American politics, parties, and Ralph fucking Nader…

So I read this very long and very thoughtful post by Ari over at Edge of the American West and it really got me thinking about things. About this election, about how American politics works, and about Ralph Nader.

Now, I’m not sure of I’ve exactly said this here, but if some how Clinton takes the nomination over Obama I will vote for her.

There are a couple of reasons for this: (1) I’m a Democrat first and a Obama supporter second; I’m emotionally invested in the party. Hell, I almost threw my schooling out the window while volunteering on campus for Kerry in 2004, a candidate I had extremely ambivalent feelings towards. (2) On the stated issues Clinton and Obama are relatively close, so the reasons I support Obama are about interjecting new blood into the Democratic leadership more than substance. (3) John McCain.

Thinking about all of that got me thinking more about American politics generally. I’m not completely comfortable in the Democratic Party; I think it is safe to say that I’m more liberal than most Democrats (and most Americans for that matter). Many issues I care about from animal rights, food policies, to true gender and sexual equality are either on the back burner or completely off the political map. I would be more comfortable in a social-democratic party or voting for the Greens or, hell, voting for Ralph Nader than who ever becomes the national Democratic nominee, even Obama (who I support wholeheartedly).

Despite that I’m an active Democrat, who would sooner not vote than vote for Nader or a third party.

Why? Because of how American political structures work.

This is obvious to me, but I think many well-meaning people miss it. American politics requires there be two parties. Because in American elections you either win or you lose, it doesn’t matter how many votes you have as long as you have 49.9 percent of the vote… you win. So if you have a left wing party, and center-left party and conservative party in America; the unified conservative party will almost always win. In this example, with the voters on the left split and with our winner-take all rules no liberal voice will be heard in government.

Why is this so? It goes back to our founding. Our basic national political structure, formed in the eighteenth century, was not designed to accommodate mass political parties. They were designed to sift out the “best” sort of men from faction filled state politics who would rise above the fray and act in the “national good”. Democracy was not something the “Framers” put a high price on. This was the best 18th century political science had to offer. Of course, we don’t live in 18th century anymore and we place a higher value on democracy than the Founders did. But our basic national political structure (and many of our state and local ones too) remain mired in a 18th century mentality with its undemocratic attitude.

Because of this American politics is an either or game; either this person or that one. It is not a multiple choice test.

As much as we might want we can not wish this away.

To be politically effective a movement must seize control of one of the two parties and reshape it to its needs. There are many examples of this in recent history; the shift of African-American voters to the Democratic party, New Lefters taking control of the Democratic party in the 70s, and movement conservatives seizing control of the Republican Party in the 80s.

Look: if the neo-conservatives and Christian fundamentalists had gone out and formed their own, third, party they would still be out in the political wilderness.

The only time a “third party” has proven successful was in 1860. There are two basic reasons for this: the chaos of the coming of the Civil War and the fact that early Republican party was interested in becoming a permanent party. It was not completely organized around one issue (though slavery was of course, central) or for one election like most third parties have been before and since.

Thus if we are to ever have a viable third party we’d need one interested in sticking around and building, you know, an actual party.

Ralph Nader is not that, whatever his merits. His runs in 2000, 2004, and now 2008 are about Ralph. He’s not interested in building a movement or a party. He’s about making his point. And, of course, he’s welcome to do that. But that doesn’t make him a viable third party. In fact the way I see the modern Nader he is not into politics, but purity. Politics requires compromise, nobody agrees on everything in every way. Nader places a higher value, it seems, on the purity of his position than the necessary compromises required for political success.

I think few people out there would like to see America’s political structure change more than me. I would love to see proportional representation introduced into Congressional elections, among many other reforms. But I don’t see that happening. We are too in love with the genius of our “Founders” to want to go and tinker with their “masterwork”.

To effect any sort of positive change, we must play with the political rules we have, not the political rules we wish we had. Thus I’m a Democrat and likely to remain one for my entire life.

