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Building an Independent Left Political Party

Since the roller coaster of election day, we have been treated to one new crucial development after another, as the campaigns have maneuvered for position, the people have protested and shouted, and the pundits, as they usually do, have talked too much. If only politics were like this all of the time. TV news would finally be worthwhile.

John Brady

Friday, December 8 2000, 8:13 PM

These last few weeks have provided some of the most exciting moments in American electoral politics for quite some time. With the exception of the three ringed circus instigated by Ross Perot in 1992, most presidential elections in the last twenty years have been routine affairs. The campaigns were hard fought to be sure and provided some memorable moments ("Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!"). But when it came time to cast votes, most races weren't that close at all, and the network news anchors could, without embarrassing either themselves or their profession, declare the winners relatively early on Tuesday evening. Add to this the basic consensus between Republicans and Democrats, an ideological wet blanket that puts a decided damper on heated public debate about political principles in this country, and you have a formula for less-than-spellbinding electoral politics.

Not so this time around. Since the roller coaster of election day, we have been treated to one new crucial development after another, as the campaigns have maneuvered for position, the people have protested and shouted, and the pundits, as they usually do, have talked too much. If only politics were like this all of the time. TV news would finally be worthwhile.

And surprisingly, from the beginning the independent left has played an important supporting role in this electoral spectacle. Themes and ideas long circulating on the left have percolated up into the mainstream of political discourse, commanding the attention and interest of the broader public. More importantly, a sector of the left was able to mount a serious nation-wide campaign for president, one that altered the dynamics of the overall race and that perhaps placed the independent left in the position to permanently move from the margins to the center of the American political landscape. (A new experience to be sure for individuals who have gotten used to subsisting at America's political periphery, only feeling a sense of political gratification and triumph when they make a good point during their Z Magazine discussion group or when their political zine about, say, the politics of everyday life finally hits the coffee-shop newspaper racks.)

These recent developments make it crucial that the independent left now carry out an extended debate about the Green Party's most recent presidential campaign. After sticking it to each other about whether Ralph Nader's middle name is Spoiler, we need to shift our attention and deliver a post-mortem of his campaign, one that evaluates whether it was a success or failure, outlines the lessons that should be learned for the future, and confronts the tough question of what strategies and tactics need to be re-thought before 2004.

Although America has a definite political tradition of third party politics, the institutional structure of the country's political system, especially its electoral system, makes it exceedingly difficult for third parties to establish a long-term (and effective) presence on the national political stage. These structural impediments place a premium on third parties being able to strike a balance between the politics of principle and the politics of power. In other words, a third party must develop and promote the principles of political reform, principles which, after all, energize its supporters and distinguish the party from the political mainstream. Yet, at the same time, the party must be hard nosed enough to confront questions of tactics, strategy, and political power, so as to increase their chances of getting into office where they can play a role in the legislative process, translating their reform principles into public policy.

It is precisely this balance that the Greens and Nader failed to maintain, choosing to run a campaign that was more concerned with demonstrating the corruption of the US political system and the moral failings of the two mainstream candidates, than with taking concrete steps to ensure that the Greens would be in a position to influence policy decisions and wield political power both immediately and in the future. Where were mistakes made? What should the left do differently? Large questions, to be sure. As a start here are three areas where the left could attain a more politically effective balance of principles and power.

  1. The importance of leverage. In retrospect, one of the Greens' more serious missteps was their failure to exploit the political leverage the Gore campaign suddenly gave them when it asked Nader to bow out of the race. Nader campaign officials scoffed at the idea, but in doing so they missed a potentially rich opportunity to extract concessions from the Democrats -- say access to future policy making, support for Green issues -- that would have been useful in not only achieving Green goals, but also in building the party. For a relatively young third party, the political resources gained by effectively employing such leverage are indispensable for constructing the foundation for future participation in legislative politics. Who knows what exactly Nader and the Greens would have received in exchange for a change in Nader's campaign. But it's fair to speculate that it would have been more than what they have now, which is the enmity of Democratic legislators and policy makers and the prospects of being even more marginal within the policy process.
  2. The Democrats and strategic alliances. Nader and the Greens were relentless in their attacks on the Democrats, who in principle deserved all the cans of whupass Nader could open up and more. But at the end of the day, politics is about more than being right, its about forging relationships, even with your political opponents, that allow you to further your policy goals. Engaging in strident critiques, however correct they might be, is not conducive to forging such relationships. The Greens need to establish the fact that they can differentiate between enemies and political opponents, signaling to the Democrats that, even though they have fundamental disagreements with them, they would be willing to work with them on certain issues and causes of common concern. And areas of common concern there are (and will be, now that Bush will most likely occupy the White House). The Greens and the Democrats both drink from the same stream of American progressivism, broadly defined. Sure, of late the Democrats have only been taking small, small sips from this stream. Nonetheless, both parties have an interest in seeing this stream grow stronger, even though they may disagree on the precise direction of its flow.
  3. Recognizing the structural limitations of the independent left. Barring some miraculous and massive shift in the American public's political consciousness, the American independent left will always be in the minority. Which isn't to say that this minority can't have a decisive effect on US politics. As this most recent election proved, the left can indeed be decisive, although perhaps not in the way many leftists would have hoped. The limitations faced by the left call for a heightened sense of realism in the definition of political goals, even as we admit that the definition of "realistic" is relative. While calls for fundamental reform are politically inspiring (and also necessary from the standpoint of political mobilization), a left third party must be aware of the overall slim chance of finding a majority for such reform. This fact of political life suggests the left would be wise to place much of its organizing energy and resources into ensuring its ability to decisively influence more incremental (and perhaps ultimately more meaningful) political change.

Nader and the Greens were certainly right about one thing. America needs a viable left political party that can hold the Republicans and the Democrats, especially the Democrats, accountable and force them to take steps in the direction of a more participatory political system. Unlike few other times in the history of the postwar left, leftists now have the opportunity to make a meaningful decision about the future. Will the independent left remain on the political margins, a righteous, but ultimately ineffective critic, or will it transform its critical energies and reform ideas into policies and political decisions that make a difference in the structure of everyday life? Who knows how long this window will remain open? Perhaps it has already closed. But to go through it places a premium on shaping a political program marked by programmatic flexibility, the willingness to settle at times for smaller goals, and the ability to now and again place compromise with one's political opponents over moral correctness.

John Brady is co-director of Bad Subjects.

Copyright © 2000 by John Brady. All rights reserved.