Third Parties That Don’t Want to “Spoil” Things for Demos
by Bob Mattingly
Peter Camejo, the Green Party candidate for governor of California, didn’t coin the expression, “I’d rather vote for what I want and not get it than vote for what I don’t want and get it.” But at one time, that well-known declaration by the U.S. labor leader and socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was a principle for Camejo. In his younger days Camejo argued strenuously that Debs was right and that to vote for bosses’ candidates and their parties strengthened the bosses’ hand at workers’ expense.
These days Camejo is promoting a ballot scheme that simultaneously allows a vote based on conscience, and another based on the lesser-of-two-evils ballot snare-and-trap that Camejo rightly used to rail against. Today, as Camejo campaigns for state office, the would-be governor is also campaigning for Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), which means, says Camejo’s campaign material, that “instead of voting for one candidate on a ballot, you get to list the candidates you like in order of preference. If no candidate gets over 50 percent and your first choice is eliminated, your second choice is counted.”
In other words, to go back in time, a class conscious worker using the IRV scheme could have cast a ballot for Eugene V. Debs, and then to make sure that the “lesser of two evils” candidate, Republican Charles Evans Hughes, wasn’t elected president, the worker could have also voted for Democrat Woodrow Wilson, notably remembered as the president who led the U.S. into the “war to save democracy,” actually an inter-imperialist war over the colonies, including the oil-rich Middle East.
Wilson also is infamously remembered for imprisoning Debs, his onetime socialist presidential opponent. Debs was arrested in 1918 on charges of interfering with the federal conscription laws following a speech in which Debs declared, “The master class has always declared wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.”
The Greens are sensitive to the Democratic Party politicians who patronizingly say that the Greens may be well-meaning folks, but that they are “spoilers.” Camejo’s tack is to urge the Democrats to enact IRV laws, and tell them, “If you do not, it is you, and not any third party candidates, who have spoiled the elections.” That’s not a slip of the tongue. Many Greens believe that the Democrats are somehow better for America’s workers than the Republicans, even though they rightly say that the Democratic Party and the Republican Party both are beholden to corporate America.
Despite the Democratic Party’s fidelity to corporate America’s agenda, the Greens are trying to pressure the Democratic Party to reform. They’ve not even given thought to building a party that Debs could have proudly backed. Instead, they are attempting to build an outside pressure group that takes the form of a political party in order to get (without being “spoilers”) the influence they haven’t able to obtain inside the Democratic Party.
Coincidentally or not, during the past two decades there have been many attempts by liberals, progressives, populists, and self-styled socialists to find ways to influence the Democratic Party honchos, even as more and more disappointed Americans have stopped voting, often not even registering to vote. Despite all the reformers’ efforts, workers’ living standards continue to decline, and wars, not always declared, continue to be waged. The reformers claim some victories: some living wage measures adopted, and some municipal offices won; but the profound demobilization of the working class majority is unaffected, as is corporate America.
In New York and in Connecticut, some labor unions have organized what they call, the Working Families Party (WFP). They are unambiguously attempting to implement what is called an “inside/outside” strategy to influence the Democrats, at least on the local level. They openly say they don’t want to spoil the Democrats’ chances of winning state elections, although they might theoretically back a Republican politician from time to time. In New York, the sponsoring unions include state or local affiliates of the autoworkers, communication workers, teachers, building trades, and teamsters.
To date, they seem satisfied with their results, which they get by trading their members’ votes in order to get concessions from Democrats. “To achieve this leverage, the [WFP] has used sophisticated voter canvassing, populist appeals and lots of shoe leather to draw double-digit support in many races,” writes a sympathetic Micah L. Sifry in a feature article for the Nation (Nov. 6, 2000). Sifry reports, “What’s given Working Families real muscle is the party’s demonstrated ability, in a series of lower-level elections over the past year, to mobilize blacks, Latinos and other minorities, along with white blue-collar workers and suburban independents, around an economic populist agenda as well as the concept of a new independent party.”
But of course, the WFP isn’t an independent party at all. It’s a pressure group trading the votes of Blacks, Latinos, and white blue-collar workers. (The WFP garnered 100,000 votes for Hillary Clinton’s senatorial election.) Says the WFP’s Connecticut director, “What really made the [New York WFP] a player was they used their ballot line in a strategic way…It really comes from making strategic decisions about how to use their ballot line and from doing very good grassroots work. We’re capable of doing the same things here.”
The Working Families Party gimmick of getting workers to vote for Clinton and other corporate candidates brings to mind the union officials of the 1930s, mostly in the New York garment industry, who set up an outfit called the American Labor Party. Their aim was to overcome the lifelong tradition of some workers, especially socialist garment workers in New York, never to vote for capitalist candidates, whether Democrats, Republicans, or any other bosses’ party.
Though seemingly a WFP sympathizer, the Nation’s Sifry worries that the WFP, “especially in the top-of-the ballot-races” might appear to be “a mere adjunct of the Democratic Party.” Sifry’s concerns however don’t disturb the populist jokester Jim Hightower, who very seriously supported the Clinton endorsement gambit. “If people are going to vote for Hillary over [Republican] Lazio, which certainly makes sense, what better way to put your vote to work for the long-term progressive agenda, which the WPF represents in New York, than by voting [for Clinton] on the [WFP] party’s Line H.”
Of course, what would make better sense than backing corporate candidates, including Hillary Clinton, would be if union officials took their members’ declining living standards seriously and started strategizing on how to independently and politically mobilize their members, while they still have enough members to matter. If it makes sense not to settle for company unions, certainly it makes as much sense not to settle for company political parties.
But that’s a tough lesson to learn. Ralph Nader, a Labor Party backer and Green Party presidential candidate, says that the Labor Party leaders have hopes they can force “the major parties to take up the causes of working families despite the parties’ long and profitable links to corporate movers and shakers.” Perhaps Nader is reading his own desires into the Labor Party’s strategies. That’s suggested by Nader’s refusal to date to endorse the Minnesota Green Party’s candidate over the Democrat, Senator Paul Wellstone, a supporter of Clinton’s military actions against Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq, and Kosovo, and of Bush’s armed attack on Afghanistan. More recently, Wellstone voted for the so-called Patriot Act, designed to suppress domestic dissent.
In any event, no matter what Nader says, one thing that the independent Labor Party, founded in 1996, has made clear over and over again is that the two major parties are bosses’ parties and that workers desperately need their own party, based primarily on the 15 million workers in trade unions. To his regret Debs and the Socialist Party in 1924 attempted a shortcut and backed the presidential campaign of Senator Robert R. LaFollette, an aging populist, who gained labor support including the AFL for an attempt to realign the two major parties. Debs’ biographer, Ray Ginger wrote of the LaFollette adventure, “The socialists soon learned that they had walked into a trap. The results of the election almost completed the destruction of their party.” LaFollette and the AFL walked away and the “entire third party collapsed, and it dragged the Socialist Party down with it.”
Ginger concludes that the affect of the LaFollette fiasco on the socialists is a powerful argument for an independent working-class political policy. Debs advocated the alliance with the so-called progressives in order to come “into contact with the great body of workers.” But the socialist coalition with the capitalist politician LaFollette and his “progressive populist” campaign was a failure, and when it was over Debs said, “I seem to have been delivered from a nightmare. While we were in the so-called progressive movement I felt as if I had lost my wings.” Debs deeply regretted his 1924 blunder, and the lessons he learned are part of Debs’s rich political legacy that workers’ organizations and their would-be allies would be wise to make a cornerstone of their politics.