Strategic Thinking on the U.S. Six-Party System

by Carl Davidson on April 6, 2013

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Successful strategic thinking starts with gaining knowledge, particular gaining adequate knowledge of the big picture, of all the political and economic forces involved (Earth) and what they are thinking, about themselves and others, at any given time (Heaven). It’s not a one-shot deal. Since both Heaven and Earth are always changing, strategic thinking must always be kept up to date, reassessed and revised.

To make a political assessment of the forces commanded by the U.S. bourgeoisie and its subaltern allies and strata, it helps to make an examination of Congress, the White House, and other Beltway institutions, as well as voting trends. And to get an accurate estimation, we must often tear away, set aside, or bracket misleading labels and frames as well as assess varying economic resources and voting results. We want to illuminate an intentionally obfuscated landscape, like when a flash of lightning at night does away with shadows and renders the landscape in sharp relief.

The primary conventional wisdom we want to dissect here is that the U.S. has a two-party system.

First, the nature of political parties in the U.S. today is rather unique; they are not parties in any European parliamentary sense, where members are bound to a program or platform with some degree of discipline, and mass party organizations exist at the base.

Second, the Republicans and the Democrats in the U.S. are largely empty shells locally, consisting mainly of incumbents and staffers, and their retained lawyers, fundraisers and media consultants. There is some variation from state to state — state committeemen and women will pass resolutions and certify ballot status and positions, but there’s not much of a mass character save for an occasional campaign rally.

Third, at the Congressional level the two-party structure, to some degree, still allows for dividing the spoils of committee assignments, but even these are often warped by other considerations.

A few also like to argue that the U.S. has only one party, a capitalist party, with two wings, the bad and the worse. But this is reductionist to a fault, and doesn’t tell you much other than that we live in a capitalist society, which is a rather trivial insight.

Some also hold out hope for a ‘third party’ that is non-capitalist. But given the ‘winner take all’ rules in most elections, along with the amount of money and resources required to mount credible campaigns, these are long shots save for periods of crisis and upheaval, like the period just before the U.S. Civil War when the Whigs imploded, the Liberty Party had a role, and a new ‘First Party’ formed, the Republican Party (GOP). Another period worth a deeper look is 1944-48, when the rising forces of the Cold War and Southern racism led to a four-way race in 1948 between the Dixiecrats (Strom Thurmond), Democrats (Harry Truman), Republicans (Thomas Dewey), and the Progressive Party (Henry Wallace).

Our Six-Party System

But today, we’ll do better to get a more accurate picture of our adversaries if we set aside the labels of ‘two-party system’, ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ and the other nuances mentioned above.

Instead, I’ll offer an alternative working hypothesis, that we live under a six-party system with two labels, and that this will give us a closer and more realistic view of the relation and balance of forces with which we have to deal. But even here, it’s important to note that we are discussing ‘parties’ as clusters of colluding and contending blocs of interests, economic views, and social coalitions, not unified and disciplined ideological formations strictly bound to a platform. The six ‘parties’ described here below, however, do come closer to these kinds of constructs than the larger ‘two labels’ they operate under.

So who are they?

  • The Tea Party. So far, only the most far right group has been given the label ‘party’ in the mass media, even though it operates as a faction within the GOP. It generally represents anti-globalist nationalism with a prominence given to the ‘Austrian School’ economics of classical liberalism and, in some cases, the self-interest philosophy of Ayn Rand. It also merges with paleo-conservative traditionalists, which serves as a cover for defending white and male privilege and armed militia groups. It appeals to about 10%-20% of the electorate, with greater support in the South and West. It is locked in a fierce factional struggle with the other wing of the GOP. While a minority in the House overall, they dominate the GOP House Caucus, and thus, as reported widely on 24-hour news cycles, they can and do block many bills from coming to the floor. Tea Party incumbents have been aided in gaining and retaining their seats by GOP-led redistricting on the level of the states they control, breaking up districts electing Democrats and forming new ones with more homogenous right-wing majorities. This was begun by Paul Weyrich of the ‘New Right’ under Reagan, and continues to this day.
  • The Republican Multinationalists. These are the neoliberal moneybags of the GOP (and the neoconservative subset termed ‘The War Party’ by Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul from the right) — the Bushes, Cheney, Karl Rove, the Koch brothers and others with fortunes rooted in petroleum, defense industries and other U.S. businesses with global reach. Their neoliberal economics became hegemonic with Reagan’s ascendancy via the anti-Black and anti-feminist ‘Southern Strategy’ alliance with the forces that later came to make up the Tea Party right. The Koch brother’s money also helped form the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), thus allowing business lobbyists to write uniform reactionary legislation, mainly on the state level, across the country. Despite statewide gains, the GOP label’s current dilemma is that the Tea Party’s more inane, backward and proto-fascist views on social and cultural issues is causing the GOP tickets to lose national elections, deadlock the Congress and strain the alliance. On the other hand, if the ‘Country Club’ Republicans dump the Tea Party, the GOP itself may implode.
  • The Blue Dogs. This caucus in the Democratic Party is tied to ‘Red State’ mass voting bases-the military industrial workers, and the Southern and Appalachian regions. They are neo-Keynesian on military matters, but neoliberal on everything else. Their ‘party’ frequently sides with the GOP in Congressional voting. The Blue Dog Coalition has recently shrunk from 27 to 14 members, often having paved the way to self-defeat by backhandedly encouraging GOP victories in their districts by attacking Obama and other Democrats.
  • The ‘Third Way’ New Democrats. This ‘party’ of the center right is mainly the U.S. electoral arm of global and finance capital, with the Clintons and Rahm Emanuel as the better known public faces. Formed to break with ‘economic populism’ of the old FDR coalition, and assert a variety of globalist ‘free trade’ measures and the gutting of Glass-Steagall banking regulations, this new post-Reagan-Mondale grouping decided to put distance between itself and traditional labor allies. While neo-Keynesian on most matters, it also ‘triangulates’ with neoliberal positions. Started as the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and the ‘New Democrat Coaltions. John Kerry is a member of the DLC but President Obama has claimed ‘no direct connection,’ even though the grouping lists Obama as one of its ‘rising stars.’ The DLC/New Democrats essentially speak for some of the more powerful elements of finance capital under the ‘Democratic’ label. It is the dominant view among the Senate Democratic majority.
  • Old New Dealers. This ‘party’ is represented by unofficial wealthy Democratic groups like Americans Coming Together, plus the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education and others. They take a Keynesian approach to economic matters, and are often critical of finance capital and the trade deals promoted by the globalists. They are also wary of deep defense cuts that would cause layoffs among their membership base. They maintain, however, strong alliances with some civil rights, women’s and environmental groups. Their main value to Democratic tickets is their independent get-out-the-vote operations, which can be decisive in many races. They also work closely with the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a business-based anti-free trade lobby that works with labor.
  • PDA/Congressional Progressive Caucus. While the largest single caucus in the House, the CPC ‘party’ is still relatively small, representing 80 out of 435 votes. Its policy views are Keynesian and, in some cases, social-democratic as well. Its recent ‘Back-to-Work Budget’ serves as an excellent economic platform for a popular front against finance capital. It also largely overlaps with the Hispanic and Black Caucuses, and is the most multinational ‘rainbow’ grouping in the Congress. It also includes Senator Bernie Sanders, the sole socialist in Congress, who was an initial founder of the CPC. It has opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, under the Progressive Democrats of America banners of ‘Healthcare Not Warfare’ and ‘Windmills Not Weapons.’ It has recently gained some direct union support from the militant National Nurses United and the Communications Workers of America. Many, but not all, CPC members are also members of Progressive Democrats of America, an independent PAC dubbed the ‘Tom Hayden/ Dennis Kucinich’ Democrats at the time of their founding in 2004. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is the closest political group the US has that would parallel some of the ‘United Left’ socialist and social democratic groups in European countries.

