Over at The Real News Network, Chris Hedges has been talking with Lawrence Lessig about how best to go about getting money out of politics, ironically by way of creating a super-PAC that can raise enough funds in small donations to win a small number of seats in Congress this year. So far they’ve raised one million dollars over a thirty day period, and are now working on raising five million in another thirty days. It’s an interesting tactic, and indeed, has the potential to be very effective at targeting key seats in Congress. The idea is apparently that if Lessig and his fellow organizers can get even five people elected who are committed to real campaign finance reform that even the Supreme Court won’t shoot down, then in 2016 they can make more gains in Congress, until there are enough reform-minded politicians willing and able to pass genuine reform.
The only problem with this is that it ignores the very real impact third parties have had on American politics, most notably the 1912 and 1992 elections.
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt led a breakaway faction of progressive Republicans to form the Progressive Party (also known as the Bull Moose Party), and got enough votes to cause incumbent president William Howard Taft to place last in a three-man race that included Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was by no means a progressive, as the party at that time was still the party of Jim Crow, segregation, and large business interests. But the resulting shift in politics was nevertheless significant and long-lasting, for after 1912 progressives began registering as Democrats (the business wing of the GOP took over the party after 1912, more or less permanently). By the 1932 election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was on the presidential ticket as a Democrat, and it was the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that took leadership in both Congress and the presidency to implement the reforms that collectively were called the New Deal.
The 1912 election, then, caused a sizable leftward shift in the Democratic Party that lasted for decades. The 1992 election had the opposite effect: H. Ross Perot’s percentage of the popular vote caused incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush to lose to conservative Democrat Bill Clinton. This allowed Clinton the political cover he needed to gut Welfare, pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), repeal all sorts of regulations governing banking, and lay the groundwork for the privatization of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social insurance programs.
Both elections had in common a large and influential political movement driving the third party running, and the large showings in the polls by the Progressive Party of 1912 and the Reform Party of 1992 had tremendous influence on the policy positions of at least one major political party. Without the presence of these third parties, it is very doubtful that progressives and conservatives would have been able to implement the long lasting political changes they desired, because the major parties are notoriously resistant to change from within.
That’s why Lessig, who acknowledges the challenges of trying to work within the two-party system, baffles me. It’s all well and good to run primary candidates in elections where a corporate-owned Democrat or Republican might otherwise sail to victory, but without the credible threat of a third party challenger to upset the general election, all the corporate-owned politician needs to do is ride out the wave of voter anger while giving lip service to our concerns. If you want real political change, you have to put the fear of losing elections to leftist candidates into these savages. otherwise they’ll simply ignore you when they’re not making fun of your efforts.