2010: Third Party Time for Progressives and Independents?

This was first published in OpEd News:



December opened up with another escalation in Afghanistan. Then there was the sabotage of binding carbon reductions in Copenhagen. On Christmas Eve, there was the Insurance Company Entitlement Act masquerading as health care reform.


By the end of the month a sharp debate had broken out in the progressive media and blogosphere. The number of progressives airing their nagging doubts about the wisdom of putting all their eggs in the basket of the Democrats reached a critical mass.


It is not enough to say that Obama and the Democrats have betrayed progressives, or that, as always, the path to change begins with grassroots mobilization. A critical part of the solution is a progressive third party. Without the political independence of progressives, both major parties ignore progressives who are left holding their nose and voting for the Democrats as the lesser evil.


All the doubts in the back of progressives' minds are coming into sharp focus. The recycled Bushies and Clintonites appointed by the administration. The trillions for war and Wall Street while unemployment, foreclosures, and economic stagnation deepened. Single payer "off the table." Card check union recognition abandoned. Complicity in Bush-era war crimes by refusing to "look back" and prosecute. New crimes committed with the continuation of extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, torture by proxy, targeted assassinations, indefinite detention, habeas suspension, state secrets, military commissions, and warrantless wiretapping. Tacit support for the Honduran military coup. "Secret" wars in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The list goes on.


We shouldn't be surprised. History shows that for more than a century the Democrats' role in the two-party system of corporate rule has been to co-opt, absorb, weaken, and defeat movements for progressive change, as the late Peter Miguel Camejo laid out in his 2004 Avocado Declaration. Right now, the evidence for this corporate function of the Democratic Party is as stark as it has ever been. The Democrats swept the election and the corporate agenda swept the Congress.


Most progressives spent the 2000s working to put the Democrats back in charge of Congress and the White House. They can't blame the Republicans now. The Democrats have the power. Progressive Democrats got what they wished for, but what do they have to show for it? It's a year later and their mandate for change is fast eroding. Democratic politicians and progressive leaders were merely cheerleaders who never made demands and backed them up with action. The Democrats' corporate backers were n't so naïve. They demanded and received their IOUs.


The Democrats are pursuing corporatist policies across the board, using big government to subsidize big business in return for big campaign contributions. It's just a rebranding as Democratic of Republican policies of corporate welfare for the rich, which is supposed to "trickle down" as jobs and income for working people, but never does. Even before the election, it was the Democratic leadership in Congress, with Obama's outspoken support, who pushed through the $700 billion TARP bailout for Wall Street just days after it was at first defeated in the face of popular outrage.


The Democrats are not only alienating voters on the Left, but also independents in the Center. Polls now indicate that these independents are swinging back to the Republicans as the lesser evil because their small government rhetoric at least promises to cut taxes. Many voters realize they are being ripped off by both major parties. They correctly understand that Democratic power brokers don't look out for the little guys anymore than Republicans do. If the Left doesn't offer a progressive alternative to the Democratic corporate liberals, the Republican corporate conservatives will be the only alternative that angry voters will have in 2010 to get back at the party in power.


It could have been different. When the Democrats swept into power, they had a mandate for bold progressive change. They could have enacted, with broad Center-to-Left popular support, a Green New Deal to address the interrelated crises of energy, climate, and economic depression. Instead of bailing out the big banks and automakers, they could have nationalized them on the cheap when they were insolvent. Public banks could have then restructured millions of mortgages on affordable, long-term, fixed-rate terms for homeowners facing foreclosure. The automakers could have been retrofitted to produce electric cars, mass transit, wind turbines, and solar panels just as the federal government had them make tanks, trucks, and airplanes for World War II. With investments from public banks and federal infrastructure spending guaranteeing a market for a green reconstruction of the nation's energy and transportation systems, US manufacturing, jobs, and the whole economy could have been renewed on a sustainable basis.


It could have been different. But what to do now?


Some progressives are rallying to the defense of the Democrats, defending the indefensible as the lesser evil to Republican reaction. They want to "save the Obama Presidency" no matter what he does. This approach will only discredit the Left and demoralize its voters, who will sit out the 2010 elections in large numbers. It will also lose much of the independent Center, which will swing back to the Republicans if only in disgust and protest.


Other progressives say it's time to challenge conservative Democrats in the primaries. But it was the progressive Democrats in office who never planted their flag and refused to compromise any further while Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress made one concession after another to Republicans and Blue Dogs on the stimulus bill, health care, labor law reform, global warming, and the wars. Progressive Democratic politicians went along with the concessions because they know, as well as conservative Democrats know, that the Left has nowhere else to go with their votes.


