One of the most persistent strategic divisions on the U.S. left is between those who advocate electoral activity within the Democratic Party, whether with the ultimate aim of realigning it or of supplanting it, and those who focus primarily on third party or independent campaigns. Those favoring a strategy oriented toward the Democratic Party ballot line argue that third party politics is impossible in a first-past-the-post system (FPTP) such as the one used in most elections in the United States. By contrast, those favoring an immediate third party strategy argue that any socialist movement seeking to influence the Democratic Party from within will inevitably find itself co-opted and defanged by liberalism.
Both sides make persuasive arguments. The current electoral system does indeed create significant barriers to achieving major electoral success outside of the Democratic Party, and the track record of third parties in this country has largely been dismal. At the same time, it is also difficult to envision a transformation of the Democratic Party into a true workers’ party, and attempts by the left to influence the party from within have been similarly fruitless. Fortunately, there is a way out of this impasse: we must commit ourselves to reforming the electoral system and eliminating FPTP as a necessary precondition of independent, third party politics.
Achieving electoral reform in the United States will be a tall order, but it is much more achievable a goal than transforming the Democratic Party into a socialist party or turning an existing third party such as the Greens into a nationwide contender. Once achieved, electoral reform will allow us to embark on the project of building a true worker’s party as a real electoral force. This means that we must stop treating electoral reform as a minor afterthought: it must be one of the central pillars of our politics.
Left Approaches to Electoral Politics
The U.S. left, including DSA, encompasses three broad approaches to electoral politics. The first of these rejects electoral politics entirely, and is favored by self-described revolutionary communists, radical liberals enamored of the supposedly transformative potential of social movements, and certain varieties of anarchist.
It is clear, however, that the consensus view in DSA favors some form of engagement with electoral politics. This leaves us with two main electoral approaches.
The first is the realignment strategy, which is the traditionally dominant approach to electoral politics in DSA. The initial goal of realignment, as advocated by figures such as Max Shachtman and Michael Harrington, was to drive the Southern Dixiecrats out of the Democratic Party so liberals and labor could turn it into the U.S. equivalent of a West European social democratic party. The Dixiecrats were in fact pushed into the Republican camp in recent decades, but this has not resulted in the kind of political transformation the advocates of realignment envisioned. Today, adherents of the realignment strategy champion the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” against the dominant neoliberal Democrats. However, considering the thoroughly reactionary nature of today’s Republican Party it does not seem likely that a consistently left-wing Democratic Party could be achieved by pushing the neoliberals into the GOP.
The second approach is independent political action (IPA). In practice, however, IPA tends not to be a coherent electoral strategy but rather an abstract ideological preference. Members who advocate this approach want DSA to engage in electoral politics, and they’d ideally like it to do so as something other than a faction or pressure group within the Democratic Party. But in terms of actual political practice, IPA exists along a spectrum that itself spans almost the entire territory between anti-electoralism and realignment. I will call the two poles of this spectrum immediate third-partyism and provisional entryism.
Canada’s Cautionary Tale
Immediate third-partyists would like to see DSA break with the Democratic Party as quickly as possible, either to form its own political party or to ally with already-extant leftist third parties. Recent efforts in this direction include the Greens, Socialist Alternative, the Socialist Party USA, and the stillborn Labor Party of the mid-1990s.
The first thing to note about these parties is that they all have failed to become a significant political force, either nationally or locally. This is not to say that they have been absolute failures: they’ve had some successes in scattered state and local races, with Seattle’s Kshama Sawant being the most prominent recent example. But they are self-evidently not major players at any level of government in any part of the country, and have not come close to becoming genuine mass parties.
This is due, first and foremost, to our electoral system. Under FPTP, the candidate with the most votes wins, even if that candidate does not receive a majority of the vote or indeed if a majority of voters prefer any other candidate. This results in a phenomenon called vote splitting: two or more similar candidates effectively take votes away from each other, allowing the candidate most dissimilar to them to win the election. Left-wing third parties in the U.S. siphon votes away from the Democrats (and each other), thereby increasing the likelihood of a Republican victory. Voters understand this, so they typically refuse to vote for third-party candidates even when they agree with them on the issues.
Proponents of immediate third-partyism might respond to these criticisms with an argument along these lines: “Just because third parties haven’t been successful yet doesn’t mean it can’t be done. The Republican Party was a third party at one point too. The British Labour Party was once a third party, until it supplanted the Liberals and became one of the two major parties. There’s no reason our hypothetical Democratic Socialist Party can’t replicate these parties’ successes.”
Maybe. But there’s no need to look back to the 1850s or the 1920s for examples of what happens when an insurgent third party attempts to supplant one of the two major parties under a FPTP electoral system. Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) has for decades existed in a peculiar sort of limbo. It is a social democratic third party that never lapsed into irrelevance, but has never quite made it into power at the federal level either. Even if a left-wing third party achieves a critical mass of support, it may nevertheless stay trapped in the orbit of the existing political regime.
