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Pitchforks before Parties

Disappointed progressives are talking about a third party in the 2012 Presidential election and floating the names of people they might run against Obama. I suggest that puts the cart before the horse. First, progressives need a movement organized to promote some unifying principles or ideology that becomes so big and powerful it can't be ignored by the two major parties. From there they have the potential to become much more influential in the Democratic Party—as the Tea Party has been influential in the Republican Party—which ought to be their preferred outcome. A third party would be a second best outcome because once beaten a third party will, according to historical precedents, fade back into obscurity.

Popular movements have had many successes in American history. Remember these? Abolitionists got rid of slavery. The women's suffrage movement got women the vote. The temperance movement got us Prohibition at a national level and keeps it in place in some States and localities. The labor movement made it legal to strike and to engage in collective bargaining—both of which had been criminal conspiracies. The civil rights movement broke the back of Jim Crow, resulted in landmark federal court decisions and legislation, and contributed greatly to a realignment of the two major parties. The anti-Vietnam-War movement brought down at least one President and also helped cause the major party realignment. The women's liberation movement resulted in Roe v. Wade and much else. The environmental movement got us dramatically cleaner air, water, etc. The anti-tax movement was responsible for Prop. 13, its progeny in other States, and Grover Norquist's anti-tax-pledge straight jacket on the GOP. The LGBT movement is having success changing discriminatory laws that affect them. The NRA and anti-gun-control movement have made it nearly impossible to regulate guns in America. The Tea Party (not really a party but a movement), which didn't exist two years ago, now has 53 members of Congress acting in concert to exercise a virtual veto power over GOP policy in the House of Representatives.

Movements are initially subversive and willing to be vilified by the mainstream press and political class. They are organized around moral absolutes and/or emotions with core beliefs that can be expressed on a bumper sticker. They are committed to a relentless struggle over a long haul. They are interested in electoral politics only as a way to achieve their policy goals. Political parties, on the other hand, are organized around candidates coalitions, try to downplay ideological divisions that interfere with coalition building/maintenance, are focused almost entirely on the winning the next election, and are ready to "rise above principle" to win elections. A movement can take over or change a political party, but a political party probably can't take over a movement.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that progressives need some good community organizers long before they'll need another candidate.

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Reader Comments (1)

Sandy emailed this comment:

Thank you for this rational response to the third party candidate. The movement must come first. It's just that I am so discouraged about this extreme rightward turn. Margaret Mead said never doubt that a small group of dedicated people can change the world. It is a knee jerk response I suppose to want a third party candidate after that debacle. I think though that the movement should be organized around changing the election laws so that the big entities can't choose our lawmakers and president. I think the actions of both parties are influenced by those that paid for them and not what is best for the country and that if anything that is the lesson from the debt ceiling chaos. Get the $ out of politics!

August 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSkeptic

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