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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Mix & match

If you want to scare the establishment, get people together who it doesn’t think belong together. If you are students having a problem with your principal don’t just go to his or her office with the usual troublemakers; walk in with some of the smartest kids, some jocks, a few punks, blacks, whites, latinos, and, best of all, the kids who never seems to be interested in doing anything at all. Once when we were fighting freeways in Washington, I looked up on a platform and there was the Grovesnor Chapman, the chair of the white elite Georgetown Citizens Association, and Reginald Booker head of a black militant organization called Niggers Inc., and I said to myself, we are going to win. And we did.

My old friend, the late Chuck Stone, really knew how to get along with other people. When he was columnist and senior editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, 75 homicide suspects surrendered to him personally rather than take their chances with the Philadelphia police department. Black journalist Stone also negotiated the end of five hostage crises, once at gun point. “I learned how to listen,” he said. Stone believed in building what he calls “the reciprocity of civility.” His advice for getting along with other Americans: treat them like a member of your family.

Show everyone respect and you’ll walk comfortably among every class, subculture and ethnicity in this land. Don’t show respect and you’ll live a lonely life.

Part of that respect is towards yourself. Don’t apologize for who you are. Don’t be afraid to argue with someone just because they are of a different ethnicity. Arguing with someone is a form of respect too, because it means you really care about what they think. But bear in mind that in a community, your view is just an opinion and not a rule.

If you are a member of an ethnic or other minority, remember that as an activist your role is to provide solutions to problems and not merely to be a symptom of them. To be a survivor and not a victim.

During the civil rights movement, black leaders spoke not only to those of their own culture but to many whites, especially young whites like myself. The most influential book I read in college was Martin Luther King’s ‘Stride Toward Freedom’ and it wasn’t on any required reading list. Cesar Chavez had a similar cross-cultural appeal. But then as African Americans became more successful in politics there was a understandable but unfortunate tendency to retreat to a constituency you knew you could rely upon. And so black leaders became much less influential in the white community.

It’s an important lesson for any young black or latino activist.

Don’t let your story be ghettoized; instead take that story and find the universal in it, and use that story to move those who don’t look like you but can understand the story because you made it theirs, too. The greatest ethnic success stories in America have come when a minority learned to lead the majority, as the Irish and Jews often did in the past century.

I hear over and over that blacks and latinos can’t work together politically, but I can almost promise you that the next great ethnic leader in this country is going to be someone who ignores that cliché and creates a black-latino coalition which, after all, will represent thirty percent of the people in this land.

Let’s amend the Senate

Sam Smith, 2010

No matter who wins the Senate this election, you can be pretty sure that the non-constitutional faux filibuster will remain. Both sides like it and it helps keep the Senate from doing something that might make somebody mad except for those who want it to do something. The Democrats don’t seem to have enough votes to kill it and Harry Reid has been on both sides of the issue, depending on whether he was in the majority or the minority.

Next to the Supreme Court approved corporate takeover of American politics, no structural aspect of our government is as bad as the way the Senate is now run. Even a few decades ago, to filibuster you at least had to take to the floor and actually talk; now you just file your name with someone and go about your business.

The Senate is not only perverting the Constitution, not only heavily bought and paid for by corporate interests, it is also the most segregated institution in the federal government. If it were a school system it would be under court ordered bussing. Which is why, for some four decades, this journal has advocated creating more states (beginning with the DC, the capital colony) as a way of dealing with this.

Don’t expect the Senate to change things for the better on its own or for the corporate media to push them in that direction. It’s time for a little direct action.

My suggestion: a constitutional amendment changing the way the Senate operates. The purpose could be to pass such an amendment or just to scare the shit out of the misbegotten lot that runs the place these days. Here are some alternatives for such an amendment, including abolishing the Senate entirely (see, that got your attention, didn’t it?):

– Abolish the filibuster and permit most bills to pass by simple majority.

– Adjust the filibuster by lowering the required number of votes and/or requiring opposing Senators to actually maintain the debate on the floor during the filibuster.

– Adjust the number of votes each state has. In 1790, the largest state was only 13 times bigger than the smallest. Today California is 68 times larger than Wyoming yet both have only two votes in the Senate. Forty-two Senate votes belong to a group of states that collectively have less population than California with its two votes.

A quite traditional way to change this would be to give each state a number of seats based on dividing its population by 13 times the population of the smallest state, which is to say the range the framers of the Constitution experienced and were dealing with. No state would get less than two senators, but, depending on the math used, California, for example, might get five and New York three. Other states that would benefit would be Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsvlania. Among the advantages of this would be more senators from ethnic minorities.

– Treat the Senate like the British House of Lords, which is to say as a kind of historic pain in the butt that you can’t get rid of, but you want to keep as quiet as possible. For example, the Senate might be reduced to approving presidential appointments and vetoing – with a supermajority – acts of the House.

– Just abolish the Senate and thus give America some of the democracy it was promised but never got.

If any of the above gets you a bit riled up, then I’ve proved my point. Even if you don’t want to abolish the Senate, merely talking loudly about the possibility might have some effect. Who knows, the Senate might even want to take a look at the rotten filibuster rules it snuck in on us over the years.

An elected attorney general

Progressive Review editor Sam Smith and Pentagon whistleblower Ernie Fitzgerald proposed a constitutional amendment to provide for an independent attorney general selected in an off-year election. The idea is to replace independent prosecutors with a permanent watchdog on the federal government — someone who is not politically beholden to the president and cannot be removed by the president.

Ernie’s proposal:

1. The Attorney General of the United States shall be elected to office in the same manner as the President and Vice President, and shall be subject to impeachment and removal in the same manner.

2. The first election of the Attorney General shall take place in the first odd-numbered year after ratification of this Amendment.

3. The Attorney General shall be elected for a term of six years and may not succeed himself in office.

4. The Attorney General shall be paid the same annual salary as the Vice President at the time of the Attorney General’s election.

5. On the completion of each full six-year term the Attorney General shall receive a annual stipend for life of 20% of his or her annual pay while in office.

6. Upon entering office, the Attomey General shall take an oath to uphold the statutory laws and the Constitution of the United States as originally written and amended and to apply them equally to all parties without regard to special status or privilege.

7. Neither the Attorney General nor his subordinates nor any other government prosecutor shall intrude upon inquiries or deliberations of a grand jury without an invitation or subpoena from the grand jury.

8. All statements or declarations by government prosecutors regarding a case at law shall be considered under oath and subject to penalties for perjury and false statements generally, and all prosecutors shall be subject to cross-examination by defendants and jurors.

9. The guarantees of human rights for all natural persons and the limitations of government powers delegated by the people through the Constitution shall apply to the facts of each case within the jurisdiction of the United States or any of them without the prejudice of prior interpretations.

10. These same guarantees and limitations on government powers shall be honored by all triers of fact and law in all legal issues arising within the jurisdiction of the United States or any of them.