What Does It All Mean?

With this brief descriptive and analytical mapping of the upper crust of American politics, many things begin to fall in place. Romney, a very wealthy representative of the Multinational GOP group, defeated all the Tea Party candidates in the primaries, and consequently, could never convince the Tea Party he was one of them, simply because he wasn’t. This led to a drop in GOP voter enthusiasm that couldn’t even be overcome with ‘dog whistle’ appeals to racism and revanchism in the campaigns.

The Obama administration, on the other hand, at its core, represents an alliance between the DLC ‘Third Way’ and the Old New Dealers, while also pulling along the PDA/Congressional Progressive Caucus as energetic but critical secondary allies. The Blue Dogs found themselves out in the cold from the wider Obama coalition, and shrank accordingly. Barbara Lee of PDA and the CPC, moving from a minority of one on Afghanistan at the start of the invasion, finally got a majority of House Democrats to oppose and push Obama on the wars, but to little avail in any immediate sense, being thwarted by both the DLC and the Multinational GOP.

This ‘big picture’ also reveals much about the current budget debates, which are shown to be three-sided — the extreme austerity neoliberalism of the Tea Party Ryan budget, the ‘austerity lite’ budget of the DLC-dominated Senate Democrats, and the left Keynesian progressive ‘Back to Work’ budget of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The ‘Old New Dealers’ were caught in the middle, with only 20 or so coming over on the Black Caucus version of the ‘Back to Work’ budget, which was still in the minority.

While all this shows why and how Obama was able to pull together a majority electoral coalition, it also reveals why he is still thwarted on pulling together an effective governing coalition. Likewise, it shows how the Tea Party, with only 10%-20% of the electorate, is able to water down or completely block common-sense measures on gun control with 70%-90% support among the general population.

Finally, the fact that there is only one avowed socialist in Congress tells us something about our own position in the overall balance of forces. Socialist candidates are only able to draw 2% to 5% of the votes in this period, save for Sanders — and we all know that Vermont has some unique features that made it possible (not that Sanders didn’t do yeoman worked in pulling together a progressive majority that elected him).

In summary, here are a few things to keep in mind. If you decide to intervene in electoral work to build independent working class grassroots organizations, you don’t go ‘inside the Democratic Party.’ There’s not much of an ‘inside’ there anymore. What you do instead is join or work with one of the two factions/‘parties’ that are left of center. Your aim is to make either of these stronger, preferably the PDA/Congressional Progressive Caucus. Then to shift the overall balance of forces, your task is to defeat the Tea Party, the Multinational GOP, and the Blue Dogs. At present, not a single piece of progressive legislation is going to get passed without driving a wedge between the two parties under the GOP label and weakening both of them.

We have to keep in mind, however, that ‘shifting the balance of forces’ is mainly an indirect and somewhat ephemeral gain. It does ‘open up space’, but for what? Progressive initiatives matter for sure, but much more is required strategically. We are interested in pushing the popular front vs. finance capital to its limits, and within that effort, developing a socialist bloc. If that comes to scale, the ‘Democratic Party tent’ is likely to collapse and implode, given the sharper class contractions and other fault lines that lie within it, much as the Whigs did in the 19th Century. That demands an ability to regroup all the progressive forces into a new ‘First Party’ alliance able to contend for power.

An old classic formula summing up the strategic thinking of the united front and popular front is appropriate here: ‘Unite and develop the progressive forces, win over the middle forces, isolate and divide the backward forces, then crush our adversaries one by one.’ In short, we have to have a policy and set of tactics for each one of these elements, as well as a strategy for dealing with them overall.

Finally, a note of warning from the futurist Alvin Toffler: “If you don’t have a strategy, you’re part of someone else’s strategy.”

{ 77 comments… read them below or add one }

John Halle April 6, 2013 at 11:36 am

An alternative analysis is to view the partisan orientation here as progressing towards that of Greece, i.e. two establishment parties PASOK/New Democracy (represented here by corporate Rs and Ds), anti-establishment right, Golden Dawn (here, the tea party) and anti-establishment left Syriza (here, nascent efforts at left third parties-more or less similar to Syriza a decade ago). This exercise in taxonomy might be seen as purely speculative, abstract theorizing, but it matters from the point of view of strategy. Here’s why: It is pretty obvious by now that anyone who is serious about progressive change in Greece is working within Syriza, having long since given up the delusion that the establishment left party PASOK was capable of serving as a vehicle for taking on entrenched capital and the EU. There were many self-identified leftists who attempted to work within PASOK-in fact, Papandreou himself, a new left technocrat, active in the student movement, and regarded as a credible advocate for a left agenda in many circles, has a profile rather reminiscent of Davidson. As it turns out, the tragedy was that the left in Greece listened to the Davidsons and did not come to the recognition sooner that working within PASOK was worse than useless- reinforcing the right agenda and EU capital rather than challenging it. We will either come to a similar recognition here or be assured of facing similar results.


Louis Proyect April 6, 2013 at 5:37 pm

What a bitter irony that Carl is talking this stuff up on the very day that Obama announced his intentions to cut Social Security and Medicare, something equivalent in its way to Clinton’s termination of Aid to Dependent Children. Demurrals to the effect that the Progressive Caucus opposes this is of course to be expected. If you’ve ever seen a 3-card Monty game in progress, you’ll understand the logic behind this.


Carl Davidson April 6, 2013 at 6:25 pm

If you read the piece, Louis, you’ll see it provides a pretty good framework for explaining exactly what’s going on, with Obama’s ‘triangulating party’ and those under the GOP label being opposed by the two ‘parties’ to his left. Expect more fireworks as the drama unfolds.


Louis Proyect April 6, 2013 at 7:02 pm

Yeah, except that nobody but you thinks there are “6 parties”, least of all the “progressives” in the Democratic Party who call themselves Democrats pure and simple. Their function is to keep people tied to a bankrupt institution in the same way that liberal Catholic priests do. Without them, the DP would erode at an even more rapid tempo than is the case now.


Carl Davidson April 6, 2013 at 7:10 pm

I don’t think I’m alone, Louis. I’ve circulated this to a number of people working in the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the ‘Old New Dealers’ grouping, and they seem to think it’s a fairly accurate roadmap.

And I’ve yet to run into a Democrat who called himself or herself a ‘pure and simple’ Democrat. But who knows? Maybe there are some.

But as I said in this little essay: it’s a working hypothesis. If you have a different and better one, put it out for us to consider.


Luke Elliott April 7, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Louis – “The DP would erode if” a lot of things. But the piece is about the world that *is* not the world that “would be if”. I’m not sure the 6 party scheme is fully accurate (not due to skepticism, just ignorance), but it seems like a more nuanced picture of the current national-level electoral terrain than what I’ve seen from most (all?) leftists out there. If you don’t think a picture of that terrain is important, then I guess there’s not terribly much to talk about. And if you do, then I see Carl has invited you to provide a modified or alternative picture. I’m all ears too!

The big question to me is: where is the formation that can take advantage of and enhance Carl’s analysis? Building that up is the real trick, in my opinion!


Louis Proyect April 8, 2013 at 8:58 am

Carl was describing groupings in the two bourgeois parties. To call them “parties” is sophistry. The Progressive Caucus will always back whichever scumbag the party puts forward, like Barack Obama. It does not matter that they speak out against cuts to SS and Medicare when the party leadership is pushing for it. Basically these attacks on the welfare state institutions of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society are driven by the needs of the bourgeoisie to turn the clock back to the 1890s. When Obama spoke admiringly of Reagan, that should enough for smart people to figure out that the fix was in.

When opportunities are presented in the electoral arena, it is hard to recover from wrong moves since we operate more on the basis of popular participation rather than corporate handouts. I went to a Nader rally in Madison Square Garden chaired by Michael Moore in 2000. There was enormous energy there that day. Four years later the Greens were sabotaged by people like Medea Benjamin who believed in “lesser evil” politics. The Greens have never been the same.