The NDP has had considerable success at the provincial level. It currently governs Alberta and British Columbia, and in this latter province its presence has forced the Liberals and Conservatives to merge into a single center-right party wearing the Liberal brand. But for all its provincial level successes, the NDP has been locked out of power at the federal level since its inception. The theory that a vigorous socialist or social democratic third party would scare the major liberal party into either forming an electoral coalition with the new party or reforming the electoral system in order to resolve vote splitting has not been borne out in Canada. Rather, the Liberals have opted to collude with the Conservatives to maintain FPTP in order to protect itself from the NDP.
Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s abandonment of his campaign promise that 2015 would be the last Canadian federal election conducted under FPTP is reminiscent of Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to allow New York State Senate Republicans to maintain their control of the chamber. In both cases, a moribund conservative party that cannot reliably surpass 35% of the popular vote is kept afloat by centrist liberals who fear a credible left-wing alternative above all else. Just as New York’s establishment Democrats would rather have a Republican-controlled state senate than cede any power to their left, Canada’s Liberals would rather run the risk of an outright Conservative victory in next year’s general election than be forced to contemplate a coalition with the NDP.
This strategy of cynical collusion between Liberal and Conservative party leaders has allowed them to maintain their stranglehold on power, even as the NDP surges in the popular vote (it won 30% of the vote in the 2011 elections, briefly surpassing the Liberals). Canadian voters fearful of the consequences of Conservative government cast their votes for the Liberals, who make promises they have no intention of keeping and then engage in massive corruption when in power, prompting disgusted left-wing voters to defect to the NDP, which results in the Conservatives winning power once again due to vote splitting, and the cycle begins anew.
If Canada’s voters expressed themselves by means of a proportional representation or a ranked preference system rather than FPTP, it is likely that the Conservatives would never again be able to form a majority government at the federal level. This is precisely why the Liberals refuse to implement electoral reform. The Liberal leadership views occasional bouts of Conservative government as preferable to a situation in which they would be forced to entertain meaningfully leftist public policy. It goes without saying that the Democratic Party’s response to a hypothetical mass socialist party in the U.S. would be even more ruthless.
The key premise of the immediate third-partyists’ argument is that by emphasizing “base-building” over electoral activity in the short term we can build a mass party powerful enough to supplant the Democrats in the long term. But Canada’s NDP has a base the likes of which we on the U.S. left can only dream of, including the support of labor unions in a country with 30% union density – and it still has not achieved power at the federal level. So long as FPTP persists, third-partyism will not be able to achieve its goals.
Provisional Entryism, For Now. . .
If immediate third-partyism is not a viable strategy, where does that leave us? Jacobin editor Seth Ackerman has argued for an approach that has quickly become a commonly-held view in DSA, which I call provisional entryism. Unlike Harrington’s realignment strategy, which was wedded to the project of transforming the Democrats into a true social democratic party, Ackerman counsels a more nuanced and flexible approach that has no illusions about the party organization’s capacity to be reformed. In his view, socialists should form an external or meta-party that opportunistically fields candidates in primaries and general elections under whichever ballot line will be the most advantageous for the particular race in question.
As a short-term strategy, this is clearly preferable to immediate third-partyism. It allows left challengers to win elections that would be impossible on third party ballot lines while also running independent socialist candidates against establishment Democrats in major cities where there is no real risk of playing the spoiler. Success on either count will raise DSA’s profile and electoral capacities, which will in turn attract new members, sustaining our momentum and furthering our other activities.
Of course, there’s a catch. If we choose ballot lines according to strictly pragmatic criteria, it is unavoidable that the vast majority of the time we will opt to participate in Democratic primaries and support Democratic candidates. In theory we’ve embraced third party politics, but in practice we’ve returned to Democratic Party entryism with an under-used side line in supporting independent candidates – without even the old Harringtonian hope of an eventual Democratic realignment.
One potential outcome of this strategy, though not the one envisioned by Ackerman, is something akin to the brief success of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party (FLP), which the socialist activist and historian Eric Blanc has described as a “dirty break” from the two-party system. By promiscuously engaging in both Republican and Democratic primaries, the FLP was able to position itself as a true electoral alternative to both and eventually to win statewide elections as a major party throughout the 1930s. This success did not last long, however, and the FLP eventually merged with the Democrats in 1944.
Provisional entryists hold out hope, then, that our current de facto dependence on the Democrats will not last forever, and that eventually socialists will build up the political strength to rid ourselves of them. But no one quite knows when or how that might occur, and even if it does there is no particular reason to believe that whatever new formation that emerges from such a break will be able to escape the fate of the NDP or the FLP.
The Way Out: Electoral Reform via Ballot Initiative
All of these perspectives acknowledge the key role that the flawed U.S. electoral system plays in propping up the two-party system, and gesture toward the importance of electoral reform. None, however, assign the issue the importance it merits. Immediate third-partyists put the cart before the horse by advocating a purely independent electoral strategy before DSA has any coherent approach to electoral reform. Ackerman, on the other hand, correctly insists that the country’s electoral system is too restrictive to allow third parties a fair shot at power, but he misdiagnoses the primary cause of the dysfunction as ballot access rather than FPTP itself. He does not engage with the possibility that reforming that restrictive system might in fact be the quickest path to a viable third party politics.
