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Like It or Not, If We Run Third Party, We Will Lose

Socialists say they either want to “realign” the Democratic Party or break with it entirely. But those aren’t political strategies — they are outcomes of political struggle. We need a way to develop working-class politics without condemning ourselves to third-party marginality.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at the Arthur Ashe Junior Athletic Center on February 27, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. Zach Gibson / Getty

I’m asking the same question as everyone else this month: Where do we go now?

With Bernie Sanders exiting from the presidential primary, thousands of other left-wingers are hurt, demoralized, and looking for answers. Once again, the media, the establishment, the billionaires, and Elizabeth Warren succeeded in frustrating Bernie’s nomination.

After two failures in two consecutive cycles to capture the Democratic nomination, we’ve seen the return of familiar calls for the creation of a new political party, one free of a ballot line that has long been inhospitable to radicals. Yet, for over a hundred years, we’ve been imploring workers to “break with the elephant and break with the ass” in an effort to build a party of the working class. And, despite our noble efforts, we seem no closer to that goal than we did a century ago.

What are the barriers standing in our way — and why do third-party efforts always seem to lead to dead ends? It’s worth looking seriously at the development of the American party structure on its own terms to help us understand what types of political organization are most conducive to success today.

Why a Party?

Third, fourth, fifth, and sixth parties have always existed in the United States. Yet, despite some important local and state-level successes, in the modern era, none have been capable of breaking out of the margins of national politics.

The Socialist Party’s rise and fall is instructive. In 1912, the Socialists held 1,200 offices in 340 cities, including 79 mayors in 24 states, and won nearly a million votes with Eugene V. Debs. That kind of success dwarfs the results of all subsequent third parties combined. It is easy to imagine that the party could have built its strength and steadily marched to power. But things quickly unraveled. First, the radicals suffered some punishing internal and international splits — self-inflicted wounds that hurt them badly. Second, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought with them a slew of reforms that radically inhibited the growth of independent mass political movements. Third, the Socialists had their voters taken right out from under them.

In the early nineteenth century, “general ticket” districting rules accounted for almost a third of congressional allocation. This kind of at-large apportionment meant that if a party won a quarter of the votes, statewide, it would win — roughly — a quarter of the seats. These rules often resulted in multiparty, quasi-proportional governance at the state level and helped minor parties send their leaders to Congress. Yet the 1842 Apportionment Act essentially abolished at-large elections for Congress, replaced with the “single-member-district” system we know today. These first-past-the-post rules ensured that only outright winners of district elections were awarded seats.

Theoretically, a party could win 49 percent of the vote in 100 percent of a state’s districts, and it would be awarded 0 percent of the seats. This incentivized party consolidation in an attempt to win outright majorities.

With the new rules, parties confronted a new problem: spoilers. Minor-party or independent candidates could sap votes from a potential majoritarian party simply by appearing on the ballot. Returning to the example above, the 49-percent loser party could credibly blame their loss on the advent of a minor party that won 2 percent of the vote. By splitting the vote among like-minded voters, minor parties can, unwittingly, aid in electing a party furthest from their interests. As a result, self-interested major parties pushed to restrict who could get on the ballot itself.

Ballot access laws, initially a nominal barrier of ten signatures, became more and more restrictive from their introduction in the 1880s through their consolidation in the 1920s. Further, voter skepticism regarding minor parties grew with the recognition that such parties faced steep obstacles to ever winning any seats — who wants to vote for a party that can never govern? Weaker parties, fearing extinction, dissolved themselves into stronger ones.

The daunting power of the duopoly often leads third-party advocates to insist that nothing can change until everything changes. The urgency of their appeal is rooted in exhortations that the existing parties are essentially immovable objects that must be swept aside or maneuvered around if any progress is to be made. But our party system, however undemocratic and oligarchic, is not a completely inert and predictable force. Even the rules that have come to symbolize political stasis are themselves the product of party competition.

This is important because, even in this restrictive institutional environment, party competition makes for dynamic parties whose priorities and appeals change in effort to defeat their opponents. While a third party could plausibly overcome some of these institutional barriers, when these are combined with a dynamic system in which political appeals shift to meet certain moods, long-term success is nearly impossible.

Perhaps the most important reason why the mass Populist, Farmer-Labor, and Socialist parties of the nineteenth century were unable to make it to the big time in the twentieth century is owed to this dynamism: simply put, the Democratic Party stole their base.

Realignment and Break

The major parties may jealously guard their ballot-line privileges, but they also have a powerful interest in winning elections. Party competition then — even among two completely undemocratic parties in a largely undemocratic system — can produce some striking shifts.