Luke Elliott April 8, 2013 at 9:30 am

Well, call them whatever you want, I suppose: parties/groupings/ideological typologies. I’m more curious if they accurately describe the terrain.

About “lesser evil” politics: Nader never had a chance. Period. You can read Marx until you’re green in the face, but it will take a whole new historical conjuncture before the far left (or the far right for that matter) can win the presidency in the US. (I’m sure you know the most successful 3rd party candidate in the last 100 years was? Ross Perot.) In the meanwhile, I’m interested in the left putting its energy where it actually win power: city counsels, some state legislatures, now and again, Congress.

Enough with ‘would be’ politics. We need to start with a sober assessment of material and ideological conditions and pick fights we can win instead of fights we wish we could win.


Louis Proyect April 8, 2013 at 2:32 pm

If you want to win power, then definitely work inside the Democratic Party. You will be capable of petty reforms on a municipal level while the nation continues to hurdle at breakneck speed toward 1890/


Luke Elliott April 8, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Louis – seriously what’s your plan? Because if its to sit around and wait for a crisis without making any effort to connect with organizations that have bases filled with potential agents of change, then I’ve got a good sense of how it’s going to play out. So since you’re taking the time to lecture about the dp, can you take a quick moment and tell me what your plan is?


Carl Davidson April 8, 2013 at 10:20 am

Which is the greater ‘sophistry,’ Louis. To call the Democrats and Republican ‘parties’ or the six effective groupings under their two labels as such? My point remains: this hypothesis is more helpful in explaining what is actually unfolding than the ‘two party’ or ‘one party’ hypothesis. I would add that if you’re interested in seeing both of the two parties implode, and news ones emerge with more power on the left than the right, the ‘six party’ thesis is far more helpful in figuring out tactics than not–and that after all, is the apple of my eye, and has been so for the last 50 years.


Louis Proyect April 8, 2013 at 2:34 pm

You didn’t have to write an article to illustrate that there are divisions in the Democratic and Republican Parties. I can read Maureen Dowd, Gail Collins and David Brooks for that.


Luke Elliott April 7, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Carl – ill read this when I’m not on a cell phone but I just have to tell you that I’m literally working on a piece about left electoral politics in the US right now that starts with a quote from sun tzu. We must be on the same wavelength as they say….


Brendan Campisi April 7, 2013 at 11:01 pm

Liberal Democrats like to portray national electoral politics as being a contest between their ‘party’ and the Republican hard right, the ‘Tea Party’ in this scheme. In reality, neither of these groups will end up setting the direction of policy. The real competition is between the Republican Multinationalists (not the term I would use, but whatever) and the Third Way Democrats.
These Third Way Democrats are actually neoliberal on most issues, not ‘neo-Keynesian’, whatever that means. The idea that the CPC/PDA are the equivalent of Syriza is absolutely laughable.


John Halle April 8, 2013 at 9:04 am

“The idea that the CPC/PDA are the equivalent of Syriza is absolutely laughable.” I agree. Who is making this claim?


Brendan Campisi April 8, 2013 at 3:59 pm

It’s right here: “The Congressional Progressive Caucus is the closest political group the US has that would parallel some of the ‘United Left’ socialist and social democratic groups in European countries.”


Carl Davidson April 8, 2013 at 7:56 am

I would agree that the Congressional Progressive Caucus is not ‘the equivalent’ of Syriza. This is the USA, not Greece. But the CPC was founded by our handful of social-dems and one socialist in Congress, and they are united around an anti-finance capital platform opposed by both the New Democrats and the GOP to their right. That’s the point. You can ignore it or dismiss it, as you like, but it remains. It simply isn’t strong enough yet–and that ball, to a good degree, is in our court.


verna safran April 8, 2013 at 6:42 pm

Are you guys kidding? We have a one-party system in America. A party that uses drones to kill imaginary enemies in Afghanistan, a party that’s willing to cut Social Security and Medicare, a party that doesn’t give a damn about unemployment — in fact, they like it because it keeps wages low, a party that would rather back the armaments industry than disarm both here and abroad.

Other countries have traditions of numerous parties. We have a tradition of one party pretending to be two parties. Whatever you’re smoking, stop it and open the windows.


Carl Davidson April 8, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Sorry, Verna. As noted above, that’s the reductionist view that doesn’t help much. All it tell us is that we live under capitalism, which is neither a strategy nor a set of tactics.


Luke Elliott April 8, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Verna –

I suggest reading the book “It Didn’t Happen Here.” (i.e. socialism) Two political sociologists getting pretty detailed about the unique features of the US situation and structure. The two parties here are ideologically porous enough to house folks who would be in very different camps in a parliamentary system.

In any case, in my humble little opinion the nuance of Carl’s analysis is far superior to a flat ‘it’s all one party’ glance at the people who run the show in this country. Such detail provides the foundation for a strategy. ‘It’s all one party’ provides the foundation for defeatism, ultra-leftism, or something equally ineffectual.


PatrickSMcNally April 8, 2013 at 9:09 pm

That point is often inflated artificially to mean something more than it really does. Yes, France has had a Socialist Party which was able to help administer World War One, support imperial wars in Algeria & Vietnam, and all the rest. That does not mean that the establishment of such nominally “socialist” parties is really so significant that it should be used as a measure of goals here in the USA. In the USA in the 1960s we had trade unions who were supporting LBJ in Vietnam. That’s much not different from the “socialist” parties that have formed under parliamentary systems.

If a motion was put forward to revamp the system of elections and representation so as to include proportional representation, graded voting and the like, then I could understand supporting such. It’s not a bad idea for a socialist running a campaign to express their general support for this. But this should not be over-stretched to mean more than it really does. In France today the French Socialists are helping to carry forward the Reaganization of western Europe. That is not altered simply by having a parliamentary system.


Richard Estes April 8, 2013 at 8:45 pm

There is an enormous gap between the populace and the what little remains of the party politics in the US. As much as I dislike the initiative process here in California, we were able to pass two substantial tax increases and reform the “three strikes” law at the ballot box, alternatives that are unavailable federally, where we get to choose between austerity or the reduction of Social Security and Medicare benefits in order to procure some minor tax increases. We are are looking at the defunding of domestic programs to continue to fund a massive military-industrial complex, a global war machine as pointed out by Verna.

If we are to escape austerity at home and war abroad, it will probably take something like the civil rights movement to close this gap. Or, possibly even a mass campaign of non-participation or even a sectional fragmentation of the country. Of course, I know that this sounds implausible, and it is, at least for now, but no less so than working within a political system that has been corrupted to an extent not seen since the late 19th Century, while being insulated from accountability to anyone other than the FIRE and arms manufacturing sectors.


Luke Elliott April 9, 2013 at 9:10 am

The Civil Rights movement was built meticulously by thoughtful, trained organizers. From where I sit, it’s not implausible that something like that could be built again, to match today’s situation.


John Halle April 10, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Useful perspective from Oscar Lafontaine. Note how even in a multi-partisan system, the neo-liberal consensus remains dominant. Crucial is his ability to recognize (which Davidson is not) that “The fabricated battle of the two camps is a farce.”

L continues:

“Voters will have a déjà vu experience. After the election things will be the same in Germany as before the election, regardless which politicians or fractions of the German Unity Party form the government. Astonishingly, representatives of German business are quietly indicating a preference for an SPD-Green coalition government. The former head of the Federation of German Industry (BDI), Hans-Peter Keitel, recently said, ‘When a country needs to make political-economic reforms, it is better if the government does not have a political color that makes it suspect of favoring business.'”


