by Scott McLarty
Originally published by OpEd News.
21st-century time bombs like global warming require a drastic change in the U.S. political landscape
March 31 news item: President Obama’s Interior Department has approved leases for high-risk oil drilling in the fragile Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea north of the Bering Strait.
Interior’s rush approval, overriding an earlier ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, should remind us of the inconsistencies in the President’s 2015 State of the Union speech. On one hand, a declared commitment to fight global warming. On the other hand, a call to develop more domestic fossil-fuel sources.
Hillary Clinton, the current best bet for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2016, is likely to show even less concern for the climate crisis, if elected.
For this reason and others, many Democrats are urging Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to compete with Ms. Clinton for the nomination. Even if Mr. Sanders or Ms. Warren can’t beat Ms. Clinton in the primaries, they’ll push her to the left. Right?
Any progressive Dem who runs in 2016 will have the same negligible effect as Jesse Jackson and Dennis Kucinich in previous elections.
It’s no longer reasonable to believe that the Democratic Party can be rescued from its war-and-Wall-Street leadership and addiction to corporate campaign checks.
The likely scenario is that Ms. Clinton will draw post-nomination progressive support that’s based either on delusion (“Deep in her heart, Hillary is really one of us!”) or less-of-two-evils resignation (“We must keeping voting D to prevent an R victory!”), with a generous helping of enthusiasm for a possible first woman president. By the time the Democratic National Convention rolls around in mid 2016, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders will be as marginal as Mr. Kucinich was during past Dem conventions.
How long do progressives intend to participate in their own self-defeat? Or, more to the point, how long before progressives admit that Dems are as incapable as Repubs in addressing the major crises we face during the remainder of the 21st century?
The crises can be summarized: (1) a looming global climate catastrophe; (2) a new Robber Baron economy under which the One Percent are amassing unprecedented wealth and power while they dismantle the public sector, the social safety net, and financial security for working people, with a small group of large corporations functioning as an unelected government; (3) a growing national-security/mass-incarceration state, which includes universal surveillance, the for-profit prison-industrial and homeland-security feeding troughs, runaway police and prosecutorial power, and appalling racial disparities in arrests and sentencing; and (4) a neocon doctrine of military power under which the U.S. may unilaterally attack any nation at will to assert political hegemony and control over resources.
The combination of these four crises promises an era of deteriorating quality of life, increasing debt, eroded rights and freedoms, lawless militarism, and (if global warming forecasts are correct) the danger of complete social breakdown. Their severity can be compared with the rise of totalitarian states and the Cold War’s nuclear menace during the 20th century.
Progressives like to say that “another world is possible.” Another world won’t happen by investing hopes in Democratic also-rans. Progressives have been pledging to rehabilitate the Democratic Party for decades. They’ve gotten nowhere. President Obama stacked his top-level staff from the beginning with former Wall Street execs and his economic policies are to the right of Eisenhower’s and Nixon’s. Democrats like to boast about a post-2008 economic recovery. The fact that 95% of the recovery’s gains went to the top One Percent suggests that Dems have embraced the Reagan-era trickle-down theory.
Despite their obvious differences, the Democratic and Republican parties are both on the wrong side of this century’s major crises. The two parties are driving us in the same direction. The lesser-evil rationale is simply a wager that the GOP will drive us off the cliff a few years earlier.
Comedian Lewis Black once said that Republicans are the party of bad ideas and Democrats are the party of no ideas. He might have added that gullible people can be inspired by bad ideas, while no one is inspired by no ideas. (Hence the Republican takeover of Congress in the 2014 midterm elections.) Dems are right about the GOP’s descent into irrationality and fanaticism, illustrated recently by the letter from 47 Republican U.S. senators to Iran’s leaders, prohibitions on Florida and Wisconsin government employees from mentioning climate change, and frothing condemnations of same-sex marriage rights.
But decrying extremism and warning us about Republican appointees to the Supreme Court aren’t the same as offering a persuasive alternative.
The GOP has been successful in part because the Democratic Party, ever since President Carter’s retreat from labor and Clintonian triangulation, has been unable to present a grand populist vision comparable to President Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Johnson’s Great Society. “Bridge to the 21st Century” and “Hope and Change” were never more than slogans. Centrist and moderate Dems have embraced Robber-Baron agendas like privatization, deregulation, free-trade deals that favor the corporate sector, and crushing public-sector unions. (Centrism and moderacy should be understood as a species of extremism: the middle point at which Dems and Repubs overlap on the political spectrum is where both parties are most loyal to their corporate sponsors.)
“Everyday Americans need a champion and I want to be that champion,” said Hillary Clinton when she announced her candidacy on April 12. A populist program introduced by Hillary Clinton, darling of Goldman Sachs, would be only slightly less unconvincing than one from a Republican.
Behind the intense partisan enmity and Capitol Hill gridlock is a symbiosis. Democrats appear rational and moderate in comparison with the GOP. Republicans look like fearless leaders in comparison with visionless, compromising Dems, while the rightward slide of the Democratic Party has enabled a Republican brand of politics based on a synthesis of John Birch, Ayn Rand, and Gen. Augusto Pinochet. (A similar dynamic is at work within the two parties: Ted Cruz makes Jeb Bush look sane.)
It’s foolish to believe that the steps necessary to defuse the four crises I listed above will come from one of the two corporate-money parties. For anyone concerned about our own well-being, future generations, and the health of the planet, these crises must inform the 2016 election, especially when the window is closing on what we can do to prevent the melting of Arctic ice sheets and rising sea levels.