By the 1930s, under FDR’s leadership, the Democratic Party lurched to the left. It captured the votes of industrial workers in the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), populists in the West, African Americans in the South, and Eastern European immigrants. In short, it won the loyalty of a thoroughly working-class constituency.

The 1936 platform of the Democratic Party adopted many of the policies advocated by the Socialist and Farmer-Labor parties less than a decade earlier, and the stump speeches of New Deal Democrats struck a decisively populist tone. The Socialists and Communists, who together had won nearly 1 million votes in the first Depression election of 1932, saw their collective total drop to just 266,000 in 1936.

Leaving aside the question of how many elected Democrats in 1936 really believed the bill of goods they were selling, today’s radicals have to ask themselves: When voters were given the choice between a New Deal Democrat and a Socialist or Communist candidate, why did they so resoundingly prefer the former? The answer is stupidly obvious: the Democrats, unlike the minor parties, could deliver the goods. Roosevelt succeeded in implementing reforms that Socialists had long advocated for, and often these were reforms that radicals said a “capitalist party,” like the Democrats, would never allow. They were wrong.

With a similar certainty, in the wake of Bernie’s exit from the primary, third-party advocates will chide Sanders supporters because they “always knew” that “taking over the Democrats” was a fool’s errand. A major problem with the third-party debate, then, is that participants insist on a false choice: either we choose to “take-over and realign” the Democratic Party, or we choose to “break” with it. This kind of thinking suggests too much agency on the part of minor-party strategists (if only we voted Green) and much too little dynamism on the part of the major parties (it’s futile to try to change them). And in this paradigm, failure to succeed is chalked up to choosing the wrong strategy in the first place.

Yet “realignment” and “break” are not strategies at all. They are outcomes of political struggle. They depend on how the major parties react to shifts in the electorate and organized political action: either the party is unable to heal an internal divide, resulting in a “break” (like the Whig moment in the 1850s) or the party adopts the policies of insurgents in order to consolidate a new constituency (like the New Deal moment in the 1930s).

Did the Populist Party, and later the Socialist Party, seek to realign the Democratic Party through decades of political organizing around their programs? Of course not, they sought to break the haughty power of the two-party system. But did they succeed in realigning the Democratic Party? Yes. The truth is that any organization with a broad enough social base can leave a mark on our political system, precisely because parties are just dynamic enough to adjust their appeals to try to win elections.

The Democratic Party adopted and later championed key aspects of the Socialist and Populist platforms, not because those parties threatened to break the back of the two-party system, but because they succeeded in building a large social base around an appealing political program. They mobilized a whole new bloc of voters into the political system, and their members organized the CIO and inaugurated a new era for the labor movement. The Democratic Party would ultimately move a great deal in order to win over this group.

Crucially, though, while these third parties were successful in remaking the political landscape, they were total failures on their own terms. They were fatally wounded by their decision to maintain their own ballot lines and to hold this metric of independence above all others. Former loyalists now strongly identified as New Deal Democrats, and voting for capital-S socialists was seen as little more than a protest vote —often against candidates that supported worker-friendly reforms.

The key, then, isn’t ballot-line independence, but whether a group has organized a large and powerful enough constituency to force the major parties to react. Has Bernie done that?

Means, Ends, and Mathematics

At its height, the Socialist Party commanded more than 118,000 dues paying members — one in every 250 voting age adults was a member. They had won the loyalty of hundreds of local unions and Central Labor Councils with whom they cooperated, boasted a circulation of 761,747 for their flagship publication the Appeal to Reason, and captured 6 percent of the popular vote in the presidential election. Yet, as we’ve seen, even this impressive organization was never able to translate its popularity into electoral strength, and after the New Deal, it was little more than a curiosity.

Nonetheless, third-party optimists will tell us that this time it can work because Bernie Sanders has won millions more votes than the Socialist Party ever won. Bernie started a movement, and now it’s time for him to stake his independence, and unless his supporters want to forever be the whipping boys of the Democratic Party, they should break, too.

There are a few problems with this argument — let’s start with the math.

Bernie’s total vote share in the Democratic primary is about 7.7 million right now, if we pretend that all of these voters would vote for him on an independent line (along with a slew of down-ballot candidates on the same line). We could witness Bernie Sanders and his Democratic Socialist Party capturing a whopping 5.9 percent of the general election vote. And, given the single-member district rules mentioned earlier, that voting-bloc percentage would yield — unless miraculously concentrated in a handful of districts — close to zero seats in Congress.

