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Building the World House: One Person at a Time…

Third Parties and Coalition Politics

Yesterday I read an article on Race-Talk–“A Third Party: The Choice for the African American Masses”–about the prospects of Black Americans establishing a third political party. The author—Frederick Meade—expressed concern about the Democratics’ repeated failures to address Blacks’ concerns (for which I agree with his critiques of the Democrats). He suggests that African Americans create a third party in order to dramatize their power as a constituency and implicitly use their collective power as leverage withinthe two party system.

Meade seems tohint at creating a party that would remain independent. He states,

“The function of a third party, in itsgreatest capacity, would serve to conceivably eclipse the position of the Democratic Party in its perceived station as an institution of choice, for the socially dispossessed and of those seemingly concerned with the welfare of the masses.”

But Meade devotes the remainder of the article to discussing the short term effects and implications of such action, which include neutralizing the Democrats and possibly pushing themto enact policies that address African Americans’ concerns. He writes,

“A less speculative and perhaps more conception of such a party, would maintain it function – in the short term – to erode a segment of the black Democratic voting base. An evolvement the Democrats can ill afford to experience, as the black vote often serves as the critical force this band relies upon, insecuring electoral triumphs over political rivals in highly contested races.”

Now, I posted the story on my Facebook page and then commented, “the return of the leverage argument…,” because African-Americans have had this discussion in the recent past, especially during the 1970s before, during, and after the 1972 Gary Convention that assembled a multitude of African-American activists and organizations hoping to develop a black political platform. Black Americans resumed this discussion during the early 1980s in the aftermath of Harold Washington’s mayoral victoryin 1983 and right before Jesse Jackson declared his candidacy that fall.

So, I basically spent most of the day just thinking of Nik’s question because I find it an intriguing, relevant, and very pressing for African Americans and the independent Left trying to organize in the “Age of Obama.” I am not fundamentally opposed to a third party (I actually argued for an independent third party amongst afew of my friends as we watched Obama’s 2004 DNC speech.), but I grew interested in what others thought after I responded to Nik. So, I present myresponse to you all. And I welcome disagreement and correction…

***

I agree with the author’s critique of the Democratic Party and I don’t mind the leverage argument in theory, especially if you’re going to create an independent institution to pressure the Democrats, or both parties, to adopt certain policies. I am not always sure if a third party, especially one organized around ‘race-first,’ always works if your goal is to punish one party or the other. And I mean that nationally. Third parties on a local level could function that way because the organization can play on both sides of the fence, so to speak. It could always support their local candidates and remain free to influence one of the two established political parties if the organization chose to in state/county-wide or national races.

Nationally, establishing third parties for the sake of leverage may be risky because it leaves their supporters, and supporters of established parties, politically vulnerable. If you’re a third party and you “take” enough votes away from one of the two established institutions, then you could end up marginalizing yourself politically because you’re seen as the cause of the consequence (Dems or GOP losing). Your national leaders also run the risk of losing the political capital needed to remain relevant among a broad cross-section of the American public. This outcome could be especially detrimental if you don’t have strong local bases of support.

And thinking about the specific case of African Americans, or people of color,there could be incredible blowback, precisely because we/they are virtually marginalized within the Democratic Party already (Meade is correct.). What I am afraid would happen (because of how salient race/racism is-we do not live in a “post-racial society”) is just the opposite—that established Democrats (black and white since individual blackpoliticians have risen up the Party ranks) would just blame African Americansas as a whole when they lose and use it as an excuse to marginalize black concerns further because, in essence, both parties adhere to a spoils/patronage system.

Fielding a third party is a tough sell politically. You’re virtually telling a vulnerable group to sacrifice their vote and possibly four years of GOP rule, and further political marginalization and material divestment in the short run just to make a point. During these times of economic uncertainty, we need to be in the process of addressing our citizens’ short term concerns because that is what is at the fore of their minds, questions like, “Will I be employed next year?” Of course, my analysis would be different if we truly had a multi-partyparliamentary system where winning parties would have to collaborate with otherparties just to govern.

The best way fo rthe disfranchised and marginalized to make political parties pay attention in our system is through targeted and effective activism and building powerful social movements and/or institutions. We only need to look at Civil Rights-Black Power, Women’s Liberation, and Gay Rights and Liberation (even the Tea Party) despite all of their flaws. Yes, the government can coopt your leaders and program (which is what leverage/influence really is), but that also remains a possibility if you become an effective third party. A third political force would have to find ways to deflect or absorb attempts at cooptation. This is why electoral reform should be on our agenda on the left and for any third party. Social movements and institutions also allow one to remain open to influencing another party’s platform over the course of an election year.