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4 Comments on “American politics, parties, and Ralph fucking Nader…”

  1. Ben Alpers says:

    A few thoughts about this.

    First, the choices are not limited to the Democrat, the Republican, or Ralph Nader. I completely agree that Nader is building nothing. In fact, he just had his name removed from the race for the Green Party presidential nomination (though Naderites among the Greens refuse to acknowledge this and are trying yet again to somehow conjure an evil conspiracy among non-Naderite Greens to deny Ralph Nader–who’s never joined the Green Party–GP ballot lines).

    But there are, in fact, a variety of actual “third” parties (most obviously the Greens and the Libertarians, but also the Socialists and many smaller parties), so if you want to build a third party, ignore Nader and join one of these efforts. It’s worth noting that while the last third party to become a major party was the Republican Party (I think you might also want to give acknowledge the Whigs as an earlier example), plenty of third parties have had a profound political impact without winning, including the Populists, the Socialists, and both Progressive Parties (the 1910s-1920s and 1940s). These parties put new issues on the table and helped change the agenda of one or both of the major parties.

    Second, the analogy with movement conservatism is more complicated than you make it out to be. George Wallace’s American Independent Party was a conservative third party that played an important role in shaping movement conservatism (if nothing else, it helped birth the Southern strategy of the post-1968 GOP). Second, conservatives within the Republican Party were much more aggressive about eliminating that party’s moderate establishment than progressives within the Democratic Party have been about dealing with their party’s center-right leadership. In fact, progressives Democrats aren’t even willing to vote for a Dennis Kucinich. So while there may be real lessons to learn from the conservative triumph within the Republican Party, there are no signs whatsoever that progressive Democrats are attempting to reproduce that strategy.

    Third, if, like most Americans, you live in a non-battleground state, your presidential vote is almost entirely symbolic thanks to the electoral college. That’s also how American political structures work. Non-battleground state voters ought to vote for whomever they think would be the best president, regardless of party or likelihood of victory.

    Finally, you know how to assure that fundamental political reforms won’t happen? Assume that they are impossible, as you do in this post. The biggest mistake that people like yourself who find themselves to the left of the leadership of the Democratic Party make is to assume that your political hopes are so far out of the mainstream that they can never be realized. Political leaders who’ve transformed American politics from Martin Luther King to Ronald Reagan have done so in part because they refuse to make such an assumption. Whether you choose, in the long run, to work within the Democratic Party are to leave it and work outside it, I profoundly hope that you stop cutting off your political nose to spite your face and work for the changes you believe in. You’d be surprised how many folks agree with you!

  2. Tito says:

    Compromise, of course, is the essence of representative government. But, as the Edge of the American West article brings up, I think everyone has a breaking point. If Clinton somehow overturns the popular vote and delegate count via superdelegates, she will cross the breaking point for me. It violates the spirit of democracy too much for me to tolerate. If that happened, I couldn’t in good conscience vote for a party that allowed it. Luckily, I doubt it will come to that, since the Democratic leadership (Pelosi, Dodd, Richardson, etc.) tend to be leaning towards reinforcing whoever has the delegate lead.

  3. Ben, Tito thanks for the comments. Sorry it has taken me so long to reply, I don’t have regular access to the internet on weekends.

    All of your points are well-taken, Ben. What I mean, though, when I am skeptical of the possibility fundamental political reform is that I am skeptical of fundamental institutional political reform in the United States, especially of the national constitution (which I feel is deeply flawed as an electoral instrument). We’ve only had one real reform of how national elections are done (direct election of Senators) and I feel that further change is very, very unlikely. I believe that Americans, especially discourse controlling media-elites, are too in love with the “masterwork” of the Framers to allow fundamental constitutional reform to seriously enter the political landscape.

    I do believe that other types of pretty radical political reform are possible. Hell, it looks like we may get *some* kind of national health insurance soon.

  4. […] American politics, parties, and Ralph fucking Nader… (look: comments!) […]


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