‘Two Party’ or Not ‘Two Party’ : A Rag Blog Discussion on Change

The following is part of a discussion among members of Austin MDS about the election of Obama, the possibility of real change through the Democratic Party, and the efficacy of the third party option.

Thorne Dreyer / The Rag Blog / November 16, 2008

‘I have come to believe that because of the lack of proportional representation in the American political system, a two party system here is almost a law of physics.’
By David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog / November 16, 2008

See ‘Two-party system: You can’t correct faulty blueprints by hiring new construction workers’ by Scott Trimble, Below.

I have voted for third (or fourth) party candidates for president eight times. I did not do so in 2008, but I may do it again if I feel a protest vote is in order. However, I have come to believe that because of the lack of proportional representation in the American political system, a two party system here is almost a law of physics. Each of those two parties will be relatively centrist in order to capture a majority.

There have been historical examples of American third parties being “successful” by some definition other than becoming the majority and governing party. The Dixiecrat rebellion against the Democratic Party that began in 1948 triggered by Truman’s integration of the military became the cornerstone of the Republican’s majority embracing racism in 1968. The anti-slavery Republicans emerged to replace the Whigs in 1852, but the two party system remained with the Whigs disappearing altogether. Unless the basic rules of American democracy are changed, we will always end up with a competition between two only slightly ideological political parties. This is also the case in Europe when you have a winner take all situation, such as in France between “Guallist” Sarkozy and “Socialist” Royal.

European democracies have forms of proportional representation and, therefore, many established political parties representing all significant political tendencies. Proportional representation is the key to multi-party democracy. With a winner take all system, you will always end up with just two parties, which define and fight over the center.

For most of my life, the left having access to a presidential administration was realistically a preposterous notion. Whoever thought that we might be accepted into the councils of any Republican or any Democrat since FDR? That is not the case with Obama, and in that way the times have profoundly changed. The peace movement was a very important element of his base. We deserve a continuing presence among his advisers, but we will have to continue to win that role by continuing to build mass movements for change.

I hope that in a couple of years many of those now taking shots at Obama over positions he took in order to get elected in a system where competition for the center is the only game in town (.eg., Afghanistan) will be singing a new tune. In the meantime, many of us can’t get over a lifetime of being on the outside with no key.

Two-party system: You can’t correct faulty blueprints by hiring new construction workers.
By Scott Trimble / The Rag Blog / November 10, 2008

Many things that have come to pass once were considered impossible. Just because our political system has failed to produce a third or fourth party does not mean it cannot happen. Very simply, if one-fourth of the population were smart enough to vote Green and another quarter voted Libertarian, then the Republicans and Democrats would have to split the remaining half, leaving us with four relatively equally supported parties. It is not likely in the next couple of years. It will not happen by itself. But that does not mean it is impossible. It has got to start with those of us who are paying enough attention to realize that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have had a century and a half of shared power, and have utterly failed to represent the people of this nation, except when we have forced their hand by getting out in the streets and/or by winning cases in the courts.

When it was a new party, the radical wing of the Republicans partnered with activists to bring certain civil rights to former slaves, although those rights were still subverted for nearly another century. Neither party helped us break the injustice of child labor. Labor unions helped us achieve that, as well as the forty hour work week with weekends. Neither party gave women the vote. Women themselves had to fight for it. And the realization of those civil rights for the descendants of slaves (or anyone who looked like them), while originally put on the books in the era of the Radical Republicans, did not come about until black Americans worked together to fight for them.

Of course, these gains required more than just the activists on the front lines. They also required cultural shifts in the general population. Women gained the right to vote nationally by a constitutional amendment, which of course, required the support of most of the country. Blacks could not have won their civil rights in the sixties if the rest of the country had still believed the Jim Crow laws (and the oppressive and violent actions of the police) were justified.

Similarly, we will not have a viable third (or fourth, or fifth) party in the US until we have a shift in public opinion that one is needed. When (not if) Obama fails to really change anything in American politics, we may have a small opening. However, in reality, we have to expect a much longer fight. Nevertheless, we cannot wait to begin it. That is part of the reason why I have insisted (many times on this list) that those of you who understand enough to recognize that a vote for either Republocrat in the presidential race here in Texas (or anywhere else in the old south, except Florida) was a wasted vote should have voted for Cynthia McKinney (or for those who lean more right on economic policy, Bob Barr, or for those who lean more right on social policy, Chuck Baldwin). Unfortunately, apparently, some of our best and brightest still failed to heed my call and supported the Democrat. Possibly worse, here in Travis County, about 900-1000 progressives were smart enough not to vote for Obama, but about 700 of them voted for Nader, which was also a wasted vote, and only about 200-250 were smart enough to vote for McKinney. Oh well. We fight on.