Another school of progressives says it is time to build protest movements that can make the Democrats live up to their reform promises, citing how the labor movement pushed through New Deal reforms in the 1930s. These progressives forget that the impact of the labor movement was multiplied tremendously by the election of many third party progressives as Representatives, Senators, and Governors. By early 1935, Floyd Olson, the Farmer-Labor Governor of Minnesota, Robert La Follette, Jr., the Progressive Governor of Wisconsin, and Huey L ong, the "Share Our Wealth" Democratic Senator from Louisiana, were all potentially powerful populist third party presidential candidates. Democratic National Committee polling found such an electoral challenge might cost Franklin Roosevelt the election in 1936. This third party electoral threat played a major role in instigating the more progressive Second New Deal of 1935. As the Works Progress Administration, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Social Security Act were enacted that year, the third party movement subsided.


No doubt social movements and protest demonstrations are needed. But without an independent progressive electoral alternative, the Democrats know they can take the votes of progressive social movements for granted. Witness the failure of the massive anti Iraq war demonstrations in early 2003 to move the Democrats to take an antiwar stand. The Democrats voted funding for Bush's war throughout three national election cycles because they knew the peace movement would support them anyway.


What is missing is the political independence of progressives. Progressives need to build independent social movements, not movements dependent on electing and lobbying Democrats. And the independent social movements need their own party to exercise their own independent power. With a powerful party on the Left, the Democrats will no longer be able to take progressive movements and votes for granted. The Left will be able to speak directly to the people with its own voice, for its own program, on its own power, without having their progressive demands mistranslated and watered down by Democratic politicians who appeal to their Right while they count on their captive voters on the Left.


A strong Left party would also win over many independents in the Center, the largest bloc of voters. Polling shows these independents would prefer a Green New Deal of public jobs, health care, and enterprise to the Democrats' tribute payments to big business and the Republicans' domestic spending cutbacks that will devastate public services and worsen the interrelated crises of energy, climate, and economy.


It is time for progressives to face the reality of a two-party system of corporate rule where competing coalitions of corporate investors in the political process fundamentally agree on a bipartisan consensus for empire abroad and anti-worker policies at home. Democrats and Republicans limit their advertised competition mainly to liberal vs. conservative approaches to cultural issues. The Democrats are more beholden to campaign contributions from Big FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) than they are to their voters. The main financial base of the Republicans is Big Fossil (Coal, Oil, Gas), hence their anti-scientific denial of climate change. When Big FIRE vs. Big Fossil dominates politics, the ordinary people get screwed.


The best way to fight the Right is to build an independent party of the Left. The Right we have to fight is the corporatist bi-partisan consensus for empire and exploitation. The corporate bosses have two parties. It is time that working people built one of their own.


Yes, the American electoral system of winner takes all in single member districts is stacked against third parties. But that system did not stop progressive third parties from realigning the party systems in Mexico and New Zealand to the point where they could institute more democratic electoral systems based on proportional representation. Almost all of the few remaining countries that don't have proportional representation have still been able to create major third parties, notably Canada and the UK. Because these countries have independent leftwing parties based on labor and other progressive movements, they have won standards of workers' rights, public services, social welfare, corporate regulation, environmental protection, and defense-oriented militaries that are far more progressive than US standards.


While the electoral system presents serious obstacles, the far bigger obstacle in the US has been the unwavering commitment of the leaders of labor, peace, and environmental organizations to the Democrats who consistently betray their progressive goals. We can end these self-inflicted defeats through independent political action. It is the grassroots organizers and activists who will have to lead the break out. Most of the leadership and staff of these organizations are too tied to Democratic politicians and operatives through patronage, grants, jobs, and their social class, status, and networks.


The Green Party has been organizing toward an independent progressive alternative for years. The Greens have won hundreds of local elections throughout the country in recent years, almost a third of those they enter. Their percentage of votes in state and national legislative elections has steadily climbed, often to double digits. These results indicate the potential. But it will not be realized until a critical mass of progressive organizers and activist break with the Democrats.


The Democratic Party has been the graveyard for every broad progressive movement since the Populists more than a century ago. 2010 should be the year when progressive movements finally break their dependence on the corporate-sponsored Democrats and present their programs directly to the voters through their own independent candidates and party.


Let's make the choice in 2010 between a Green New Deal and the corporatism of the two old parties.



Howie Hawkins is a Teamster who unloads trucks at UPS in Syracuse, New York and the editor of Independent Politics: The Green Party Strategy Debate. He was the 2006 New York Green Party candidate for US Senate and is exploring a run for the Green Party's nomination for Governor in 2010.


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