The two-party system has given this country the war of Lyndon Johnson, the Watergate of Nixon and the incompetence of Carter. Saying we should keep the two-party system simply because it is working is like saying the Titanic voyage was a success because a few people survived in life rafts.
—Senator Eugene McCarthy, 1978
Given the relative success of the Working Families Party in the recent local midterm elections, it’s conceivable that the progressive vacuum created by the rightward shift of the Democratic Party may soon be filled. While the Democratic Party is more socially progressive in New York City than it is elsewhere in America, the infusion of GOP ideas over the last decade into the city’s politics—along with the rightward drift of the once-progressive Liberal Party—has begun to shift the political landscape. This process has created room for a number of third parties that are laying the groundwork for their own growth and at the same time creating the opportunity for the ever-elusive Third Choice in American progressive politics.
This new direction is important to consider right now for a number of reasons. That the national Republicans are thinking seriously about holding their 2004 convention in the former bastion of Liberalism provides further proof that, in the wake of the Giuliani onslaught, New York City has lost its place at the forefront of progressive political thought and policy. This makes the role of third parties here all the more important.
Fusion: A Unique History for New York
Third parties have always had a unique place in New York politics. New York is actually one of the only states where fusion—the practice of letting multiple political parties regularly cross-endorse the same candidate—is utilized by small political parties to put pressure on mainstream policies from both the left and the right. In most other states, this practice was outlawed in the 1890s because third parties, especially the Populists, were effectively gaining too much power and naming their own candidates. In 1997, the US Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, issued a controversial ruling against reinstating fusion in all states, for the first time justifying barriers to third parties on the grounds of protecting the "stability" of the two-party system.
Third parties coming from the left once had significant power. During the 1930s and 1940s, parties like the Progressive Party, Socialist Party, and the American Labor Party cross-endorsed candidates, and at the same time pushed the Democrats to the left on issues of labor and civil rights. For its part, the Liberal Party was formed in 1944 by people who felt the American Labor Party was too socialist. It was pivotal in the elections of FDR and JFK for president, and, later, in the fusion mayoral success of Republican John Lindsay. The ability of third parties to wield influence in a fusion system should not be underestimated, because fusion can get rid of the "spoiler" problem, in which voting for any party other than the Democrats or Republicans is perceived as a throwaway vote.
Since the Sixties, however, the most powerful third parties in New York have been mostly conservative and for the most part libertarian. The Conservative Party, the (not-libertarian) Right to Life Party, and the Independence Party all have seen their power ebb and flow—but remain strong enough so that no statewide Republican in New York has ever been elected without the help of the Conservative Party. So where is the equivalent on the left? For one, the Liberal Party is neither liberal nor a fully operating party. Pivotal in getting Rudy Giuliani first elected mayor by a thin margin in 1993, the Liberals soon became a pandering machine of patronage derided by most of the New York Democratic and progressive establishment.
Working Families Party: A Burgeoning Success Story
Unlike the state’s Green Party, which got just under the 50,000 votes needed to guarantee its status on the state ballot, the Working Families Party received over 90,000 votes on its ballot line and, for a party only four years old, is now seen as one of the big successes of the midterm elections in New York. The Greens and the Working Families Party (WFP) have both tried to win voters who are disenchanted with the Democrats, but each party, while agreeing on many issues, has a different strategy as well as a different position in the New York political scene.
The WFP was started in 1998 by people coming out of unions like Unite!, the Communication Workers of America, United Auto Workers, and Local 1199, as well as by members of the New Party who unsuccessfully fought all the way up to the Supreme Court to get fusion legalized across all states. Bertha Lewis, Co-Chair of the WFP and regional director for the community group Acorn, says that the vision of the WFP goes back to why it was created in the first place: "Progressives were just not being progressive and the Democrats were going dead center. We wanted to give some spinal rigidity to those scared by the Republicans; some were even Republicans in disguise and others were becoming right of dead center."
The success of the WFP over the last four years can be attributed to its strategic focus on issues in specific races where their influence can pressure policy stances as well as challenge entrenched one-party rule, including that of conservative Democratic machines. More than half of the votes that the WFP received were from New York City. And according to WFP policy coordinator Josh Mason, Brooklyn "was our best borough."
The WFP has been successful in promoting issues for working people that have connected working-class suburban whites with inner-city blacks and Latinos, holding various Democrats accountable on progressive issues like the living wage, health care, affordable housing, investment in schools and economic justice. The WFP have also forged a network of important allies from the City Council to the statehouse in Albany, and it has been instrumental in winning living wage legislation in Suffolk and Rockland counties.
According to Mason, the main objective of the party at this point is to "create successful campaigns and promote issues for working people. The primary focus is around issues." Elections are not the end-all for the WFP and instead are refreshingly seen as a tool to push Democrats to the left on various issues. The WFP also tends to focus on immediate fights and, while working to move election outcomes, also engages consistently in advocacy.
Recently, the WFP has been working around the NYC budget issue and positioning itself as an intellectual counterpoint to conservative think tanks like the Manhattan Institute, which constantly issues reports stating that higher taxes lead to more unemployment. WFP position papers, by contrast, stress revenue increases rather than budget cuts in social services, and repeatedly point out that the wealthiest in New York City have enjoyed significant tax cuts over the last decade. The WFP has been successful with the media as well: the Daily News recently ran a front-cover story based on some of their research about budget cut proposals.
