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Est. April 5, 2002
April 14, 2016 - Issue 649

The End
of the
U.S. Two Party System,
As We Know It?

"Americans interested in seeing the major parties
adopt more progressive stances in eliminating
racial and class divisions, including poverty,
should seek to support an independent front, or
third party, that could at least influence the policies
adopted by the Democrats and Republicans.

The U.S. two party system is entering a period of major realignment. This observation is based on the anti-elitist movement within both parties reflected in the rise of Donald Trump on the Republican side,and Bernie Saunders on the Democratic side. Working-class anger, and predominantly White, is propelling Trump to a possible nomination as the Republican Party presidential nominee. And while Sanders is still trailing Hillary Clinton (mostly due to the endorsement of her candidacy by ‘super delegates’), the swirl of economic justice that has propelled his candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination is significant and growing to a point where the writer and activist Van Jones has referred to a ‘civil war’ within the Party. Although these two developments are different in terms of a range of domestic issues and foreign policy world views, they nevertheless share a rejection of the status of elites in both Parties. There are also differences between the elites of both parties on a range of issues. But both sets of elites are bulwarked by massive corporate wealth which has become rapidly more concentrated over the decades regardless of the Party in power.

Both parties are in a political thicket that could very well spell major party transformations. For the Republicans: the more the elites in this Party and their allies suggest Trump represents the most dangerous campaign ever facing America, the more support he seems to garner among working-class and angered Whites (and a few others). If Trump is denied the nomination it is not clear that his supporters will simply resign themselves to whomever might be the nominee. This could mean that many Trump supporters may sit out the election. And if Trump does win the nomination there is much talk among Republicans about not supporting him due to his divisive and bullying style. Interestingly, the threat of non-support on the part of some Republican leaders is not due to the policies Trump is advocating but rather electoral style and openly divisive language. In fact, there are many policy similarities among the Republican candidates.

The growing support for Bernie Sanders is also a major problem for Hillary Clinton if she were to get the Democratic Party nomination. Sanders offers a fundamental class critique of the U.S. economy and espouses strongly the need to hold accountable a wanton free market that continually employs its resources to weaken any attempts to regulate its excesses. His candidacy is highlighting some potential limitations to a Clinton victory in the general election. One is that she has moved considerably towards the left to adopt some of the positions advocated by Sanders. On the one hand this is logical if Sanders is garnering so much support within the Democratic Party. But, ironically, this very move to the left can be viewed as opportunistic and thereby increase the lack of trust with Clinton on the part of many voters whether they are progressive or not. If mistrust is a factor in electoral turnout, then it could spell big problems for Clinton as a presidential candidate.

There is another potential limitation to a successful Clinton race for President of the United States: while it has been African American and Latino/a voters who have saved her in some Southern states, for the most part these particular supporters represent sectors that have been long linked to the fate of the Democratic Party. They include many, but not all, elected officials and traditional Democratic voters who happen to be African American or Latino. But as I argued in The Politics of Black Empowerment: The Transformation of Black Activism in Urban America (African American Life Series) (Wayne State University Press, 1992), the two Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns clearly showed that the Black electorate is not monolithic in terms of class or loyalty to the Democratic Party. In addition to the more traditional voters, there is a sector that I called at the time, a community activist one, and another sector that is disconnected, or“politically divorced” from politics. That traditional Democratic Party African-American voters supported Hillary Clinton during this primary season may speak little about support or lack thereof, among these two other sectors that tend to be more critical of both Parties. High Black electoral turnout in local and national races occur when these intra Black community sectors all turnout in relatively high numbers. This has yet to happen during the current primary season and it may not happen in the general election if Clinton relies solely on her loyal Black supporters.

Disillusionment leading to political disengagement on the part of potential voters that are needed by Clinton to win can also come from the ‘math’ used to earn the presidential nomination. If it is perceived that Clinton wins the nomination based essentially on the support of super delegates representing the elites of the Democratic Party (these include elected officials and dignitaries), then this could backfire on her. So far, basic arithmetic shows that if these super delegates were not included, in fact, the race for the nomination is extremely close between Saunders and Clinton. Only in the conservative South does Clinton beat Sanders in a lopsided way (and due, in large part, to the African American voters who turned out in these primaries);outside the South the Clinton wins are based on very close races with Sanders. If ‘math’ trumps basic arithmetic it could serve to minimize that millions of Americans and states were won by Sanders in the primary season and possibly lead to a lower turnout among potential Democratic Party supporters.