The only thing that can arrest the unfolding emergencies of the 21st century is a drastic change in the political landscape. Aside from outright revolution, changing the landscape is only possible through an aggressive and sustained third-party insurgence.
The Third-Party Imperative
Most of the Left gets squeamish at the thought of third parties. Mainstream progressive and ecological groups and unions remain joined at the hip with the Democratic Party. Even when Left commentators denounce Dems and pine for alternatives, they retreat into lesser-evil apologies: “I’ll have to vote for Hillary, like everyone else. I just choose not to revel in the ugly, doomed necessity of it.” (“Don’t be less evil,” MaxSpeak, March 27, 2015). This tendency parallels the popular wish, expressed regularly in polls, for more parties that disappears every Election Day when voters endorse the two established parties and reelect incumbents.
Adolph Reed Jr., in “Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals” (Harper’s, March 2014), laments the failure of a third party to take hold and closes with a call for movement-building: “The crucial tasks for a committed left in the United States now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to create one. This is a long-term effort, and one that requires grounding in a vibrant labor movement.”
Movements need an electoral counterpart. In the U.S., movements tend to exist in fits and starts. The only lesson President Obama learned from the anti-globalization movement that erupted in Seattle sixteen years ago was that the Trans-Pacific Partnership should be negotiated in secret. President Bush simply ignored the anti-war movement, which nearly evaporated after the 2008 election. Occupy Wall Street hardly scratched the surface of the nation’s economic status quo: the modest financial-sector reforms of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act were weakened further when last year’s budget bill enacted public insurance for high-risk derivatives trading, with Mr. Obama’s support. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, the One Percent remains stronger than ever.
The Populists, Eugene Debs and his fellow Socialists, and others who organized a century ago understood the importance of alternative parties in sustaining popular movements. Even when the parties failed to achieve permanence, they profoundly altered the landscape.
The legacy of third parties in the U.S. includes abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the eight-hour workday, workers’ benefits, public schools, unemployment compensation, the minimum wage, child labor laws, direct election of senators, and programs like Social Security and Medicare. All of these were introduced by third parties and adopted later by one or both of the major parties.
The near-disappearance of third parties on the left in the second half of the 20th century is one of the great unmentioned reasons for the triumph of the right wing in both major parties. Democrats assumed, correctly, that they’d continue to enjoy progressive support regardless of their actions. Progressive votes could simply be taken for granted.
Democrats shudder at the notion of competition from a progressive third party. They’ve even created phony alternatives like the Working Families Party to keep progressives inside the Democratic fold. In New York’s 2014 gubernatorial race, the WFP endorsed Wall Street errand-boy Andrew Cuomo, a Dem incumbent who urged austerity and worked hard to dismantle the rights of public-sector employees, over Green candidate Howie Hawkins.
Revulsion towards third parties accounts for spoiler panic and for Democratic collusion with Republicans in passing grossly unfair state ballot-access rules that privilege major-party candidates and hinder third parties. The post-2000 spoiler accusation allowed Dems to blame Green nominee Ralph Nader for George W. Bush’s entry into the White House while ignoring factors like vote obstruction by Florida Republicans, Al Gore’s failure to insist on a statewide recount, a patently biased Supreme Court ruling, and confirmation of Mr. Bush’s “victory” by Democratic senators.
The principle behind spoiler panic is that election theft by a major party is more acceptable than election participation by a minor party.
Democratic apologists like to call third parties an exercise in making the perfect the enemy of the good. Rejecting the lesser of two evils isn’t a demand for perfection or purity, it’s a desire for an overdue alternative. It’s a recognition that Americans deserve the right to vote for a candidate who best represents their interests and ideals, without being told that only two candidates are legitimate.
Shortly after her election to Seattle City Council in 2014, Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative succeeded in getting a $15 livable-wage bill passed. In Richmond, California, Green Mayor Gayle McLaughlin enraged Wall Street by using eminent domain to rescue residents facing foreclosure from losing their homes. (President Obama still refuses to demand foreclosure relief from the same bailed-out banks whose reckless greed triggered the 2008 meltdown). These local victories demonstrate what’s possible when third-party candidates get elected.
The crises of the 21st century require analogous actions at the national level. 2012 Green presidential nominee Jill Stein, Mr. Hawkins, and other Greens have promoted the “Green New Deal,” a comprehensive plan to create millions of new jobs through public investment and projects to end fossil-fuel consumption.
The Green New Deal would enact a single-payer national health care system and forgive student loan debts. Instead of austerity, the bipartisan policy whereby working Americans are punished for the criminal excesses of Wall Street behemoths, the Green New Deal would break up too-big-to-fail banks. It recognizes that the climate crisis can only be solved by national and international efforts comparable to the cooperation among the Allies that defeated the Axis powers in World War II.
The most surprising part of the Green New Deal is that so many of its planks echo Progressive Era and New Deal agenda of the last century and current policies in many European nations. They’re hardly radical at all, except in comparison to today’s Democratic and Republican parties.
Whether they’re radical or not is besides the point. What matters is that such ideas are imperative for the 21st century, if we wish to avert an array of environmental and economic breakdowns, and that they require concerted action in the electoral arena that’s independent of the two Titanic parties.
Scott McLarty has served as media coordinator for the Green Party of the United States and for the DC Statehood Green Party. He has had articles, guest columns, and book reviews published in Roll Call, CommonDreams.org, Z Magazine, Green Horizon, The Progressive Review, In These Times, and several local and community publications and small press. He joined the Green Party in 1996, and in 1998 ran for the Ward 1 seat on the Washington, DC City Council. Mr. McLarty grew up in Long Island, New York, and now lives in Washington, DC.