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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Imagining the players who could jump-start a third party

In this post yesterday, I raised the notion that developments within both the Democratic and Republican parties could present a unique new opportunity for the emergence of a viable third party in the United States.  Let me unpack this idea a bit more in the hope of getting some feedback on my thinking.

1.  With the approval ratings of Prez. Bush and the Congress so low, I think there is deep nationwide disenchantment with the political status quo.  This reality in part explains the success of three non-traditional candidates in the 2008 presidential primaries of our two modern major parties. 

2. Important factions within both parties seem deeply troubled by modern developments: many fiscal and social conservatives are quite troubled by modern Republican realities; the Clinton-Obama battle has revealed deep and consequential fault lines within traditional Democratic voting blocs.

3.  There are a few prominent non-traditional politicians with lots of money and name recognition who could jump-start serious third-party talk.  New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has already started some of this talk, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is another name that comes to mind.  I suspect a serious national candidate with the serious backing of both Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger would have a real good chance to compete in California and New York (garnering all the media attention that is always focused on these two states).  That's a pretty good running head-start for anyone.

4. Prominent politically-oriented celebrities ranging from Bono to Angelina Jolie to Oprah Winfrey might readily be drawn to work with/for a new political party that lacks the historical baggage of the traditional parties.  In addition, though politically-oriented athletes are depressingly hard to find these days (see ESPN piece here), I could imagine a new third party finding ways to appeal to prominent socially-conscious athletes ranging from Charles Barkley to Brett Farve to Cal Ripken to Tiger Woods.

5.  Depending upon how they are treated by their own parties, some big names from the 2008 campaign might come to see the virtues of trying to re-make the political map by going off in a whole new direction.  Of course, Barack Obama is the first person I think of here, but I could also imagine Mitt Romney and/or Mike Huckabee being drawn away from the Republican party if not given serious consideration as McCain's VP.  Senator Joe Lieberman's 2006 re-election as an independent, of course, shows the possibilities of retaining political power even after leaving a long-established connection to a particular political party.

These various forces hardly ensure that a new third party would have a real chance to compete the presidency in 2008 or have a long-term political future.  Nevertheless, some serious talk by serious people about starting a serious third party — which might call itself the "Good Government Party" party or the "Independence Party" — like would significantly impact the 2008 political dynamics in many (expected and unexpected) ways.

Posted by Douglas A. Berman on March 20, 2008 at 08:05 AM in Law and Politics | Permalink


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I was involved early on in the Green movement when they had internal debates about devoting a considerable amount of energy to becoming a political party: our side lost the vote, among other things, and the party was born while the social movement more or less withered away. Many of us did not want to see the Greens' social movement energy canalized into party politics believing there was little or no chance the party would be successful, particularly on the national stage. To be sure, there have been some local successes, but the social movement as such lost much if not all of its dynamism, including the ability to work on social, economic, and political issues outside of party politics (which is not to be dismissive of the latter, only that one of the beliefs of the Greens was that there is or at least should be a kind of politics that takes place outside of party politics proper). Indeed, Greens might have had more conventional influence, I believe, on the existing parties had they remained simply a social movement and not beomce primarily a political party.

Well, you say, that's the Greens, and now we're talking about something different. Perhaps, but the history of third parties in America teaches how *extremely* difficult it is to build a third party in this country, especially given the nature of our electoral system. I suspect the kinds of people (yes, there is a certain 'type' that commits to the arduous work of party building and mobilization) who would involve themselves in party organizing and mobilization are largely already affiliated with existing parties (incuding those outside the two main parties), and part of the disenchantment among the public may be with party politics itself, not just the Democratic and Republican parties. Of course one by-product or spillover effect of building a third-party, to the extent that it might be at all successful, would be to open up one or both of the parties to new ideas, policies, and so forth, but that's not a reason that provides sufficient incentive to build a third party. Certainly nothing that goes by the name of the "Good Government Party" should be initiated or affiliated with current politicians, given, alas, the cynicism among the general public about those who choose to make a career out of politics. And any new political party risks becoming beholden to corporate interests in the same manner the two parties today have succumbed to the intrusions of private power in the formal arena of politics (a classic study of this: Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, On Democracy: Toward a Transformation of American Society, 1983).

Any attempt to build a third party without a prior transformation of civil society (my understanding of civil society owes much to Jean L. Cohen and Andrew Arato's Civil Society and Political Theory, 1992) strikes me as premature and doomed to failure, given the nature of the relation between civil society and the State. Again, not to be dismissive of conventional party politics, but there is much one might do outside that realm that is also "political" and, indeed, that can plant the seeds within the public that would help ensure a third party is truly a party with a difference, a new kind of "good governance" and "good government" party, one with a renewed commitment to the principles and values of democratic justification and legitimation (cf. Cohen and Rogers above on this; or, see Marcus G. Raskin's discussion of the 'common good' in his unduly neglected book, The Common Good: Its Politics, Policies and Philosophy, 1986). Such a party would organically emerge from civil society, not merey replicate the model of existing parties or be inititated from the "top-down" in the manner you intimate. In the words of a subtitle from one of the chapters in Richard Flacks' important study, Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life (1988), we ought rather to give serious attention to "Everyday Life as the Seedbed of Political Action." The following from Flacks well captures at least one reason we perhaps should not devote ourselves to the creation of a third party: "Since there is no national organization around any more that can set doctrinal boundaries for the left, there is today more room for expressing and acting upon the full range of issues and perspectives that actually constitute the radical, democratic, critical tradition. One can more easily be a Marxist in the morening, a pacifist in the afternoon, an environmentalist at dinner, and a feminist in the evening while going to church on Sunday and voting Democrat on election day."

In short, what I'm suggesting is that instead of the short-term and often illusory gratification of party politics, that most of us are better off focusing our limited energies on political action in civil society beyond party organizing and mobilization, the sort of work that brings, as it were, delayed gratification and may in fact one day give birth to one or more truly alternative political parties organically linked to various sectors of citizenry in civil society. This would be analogous if not similar to what Gandhi emphasized in his satyagraha campaigns, namely, a Constructive Program by way of complementing the various forms of non-violent resistance. In our case, such a Constructive Program would be "utopian" (as spelled out in William Galston's Justice and the Human Good, 1980), "prefigurative" (in the sense found in Wini Breines' Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-68: The Great Refusal, 1982), and well grounded in everyday life and thus "practical" (cf. what 'ordinary Black people' accomplished in Charles M. Payne's remarkable study [with lessons for all of us] in I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, 1995).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Mar 20, 2008 10:00:09 AM

Interesting. But what ideas or principles unify or link this party and these individuals, beyond disaffection with their current parties? Or are such ideas or principles (which motivated the establishment of the previous successful American third parties) no longer essential?

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 20, 2008 8:58:05 AM

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