There is an underlying assumption that the more political parties a country has the more democracy it has, and that the more democracy it has the more social justice and egalitarianism it enjoys. If this were indeed the case, then a number of countries around the world with many political parties, including Italy and Greece, Israel and India, Philippines and Romania, to name a few, must be Paradise on earth. There is no correlation between a multiparty system and greater “democracy” any more than there is a correlation between greater social justice and bourgeois democracy. This is a 19th century north-Western European concept when the urban middle class and capitalists were mainly Liberal while the aristocracy and rural classes were conservative, thus the two-party system reflected a socioeconomic and cultural divide where religion played a role in the rural areas and education in the urban ones.
A product of the European Enlightenment, the US followed the European political trends of creating bourgeois political parties representing capital. When the working class movement became a force in society owing to the changing division of labor under industrial capitalism, new ideologies emerged from Socialism to Anarchism and varieties of others on the left as well as extreme right wing ones, including Fascism that has its origins in the late 19th century. The evolution of bourgeois society gave birth to social groups that did not find expression in the traditional political parties and wanted to have their own voice at a time that minorities, women and workers were not represented. Despite pressure from the grassroots for representation, in the US the mainstream political parties always managed to co-opt third party movements protesting a particular facet of society.
Whether a country developed a two-party system or a multi-party system, popular rule expressing individual rights remained a core value of bourgeois democracy, rather than government taking into account collective interests. Under the political umbrella of any democratic system that has ever existed, capitalism has been at its core and this means a social order based on hierarchy of capital. During the 20th century, democracy became synonymous with capitalism not just in the US but in most countries around the world. One reason for the success of political parties claiming their allegiance to “democracy” is their embracing of a pluralistic value system under an open society where the consumer is synonymous with the citizen. The US has led the way in the effort to identify democracy with capitalism and the citizen with the consumer.
The phenomenal success of the two-party system rests in convincing the majority of the people that this is “the democratic process”, rather than representative of capitalist class interest factions. This has been achieved in the name of “nationalism” and “national interest” rhetoric, as the two-party system identifies itself with the nation-state and national interest that it equates with the market economy. At the same time, the two-party system projects the image that a political party representing the working class is outside the constitutional and societal purview of the “national interest”, therefore, it lacks legitimacy. This was as true before the Bolshevik Revolution as it was after when the bourgeois political parties in the US as well as throughout the Western World stigmatized working class political parties as representing labor unions, as though labor unions were an anathema to society and only pro-capitalist political parties enjoyed legitimacy.
The issue of legitimacy in the eyes of the public is of the utmost importance for a political party to succeed as much as is the need for the state claiming to be pluralistic to tolerate all voices to be heard. In the case of the US, this has not been the case throughout its history. Therefore, it is not surprising that a working class political party never developed. The government persecuted grassroots organizing of labor unions and political activists representing the working class, while the corporate media followed the government in doing its best to stigmatize any working class movement.
Having no political party to express their interests, the working class in the US and in many countries around the world turned to the two political parties representing capital. Labeling a political party “Labor” or “Socialist” as many have done in Europe and around the world is of course meaningless because their policies are anti-labor and anti-socialist as much as the policies of the US Democratic Party are hardly “democratic”. The median worth of a US congressman is $1 million and the total cost for the congressional races amounted to $3.7 billion in 2012, campaign contributions mostly from millionaires. Given the profile of the average US representative in Congress, and considering that a congressman has no chance of making a career unless s/he promotes capital through legislation to the detriment of middle class and workers’ interests how can such a representative claim to be anything other than an agent for capitalists?
Synoptic View of Third-Party Movements in America
Unlike Europe, the US does not have a history of multi-party system primarily because the media and mainstream institutions limit their focus on the two major parties. However, even in Europe, there is a two-party system that essentially entails alternating in government. This is as true of Great Britain as of France and Germany, but also of most countries, including southern Europe, although all of these countries have more than two parties. The common factor between the US two-party system and the Europe is that on both sides of the Atlantic the ruling political parties represent the same socioeconomic elites that make sure there is policy continuity. In short, the political elites alternating power make certain that the interests of the privileged socioeconomic elites are not compromised by a third political force representing the working class.
