The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
Talk about a Third Party, to Avoid It

Aug 20, 1995

With only 15 months to go, the two parties have begun gearing up in earnest for the 1996 American elections.

The Republican Party already has 10 announced candidates for the presidency, most of whom began to tour the country in July and August, looking for money, backers and free sound bites. So far, Robert Dole has been touted as the front runner. His main claim on the nomination seems to be his ability to hold the "radical" Republicans elected to the House in check; with Dole presiding as the majority leader in the Senate, none of the important bills they rushed in to the hopper have been passed by the Republican Senate. Actually, he may have another advantage for the Republicans: his age. If he were elected, he would be the oldest president to take office. Thus, while the shifting political scene gets sorted out, he can act as a transitional caretaker for the Republicans.

The Democrats seem to be stuck with Clinton. The last month found him searching for a way to placate the black electorate, which had given him more than 1/5 his total votes in 1992, seeking, at the same time, not to alienate the conservatives he has been courting. Thus, he pronounced himself in favor of that affirmative action which when "done right, it is flexible, it is fair and it works"; but he also pronounced himself ready to terminate "affirmative action programs that have served their purpose"; to oppose "quotas"; to insist that "all affirmative action recipients must be qualified"; and "vigorously prosecute reverse discrimination."

As so often is the case, no one could divine in all this exactly what Clinton intended to do, if anything. (Jesse Jackson snidely remarked, "he comes to the fork in the road, and likes the fork.")

The People's Choice: Neither One

A recent New York Times-CBS News poll, taken in the second week of August, reported that only 26 per cent of the population believed that Clinton was doing a good job. Coincidentally, the same number, only 26 per cent, believed that the Republicans were doing a good job. Only 36 per cent of the respondents could think of even a single office holder whom they admired. While Clinton might take comfort in the fact that he was mentioned by more people than any one else, that "more" still turned out to be only 6 per cent of all those polled. And 79 per cent agreed with the statement that "the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves."

Whatever all that means – and, obviously, the findings of a poll are limited – one result was very striking: 55 per cent of those polled said that the country needs a new political party to compete with the Republicans and Democrats.

A few days later, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll reported that an even higher percentage wants to see a new political party created: 62 per cent, up from the 58 per cent this same poll reported in '92.

It's not surprising that such a large part of the population has turned its anger against the politicians. The last four years have been marked by an economic recovery, wherein the rate of profit was almost double that of the average profits rolled up in all the recoveries of the past 35 years. Wages are not only stagnant, they are not keeping up with inflation, and have not been since the late 1970s. Labor's share of the national income has shrunk to levels last seen 30 years ago. This same recovery has been marked by the disappearance of more industrial jobs, even while production is up. It has seen a large increase in part-time and temporary jobs. Unemployment effectively bottoms out at just under 6 per cent officially – a higher low than in most previous recoveries.

Other parts of the population, especially in the rural areas, have also undergone a sharp worsening of their situation. The problems of lower prices for what they sell, higher prices for what they buy and foreclosures on farms have all transformed the rural areas into centers of poverty worse than that in the big cities.

And while this long worsening of everyone's economic situation weighs on the population, there are obviously other problems. The talk, for example, about reducing or getting rid of "affirmative action" symbolizes for the black population the fact that its situation, which has already declined more precipitously than that of the white population, is about to be singled out for still more attacks.

In fact, affirmative action, as far as the official programs and legal rulings are concerned, in reality produced more gains for the black petty bourgeoisie, whether in the professions, in the state apparatus, in big business, or in small business endeavors, than for the black workers. But that doesn't mean that black workers won't be affected as affirmative action comes under attack; they are being turned into scapegoats for what capitalism has done to the situation of the white workers.

Finally, the rapid growth of the militias is a sign of the growing opposition to the state and the government and the system. Where these militias will go has yet to be answered, but there are people among the leaders of these militias who seem to be looking for ways to broaden the militias' influence beyond the essentially rural, essentially white base which they have had up until now. One indication of that came when an Alabama paramilitary group, the Gadsden Minutemen, sent someone to film the Good Ol' Boys Roundup – a yearly whites-only camp-out by federal police agents in the hills of eastern Tennessee. The Alabama militia gave the films to the media. Obviously, their intention was to discredit the ATF, which was heavily involved at this affair, in which "nigger-hunting licenses" were sold. But in so doing, the militia ended up denouncing racism – at least the racism of federal police agencies. In the same period, the former head of the Michigan Militia announced, perhaps as a way to regain his position from which he had been dumped for being too radical immediately after the Oklahoma bombing, that what Detroit needed was a new Black Panther militia. Obviously, this doesn't mean that the militias have gotten rid of their right wing baggage, including racist attitudes, but it shows that parts of the population are so disaffected with the central authorities that they are searching for links with other people who might have reasons to oppose the state apparatus.

"Brothers": Perot and Jackson and Bradley and Powell ... etc.

It's in this situation that a number of politicians seem to be positioning themselves to be ready to do something outside the framework of the two parties – or, at least, if the need arises.

