The U.S. two-party system is a reality. Socialists active in the U.S. have to acknowledge the unique character of the U.S. government and Constitution. We cannot import ready-made foreign organizational models more salutary to parliamentary systems with proportional representation and must instead find ways of organizing consonant with American traditions.
A more democratic political system can only be brought into being as the result of revolutionary changes in which the U.S. Constitution was altered to make government more representative in character and thereby less prone to corruption. There is historical precedence for this (see the 17th Amendment). But as the government is currently in the hands not only of the wealthiest 1% of Americans but the wealthiest 1% of the 1%, we cannot expect that electoral reform will be on the agenda anytime soon. For this reason, electoral reform should be seen as an ends, not a means. The means, if history is any indicator, will be a militant mass movement directly challenging the power and privilege of the most powerful Americans.
Where We’ve Been: Theoretical and Historical Considerations
Objective characteristics of the U.S.’s 18th-century election model have been a major factor in preserving the two-party system but have not prevented the formation and growth of robust new party formations in periods of acute class conflict at both the local and national levels. The rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s, which replaced the then-dominant Whig Party, is the most successful example of a new party formation in U.S. history. Its rise, although in very different conditions, can serve as a model and an inspiration to party-builders today.
Socialists should also look to the robust tradition of regional parties. There are numerous historical cases of third parties that found great success at the local level. Examples would include the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs’s day and more recently the modest successes of Vermont’s Progressive Party.
Many party “brands” often need to be attempted before one finally finds success. For instance, before the Republican Party caught on there was the Free Soil Party, which itself came out of the failure of the Liberty Party. Similarly, the Progressive Party of Vermont was preceded by the Citizen’s Party and the Liberty Union (for more on this story, take a look at Eric Leif Davin’s excellent book Radicals in Power).
The lesson here is that even these apparent “failures” in fact laid the groundwork for a larger mass party came later, when conditions were better suited for masses of people to join. And like the progressives and abolitionists of the time, we too shouldn’t get overly tied down to one or another party vehicle.
Reshuffling the Deck: Is the U.S. Party System Nearing an Inflection Point?
Considering the failures of third parties over the past several decades, have the prospects for third parties become more favorable now as opposed to 10 or 20 years ago? This can only be determined in practice, but there are several important trends worth considering that bear on this question: the rise of generalized dissatisfaction with government, the global financial crisis, the likelihood of further stagnation or deterioration of economic conditions for the U.S. working class, the increasing impact of climate change, among others.
One important trend is the changing demographics of the U.S. electorate. These changes present a number of opportunities that have been unavailable to left political interventions previously both at the local and the national levels. I will only briefly touch on two demographic blocs whose emergence onto the political scene has the potential to upset the two-party status quo.
Firstly, consider the uneven emergence of a Latino voting bloc. While the number of Latino voters rose between 2008 and 2012 by 1.4 million, turnout was lower in 2012 than in 2008. Latino turnout dropped 2% and the number of Latino nonvoters grew by 2.3 million. As Paul Taylor, executive vice president of Pew Research Center put it: “Given what we know about the youth bulge in the population, Millennials and Hispanics will become ever-more important voting blocs in upcoming presidential elections. But in 2012, both groups left a lot of votes on the table.”
How can the left capitalize on the growing power of a Latino voting bloc? This question is well beyond the scope of this short article, but there are many lessons which should be studied more seriously on the left — for instance, the experience of La Raza Unida Party in the 1970s and early 1980s.
As mentioned above, another key emerging demographic is Millennials, a demographic bulge larger numerically than the famous “Baby Boom.” Millennials constitute the core cadre of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Arab Spring, and the uprisings in Turkey, Brazil, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, too many on the left are dismissive of the revolutionary potential of college-educated youth because they are “privileged” or “middle class.” This is an unscientific and moralistic reading of both the immiseration thesis and revolutionary history. A revolutionary class is no less revolutionary because it does not conform to theoretical precepts; more likely, the theory needs to be adjusted in light of new evidence.
Positive indicators for this demographic — besides a penchant for mass grassroots street protest after a decades-long lull — might include a decline in partisan identification, especially among progressive youth. As Rolling Stone reported:
The turn away from party identification has been a long-term American trend: According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans don’t consider themselves members of a political party, compared to 36 percent in 2002 and 33 percent in 1988. But that trend has been all the more accelerated among young people — and even more so among young progressives.
The increasing lack of trust in government and bourgeois political parties could lead to this demographic toward a cynical disengagement with politics, or alternatively, it could prove to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Left. It’s the responsibility of the Left to humbly yet earnestly offer another way forward.
Seize the Time: Towards a New Mass Party
None of this is to say a transition toward a new mass party of the Left is inevitable. Politics is struggle, and the emergence of a new alternative to the status quo will mean conscious action by individuals, organizations, and masses of people over a protracted period of time. As Bill Fletcher Jr. rightly reminds us:
There are rare moments in US history where there is a reshuffling of the deck that may result in either the transformation of an existing political party or the emergence of another. The emergence of a new mass party is not the result of a founding convention but on the basis of an adjustment and repositioning of political constituencies. This is a matter of mass politics, including but not limited to electoral action.
New possibilities exist today which suggest a mass party of the left can be built within our lifetimes. Now we must begin an urgent conversation on how to seize the time.
However, conversation is only the first step; it must culminate in action, in real-world organizing. If we succeed, the working class in this country will face its enemies — for the first time in many decades — with a great powerhouse of organization: a political party of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Tim Horras is Chair of the Philly Socialists.