Critics of the WFP inevitably refer back to the party’s beginnings as the child of Democratic Party-connected unions, and are skeptical about its ability to be truly independent in the future. Some of the party’s social stances are also not fully articulated, most likely in order to maintain fragile working class coalition support.
Bertha Lewis, however, takes great issue with the notion that the WFP serves only the interests of the white working class. "It’s convenient for people to see the party as just left labor," Lewis says. "But the community groups involved, especially Acorn, can take a lot of responsibility for the vote of color that is steadily increasing for the WFP. This is a model for other cities and states. The involvement of community organizations affects the culture of the party."
Lewis adds that much of the organizing strategy behind the party’s grassroots success—such as door-to-door canvassing and outreach—comes from Acorn. Also, while the success of delivering the black and Latino vote has increased statewide in the last three elections, in neighborhoods where Acorn is active, votes on the WFP line totaled over 25%.
In terms of effective populist economic justice issues, the WFP is driving forward while the Democrats have been ebbing. As Josh Mason says, "The key thing to recognize about the WFP is that its objective is not only about elections. It’s not a backdoor for the Democrats. It grew out of the idea of fusion and activism." Lewis adds that while the first four years of the party were about securing ballot status, now, after the significant votes it received during the November midterms, new possibilities have opened up. "We will absolutely begin putting forth our own candidates," Lewis says confidently. "Now, we begin!"
Greens: Idealism from the Outside
Although it got just under the 50,000 votes needed to guarantee ballot status, the Green Party, nevertheless feels strongly that it is making progress as the outsider independent progressive party. Masada Disenhouse, who heads up the downtown Brooklyn chapter of the Greens and who was Ralph Nader’s campaign manager for New York State, feels that there is now "more interest, presence, and volunteers in any way you look at it."
According to Disenhouse, the Greens received a lot more votes in this election for the no-name candidates it ran for Comptroller and Attorney General than it has previously, a pattern reflected in the party’s relative success nationally. The Greens are made up of both environmentalists and disaffected Democrats who believe strongly in a variety of issues, ranging from the danger of the Indian Point nuclear power plant to issues around organic food, and from voting reform to the anti-war effort.
Disenhouse also maintains that people come to the Greens "because they don’t believe there will be change through the regular parties or offshoots." In regard to coalition building, Disenhouse referred to stalled initiatives like last year’s Same Boat Coalition as evidence that when trying to build coalitions with the WFP, for example, "different progressive parties tend to agree on issues but not on electoral strategies." The Greens’ goal was to get the 50,000 necessary votes as well as concentrate on important Green electoral reform issues such as campaign finance and making the voting process more fair and open.
After the loss of ballot status, according to Disenhouse, the Greens are working on new strategies and "rethinking direction on many levels now." In the long term, the Greens want to get their candidates elected and help reform the electoral system, and, like the WFP, they are choosing specific races where they can tactically promote issues and increase their visibility but not necessarily succeed with their own candidates. "Can we win a City Council seat in the next election?" Disenhouse asks rhetorically. "Probably no. But can we run a good race with long-term benefits? Yes."
One of the most innovative issues that the Greens work on is an electoral reform called Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) that would allow a priority voting structure on the ballot, as opposed to voters being able to pick only one candidate for each position. By choosing first, second and third choices, this system gets rid of the spoiler role that the Greens are associated with, and also eliminates runoff elections. This system is common in small cities around the country and was just voted into use in San Francisco.
The Greens continue to have a growing influence in New York, but because of their decentralized nature, each chapter has its own specialty, thus causing the party as a whole to suffer from a lack of a unified and consistent message. For example, while the North Brooklyn chapter concentrates on environmental issues and waste transfer, the Park Slope chapter is very active in the anti-war movement. But overall, the Greens are a growing alternative party that stands firm on issues important to progressives and with a more unified effort, they could become an even more viable force from the left.
Wondering What the Future Holds
There is a lingering suspicion in most lower and middle class quarters that neither of the two major parties represents their interests. How else to explain the 39 percent nationwide voter turnout in the recent election? In order to regain their footing with these voters, the Democrats should start talking about health care, affordable housing, social security, economic justice and a host of other social issues for which progressives have fought throughout the history of this country. Instead, they think they can get away with supporting a permanent war resolution, being silent on civil liberties, and letting the plight of the poor go unnoticed. As a result, third parties are growing, and by using economic populism as their battleaxe, they are stealing much of the Democrats potential thunder.
By stressing real policies that benefit the majority of the United States, parties like the WFP, as well as the Greens, can lay the groundwork and serve as a model for the future of progressive politics. And in the meantime, they can bully the Democrats leftward. Progressive third parties in the past were partly responsible for pushing ideas like the 8-hour day, the weekend, and minimum wage, things we take for granted now. As Bertha Lewis says, "We are bringing a Caribbean health care worker in Brooklyn together with an $30 an hour upstate white male pipe fitter. Something wonderful is happening. People want to vote for good Democrats and believe in a true blending of low-income blacks, whites, and Latinos, together with labor unions. Imagine what politics could be like if these entities grew together."