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6 Responses to ‘Two Party’ or Not ‘Two Party’ : A Rag Blog Discussion on Change

  1. Bert Garskof says:

    I think we have to take what is given to us. To me this means that in the present context, we ought to be part of the post-election Obama activist motion. Depending on local conditions, this might mean beginning to find and meet with a few progressive Obama volunteers to try to build a local group that takes up the challenge of being a strand of the grass-roots of the Obama presidency. The goal of this activity ought to be to open up roots to treetop and treetop to roots communication. At the same time there must be a reaching out to find or stimulate other local groups perhaps defined geographically of by issue. These groups must find people in the Obama WhiteHouse with whom to open up channels for local input and White House response. These dialogues should/could grow to literally hundreds of such entities, each alone or in concert working with White House staff to begin to change representative democracy into participatory democracy. After 8 years of these kinds of activity, we might have the beginnings of a new party formation or something else not now imaginable. Of course, we may not achieve this much but I believe that there are thousands of Obama volunteers who would be responsive to this idea.

  2. Participatory democracy…or something much closer to it is my goal, even more than expanding the franchise to a wider array of political parties, but I think trying to get the Obama White House involved in that effort would be both unnecessary and unlikely to yield results (although if enough resources are available, it can’t hurt to try). I think the task is to build a network that will effectively become a federation of unofficial democracies, that not only allows, but encourages, anyone and everyone to participate at the local level, and pushes the resolutions and initiatives of the people up the chain until it arrives at a national level, where it can be presented to both the White House and to Congress as the undeniable “will of the people” with enough organization behind it to guarantee the loss of office to those who thwart that will for their own gain, to protect powerful interests, or to preserve the status quo when change is desired by the people.

    I am entirely aware of the ambitiousness of such a project, and am fairly sure such a network cannot be built in eight years, which is one of the reasons I don’t think it would be most efficacious to attempt to involve the Obama White House. I have already proposed this idea to the Obama team in several emails (although I doubt they made it past the initial screener), so if they were inclined to activate the people toward this end, we might have already seen some evidence of their intentions, which I am sorry to say, I have not witnessed. I have every reason to believe that while Obama will certainly be more progressive than a Republican administration, and perhaps more so than the previous Clinton administration, or the Clinton administration that might have been, if things had gone slightly different in a few states, I am nevertheless confident that we will not see any real change in the structure of our decision-making apparatus or in the overall method of governance.

    In case I have not organized this response well enough, and I fear I have not, I will conclude with this summation. A more participatory form of democratic republic is a desirable end to which we all should be working, and to which I plan to dedicate the remainder of my life, but I do not believe that we should expect to achieve any progress in that direction from working with those who are “in power” until we have built a web of grassroots support that will provide the power to prevent our being brushed aside.

  3. Alan L. Maki says:

    Building bridges to the Obama White House should obviously be done… not to do so would leave the Wall Street coupon clippers with free reign.

    However, I have to ask what might seem like a dumb question of all of you who supported Obama… but isn’t he THE candidate of the grassroots?

    How come now there is no connection to this “grassroots” candidate?

    Anyways, I think all of you expecting anything to come from Obama without building a massive “people’s front” on scale with what existed in the 1930’s which wrested change from Roosevelt thereby creating the New Deal are in for a rude awakening.

    We have had very successful and very powerful third party formations in this country. But, again, those of you pushing the “new ‘New Left'” would rather ignore the fact that the “old” left didn’t do such a bad job in the 1930’s.

    As such, you completely overlook the advances made by the Farmer-Labor Party in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and the Dakotas.

    It would seem to me that as this discussion begins, there at least needs to be the honesty that real history will be truthfully reviewed before saying that it doesn’t seem likely, possible or feasable that a third party— a party of labor— similar to the New Democratic Party in Canada could not be organized as a result of creating a massive all-people’s united front to push Obama and Congress for real reforms.

    I would encourage everyone to watch the excellent movie: “Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story.”

    Tommy Douglas learned from the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party what kind of political party Canadians needed and they did pretty good in building a powerful labor-based party which we can now learn from in return.

    In the process of building the New Democratic Party, Canadians came out with a pretty darn good health care system that, if nothing else, made it all worth while.

    So, we need to build bridges to the Obama Administration because someone was wrong that Obama was a grassroots candidate. Oh well, live, and, hopefully, learn.

  4. Zwarich says:

    I believe that there is no more crucial discussion to the progressive left than this one. Mr. Hamilton. Mr. Garskof, Mr. Maki, and Mr. Trimble all make excellent points to consider.

    We all must recognize that as Mr. Hamilton points out, it is the ‘winner take all’ rules of our system that determine it as a two-party system. A system of proportional representation would open this up. Instant run-off would even help some, though not all that much. In our current system the LOTE (lesser of two evils) strategy is always going to prevail until a realistic alternative, too powerful to ignore, appears.

    I am much less hopeful than some about what the election of Barack Obama represents. Many people have hoped that he has, as Mr. Hamilton suggests, “only said what he needed to say to get elected”. Perhaps….Time will pass, and we’ll see.

    I think that people are willfully ignoring, in holding to this illusion,, the implications of Obama’s appointment of an avowed Zionist with direct connections to Israeli intelligence, (Rahm Israel Emmanuel), as the second most powerful person in Washington. He made this appointment, of course, AFTER he was elected.