And if we’regoing to build a third party, I prefer it to be more of a “rainbow”party that allows for a space for different racial/ethnic groups to expresstheir concerns. To prevent the potential pitfalls of coalition, this party would need to aspire to work through differences (not around them or suppress them) to create common ground, not seek to solely and simply erase our differences with some sort of progressive colorblind/post-black solidarity. I envision forging a broad coalition of interested individuals within the LBGTQ communities, people from inner cities and select rural areas, persons from various racial/ethnic and religious/spiritual groups, select unions and workers (documented and undocumented), leftists, the youth, and the poor (especially) around the values of equality (broadly speaking), equal protection for everyone underthe law, equal access to resources, inclusion*, respect for publicspace/institutions, “deep” democracy*, fairness, civility, economic sustainability, and (social) justice to name a few…and a concrete platform, preferably determined as democratically as possible.

I also imagine a very decentralized party that is bottom heavy, allowing its members to adapt to local conditions, and act regionally if needed. Confrontational political activism would also have to remain as a crucial part or the politica lrepertoire (I believe the “division” between political activism and self-helpis a false one as well.). Creating this party, or political force, would take intense work because there are real dangers in coalition building since socia lmovements/institutions/political parties tend to reproduce normative social,cultural, and political power dynamics/inequalities (See Stokely Carmichael’s and Charles Hamilton’s chapter, “The Myths of Coalition,” in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, for a still pertinent critique of coalition politics.). Coalitions should never be the ends, nor should the concept become a disciplinary mechanism aimed at dissidents.

I should remindeveryone that this type of coalition is not that new. Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr. tried to organize a multi-racial/ethnic/class/religious coalition in his Poor People’s Campaign. The Black Panthers sought to work with radicals fromother racial/ethnic groups. The late Mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, explicitly sought a “rainbow coalition” of blacks, Mexicans, white liberals, women, select labor unions, and some LGBT activists. Black mayoral candidate, Mel King, also tried to do the same in his losing effort to become mayor of Boston in 1983. Jesse Jackson formally institutionalized his Rainbow-PUSHcoalition/organization during the 1980s. And activists Bill Fletcher Jr. and Danny Glover penned an article calling for a “neo-Rainbow” organization in 2005. And I am sure there areplenty of organizations and small parties who are currently working on creating such coalitions.

I know Meade alludes to more of a coalitional-type party, but the third party would have to be explicitly multi-racial/gendered/sexual/classed/circumstance/etc. (especially rhetorically). It would truly be a test of our democratic capacities (and critical self/collective awareness), but that should be seen as an opportunity that we welcome, not run from. We would pride ourselves in not resembling the GOP who rely on contrived and implicit homogeneity or the Democrats who are also not afraid to discipline their constituencies when they step out of line (ex. Gibbs chastising the “professional left”).

I’m not saying that third parties could never work. I’d expect one would have to work at it for a minimum of 5-10 years with the same amount of enthusiasm as one would during the Presidential election years. We’d have to work like every year is an election year because you have to build from the ground up and resist the temptation to field a presidential candidate for a while. You may be able to snag a seat in Congress if the numbers are in your favor (Bernie Sanders) and you’re a strong organization.

Unless you’re a revolutionary party and don’t care for such things, you have to build your national infrastructure (starting with a robust network of local parties), build an electoral base, pick up seats locally to acquire easy political capital (legitimacy and power to have a base to negotiate from when needed), and work to change the electoral system, especially the winner-take-all scheme. We would also have to work at taking corporate money out of the system (the “best democracy we can buy” phenomenon).

Of course, all of my observations and suggestions sound good in theory (maybe?) and we would have to see how things play out in practice, in real time and space.

…And like I said, I will always remain open for sort of effective organizing whether it’s movement- or party-building. So let the powers that be choose their poison.

*Inclusion is important because we need to rethink what it means to be a citizen of this country—we need a form of citizenship that recognizes all who work in this country (and I mean all) allows them to bear the fruits of their labor and share in the costs. Thinking creatively about immigration will allow us to do this.

*Urban studies scholar, J. Phillip Thompson, III, defines deep pluralism/democracy as “the process through which marginal groups attain roughly equal power in intra- andintergroup political deliberation, and gain consideration of issues previously ignored or suppressed, such as the legitimacy of established political, social,and economic institutions and policies. See page 23 of his book, Double Trouble: Black Mayors, Black Communities,and the Call for a Deep Democracy.

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