But there is a much larger problem here. Bernie did not win those millions of voters in spite of his affiliation with the Democratic Party but because of it. Only a small fraction of Bernie’s primary voters would actually follow him into the political wilderness, and only a handful of cranks would follow Bernie’s lead down-ballot. That’s because, by and large, voters are more clever than third-party advocates, and they would rather not hitch their wagons to a candidate who has no chance of winning.

What about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib? Couldn’t these insurgents take their movement from Congress to the country at large? If they broke from the party, couldn’t they cause a Whig moment for the Democratic caucus in Congress? Not likely. The recent democratic-socialist wave has yielded far fewer seats than the media coverage of those victories might suggest. If we count all of the left-wingers who supported Sanders, and were backed by organizations like Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), our mighty movement commands 0.7 percent of Congress and less than 0.01 percent of all elected seats in the United States.

Any talk of their “DemExit” resulting in a consequential “break” with the Democratic Party is simply fantasy. When antislavery Whigs and Free Soil Democrats began to build the Republican Party in 1854, the party system in the North had already imploded from within: from the start, third-party founders already had scores of congressional representatives and hundreds of state-level politicians working with them. Nothing like those conditions exist today.

What Bernie’s two campaigns, and those of left-wing insurgents like Ocasio-Cortez, have proven is that there is a sizable constituency for a democratic-socialist program and that accessing that constituency requires competing on the Democratic Party ballot line.

So, then, what exactly is the goal of a proposed new party? Parties are not ends in themselves, but means to help us do two things: 1) elect candidates, and 2) enact legislation. There are, of course, other important organizational and educational activities that parties perform, but if these two basic goals are accepted as a baseline, bare-minimum activity for any functioning party, we should ask whether a third party helps or hinders these ends.

If we can win elections, organize a mass base, and win socialist reforms, all while competing on the Democratic Party ballot line, then why would we impede ourselves by eschewing the major advantages that that ballot line provides?

Reason for Optimism

That third parties are destined to lose is no secret — it’s right there in the name. They are the distant bronze medalists of American politics. But, a skeptic might ask, if what you say is true — that party realignment and break are outcomes of struggle — why haven’t we seen Joe Biden bend on key policy issues? And, further, what basis is there for believing that the Democrats will ever bend (or break)?

Patience. We are still a weak, small movement — despite the fact that our ideas have captured the attention of voters, our candidates haven’t won the loyalty of mass constituencies, and our base is largely disorganized. After all, the Democratic establishment just steamrolled us with a candidate that seems severely confused at best and demented at worst.

Why would the establishment bend? They’re winning elections with a candidate that nobody appears excited by. Or so they think. But what happens to the party establishment’s credibility when they lose not once but twice to a right-wing charlatan like Donald Trump? What do voters think when all the promises of electability are shown to be false? That loyalty and trust that the party bigwigs depend on might start to evaporate. And even if Biden manages to eke out a victory, do we expect him to quell the growing chorus among working-class Democrats for health care, jobs, and higher wages?

This doesn’t mean we should just wait around for some inevitable left-wing realignment and give up on independent political action. Quite the opposite. It just means we have to rethink what “independent” means. There is a potential for a leftward lurch in the coming decade, but it will remain a possibility only if we can succeed in organizing a real constituency.

We do need an organization — what Jared Abbott and I have called a “party surrogate”— that can serve as a membership-based, dues-funded, independent institution, with a clear platform, talented spokespersons, and inspiring leaders. Such an organization can serve many of the functions of a traditional labor party: it can recruit and train candidates, work with unions in organizing drives, and provide mass political education. And it could be pretty successful at all of this, so long as it competes in the major-party primaries on a major-party ballot line.

These past couple months have been painful, but they shouldn’t negate the lessons that we have learned. A socialist nearly won the leadership of a major party in 2016, and he almost repeated the result in 2020 — and all that out of thin air. I know it might feel like the future is bleak, and that we blew our only shot, but some perspective is useful here. The last time socialists were successful at winning elections, our leaders were rounded up and thrown in jail for sedition, our publications were seized by the postmaster general, and our union organizers were shot.

I would be embarrassed to face those forebears complaining about how the DNC was unfair, the media was mean to us, and that we’re sour grapes about coming this close to winning.

We know Bernie Sanders has no interest in third-party fantasies. Yet Bernie himself could play an important role in what comes next. For my part, I think the senator could (and should) lead an effort to congeal a number of left-wing unions with the membership organizations that supported his candidacy around a shared strategy. That strategy should involve the mass mobilization of voters for a political program that we already know is wildly popular, in the states and regions where Bernie has been particularly effective, and an ongoing nationwide pressure campaign to win Medicare for All and other core demands.

We have a remarkable opportunity to organize the mass constituency that Sanders identified in his campaigns. Let’s not waste it.