Ross Perot organized a meeting in August, which drew 3,000 or so members of United We Stand America, the organization that came out of his 1992 presidential race when he won 19 per cent of the vote, running separately from both parties. The week-end meeting in Dallas was a carefully staged event, letting Perot raise a range of possibilities, without ever committing himself to any of them: he or someone else might run as an "independent", they might create a party; they might support the "right candidate", etc. It also let Perot demonstrate his influence, forcing the most powerful politicians, from both parties, to troop to Dallas to pay homage to Perot: almost everyone but Clinton, and Clinton sent his top aide to represent him.

Meanwhile, Jesse Jackson once again has been letting it be known he might run ... perhaps as an independent; or that he might organize his "Rainbow Coalition" into a "Rainbow Party." In a recent newspaper column, Jackson proclaimed: "More and more voters are looking for new options...a new party that is willing to challenge the corporate party that now campaigns under two names." At the same time, Jackson let it be known that he did not want to be the spoiler who cost Clinton the election, so he would wait to see if Clinton and the Democrats would stop being "a pale reflection of the Party of Gingrich." Jackson has also talked about trying to put a party on the ballot which would run candidates for state and local elections, while "fusing" with "other" parties for the top positions on the ballot. According to Jackson, this would "maintain the investment [in the Democratic Party] but expand the options."

Maybe Jackson, too, has come to a fork in the road, the same fork where he got stuck in the last three elections. In both 1984 and 1988, Jackson hinted that he might run as an independent, but then ended up in the Democratic primaries, and while criticizing the "direction" of the Democratic Party, ended up supporting its candidates. In 1992, after keeping himself aloof from the primary process, hinting that he might not endorse anyone in the November elections, he ended up once again supporting the Democratic nominees.

Lately, the media have been talking about an unnamed, "sizeable number" of Democratic senators or representatives who would like to see an "independent" Jackson candidacy. This does not mean that they want to jump ship and build a new party; rather, they want Jackson's ability to pull out the electorate when his name is on the ballot. Their hope is that the people who would come out only if Jackson were on the ballot, when added to those who will vote for Clinton, will improve chances of other Democratic candidates, even if it damns Clinton's chances.

Jackson also went to Dallas, where Perot gave him favored treatment, throwing his arms around him, greeting him as "my brother", while relegating the official candidates to uncomfortable – for them – background positions. And "brothers" they were: Jackson using Perot to warn the Democrats they couldn't count on him; Perot using Jackson to say the same thing to the Republicans.

If this were all just posturing, it wouldn't mean much. But it does seem when we see the rush of established bourgeois politicians who are playing with the idea of independent candidacies, that the old coalitions which made up these two bourgeois parties are working less and less well.

Thus, New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, in announcing that he would not run again for the Senate, criticized both parties as being irrelevant to the current situation, and for not addressing the everyday concerns of working people. Bradley indicated that he would not challenge Clinton for the Democratic nomination – there had been rumors to that effect – but that he had "not ruled out an independent candidacy." In his announcement, Bradley made a point of mentioning that he had called General Colin Powell to discuss the situation.

Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces during the Gulf War, has, himself, been discussed as a possible independent candidate, as well as a possible Republican presidential candidate or, more likely, vice-presidential candidate. Powell, simply by keeping his mouth shut, letting the rumors swirl around him, continues to leave open all possibilities.

A Third Party Could Be Just Like the Other Two

The fact of only two parties, both of them bourgeois, has long seemed like an immutable fact of political life in the U.S. Even if one of the two parties disappeared, only to be replaced by another, as was the case in the period leading up to the Civil War; even if the relative importance of the two parties was at one point drastically reversed, as it was in the Great Depression – the fact of two parties and only two parties has long defined the American political scene. Within that framework, almost the full range of the narrow political spectrum which defines American politics, is represented in both parties, even if the Republicans lean a little bit to the "right", and the Democrats to the "left".

It may be that the two-party system, which has served the American bourgeoisie for so long, is being threatened.

But the question is, what will replace it? The fact that politics has always been viewed as a choice between two bourgeois parties makes it seem as though there were no connection between the political field and the society in which the different classes are in conflict. In no way does it raise the idea that the working class should have its own political party. In fact, it makes that seem "impractical." So when the working class and other people oppressed by the ruling class are disappointed with these two big parties, they can easily fall for the seemingly obvious idea that the best way to go is to try to unite everybody, every class, every interest which today seems to be opposed to these two parties.

But this would mean only that different classes and different interests would once more be mixed up behind one party, just as they are behind the two big parties today. If what comes out of the current situation is a party wherein the interests of other classes are merged with those of the bourgeoisie, of the rich, all this will mean is that the interests of everyone else will be submerged under those of the rich. Any new party formed in this fashion will be formed in the same pattern as the two existing parties: it will defend the same interests. In that case, it will either replace one of the existing two parties, or it will itself founder, bringing all those people who are disaffected back into one of the two old parties.

None of this is to say that a third party will be formed. After all, we've gone a long time without any real challenge to Republicans or Democrats. But the ruling class and its political representatives are aware that the two-party system could be in danger. The fact that people such as Bradley and Powell are ready to put themselves outside these two parties indicates that some of the bourgeoisie's main political representatives are positioning themselves to deal with that possibility if it arises. Bradley, in announcing his intention to explore other possibilities, made this very clear. When asked why he did not remain in office and try to change the government and his party from within, Bradley responded, "My objective is to try to reconnect people to the political process from outside that political process."