Within the varied interests of the capitalist class in the last two centuries there have been political parties that tried to break the monopoly of the dominant two-party system. In 1848, the Free Soil Party, the first major third party won 5% of the vote. The Republican Party quickly absorbed it because Abraham Lincoln after all became the champion of the anti-slave movement and the Civil War obviated the need for the Free Soil Party. In 1892, the Populist Party, which derived much of inspiration from Jeffersonian democracy, finally merged with the Democrat Party at the turn of the century. This was during the Gilded Age when the very rich were enjoying institutional hegemony and it was clear that both Republican and Democrat parties represented the wealthy to the neglect of the rest of citizens at a time that the depression of the 1890s caused immense hardship across America.
The most significant leftist leader in US history was Eugene Debs (1855 –1926) who started out as a union organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and was a Democrat member in his early political caeer in Indiana. A Socialist who had studied the works of Marx among other European Socialists, Debs founded the American Railway Union after the well-known Pullman strike in 1894. To break the strike and prevent future labor-management trouble, President Grover Cleveland used the army and sent Debs to prison. From 1900 until 1920, Debs ran for president, despite harrassment from the state and especially President Wilson who had him convicted in 1918 and sentenced for 10 years under the Espionage Act used to crack down on leftist trade unionists and political activists. Opposing the First World War as one of imperialism backed by capital, Debs noted:
The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.To turn your back on the corrupt Republican Party and the corrupt Democratic Party—the gold-dust lackeys of the ruling class—counts for something. It counts still more...to join a minority party that has an ideal, that stands for a principle, and fights for a cause.Debs posed a greater threat for mobilizing workers into a leftist political movement than he did as a presidential candidate. However, the mainstream institutions and especially the press saw him as a threat that must be eliminated from the scene.
Throughout the 20th century, from the Progressive Era when the lower middle class demanded representation to the early 21st century when the Green movement became popular, all third-party political movements have been co-opted by one of the two dominant parties that have faithfully represented the institutional structure. Franklin D. Roosevelt managed to co-opt the leftists and de-radicalize the general population while securing Democrat Party dominance from 1932 until 1952. The same pattern of co-optation that has been true of left-wing movements Absorbed by the Democrat party also holds true of right-wing parties that the Republic Party absorbs. In 1948, Strom Thurmond’s State’s Rights Party constituency became part of the Republican Party, as did George Wallace’s American Independent Party in 1968, although there were Democrat voters in both of those as there were in John Anderson’s Independent Party in 1980 and even in Ross Perot’s Reform party that was eventually absorbed by Republicans.
In every election, there are many candidates for president, from serious to the absurd. The media, however, ignores all political parties, unless it is one that poses no threat to the status quo, such as the Libertarian or Green Party. By contrast, the Communist Party has usually run a candidate for national office, but no television, radio or print media would cover its issue. This does not mean that the Communist Party has always been serious about presenting a platform and candidates that would at least carry some political weight. However, about the only way the Communist Party could possibly receive media attention, even heavily biased one would be if it ran the Pope as a candidate.
Are Americans Hoping for a Messiah Politician? Donald Trump as a Self-Proclaimed Messiah
America has always romanticized what it calls its unique brand of “democracy” and the hero-politician that comes along to unify the country. Although there are the revered presidents that include Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, for the most part politics in America has always been fragmented and not just in the post-Cold War era as some have suggested. Using foreign policy and foreign enemies to rally public support behind the flag has its limitations in time of relative peace. For this reason, politicians focus on targeted enemies within the country. The Republicans in the 1850s focused on slave-owners, while two decades later the enemy was the labor organizer. The Democrats in the 1930s focused on strengthening the central government to preserve capitalism while creating a social safety net to prevent revolution, while a decade later they focused on combating Communism at home by bringing dissidents before Congressional committees that blacklisted people who refused to accept bourgeois consensus politics.