Luke Elliott April 10, 2013 at 12:35 pm

I think everyone is pretty clear that the neoliberal consensus is dominant in the US and in the parliamentary systems around the globe. Honestly, naming that doesn’t seem like a response to Davidson’s article. I see the point of this article as two fold:

1. Describing the US electoral scene, in some detail. As he mentions, if all we do is wash our hands of the whole thing and just say, “It’s all one big capitalist party” then we don’t have any basis whatsoever for any kind of meaningful left-wing electoral strategy and action. So the article paints a relatively nuanced picture of the US electoral scene.

2. It points toward *potential* allies within the current DP structure. They are not definite allies. They are not the equivalent of Syriza. They are simply the furtherest left that national-level electoral politics gets right now, and they could potentially be articulated and moved into something more left wing, if we had the organizational structures to pull them.


Carl Davidson April 10, 2013 at 1:42 pm

If our strategy of one of a popular front vs finance capital, which I think it is, then our task is to break up and replaces the current neoliberal hegemonic bloc, primarily the alliance of the New Democrats and the Multinational GOP, and their secondary allies, the Tea Party and the Blue Dogs.

That requires a better alliance between the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Old New Dealers, and the progressive social movements on the ‘outside’, beyond the beltway. The new emerging ‘progressive majority’ bloc will consist of Keynesians, social-democrats and our handful of Marxists with any degree of clout, with its spearhead aimed at financial capital. The platform of the Congressional Progressive Caucus can serve as this, or something close to it, but the overall coalition, including each of its forces, remains too disorganized and weak at present. An intelligent approach from the left, both socialist and otherwise, however, can help to change that. But that ball is in our court.


Luke Elliott April 10, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Sign me up.


Louis Proyect April 10, 2013 at 1:10 pm

One of the things I have learned over the years is that opportunities must not be squandered on the left. Since we are operating from a position of weakness rather than strength, timing is everything.

In the 1930s there was massive support for a labor party in the USA, so much so that the CPUSA backed a Labor Party in NY State as a way of deflecting criticisms from the left. Its real agenda, of course, was backing FDR.

In the 1960s there was again massive support for a new party but sectarianism plagued such efforts with some sects backing the Peace and Freedom Party and the CPUSA launching the Freedom and Peace Party. The SWP ran its own sectarian presidential campaigns, needless to say.

Then in the 1990s you had the emergence of the Greens and their Nader campaigns. In 2000 there was huge support for Nader as a sold-out rally in MSG would indicate. So what happens next? The Demogreens (Medea Benjamin, Ted Glick) refuse to back Nader in 2004 because he would draw votes away from Kerry.

In my view the last time we had a chance to catch the ring on the merry-go-round was in 2011 when the Occupy movement could have held a national convention to launch something like the Occupy Party that could have run a high-profile candidate like Chris Hedges. It was the unfortunate prejudice toward localism and against electoral politics that made this a virtual impossibility.

Anyhow, we have to keep our eyes open for future opportunities. I think the Socialist Alternative campaigns are a step in the right direction although I think that the comrades have yet to rethink the organizational question that really prevents them from playing a vanguard role in the sense of catalyzing broader dynamics.


Luke Elliott April 10, 2013 at 3:12 pm

That’s an interesting glance at the last 50 years, but I feel like the limitation of the analysis is that it focuses on the presidency. Honestly I just don’t think the far left (or the far right) has any legitimate shot at the presidency any time soon, given the electoral college, the winner take all system and the ideological porousness of the DP (and RP).

Localism has serious limitations, but so does thinking that 3rd party politics toward the formation of a hegemonic bloc hinges on the presidency. I think we have much better chances in Congress, which is one of the reasons why I like Carl’s piece.



Carl Davidson April 10, 2013 at 3:23 pm

I have a point of agreement with Louis on the Socialist Alternative municipal campaign, and perhaps on state campaigns similar to the one LaBotz did in Ohio. These would largely be party-building exercises in developing a socialist front. We might get a nice-sized minority, but i wouldn’t expect them to win at this stage. On the Congress level, however, I’d urge working for the PDA candidates and building stronger PDA chapters in each Congressional district. (Apart from Congress, PDA backs no local candidates, even as if favors many. It’s a restriction of their PAC. As for President, we could run leftists as ‘favorite sons and daughter’ in the primaries to shift the debates, but given the balance of forces, we’re still in the phrase of ‘lesser evil’ when it comes to POTUS.


Louis Proyect April 10, 2013 at 4:55 pm

we’re still in the phrase of ‘lesser evil’ when it comes to POTUS.

Kemo sabe, white man. What do you me by “we”?


Carl Davidson April 10, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Who do I mean by ‘we’? Those of us interested in developing progressive grassroots worker-community organizations in the course of Presidential races, as opposed to simply running POTUS candidates for the sake of revolutionary education among the advanced. One can do both at the same time, in which case I suggest studying how Browder and Foster developed their tactics in 1936.


Louis Proyect April 10, 2013 at 7:22 pm

Carl, the Obama administration is inimical to the interest of the “progressive grass roots”.

1. His key appointments indicated a tilt toward Wall Street. Tim Geithner, his Secretary of the Treasury, was the brains behind TARP–in other words “too big to fail”. As head of the United States National Economic Council, Larry Summers pushed for tax cuts rather than New Deal type spending on roads, bridges, etc. Before becoming Attorney General, Eric Holder was at a Washington law firm that represented a Who’s Who of big banks and other companies at the center of alleged foreclosure fraud. That, no doubt, is why a Justice Department panel investigating mortgage security fraud is being starved for funds.

2. Working-class homeowners have suffered under the Obama administration. On taking office, Obama promised that up to 9 million of them would be protected from foreclosure but only 2.3 million have gotten assistance. Moreover, the White House never addressed the problem of plunging house prices that left owners being both unable to stay and to leave.

3. Despite their slavish support for Obama, trade unions have been treated poorly. Obama promised that he would fight for EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act), an act that would expedite union certification. Once in office, it was relegated to the back burner. When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker went on a union-busting rampage, Obama did nothing to back the protests and limited his support for a Democrat in a recall election to a tweet. When Chicago teachers went on strike against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Scott Walker-like attack, Obama stood aloof. This was to be expected, of course, since his Secretary of Education is a proponent of charter schools.

4. Despite foolish expectations that Obama would be a new FDR, Obama has functioned more like Hoover on the jobs creation front. There has been nothing like the WPA or the CCC, despite an aging infrastructure. And despite all the hoopla over the auto bailout, the net result has been a downsizing of the big three auto companies, as well as a sharp cut in benefits.

5. Both Obama and Romney love free trade. As liberal wonk Matt Iglesias put it, “And what’s more, all indications are that Barack Obama also doesn’t think Bain was doing anything wrong. As president he’s made no moves to make it illegal for companies to shift production work abroad and has publicly associated himself with a wide range of American firms—from GE to Apple and beyond—who’ve done just that to varying extents. And we all remember what happened to Obama’s promise to renegotiate NAFTA after taking office, right?”

6. Obama done nothing to solve the problem of greenhouse-gas related climate change, a point made by Al Gore in a Rolling Stone article. Despite the EPA’s requirement that new (but not existing) coal-fueled plants cut their emissions by half, there are signs that this will have little to do with reducing greenhouse gases since coal is being replaced across the board by the far cheaper natural gas.

7. Natural gas extraction is being facilitated through the use of hydrofracking, an environmentally devastating practice that the Obama administration has accepted without qualms. In his latest State of the Union speech, Obama’s pro-natural gas stance earned the praise of the pro-hydrofracking Independent Oil & Gas Association. His EPA chief Lisa Jackson told a Senate Committee that she knew of no instances where fracking affected water, a stance that endeared her to the ultra-reactionary NY Post. Finally, he gave TransCanada the OK to build the southern portion of its Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in June of this year. By contrast, Jill Stein was arrested when she was resupplying activists blockading the pipeline.