It is true that this country’s ballot access laws are unacceptably restrictive and pose an obstacle to third party and independent candidates. But they are not the primary obstacle. Third party and independent candidates manage to gather enough signatures and make it onto the ballot in hundreds of federal races and in many more state and local races. The number of third party candidates on the ballot has been rising for decades, even as the proportion of the popular vote won by those candidates has stagnated or even declined. This indicates quite clearly that ballot access, while it is a hindrance to third parties, is not the underlying cause of their current and historical electoral failure.
That underlying cause is simply FPTP. This is a fact so obvious that the refusal of generations of socialists and leftists to seriously grapple with its implications is quite concerning. The reason third parties have difficulty gathering enough signatures to make it onto the ballot is that voters understand, correctly, that these candidates have no shot at winning. This is because voters understand that under FPTP a vote for a third party candidate is in most cases equivalent to not voting at all, and so the overwhelming majority of them never entertain voting for third party candidates.
So let’s eliminate FPTP. This is, contrary to the left’s habitual fatalism, an eminently achievable goal. Indeed, a watershed moment in the fight for electoral reform has just occurred in Maine, as voters in that state passed consecutive ballot initiatives to first adopt ranked choice voting and then protect it from a sabotage attempt by the grotesque Republican governor and a few Democrats in the state legislature. This development signals the way out of our present predicament. While working to elect socialist candidates under whichever ballot line appeals to us, let us also direct our efforts towards the goal of electoral reform, and begin the transition to a dedicated third party politics only once that goal has been achieved.
Ranked choice, also known as instant runoff voting, is the most plausible alternative to FPTP at the present time. In addition to Maine, it is used in a number of major U.S. cities including San Francisco and Minneapolis. It’s the most achievable serious electoral reform, and the one favored by the advocacy group FairVote. This system eliminates the spoiler effect that plagues FPTP, and allows third parties to participate on something approaching a level playing field. This is especially true when combined with multi-member districts. The resultant system, called the single transferable vote, is effectively a form of proportional representation. Ranked choice does not guarantee socialist candidates victory, but it allows them to compete on a level playing field without the handicap of vote splitting.
There are other possible electoral reforms. There is the nonpartisan blanket (or “jungle”) primary used in several cities including Chicago, and in the states of California, Louisiana, and Washington. There is also the system of mixed-member proportional representation used in other countries like Germany and New Zealand. Ranked choice, however, is more effective than jungle primaries at promoting third party viability, and is more achievable than mixed-member proportional representation in the context of the U.S. constitutional framework.
How do we implement these reforms? Congress could implement it, and the Fair Representation Act (which would introduce single transferable vote) currently has five Democratic sponsors in the House. But that probably won’t happen any time soon, since neither of the major parties have any particular incentive to allow genuine competition from third parties.
Fortunately, states have the power to implement ranked choice voting at all three levels of government. They can do this either by legislative action or by ballot initiative. Ballot initiatives should be our preferred strategy wherever possible. In addition to being considerably easier to pass, the likelihood of state legislatures implementing ranked choice will drastically increase if a wave of states begin to implement it via ballot initiative, as happened with marijuana legalization. About half of all states allow directly initiated statutes or constitutional amendments, though the specifics vary. In addition, a large number of cities, even some in non-initiative states, allow directly initiated changes to their municipal laws (New York City is one example). In these jurisdictions, DSA should coordinate with electoral reform groups like FairVote, good governance groups like the League of Women Voters, and third parties like the Greens and even the Libertarians to place ranked choice on the ballot wherever and whenever possible.
State legislatures may be easier to influence than Congress, but convincing politicians in states without ballot initiatives to vote themselves more competition is going to be a heavy lift. Still, popular disdain for the two-party system is such that we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that we could implement it at the state level even in those states, particularly if the system begins to gain traction in ballot initiative states first.
A National Campaign?
DSA should make support for legislative action to eliminate FPTP (at all three levels of government) a non-negotiable condition of candidate endorsement. A DSA electoral reform task force could be supplemented by internal structures to facilitate communication and coordination between chapters within the same state on electoral reform initiatives.
We should go further, however, and construct a fully-fledged issue campaign around electoral reform similar to the DSA Medicare for All campaign. The general public has started to become aware that something is wrong with our voting system, as evidenced by the sudden success not only of the Maine ballot initiative but also of the campaign for an anti-gerrymandering initiative in Michigan. Over 60% of the population believes the two party system is inadequate, and a nationwide campaign explicitly oriented around ending it has the potential to find a receptive audience among the millions of Americans who have become disenchanted with our present politics.
Rather than endlessly argue over the pros and cons of working inside the Democratic Party, let’s fight for a political system where a true workers’ party can take root.