The hero-politician in American history was not necessarily a president, governor or senator who was committed to social justice, but one who managed to transcend the individual interest groups and forge popular consensus so that the political economy could continue to thrive. Toward this goal of building consensus in a society that is politically fragmented largely because a substantial segment of voters remains apathetic, the strategy that has worked is populism (popular cause or causes among a segment of the voters), especially on the part of the Republicans from the Barry Goldwater candidacy in the 1960s until the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party today. Populism works not just in the US but in all countries, because it projects an image of “reform” in the interest of the people, but in essence its goal is to secure the election and continue to serve capital as faithfully as ever. Billionaire Donald Trump is such a person today who has chosen xenophobia as the focus of his campaign to excite the Republican Party base.
Trump attracts attention for several reasons. First, he is a billionaire and a celebrity, something the mainstream media focuses on whether one is running for office or not because the purpose is to promote capitalism and its values. Second, Trump combined the traditional Rockefeller Republican because he is a New York billionaire with the appeal of a right-wing populist focused on xenophobia. Historically, the xenophobia issue has roots that date back to the 19th century and it also plays well not only with the racist crowd, but also the middle class that is looking for someone to blame given that the economy has recovered but living standards continue to decline amid a growing socioeconomic gap.
In a recent essay I wrote that people not just in the US but around the world are looking for a Messiah politician and the one that presents himself or herself closer to the image will secure votes. On the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton is simply not capable of presenting herself and does not even try to do so as a Messiah politician, whereas Trump does and actually appeals to a segment of the social conservatives who do not like “Washington insiders” and they do not like the other Republican candidates because they are not giving the right wing someone to blame for all the problems society suffers. Although it is highly unlikely he will ever be elected president, Trump has chosen the right wing populist issue xenophobia as catalytic for his presidential bid in 2016.
Xenophobia is a very clear issue that the average conservative voter understands as much in the US as in Europe where racism also runs very high among conservatives. Xenophobia serves as a cover for political, economic and social problems society faces, but which are difficult to solve under the existing system without harming the interests of capital. Running against Washington insiders as a protest candidate from the right, Trump is appealing to many Republicans especially since he is a billionaire who embraces the values of Wall Street. The idea that Trump is a deviation from the mainstream of the Republic Party is utterly absurd, because this is not the party of Eisenhower, but of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
In an interview, Trump vowed to “get the bad ones out,” meaning the bad illegal immigrants estimated at 11 million. “I’m gonna get rid of the bad ones fast, and I’m gonna send them back. We’re not going to be putting them in prisons here and pay for them for the next 40 years.” Asked about the illegal aliens who are “not bad”, Trump replied: “We’re going to see what we’re going to see. It’s a very hard thing from a moral standpoint, from a physical standpoint, you don’t get them out. …Some are going to have to go and some – Hey, we’re just going to see what happens. It’s a very, very big subject and a very complicated subject….The wall’s going to be built. We’re going to have a great border.”
This simplistic racist perspective, if not completely unrealistic and impractical approach to a very complex subject with economic and social ramifications is rather typical of how a right-wing populist proposes to solve what his political party perceives as a problem that must be solved so that all of America’s problems simply melt away and every citizen can finally enjoy the fruits of the American Dream. Although there are those who argue Trump is doing damage to the party, in fact he is energizing the racist, xenophobic, warmongering base that is motivated by fear that there is an enemy out there – the Mexican, the Muslim, the outside world that has intruded into the American way of life and threatening it. It is not the neoliberal policies and the corporate welfare system that is responsible for the decline of the middle class, but the “outsiders” and those intruding in US soil. If only they did not exist, America would have no problems. The GOP cannot discredit Trump because he is the mirror of his party, as the preliminary polls indicate nationally as well as in several states.
If a third party is created what 5 main issues should it address?
If a third party is created, it cannot be a single-issue party, like that of H. Ross Perot who focused on the debt and built all other issues around that theme. A political party must have a popular base, and in my view the growing lower middle class and workers constitute the largest popular base. They are not represented by either political party, no matter the rhetoric from any candidate. Bernie Sanders is closest to this profile, but even his platform is not much different than that of the Republican Party in 1956.
