The buildup for this presidential election has been like a Tale of Two Cities. On one side, you have numerous Republicans lining up to court the money and votes of America’s right-wing. Will the nominee be union-busting governor Scott Walker? Or will the Republicans go with the establishment candidature of one John Ellis Bush? Perhaps the youngish libertarian wing will get their crack at selecting the nominee in choosing Rand Paul? Or will the Republicans choose their own dark-horse candidate of color in Dr. Ben Carson? There is no shortage of candidates to get conservatives and neoliberals fired up about taking back a country that, to be honest, they have never really lost.
But for Democrats? It was Hillary. The most decidedly neoliberal Democratic candidate for the presidency since, well, her husband ran to “end welfare as we know it” ‘in 1992. The candidate of lost emails and lecturing on the corporate circuit (but do not worry; her husband will continue speeches in her stead because, you know, they got to eat). The candidate of unabashed free trade and empty frequent flier miles as secretary of state. But the nomination was hers for the taking because she has waited her turn and, besides, do you not wish to have a woman president? Will someone please think of the children? And with Elizabeth Warren ruling out a run, it seemed that left-wing voters would be forced into their usual decision of third-party or staying home.
But last Wednesday, the political system got a bit of a shock when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) announced his candidacy for the presidency. A former mayor of Burlington and a candidate for governor under the socialist Liberty Union Party in the 1970s, Sanders is the longest serving socialist in the history of the United States Congress. He has long identified with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the organization has a #WeNeedBernie page where members of the organization (of which I am one) can go and show support. It was once unthinkable that the United States would ever see a major left-wing challenge to the two-party system in the mold of Debs and LaFollette, but with Sanders in the running, that time might just be now.
There is only one problem: Bernie Sanders is running to be the nominee of the party that he caucuses with in the U.S. Senate, the Democratic Party. That is a mistake.
When I first joined the Tuscaloosa County Democratic Executive Committee in early 2013, the slogan was then, as it is now, “The Party of the People”. That image of the Democratic Party as a defender of the working class and progressive economic values has helped it secure left-leaning votes for nearly fifty years now. You might say, even, that the notion of the Democratic Party as being a party of the American Left is common sense.
How many times have you heard that phrase, “common sense”? It is so common as to be an almost throwaway piece of our vernacular. Few places see the assertion of common sense more aggressively than in politics, and especially when discussing independent and third-party efforts at state and national office. In my lifetime, we have seen only two U.S. Senators (Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine) elected as independents, as well as seven governors elected as independent and third-party candidates. No presidential candidate outside of the two major parties has won Electoral College votes since George Wallace in 1968, and we have not seen a third-party candidate break even five percent of the national vote since Ross Perot’s final run at the presidency in 1996. And the last time a third-party candidate actually won the presidency? Well, you would have to go all the way back to 1860, when Abraham Lincoln rode the wave of a divided Democratic Party and the disintegration of the former second party, the Whigs, into the White House on the eve of the Civil War.
When you are faced with that history, it seems like having two dominant parties that split elections between them is the natural order of things. You would be wrong.
The notion of the natural two-party system is as contrived as the purported differences between the parties in that system. While it has been difficult for third parties and independents to win the White House, the American political landscape was once a place where those efforts thrived at the state and local levels. You had the Populists who dominated state politics in the Plains, the West, and parts of the South in the last 19th and early 20th centuries. In Wisconsin, you had the leftist Progressive Party of former governor and U.S. Senator Robert M. “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, Sr. come to power and run the table throughout the Depression and World War II, and the socialist Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota did the same thing during the same time. These parties had a profound influence on politics at the state and federal levels; LaFollette’s championing of higher education and its role in promoting policies that served the public good, known as the Wisconsin Idea, continues to serve as a guiding principle for the state’s university system to this day. The Farmer’s Alliance/Populist governors in the South worked to ensure that farmers did not die owing the farm store and its proprietor more money than they could ever pay out; their challenge to Democratic hegemony gave the South’s working class a party that would finally rally behind their interests rather than the planting class.
However, that would be short lived. As Lisa Disch explains in her amazing book The Tyranny of the Two-Party System, whether it was through the Democrats in the South and the West, or the Republicans in the Midwest, the capital class refused to have their dominance over state and national politics challenged. As such, they passed laws that would limit the effectiveness of independent and third-party challenges. They banned fusion voting, took the responsibility of printing ballots out of the hands of political parties and placed them in the hands of the state, and introduced signature requirements for parties to get on the ballot amongst many other “reforms”. These were framed as anti-corruption measures, but the truth of the matter was that they would secure democracy for only the two largest parties. As the multiparty democracies of Europe slid into little civil wars that would eventually expand into our second World War, the “sturdiness” and “stability” of our two-party system began to be praised and lauded as an alternative to the chaos that engulfed Europe. This “common sense” eventually made its way into American political science textbooks, where the two-party system was described as something that had functioned since the time of Washington and Jefferson, and that was as American as apple pie.