8. In the same month that he gave TransCanada the green light, Obama permitted oil drilling in the Arctic. This follows a decision in January to re-open 38 Million Acres in Gulf of Mexico to offshore drilling. The fact that BP has given the largest chunk of its $3.5 million campaign contributions to Obama might well have something to do with this.

9. Obama has supported the building of nuclear power plants, even after Fukushima.

10. In 2009 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack gave his personal approval for a 381-acre clear-cut in Tongass National Forest, America’s largest stand of temperate rain forest.

11. Last and far from least, Obama lifted the ban on hunting gray wolves in eight northern states in 2011. Maybe he and Sarah Palin can go shoot the beasts from a helicopter some time next year in the spirit of collaboration between the two parties. They can bring Chris Christie along, after making sure that the helicopter can carry all that weight.

12. Obama promised to close down Guantanamo but the prison remained open even after he said in the ill-conceived Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: ” I believe the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war…That is why I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed.”

13. When men imprisoned in Guantanamo demanded that they be tried in a U.S. court, the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court. On Obama’s urging, the court denied a hearing, thus leading some to assert that a president with a background in constitutional law was gutting habeas corpus.

14. Obama maintains a secret kill list that included American citizens. This suspension of habeas corpus not only led to the murder of Anwar al-Awlaki—an American—but his 16 year old son who was never charged with a crime. Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former press secretary, defending the killing this way: “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children.

15. Obama’s raid on Osama bin-Laden’s house was essentially illegal. Amnesty International described it as an extrajudicial execution.

16. His use of drones has led to the deaths of many noncombatants, including a number that have been covered up. The criterion used by the White House is that any military aged male within the target range is fair game. If this is not the policy of a war criminal, then I do not know what is.

17. Many of Obama’s policies are shrouded in secrecy. When the White House leaked word about its kill list—intended to burnish its reputation as tough on terror—nothing happened. But when people like Bradley Manning reveal the machinations that lead to war, he is put in solitary confinement and faced with a lengthy prison term.

18. Despite the hostility of Netanyahu, Israel continues to get carte blanche from the administration. When Americans consider the possibility of joining a flotilla to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza, they have to worry about the threats of fines and imprisonment brandished by Hillary Clinton. Despite toothless remonstrations to Israel about West Bank settlements, the U.S. voted against a U.N. resolution that described them as illegal. Finally, despite American nervousness about an armed attack on Iran, the U.S. continues to back crippling sanctions all in the name of reducing the threat to Israel, a country that flouts international treaties against its own stockpile of nuclear weapons.

19. Against all evidence that its occupation of Afghanistan has been a disaster to the Afghan people and to the soldiers serving there, Obama pledges to “finish the job” in Nixonian terms. Sticking to a 2014 deadline for withdrawal, he will likely step up the use of drones as he begins to wind down troop deployments. 42 states and the District of Columbia are facing serious budget shortfalls this year. Spending for the Afghanistan war would more than make up for the shortfalls. As is always the case, it is guns trump butter.

20. Despite all the hype about the breakthrough of having the first African-American president, there are signs that Obama has largely ignored the suffering of Black America. In a very important article that appeared in the October 28th New York Times, Columbia University’s director of Black studies wrote: “Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017, the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality.” Among the findings in this article: 28 percent of African-Americans, and 37 percent of black children, are poor (compared with 10 percent of whites and 13 percent of white children); 13 percent of blacks are unemployed (compared with 7 percent of whites); more than 900,000 black men are in prison; blacks experienced a sharper drop in income since 2007 than any other racial group; black household wealth, which had been disproportionately concentrated in housing, has hit its lowest level in decades; blacks accounted, in 2009, for 44 percent of new H.I.V. infections.

21. Obama has deported twice the number of undocumented workers per annum than Bush. 59 percent of Latinos disapprove of his policies but face the quandary of voting for Romney, who complains that Obama is not deporting enough.

22. Obamacare has effectively preempted the only health care option that made sense, namely a single-payer plan that would effectively extended Medicare (but a much improved on) to all. As Obama has said on countless occasions, this is the same plan that Romney pushed through when he was governor of Massachusetts. It is also the same plan that American Enterprise Institute scholar J.D. Kleinke defended in a September 29, 2012 NYT op-ed piece titled “The Conservative Case for Obamacare”: The rationalization and extension of the current market is financed by the other linchpin of the law: the mandate that we all carry health insurance, an idea forged not by liberal social engineers at the Brookings Institution but by conservative economists at the Heritage Foundation. The individual mandate recognizes that millions of Americans who could buy health insurance choose not to, because it requires trading away today’s wants for tomorrow’s needs. The mandate is about personal responsibility — a hallmark of conservative thought.”

23. Obama set up something called National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform that was co-chaired by a couple of fiscal hawks, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. There are fears that the policies favored by these two reactionaries will be implemented as cuts in Social Security in Obama’s second term. In his debate with Romney, Obama said, “I suspect that on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound. It’s going to have to be tweaked the way it was by Ronald Reagan and Speaker — Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill. But it is — the basic structure is sound.” With the likely continuation of Bush tax cuts, there will be pressure to cut the deficit. Between Social Security and tax breaks for billionaires, guess which will be sacrificed.

24. The White House has been a pillar of support for charter schools. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is one of the country’s leading advocates for what amounts to the privatization of public schools and the liquidation of the teacher’s union, one of the few in the country that still has some backbone. The irrepressible Diane Ravitch described Duncan this way: “Duncan cheered when the superintendent of the Central Falls, Rhode Island, school district threatened to fire every teacher in the town’s only high school; the Education Secretary memorably said that Hurricane Katrina—which wiped out public schools and broke the teachers’ union in New Orleans—was the best thing that ever happened to the school system in that city. Teachers are demoralized by such statements.”

25. Finally, in the one bright spot in recent American history of people challenging the status quo—namely the Occupy movement—there is strong evidence that the White House conspired with local authorities to crush it. David Lindorff reported for Counterpunch: “A new trove of heavily redacted documents provided by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) on behalf of filmmaker Michael Moore and the National Lawyers Guild makes it increasingly evident that there was and is a nationally coordinated campaign to disrupt and crush the Occupy Movement.”


Carl Davidson April 10, 2013 at 10:16 pm

Louis, you still don’t get it. All this is beside the point. I know Obama well, perhaps better than many on the left. I gave Obama a vote to defeat Romney. I have my platform, and Obama has his. They are hardly the same. I and those in agreements with me have waged struggle with the White House all along the way, and still do. The one positive thing I expected of him, getting the troops out of Iraq, he’s done, though not soon enough for my taste. So all the points you list above are more or less consistent with my description of him, as a neoKeynesian tangled up with Wall St neoliberals in his ‘Team of Rivals.’ What you lack, however, is any wider conception on strategy, and very little sense of tactics. but then, that’s what this thread is all about…


Luke Elliott April 10, 2013 at 10:32 pm

Louis –

If any of your 25 points are surprising to anyone, then I’m on the wrong thread. If you could get those published in the NYT, they might be shocking to someone (though even that I’m not sure of).

Indeed this article is about strategy and tactics. Everyone or nearly everyone on this thread knows the score. The question is, what to do about it. And again, that’s where knowing the electoral terrain at the national level in some detail is useful – hence the 6 party (or whatever you feel like calling them) framework.


Louis Proyect April 11, 2013 at 9:46 am

So what would Obama have to do to make people like Carl Davidson decide not to vote for him, I wonder. If Obama decided to round Arab-Americans up and put them into concentration camps, would he still back him the way that the CPUSA backed FDR after he did that to Japanese-Americans?

It was this kind of opportunism that helped to take a party with over 100,000 members into an aging sect of perhaps 2000 today. If this is intelligent strategy, no thanks.