If there were five top issues on which a new political party could form its platform, my list would include the following. Not that the issues I have listed have even the remotest possibility that a third political party would adopt them, but they are at the core of challenges that America faces in the 21st century.
This is almost an alien concept in the political dialogue of American politicians from both parties. The rights and general welfare of all people, not just one small social class that finances political campaigns in return for legislation that keeps this social class privileged while the remainder of the population suffers, is an anathema in political discourse. In fact, not even mainstream academics raise this issue publicly, because they know it does not pay to offend the establishment. What is social justice? Is it a utopian fantasy that advocates equality not just of opportunity, but at all levels as judged by outcomes in the social, political, economic and cultural domains? Social justice in a bourgeois society expects that the basic economic needs of human beings are met, and that society is free of poverty and violence, of xenophobia and racism, of sexism and homophobia, of social inequalities that private and/or public institutions promote.
2. Downward socioeconomic mobilization
It is no secret that downward socioeconomic mobility is a reality in American society in the last four decades. This is largely because of the Reagan neoliberal commitment to transfer massive wealth from the lower classes to the elites, and to transfer public resources from social welfare to corporate welfare. Social programs, education and health care, social security, affordable housing, minimum wage and a massive gap between the highest paid corporate executives and the average worker are some of the reasons for the downward mobility in America. Some politicians on both political parties agree there is a problem with the declining middle class but not a single one, except Bernie Sanders, blames the capitalist system for it. Instead, the fault rests with government, as though this is an entity that comes to Washington from Mars rather than the lobbyist peddling influence.
3. Human Rights, Civil Rights and Police State Methods
Rights of political prisoners, civil rights of minorities, crime and justice are inter-related issues and have to do with the correlation between the institutionalization of the “war on terror” that has had an impact on the decline of respect for human rights, civil rights and criminalizing minorities and the poor. Police harassing, arresting, and killings black and Latino youth in cold blood is not an isolated event, but a pattern of behavior across the country. The statistics on the US prison population speaks very clearly about the racist criminal justice system that exists, even under a black president. The US refusal to respect UN human right charter also speaks volumes of the arrogance and duplicity of US policy, because the same government in Washington demands compliance with UN human rights by other countries, including Cuba and Iran. It is amazing that the US media has no sense of self-reflection when it demands that all other countries respect human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, and refrain from police state methods, but the US is guilty of the very things it accuses its adversaries. This is the ultimate absurdity of “American Exceptionalism”.
4. Restructuring of the political system.
The existing political system is heavily dependent on financial contributions and lobbyists exerting policy influence. Despite many organizations trying to express their voice, everything from gay rights groups to environmental and labor unions ones, the voice that matters at the local, state and federal levels is that of large businesses. For example, if there is a choice for a city to invest in a new stadium for a football team versus public education, the money will go to subsidize the very wealthy owner of the football team at the expense of public education. Both the football franchise and education have their voices heard in government, but only that of the millionaire football owner matters. This is only a small sample of how government pours resources into the private sector at the expense of the public and calls it democracy.
Ending corporate control of the political process – campaign finance and government reform so that politicians are not accountable to the corporate sector but to the general public would go a long way in building democracy in America. All political candidates agree that the influence of money in politics is corrupting the system, but they have done nothing about it for decades. Beyond eliminating the direct role of private campaign money, the political system itself must be geared to serving ALL people and not merely the capitalist class as it has been and have the media call this democracy.
5. Foreign Policy and Defense
Foreign policy based on defense of the nation’s the territorial integrity ought to be the criteria and not “imperial” policies intended to expand US corporate interests throughout the world by any means necessary from direct military intervention to covert operations. The defense budget is the largest in the world for a country that clearly has very serious public debt problems eating away at the middle class socioeconomic fabric. The massive spending on defense intended to maintain the defense industries healthy and provide the illusion of security as well as leverage for the US to secure market share is unsustainable.