These concerns and potential imitations is precisely why the Democratic Party mainstream (and others) are highlighting the danger of Trump as presidential candidate. Whatever you may think of Hillary Clinton, in other words, nothing can be worse than a President Donald Trump, so the argument goes. Again, this suggests that the other Republican candidates would be a better alternative even if they hold similar right-wing positions!

People who see themselves as progressive should put the sincerity of this Democratic Party argument to the test. In other words, if Clinton wins the nomination and we all must do whatever is necessary to stop Trump, then what is Clinton and the Democratic Party willing to do to help ensure this, beyond the call that Trump has to be stopped? This is where an independent front steps in, with a concrete set of progressive policies that have to be endorsed and supported by Clinton in order to maintain a coalition to defeat Trump, or any of the Republican Party presidential candidates.

Twenty-two years ago I claimed that neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party will pursue a decisive agenda of economic democracy unless they are politically forced to, through a progressive third party or a third party-like front. I stated: “Americans interested in seeing the major parties adopt more progressive stances in eliminating racial and class divisions, including poverty, should seek to support an independent front, or third party, that could at least influence the policies adopted by the Democrats and Republicans.” Further, “A third party”…[or a third front built around progressive issues]…that mobilizes voters effectively, and runs independents for electoral office can be, in effect, an important bargaining chip for poor and working class people, as well as people of color.” (“The Need for a Third Party in U.S. Politics” was published in the New Political Science journal in 1994). I am emphasizing here that such a front, or coalition could assert significant impact in pushing national candidates towards stronger policies reflecting social justice and economic democracy over the interests of corporate wealth and power.

There are differences between the two national parties in spite of how both are supported by massive corporate wealth and greed. And, which party will be able to facilitate its choice to the U.S. Supreme Court is a major concern, of course. But a way to emphasize the progressive positions of one party over the other cannot be through a‘lesser of the devil’ approach. This actually limits debate and discourse, but worse, it neutralizes mobilization for a progressive agenda. Fighting a Trump presidential candidacy has to be on the basis of challenging racial and class inequality throughconcrete public policies, and increasing the capacity to mobilize masses of Americans around these issues, not on whether or not Trump happens to be the scariest.

The need to continuing building an independent front is not a new idea,of course. As one example, the model of the Workers Families Party should be expanded beyond the 2016 presidential election. This is an independent party that gradually has been building its base and membership in New York and other states. It utilizes an independent front to endorse or work on behalf of Democratic Party candidates who are perceived as progressive (in this case, Bernie Saunders). I am not necessarily advocating on behalf of this particular party, but only suggesting that similarly there should be local efforts to build electoral independent fronts that can continue putting progressive pressure on the Democratic Party by supporting or withholding support.

In a recent Huffington Post commentary (March 25, 2016) Miles Mogulescu discussed the timeliness of mobilizing inside and outside the 2 party box: “There has rarely been a better opportunity to create and build a permanent, national progressive organization than has been afforded by the Sanders campaign. The historical moment is right, with Bernie winning millions of supporters' votes for his campaign against a rigged economic and political system, against institutional racism and a broken criminal justice system, and for aggressive action to combat climate change.”

Reflecting this last sentiment, it is more critical than ever to consider how progressive interests and coalitions can advance electorally both within the 2 party system, but also outside of it. No longer should the debate about strategies and tactics associated with progressive agendas be confined by the boundaries of the current 2 party system,or what political scientist

E.E. Schattschneider described a long time ago (1960) as the “Republican-Democratic electoral lock.” What might be the most effective local and national mechanisms for making this happen, given the enormous presence of concentrated wealth in both Parties? This is a question that we have to confront and answer regardless of what happens in the current primary season, or the next general election. Editorial Board Member James Jennings, PhD - Professor Emeritus of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University and a Bernie Sanders supporter. Contact Dr. Jennings.




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