Luke Elliott April 11, 2013 at 10:35 am

Yes. I think that overt fascism as opposed to a kind of soft/structural/default fascism would change the terrain significantly, and open up the possibility of radical changes at the highest levels.

But in the meanwhile, there are meaningful differences between Dems and Reps (and, as Carl notes, even within those parties). Meaningful in the sense that, for example, the gay rights movement has forced room for themselves in the DP that they would not have been able to create in the RP. This matters in real, social and sometimes even economic terms for a boat load of people. For you or anyone else to minimize those differences (of of which is sometimes the difference between indulging real, hateful racism and homophobia and not) is wrong.

PatrickSMcNally April 11, 2013 at 10:54 am

Dick Cheney came out in support of gay marriage before Barack Obama did. Cheney simply opposed federal action in support of gay marriage, and so did Obama. Obama’s statement in support of the right of gays to marry read like something which Barry Goldwater could have written.

Carl Davidson April 11, 2013 at 6:20 pm

That’s a big mushball of a question, Louis. He’d just have to denounce most Democrats as ‘socialists,’ ally with the Tea Party and run a tad to the right of the multinational GOP, ie, just what Romney did.

Pham Binh April 11, 2013 at 11:23 am

The problem with this debate is that there is a false dichotomy between seemingly amoral, strategic lesser evilism that acknowledges that the two parties are not the same and moralistically based or inclined rejection of lesser evilism whose immediate strategic implications are unclear because the argument proceeds from the this or that evil committed by the Democratic Party. Both sides are bankrupt in a sense because the task is to break out of being continually being boxed in into choosing “evil”.


Richard Estes April 11, 2013 at 12:28 pm

getting out of the box of choosing the lesser evil requires building a mass movement to the left of the two major parties, an endeavor that the Democratic Party actively seeks to suppress

it requires confronting both parties whenever necessary to preserve political credibility and expand the movement, something that the Koch brothers and the Tea Party participants understand very well

if the approach advocated in this article had any chance of succeeding, we would know by now, progressives have been pursuing it for much of my life, and it has only served to subordinate progressives to a corporatized, neoliberal Democratic Party

interestingly, it is analoguous to liberal Zionists who have advovcated a two state solution in Palestine for decades, just as the progressive acquiescence to the Democrats has assisted a turn to the right, the two state solution has been a cover for destroying the aspirations of the Palestinian people

Richard Estes April 10, 2013 at 5:48 pm

“On the Congress level, however, I’d urge working for the PDA candidates and building stronger PDA chapters in each Congressional district.”

There is a slogan for this that was pervasive on progressive websites like Daily Kos and firedoglake between 2006 and 2009: “more and better Democrats”. The Obama presidency and the actions of the Democratic Congress in 2009 and 2010 has shattered any illusions about the plausibility of this strategy. This is not a left strategy, but a liberal one. Unfortunately for liberals, they are only slightly more powerful than the left. If you want to build a left movement, you have to start with an effort that actually advocates for left values instead of liberal or conservative ones.


Carl Davidson April 10, 2013 at 7:07 pm

We have a number of excellent PDA people elected to Congress–Barbara Lee, Jim McGovern, John Lewis and Keith Ellison, to name four off the top of my head. We need more like them. A liberal strategy is simply to tail the New Democrats and the White White. A left strategy involves pushing the planks of a popular front vs finance capital and war.


John Halle April 11, 2013 at 10:12 am

A nice demonstration of the kinds of logical contortions which lesser evilism results in was provided by the comedian Sam Seder in response to the following question: when confronted with two candidates a and b, both of whom supported building gas chambers, but with b proposing fewer gas chambers, should one vote for a or b? Seder responded that one had “a moral obligation” to vote for b. QED.


Pham Binh April 10, 2013 at 4:24 pm

It’s the difference between a bottom-up and top-down strategy. I think the Green Party would be much stronger if it tried to build at the grassroots, as it were, before trying to run presidential candidates which is tremendously time, money, and labor-intensive.


Louis Proyect April 10, 2013 at 4:53 pm

The importance of presidential campaigns is that attention is galvanized in a way that it is not in other years. The Green Party could have built local chapters based on the huge publicity that Nader was garnering. He received more votes percentage-wide than any 3rd party bid since Debs. You have to strike when the iron is hot.


Pham Binh April 10, 2013 at 8:20 pm

The fact that they didn’t build chapters shows that they had a kind of top-down strategy rather than a grassroots approach.


John Halle April 10, 2013 at 9:50 pm

This is not entirely true. The Greens biggest success was in San Francisco-where they came within 1% or electing mayor Matt Gonzalez and who had previously served as President of the Board of Supervisors along with two other Greens. Also, active local chapters in Minneapolis, Santa Monica, Honolulu, Denver, Seattle and elsewhere. These reached their peak in the years following the Nader 2000 campaign-which many of them developed from. What killed the Greens was, in my opinion, two factors: 1) a left divided between Chomskyan anarchists contemptuous of what they call “quadrennial extravaganzas” and vanguardists Trots taking the CP line on the DP and 2) the effects of 9/11 combined with a successfully orchestrated DP smear campaign. I have a minor disagreement with Louis on the role of the Demogreens who I take to be a relatively insignificant factor. A lot more to say on this subject, of course.


Luke Elliott April 10, 2013 at 3:19 pm

I should add too, that I agree with your sentiment of the importance of timing/taking advantage of opportunity. The trick is, having the organizational structures in place that can capitalize when opportunity arises, right? We just lack that almost completely.


Pham Binh April 10, 2013 at 4:31 pm

I think the 60s was a tough case because building from the bottom up, from “local to national,” was tough strategically since ending the war was a national and an international issue, and therefore tons of anti-war radicals got sucked into the McCarthy campaign on this basis. I wonder if the urban rebellions in the Black ghettos could have been translated into local political campaigns by forces like the Black Panthers? It seems that even the Peace and Freedom Party was aiming too high out of the gate by contesting state-wide office instead of winning locally first.

Fighting austerity and neoliberalism is a whole different terrain in this sense because it is not a policy question confined to the upper echelons of capitalist state power.


Richard Estes April 10, 2013 at 3:33 pm

“Localism has serious limitations, but so does thinking that 3rd party politics toward the formation of a hegemonic bloc hinges on the presidency. I think we have much better chances in Congress, which is one of the reasons why I like Carl’s piece.”

Unlike anarchists, I don’t dismiss efforts to create a political party out of hand. But I see it more about creating a mass base and less about success or failure in the electoral process. Accordingly, the party can be a means to this end. If you are implying that there is a possibility of getting a large vote (meaning 25% or more) in a campaign for a congressional seat, I disagree. The amount of money and institutional support required to run for Congress is enormous. Districts are gerrymandered. But that doesn’t mean that a left Congressional campaign, centered around mass mobilization instead of votes, can’t have a significant impact.

This is what I believe Peter Camejo was trying to accomplish here in California. If such an effort were made, I think that you would discover that many of people described as potential allies by Carl will rapidly become your enemies, because they are inextricably bound to the current cash nexus of US politics. Any left effort of this kind would have to scrupulously establish its independence from the Democrats and Republicans and have candidates that focus on building a mass movement instead of personal validation through election results. It would also have to develop a relationship with radical activists and preserve them as Syriza has done, and organize itself as horizontally as possible as Syriza has also done.


John Halle April 10, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Exactly. And as I observe above, it is unfortunate that more of the Greek left did not recognize sooner that working within PASOK was worse than useless- reinforcing the right agenda and EU capital rather than challenging it. We will either come to a similar recognition here with respect to the DP or be assured of similar results.


Luke Elliott April 10, 2013 at 5:04 pm

I have no interest in taking votes at the national level in a way that helps elect republicans. Obama is a mess, but I’ll take him over Romney and the crew hedve rode in with. (Similarities notwithstanding I, for example, prefer accidental racists to actual hateful ones)

On another note, I just had the realization that I might be learning something on this thread. Imagine that!