The reality of China as the world’ preeminent economic power in the 21st century is one the US helped create because it spent itself to second place during the Cold War and the manufactured “war on terror”. These are anachronistic policies, of the mid-20th century and have no place in our time. The behavior of the US in foreign affairs is very much reminiscent of the British Empire in its decline when it tried just about everything militarily, but still continued to decline. In the absence of crafting a new alliance system that rethinks the value of OAS, SEATO and NATO, the US will eventually spend itself to oblivion no differently than Great Britain.
The success of the major political parties in the US as well as in most countries around the world is indeed the co-optation strategy that manages to pay lip service to the middle class and workers but subordinates their interests to capital. Democracy allows for open access into the system that projects the image of theoretical equal participation by all citizens and political movements when in reality participation is limited to representatives of capital. Given this reality, a multi-party system or a two-party system amounts to the same thing because ultimately the government will represent capital. If a government emerges in a country where it tries to compromise the interests of capital, the rest of the world, governments and international financial institutions, make it so difficult for such a government to succeed that it capitulates.
New political parties arise out of a need on the part of a segment in society that feels the existing political parties are not representative of all people. Influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Founding Fathers viewed political parties as factions unrepresentative of the general welfare. The reality of class politics meant that political parties were a necessary mechanism around which competing elites of the early American republic revolved to express their interests. Interestingly enough, throughout the republic’s two-hundred year history, many Americans unlike their European counterparts, do not have a strong party affiliation. Even today, between 40 and 50 percent of the citizens polled declare independent of party affiliation. This is in itself inactive that neither party particularly expresses their interests and aspirations, although most people vote their aspirations rather than actual interests.
The third party in the US can either come from the conservative camp or from the left-of-center camp and it is highly unlikely to attract much popular support because the media inculcate into the public the idea that “consensus” politics is and must remain at the heart of American society. In other words, the implication is that a Socialist candidate whose platform could represent the majority of the population is not consensus because such a candidate would not incorporate the interests of the wealthiest Americans.
We have evidence from history that small third parties act as spoilers for one or the other major parties, but they hardly make a dent in the political process or in society. In a country as large as the US, it takes an incredible amount of money under the existing system to finance a political campaign and run against the major parties that enjoy the backing not just of the media, but of the entire institutional structure. The two political parties have been operating on the assumption that the voters have two choices and of course both work within an existing political, economic and social structure intended to preserve the status quo, rather than change it. The entrenched two-party political system also serves capital that is behind the two political parties.
No matter how much these two try to differentiate themselves, their differences are mostly on social and cultural issues, rather than systemic economic and political ones. For example, even the platform of Democrat Bernie Sanders, a person the media sees as a Socialist, is actually about the same as that of the Republican Party in 1956 when Eisenhower was the incumbent president. This is proof of how far to the right the left Democrats have moved and how far to the extreme right the Republicans have moved.
Regardless of whether a third and a fourth party emerge in the US, the system will remain the same until such time as a major economic crisis results in a social crisis and the political system begins to crack while a new one emerges, presumably a system that better serves the majority and not just the top one-third of the population with one-percent owning most of the wealth and determining policy for the rest of the 99 percent because they are able to finance political campaigns.
A political party that is organized “top-down”, instead of emerging from the grassroots is obviously a reflection of the elites that created it to preserve and expand their interests. When a grassroots movement tries to organize because it feels marginalized in society, the result is that the mainstream quickly co-opts it and de-radicalizes its followers. This happened in the depression of the 1890s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
The dominant political parties have the party machine tools at the local, state and national levels to bring any dissident movement into the mainstream. Otherwise, with the help of the media, they destroy it. Therefore, I do not see a viable third-party movement or movements until the next deep recession in America later this century, perhaps in the 2030s or 2040s. Because deep recessions or depressions cause economic polarization, the inevitable result will be social and political polarization, the ingredients which we see present in American society today that is much more polarized just beneath the surface than the “consensus-oriented” political, economic and media elites would have the public believe.