    The ancient Romans believed that a person’s true character could be read from her or his smallest actions. Those who think that Obama is really a progressive in disguise are willfully ignoring Obama’s cynical embrace of Zionism to serve his raw ambition. Few seem to remember that Obama was an eloquent spokesperson for the Palestinian cause, BEFORE he decided to launch his political career. Once he made that decision, he dropped his ‘passionate’ concern for the long-suffering Palestinians like a rock into the ocean, and became a Zionist overnight to serve his obviously ruthless ambition. (How much more ruthless could a politician get than that?)

    Again, time will tell what Barack Obama will become, or stand for. None of us has a crystal ball, and our conjectures are of very limited value. Time will pass, and we’ll see. Let’s leave it at that. But I avidly agree with the sentiments expressed here that progressives will be fools if we think that he is going to pursue a progressive agenda without being forced to.

    I agree with the proposals Mr. Trimble refers to. I believe that we need to expand our thinking in considering the type and scope of organizing we need to do. I think that we need to build a fully functioning ‘people’s democracy’ of our own.

    I have put forth a proposal for a concrete plan of action, hoping that others will consider it, criticize it, and improve it. I do not know how to put a hyperlink in these comments, but this plan appears in the archives of The Rag Blog, under the title, ‘A Picture plus 1000 Words’. The picture, (worth much more than the 1000 words, of course), is an actual schematic organizational chart of what we need to build.

    I am actively trying to move this plan forward. I have distributed this preliminary proposal fairly widely, and am getting VERY enthusiastic feedback from many quarters. I truly believe that this is an idea whose time has come.

    I hope that readers of The Rag Blog might consider taking a look. It is a proposal for organizing ourselves to pool our resources so that we can develop the means to communicate our powerful progressive message of the Common Good to the masses of the American citizenry. It’s longer range goal is to supplant the Democratic Party, (relegating it to join the Whigs in the dustbin of History), and to become one of the two major parties in our two party system.

    It seems VERY obvious to me that to set out to form a ‘third’ party in a two party system is a fool’s endeavor. If we’re going to set out to build a party, let’s make sure our goal is to be on eof the two MAJOR parties in our two party system.

    I hope that some will take a look at my article in the archives of TRB.


  5. Joe says:

    The problem isn’t either of the big parties themselves. The problem is the American electoral system, and its natural results. If you want truly viable alternatives, you have to first create popular demand for a change in the system. This article explains third-party failures very clearly:


  6. Alan L. Maki says:

    In my opinion, the more parties the better.

    Let them split their votes. This makes it much easier for a real alternative progressive party to win.

    This was the case with the Farmer-Labor Party.

    In addition to the Farmer-Labor Party there was the Progressive Party. Henry Wallace had huge crowds filling football stadiums; and, unlike Obama, people actually purchased tickets to hear him speak and participate in these progressive rallies.

    There was the powerful socialist political action movement built up around Frank Zeidler in Wisconsin which won election after election for years.

    There is, today, Bernie Sanders in Vermont.

    There is one very important issue providing the “left” with great opportunity for building a movement for real electoral reform while at the same time sending Barack Obama the message that we do not intend to wait to see what he is going to do; that issue is single-payer universal health care.

    Already, Obama has swung his bloggers into action saying that since the economy is headed south, everything is off the table until the economic problems are solved.

    In fact, as headlines today blared out: this is no “garden variety” downturn.

    Capitalism is on the skids to oblivion as a full-blown depression is on its way and if progressives stick with Obama to establish the agenda we are all headed down the road to perdition.

    Progressives need to establish an action agenda calling for real change; we need to work in a way where we are establishing the base for a progressive electoral agenda while building some type of united people’s front for real change.

    Since people are identifying with the New Deal and expect similar reforms, there is no better place to draw the line than on single-payer universal health care which was dropped from the New Deal by reactionary Democrats and Republicans and Roosevelt was too afraid of the fight.

    Single-payer universal health care should be our call to action… finance it by ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Obama is headed the wrong way on every single question and we need to take decisive action to set him straight… to prove to him that there is in fact in this country a broad popular front consisting of liberals, progressives and socialists from many different persuations but united on the premise that Wall Street is responsible for this economic mess and it goes well beyond failed economic philosophies to to a capitalist system that has failed.

    While this “coalition” of broad liberal/left thought might not agree on much at this point, there is widespread universal resentment of capitalism in general and even more support for a massive redistribution of wealth.

    The liberal/left has always had a firm base and foundation in this country which suffered from severe repression causing it to be silenced.

    Thanks to Sarah Palin and John McCain people are once again talking about redistribution of the wealth and socialism in the United States.

    In many ways a “Marxist moment” is upon us and the longer we hesitate to act behind calls to “give Obama a chance” the more difficult it becomes to pick up the tempo of the kind of militant fight-back required.

    Let’s take a stand on single-payer universal health care and through mobilization of the American people greet Barack Obama as he should be greeted on Inaugaration Day… with calls for health care, not warfare and tell him to let Wall Street solve its own problems.

    That Barack Obama has put the interests of Wall Street bankers and the corporations before the problems and needs of the people is enough to tell us where he is headed and it is someplace we as liberals, progressives and the left do not want to go… nor do the majority of the American people who would have voted for Hillary Clinton had they wanted a replay of the Clinton years which gave away the family store to Walmart.

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