Carl Davidson April 10, 2013 at 5:15 pm

I agree Luke. that’s why strategy looks at the whole. But sometimes you also take risks, which means you might lose in a way that helps the right. Many blame Nader this way regarding Bush over Gore, although I’m not one of them. The GOP stole that election blatantly by purging Blacks from the rolls, among other things, including Gore’s own miscalculations. Hoever, that’s a reason I point to 1936 as a positive example, where the CP wanted to weaken the GOP and see FDR win, but it wanted to build its own party in the process. It worked out fairly well, then they got screwed up over how they handled the Molotov-Ribbethrop Pact.


Luke Elliott April 10, 2013 at 6:35 pm

Where best to read about those efforts in useful detail?


Pham Binh April 10, 2013 at 10:44 pm

Fair enough. I hope I didn’t come off as being overly harsh; they’ve struggled very hard to survive in the face of tremendous headwinds, and the fact that they managed to get Stein on the ballot in almost all 50 states is a testament to their dogged determination.

It would be great if you shared your analysis of the Green Party’s evolution as a separate post I think. There is much to learn from their experience, especially if we’re serious about creating an American SYRIZA-type formation that encompasses (or is open to encompassing) the gamut of the left and far left spectrum.


John Halle April 11, 2013 at 8:42 am

Thanks for the invite. I may do so in the context of a review of Davin’s Radicals in Power which I’m now reading on your recommendation. I don’t agree with all of it, but it is a very good book and a very useful focal point for discussing these subjects.


Luke Elliott April 11, 2013 at 8:45 am

Did you take it out of a library? I really want to read it and take notes all over it, but it costs a gagillion dollars. I’m referencing it in a little article I’m finishing up today, but via reviews because I can’t see spending 80 dollars on a book!


Pham Binh April 11, 2013 at 11:38 am

What I think is useful about Davidson’s working hypothesis is that it’s reality-based approach to the two parties rather than an ideology-based approach that sets out to prove a priori political conclusions (“never vote for a Democrat under any circumstance, ever” or “it is impossible to reform the Democratic Party so don’t even bother trying to fight within it for any reason, ever”). It’s also an indication of the extreme degree to which Marxists have under-theorized not only the Democratic and Republican parties but its Whig, Liberty, Free Soil, and Federalist party predecessors as well as the American electoral system in general.

Where I think Davidson errs is that his six-party model does not really explain or get into the mechanics and dynamics of the inter-relationships between these factions or class trends subsumed within the two-party system. What is the affinity between the Tea Party and the Multinationals, why doesn’t the DLC or the Blue Dogs join the GOP, and these kinds of questions are left unanswered by this analysis. It also does not explain why both parties and all their factions have been consistently moving rightwards for the better part of three decades — Obama is to the right of Nixon, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. on many issues (to say nothing of Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, or Paul Wellstone).

Finally, what I want to know is why the so-called progressives in the Democratic Party have never ever adopted Tea Party-style obstructionist tactics even when the Bush’s approval rating fell below Bush’s I.Q. (~35%) during his second term? Why didn’t any “progressive” Democratic Senators filibuster Alito and Roberts, two of the worst reactionaries and biggest enemies of the New Deal to get to the bench since the 1980s?


Luke Elliott April 11, 2013 at 11:44 am

It’s sounds like you’re a step in the direction of building upon his analysis. You should write a full on response!


PatrickSMcNally April 11, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Following on that last statement, one of the most blatant scams in the last year of Bush was when Kucinich pretended to submit a proposal for impeachment. The Democrats became so scared of the whole thing that they wanted to bury it, and Kucinich collaborted in burying his own impeachment proposal. Republicans were actually more eager to force the issue into an open vote because they wanted to expose the Democrats and Kucinich as the scammers that they were. If Kucinich had actually been at all serious, that impeachment proposal would have been made in 2004, not 2008, and then he would have openly insisted upon having it debated in the teeth of opposition by Pelosi. Kucinich did not anything like this because he was and is a scammer for the Democratic Party.


Richard Estes April 11, 2013 at 2:50 pm

People like Kucinich, Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey have usually supported the party whenever it has been necessary to prevail on a critical issue, abandoning their previous progressive stances. Kucinich returned to DC and voted for the Affordable Care Act after spending time with Obama on Air Force One; Lee and Woolsey, as part of the House Democratic leadership, successfully whipped for votes against a measure in 2007 that would have cut off funding for the Iraq war while personally voting for it. It lost, narrowly, and it can logically be assumed that they would have voted against it as well if their votes had been necessary to defeat it.

There is an opening for the left here, but it remains to be seen if it can take advantage of it.

More recently, there was the pathetic performance of Raul Grijalva and the progressive caucus in the House on the ACA, pledging to vote against it if it didn’t include a public option. We all know how that turned out. And, the ACA is forcing itself back on stage with a vengence. I’ve run into three very different people in the last 2 weeks, and they all have horror stories to share about what insurance companies are doing in advance of its insurance coverage requirements in 2014. Expect a populist eruption over this within 6 months, if not sooner. In any event, we are about to experience a variation of this dance in regard to the Obama budget, cuts to Medicare and the adoption of chained CPI to cut Social Security.


Pham Binh April 11, 2013 at 4:22 pm

I agree that health care is going to be a flash point over the course of the next five years. Too many contradictions — extremely profitable corporations (insurance, hospital, drug company, device makers), overpaid CEOs, long wait times, overpriced services, crappy delivery, increasingly bankrupt state/federal coffers that can’t keep up with rising costs, the boomer generation retiring. It might even be plausible to find the next bubble(s) in the health care industry.


Carl Davidson April 11, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Here’s a few points in response, PB:

Where I think Davidson errs is that his six-party model does not really explain or get into the mechanics and dynamics of the inter-relationships between these factions or class trends subsumed within the two-party system. What is the affinity between the Tea Party and the Multinationals…?

CD: The ‘whiteness’ glue of the ‘Southern Strategy’ and the anti-women glue of ‘Right to Life’ binds the GOP Bigwigs and the Tea Party

Why doesn’t the DLC or the Blue Dogs join the GOP? The DLC is largely neoKeynesian and not strictly neoliberal. But should the GOP implode, you may find some of the GOP multinationalists moving into the Democratic tent, pulling it more to the right and heightening conflict in the Dem tent. Most Blue Dogs are tied to the sector of labor in defense industries, while the GOP doesn’t care much for labor of any sort. But in the last few rounds, the Blue Dogs, to their misfortune, have served as stepping stones for the GOP in their districts, including the one I work in.

PB: It also does not explain why both parties and all their factions have been consistently moving rightwards for the better part of three decades — Obama is to the right of Nixon, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. on many issues (to say nothing of Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy, or Paul Wellstone).

CD: True, I couldn’t make every point. But the best case is made in Kevin Phillips books, ie, the politics moved right as a dialectical backlash to the Civil Rights gains of the 1960s, where many white Dem voters, in the South especially, moved en mass into the GOP, and in the 1970s, the same process in regard to women, with the Vigurie-Weyrich New Right ‘lifers’ capturing the base of the GOP, electing Reagan, and building a new neoliberal bloc over the older FDR Keynesian bloc. So yes, the entire spectrum has shifted; that’s what it means when a new hegemonic bloc emerges. And while I think it a secondary factor, I think it was aided by an utter lack of a strategy and tactics toward elections by much of the left, especially our piece of it.

PB: Finally, what I want to know is why the so-called progressives in the Democratic Party have never ever adopted Tea Party-style obstructionist tactics even when the Bush’s approval rating fell below Bush’s I.Q. (~35%) during his second term?

CD: Simply because they were not yet strong enough or well-organized enough. Barbara Lee was a minority of one on post 9/11 invasions, until she gradually gained allies and the Congressional Progressive Caucus was formed.

