Breaking the “Fifth Party System” Duopoly: The Minor Party Democracy Offensive

Political theorists call the present two-party system in the USA, the “Fifth Party System.” In this view, since the time our first federal government was formed in 1792 until today, this country has had 5 different configurations of political parties. Today’s “Fifth Party System” is dated from the New Deal in 1933. Prior to the New Deal during the “Fourth Party System” era we had a significant number of minor parties that challenged the Democrats and Republicans, such as the Socialist Party of America, Bull Moose Party, Progressive Party, and so on, who all were decisively marginalized by the multi-term presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.

The Fifth Party System of today needs to be replaced with a new configuration. The current system has given us political regression since the 70s. The “Citizens United” decision of 2010 opened the door to total corruption of the democratic process by enabling unrestricted political contributions by private corporations. This means that alternative viewpoints that include the interests of less economically wealthy have less power than ever before. This is a new level of danger for US politics and its influence on world affairs. As the major parties are now so wholly owned by wealthy corporations, social movements for change have little alternative but to either try to raise huge amounts of money and therefore buy into the problematic system itself, or begin organizing new “third parties” that resist corporate influence. The Green Party US is the most substantial of these efforts in US politics today. A close second place is held by the Libertarian Party, which seeks to end the dependence of corporations on government largesse and eliminate many onerous prohibitions on private moral decisions, like abortion, cannabis use, and same-sex marriage.

Two lesser-known but rising parties are the Constitution and Socialist Parties. The first of these is largely composed of radicals from the Christian Right. The latter is the heir to the Socialist Party of America, formed in 1973 after a split occurred. Most of the SPA leadership of 1973 decided against running electoral campaigns in favor of working within the Democratic Party. It’s no accident that this schism occurred just as the conservative counter-offensive to the 1960s was gaining momentum. Without a substantive third-party challenge from the left, the Democrats have moved consistently to the center, abandoning organized labor, blacks, and women to ever more impotent efforts at legislative reform, most notably in recent times, the Republican-inspired “Affordable Care Act” of 2010, that pales in comparison to the robust national healthcare systems of other industrialized countries.

My bold suggestion is that this configuration of political parties forms the seeds of a“Sixth Party System” of US politics, which will hopefully be a true multi-party system. If these minor parties continue to grow in political strength, as the Greens and Libertarians have done to date, then a showdown is in the making against the existing stalemate between government and corporate influence. Imagine that several key elections, even perhaps the 2016 presidential election, were to result in the following voting results:

Democrats – 49%
Republicans – 47%
Greens – 2%
Socialists – 0.5%
Libertarians – 1%
Constitution – 0.5%

By this count, the “left and center” wins 51.5% of the vote total, the “right and center” wins 48.5%, which isn’t too far off from where the numbers fall today. If this were to happen in any election that had national impact, such as Congress or State Governor, the failure of either major parties to earn a majority would force the existing powers to consider some changes, such as “instant run-off” voting systems, or perhaps even proportional representation.

It should be no surprise to regular readers that I am a member of the SPUSA and offer this analysis as minimal targets that we should strive to achieve. Socialism has risen in popularity as the economic crisis of 2008 continues to wreak havoc upon working people. In Europe, the left is regrouping in movements like Syriza in Greece, and here in the Occupy Wall Street mobilizations. However, OWS in particular fell prey to the main weakness of the US left, no political vehicle to absorb and organize all that insurgent energy. The Greens and the Socialists might have capitalized on OWS, but they failed to do so.

From a socialist perspective, mobilizing an anti-capitalist movement requires a political party or organization. Many socialists operate within the Democratic Party in the hopes of pulling it to the left. However, there has been no leftward movement except in various social movement concerns, such as same-sex marriage. On the two leading crisis points of our time, the destructive character of capitalism and the ecological destruction being advanced by industrial production and fossil-fuel consumption, the Democrats have given the left almost nothing for decades. After all, the left cannot contribute millions of dollars to political candidates.

There was a time when the unions were reliable allies in pulling the Democrats to the left on economic matters. However, the anti-union demobilization since the 70s has shrunk the actual power of organized labor to a shell of its former strength. In order to reverse this direction, a party committed to a progressive labor agenda is necessary. The Labor Party formed by Tony Mazzochi in the 90s was meant to be such an effort, however, his untimely death among other factors doomed that effort to failure. A socialist party could be a critical vehicle for revitalizing labor politics. Instead of simply trying to influence Democratic Party candidates in the direction of labor movement interests in competition with the wealthy corporate donors, a party of the left can create an oppositional pole outside the Democrats. Here, the experience of the Green Party is instructive.

When I presented a thumbnail of my “minor party offensive” strategy in a socialist forum on Facebook it was immediately objected that this concept depended on a strategic alliance with the far right Constitution Party. Such an objection is worth considering. From my perspective we don’t really need the Constitution Party in a multi-party strategy, since the Libertarians have already proven that they can divide the pro-capitalist bloc with some success. However, the Constitution Party does fill a real niche on the far right. Some on the left will object to forming any kind of strategic alliance with even the Libertarians, but the truth is that on some key points, such as same-sex marriage, drug decriminalization, anti-intervention, and other civil liberties, the Libertarians are a useful wedge inside the right.

I offer this proposal as very rough first pass at a new way to conceive third-party strategy. Instead of always worrying about the “spoiler effect” we can lock arms with Greens and Libertarians to fight the right for a real place in the political future of our nation and world.

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