How does this function in today’s politics? Have a conversation with your liberal Democratic neighbor about the 2000 election and Ralph Nader, and see how that goes. In states that have decently-sized third parties, like Vermont (Progressive Party) and Minnesota (Independence Party), have a discussion about an election where the Democratic candidate lost by a close-enough margin, and see who they blame the defeat on. Chances are they will not blame the Democratic candidate for running an uninspired campaign; partisans rarely do. They will blame those idiots that voted for a third-party challenger. How can they be so dumb? Their votes will not count! They are throwing their votes away!
An independent run for president of the United States would have a couple of immediate benefits to American leftism:
- Ensuring that the issues we care about, particularly on the economy, are addressed on our nation’s largest political stage. Party nominations for the presidency are a mess. First, there will be many candidates for president on each side. On the Republican side, these candidates actually have a chance to win the nomination. But on the Democratic side, it will simply lead to someone like Bernie Sanders being drowned out. Given that the race is already being framed as “Hillary Clinton vs. the Left”, he will have to fight for left-leaning votes against at least Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb, and maybe more as candidates enter the race. Second, once the primaries are over, if Bernie Sanders is not the nominee (and it is easy to see how that might end up being the case), the issues that he raises will die along with his candidacy. That is, unless you seriously expect Hillary Clinton to stand on a general election debate stage with a Republican and discuss making the United States welfare state more like Europe (if you do, I have some nice swampland in south Alabama to sell you; it comes with a bridge and everything!). Having Bernie Sanders on that debate stage would allow him to put forth an agenda that is rarely heard in this country: one where our corporate oligarchy is directly challenged; where the “makers” are not billionaires, but workers; and where we tie political democracy to economic democracy. We can introduce a whole new ideology to a public that has rarely heard socialist ideas that did not come with a heavy-dose of red-baiting, racism, and retrograde rhetoric.
- It would free Sanders to campaign everywhere, which would benefit leftism in areas not commonly exposed to those ideas. You know the drill: Sanders will spend a ton of time in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina because that is where the early primaries will be. But with an independent run for the presidency, Sanders would be free to campaign all over America. He has come to the South on several occasions, exposing people to his agenda in places like Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. With interest in socialism rising amongst young voters and voters of color, an independent candidacy by the nation’s highest-officeholding socialist could spark socialist organizing outside of the campaign. As someone who organizes for the only Southern chapter of the DSA that is not in a major city or connected to a college campus, that would be boon to my organizing efforts. West Alabama has little of the institutions that would make socialist organizing easier (left-wing social movements that are active, a good-sized labor movement, etc.), and sometimes you have to build off what you can get. I do not want more Democrats; I want more socialists: an independent run by Sanders could assist in helping me produce that.
Long-term, though, a successful run for the presidency (and by successful, I do not mean victory; I mean a haul of about 10-15 percent of the national vote) could make a rupture in our political common sense. Getting into long-term prospects is difficult because, as Disch rightly points out, most contemporary third-party and independent efforts are personality-driven more than they are policy-driven. That can be a problem for building something lasting around these candidacies, and I would tend to see a Sanders candidacy that does not leave a lasting legacy as a failure. But it is guaranteed that nothing of the sort will be built with a candidacy within the Democratic Party. If we are to see a day where candidates must offer the working class a vision that is more than the “status quo plus benefits/minus government interference” on offer from either party of neoliberalism and capital, we must have a real challenge to our political system. We must build extrapolitical institutions that work towards more democracy in our politics and economics like the Populists and Farmer-Laborites of yesteryear.
Bernie Sanders, whether he knows it or not, is simply confirming that dominant “common sense” with his run. By choosing to remain as a challenger within the two-party system, he gives succor to those who see a challenge to the system’s prominence as “naive” or “extreme”. He will bring many people who would never consider casting a ballot for a Democrat into the party’s machinery and will give Hillary Clinton plenty of opportunities to discuss how much she is in line with an agenda that she has never before sought to represent or advocate in her political career. Can you not hear it? All the people talking about how much Clinton cares about LGBTQ+ rights and economic justice and reforming the criminal justice system? Only to have her pull the football away once she is in office.
There is only one way to begin the process of a political revolution through our national electoral system: Bernie Sanders must run as an independent for President of the United States in 2016. It is time for America to declare independence once more, and its fruits will be borne by all this time around.