter cruises aimed at those who remember meeting Eleanor Roosevelt). Nor do they concern themselves with the declining viewership of public broadcasting or the chronic ineffectualness of the congressional black and progressive caucuses.

Who needs those concerns when there is yet another target – the Greens – to join all those other Americans that liberal leaders can’t stand (and then wonder why they won’t vote for them) such as gun-owners, church-goers, southerners, people who still believe in local government and so forth.

For example, Harold Meyerson in the American Prospect leads with this: “Ask any liberal to identify the force in American politics most intent on destroying progressive prospects and causes and you’re sure to hear that it’s the Bush administration or the Republican right or some such reactionary power. Let me gently suggest, however, that a very different force has wormed its way onto this list, and may indeed be right at the top: the Green Party. There’s something so very pure about the Greens’ destructiveness.”

This fits in well with the liberal myth that Gore lost the 2001 election because of Ralph Nader. In fact, Gore lost the election because he was a poor candidate, ran a bad campaign, and failed to separate himself morally from Clinton. Further, not only the Democratic Party, but the liberals within it, made it absolutely clear over eight years that they had no interest in, nor would respond to, the sort of politics espoused by Greens. That liberals should complain now is an example of the self-defeating arrogance that has done them so much damage. If you want people to vote with you, be nice to them. Just because you’re god’s gift to Manhattan or Georgetown doesn’t give you an exemption from this basic political rule.

Meyerson instead takes the stance that “la gauche c’est nous” – “When the Greens run a candidate against a Democrat, however, neither their campaign nor the effect of their campaign advances their agenda one whit. Their goal is simply to defeat Democrats, even the most liberal Democrats. Especially the most liberal Democrats.”

Meyerson, who gives no credit to the idea that Greens might have a few policy differences with his party, has one valid complaint: the fact that the Greens are running a candidate against Paul Wellstone. But liberal Democrats who gave blind allegiance to the most corrupt president in history who then set about dismantling a half century of liberal progress, are hardly in a position to lecture on wise tactics.

Besides, as a fully recognized party, the Greens have a legal, constitutional and moral right to run their own candidates and shouldn’t have to ask the decadent liberal aristocracy for permission. And sooner or later – after Democrats like Meyerson get over their childish tantrums – liberals will realize that one way out of their problem is to support proportional representation and instant runoff voting, rather than excoriating others for participating in American democracy. As it stands, liberals rest on the political landscape, as Disraeli once said the opposition bench, like a range of exhausted volcanoes.

Your editor was an early advocate of the Green strategy of finding tight races between Republicans and Democrats and then breaking up the party. While I think Minnesota was a poor choice, I have no apologies to make. After all, I didn’t leave the Democratic Party voluntarily. It was made quite clear that people such as myself weren’t wanted. And besides, I thought if I remained, I might be liable under the RICO statutes.

Meyerson is upset because the Greens actually practice what they believe in: democracy, nonviolence, decentralization, ecological sanity. They don’t want to go along with the moral charade of the Democratic Party. Myerson writes, “Beware this party. At the heart of Green politics is a novel – and ruthless – ethic: The means justify the end.” You’re confusing your parties, Harold. That’s the Democrats. The Greens believe the means are part of the end.