PB: Why didn’t any “progressive” Democratic Senators filibuster Alito and Roberts, two of the worst reactionaries and biggest enemies of the New Deal to get to the bench since the 1980s?

CD: Again, the progressives like the Congressional Progressive Caucus are too weak in the Senate. The closest we came to a filibuster was Bernie Sanders eight-hour speech vs the banks, which was much to his credit. Now we have Elizabeth Warren, who seems to be starting off well as a voice vs finance capital.


PatrickSMcNally April 11, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Many of the arguments about factions within the Democratic & Republican parties are based on a false exaggeration of the degree to which European parties are distinctive. Yes, it is true that paliamentary systems more readily lend themselves to a form where factions may split off and subsequently form a separate party. But one of the reasons for that is because under parliamentary systems multiple parties are regularly forming coalitions where they compromise party programs for the sake of the coalition. The end result has not been any more or less of a barrier to neoliberalism than what we have seen here in the USA. The irony is that because of the way things work here in the USA one is more likely to find a pretense at party-distinctiveness here, whereas as in a paliamentary system like exists in the UK we can see Margaret Thatcher & Tony Blair talking more openly as if they were part of the same team.

It is also a false analogy to invoke the decades prior to the American Civil War. The shifts which occurred in the period leading to the formation of the Republican Party were representative of a rising capitalism which showed ever more dynamism. That is not applicable to the current situation. In the 1850s it was a matter of persuading an emerging bourgeoisie that their class interests would achieve a greater harmony in the long run with the abolition of slavery. There is no suitable analogy with today.

In the context of arguments about whether the USA is really a “one-party state” or something else it can be useful to see how that concept has changed in historical studies. 6 or 7 decades ago there was a common perception that states like the Third Reich, the Soviet Union and later the People’s Republic of China all somehow operated according to a “totalitarian model” in which the leader or politburo at the top would dictate everything in a unidirectional, unipolar way. Historical research has made it clearer that there were in fact multiple centers of authority acting in rivalry with each other. Often the way in which these rivalries would enact themselves would involve a process of “working towards the Fuehrer” or something similar. But even then the process by which things would actually work themselves out was markedly different from the simplistic “one-party state” model.

In that sense it’s a waste of time to get into fuss about whether the USA should be seen as a one-party or six-party state. If even states which really were formally one-party have proven to be more complicated than such a model allows, then it’s futile to argue over whether the USA is such. More important is to judge what are the implications of simply being aware that real divisions exist across every nominal state, ruling class, party bureaucracy and the like.


Carl Davidson April 12, 2013 at 8:37 am

If you believe an appropriate strategy is to fight all your adversaries at once, then you can ignore these distinctions. So make your case. We’re all ears.


Carl Davidson April 11, 2013 at 6:28 pm

St Thomas made the argument some 500 years ago, John, that when confronted with two evils with no practical option, choosing the lesser was the moral course. He did so with more nuance than this bare-bones version, of course. But while I’ve heard much rhetoric against his argument, I’ve yet to come across a solid refutation of it. One that comes close for atheists is to commit suicide instead of making the choice, but that was a greater sin according to St Thomas, and secular thinkers like Lenin, too. Nice try, but no cigar.


Louis Proyect April 11, 2013 at 11:43 pm

St. Thomas on heresy:
With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life.


Carl Davidson April 12, 2013 at 8:26 am

And what is your point here, Louis? That St Thomas made some rather bad arguments, too? The Catholic church, now a global opponent of capital punishment, would agree with you, and so would I. But this is what’s called a ‘red herring,’ a diversionary argument. Nice try, but no cigar.


Aaron Aarons April 16, 2013 at 12:44 am

“when confronted with two evils with no practical option, choosing the lesser was the moral course”
But in an election, there are always a set of options that are practical and, in the long run, better, than endorsing one of the agents of the enemy: Use the electoral stage to expose the whole sham process and the interests it serves. This can be done by running candidates who don’t mute their subversive intentions in trying to win voters, or by denouncing the process and the class it serves without running candidates. In certain situations, this can mean campaigning for an active boycott of the polls, or for people spoiling their ballots.

I realize these ideas are not new, but neither are Carl Davidson’s, even if his rationale includes creative inventions.


Carl Davidson April 16, 2013 at 7:41 am

One can run ‘alternative’ candidates. PSL and other small groups did so, with little practical effect. But if you’ll re-read the original piece by Bill Fletcher and myself, you’ll see we made no ‘endorsement’ of Obama. We simply urged a vote for him in spite of his record and platform, simply to deflect the greater danger, a victory by Romney and the far right. So of you may think of your vote as a moral endorsement of some sort; we don’t, and frankly, neither do many workers. They simply vote for those they think will do them the least harm.

As with PSL and its campaign, that is a matter of tactics. We think our tactic had the additional value of maintaining our alliance of the masses of voters of the minorities nationalities and the more progressive workers, in that we were able to join with them, and help build our own organizations, in the GOTV operations.

There are two kinds of politics at work here–the politics of self-expression and the politics of strategy. One gives primacy to giving voice to the militant minority; the other to uniting the many to defeat the few. In the end, we need both, the audacity and revolutionary education capacity of the former and the ability to unite with those not in full agreement with you of the latter. The ART of politics is knowing which to emphasize, and when.


Aaron Aarons April 16, 2013 at 1:24 am

Here’s what the ‘Back-to-Work Budget’ has to say about so-called ‘Defense’:

Returns Pentagon spending to 2006 levels, focusing on modern security needs

In other words, it is an imperialist budget. Supporting it should be out of the question for any genuine leftist.


Carl Davidson April 16, 2013 at 7:49 am

Not quite, Aaron. It is not a socialist or pacifist or anti-imperialist budget. If it were, it would not be in play, ie, it would not have been on the floor of Congress. But it was a Keynesian budget aimed at finance capital and war, one that made them pay for the burden they had placed on the workers and the poor, and projected a progressive path forward. That’s why we should support it.

Your point is simply that you want to replace imperialism; fine, but your point also means you have little by way of strategy and tactics in getting from here to there. It’s rather easy to raise wave the Red Flag. Getting the masses to a place where they raise it up as their own is another task entirely, and as we well know, not so easy.


Luke Elliott April 16, 2013 at 8:07 am

Aaron –

Ignoring national level budget policy or complaining about it without any hope of influencing it doesn’t make one a ‘leftist’ either, imperialism notwithstanding.


Daniel May 1, 2013 at 12:30 am

One point I disagree on is that I’m fairly sure this article discusses the “Tea Party” as the original organic movement, but that the TP has now been (and was very rapidly) co-opted by the Multinationalist faction. Many of the capitalists listed as Multinationalists have collectively poured billions of dollars into the Tea Party, especially the Koch Brothers. I think the ‘organic’ TPers are demoralized simultaneously at this co-optation and by the fact that enormous TP funding has failed to establish popular roots.

Also, it seems to me that the true libertarians (Ron Paul’s posse) are worth mentioning, as they brandish about as much clout as the progressive caucus yet are clearly distinct from both the Tea Party & Multinationalist factions.

BTW, I’m a young radical always looking to learn from the lessons of the past. I’d love to have any good reading recommendations. I’ve recently found this very useful:


PatrickSMcNally May 1, 2013 at 7:02 am

The first line on that page says a lot. So “what’s wrong is not capitalism as a sustem but capitalism as a religion”? It wasn’t until the 1970s that efforts were really launched to promote capitalism as a religion in the way we see it today. Eisenhower & Nixon supported high tax rates on the rich back in their day. They didn’t treat capitalism as a religion. It was the decline of capitalism as a system, with the stagflation crisis in the 1970s, that gave rise to the efforts by the Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers and the rest to promote capitalism as a religion, because the system wasn’t working so well anymore.


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