This argument by Kevin Zeese and Patrick Walker at Salon goes in the category of wishful thinking if you ask me. The core point they make is that by running for President on the Green Party ticket (Jill Stein has apparently agreed to this) Bernie Sanders would keep Donald Trump from expanding his coalition of voters at Hillary Clinton’s expense. This is because voters see both Trump and Sanders as outsiders, with Sanders the “real” one. They also worry that Trump could move to Clinton’s left on Wall Street and trade, “corporate trade agreements,” and militarism. Finally, Zeese and Walker argue that independents will be the key to this race, and that third party campaign risks to Democratic candidates are overblown. Well, let’s see.
First let me challenge a core assumption here: that “voters” want an outsider. To be sure, Republican politicians have annoyed conservative activists and Tea Party types by failing to stop the national shift to the left. They allowed a reorganization of the health care system along more liberal lines and have not kept promises to roll this back. They have not managed to “protect marriage” from the “gay agenda.” They blame immigrants and minorities for the economic woes of blue collar Americans but have done nothing noticeable about the problem. And yes, Trump has tapped into this anger to get about 43% of the GOP primary vote from people who think politicians are the problem.
But more than half of Republican primary voters would have been very happy with an insider candidate (Cruz, Rubio, Kasich). More importantly, Barack Obama’s job approval ratings among Democrats has hovered around 80% for the last year (other polls show even higher numbers). This means that “the American People” are not clamoring for a bona fide outside candidate – this cry comes from an admittedly quite noisy 35% of Americans, most of them the most conservative of conservative activists. So while some of these disgruntled Americans are progressives annoyed with neoliberal acceptance of Wall Street power, I just don’t see a large cohort of voters who Donald Trump could attract who are not already in his camp.
And even if such a group does exist in the numbers needed to elect Donald Trump, it’s not clear how he attracts them to his camp with his xenophobic, bigoted, hawkish message. I can’t imagine why a progressive Sanders voter, who cares about social justice, racism, reproductive choice, and a less hawkish foreign policy, would switch to Trump solely because he makes noise about free trade and economic dislocation. Trump is, after all, a billionaire (maybe) who has built his fortune in at least some measure on outsourcing production and exploiting workers.
Yes, polls show “independents” could be the key to this election (though this is not new). But what, exactly, do we mean by “independent?” I think that most people who self-identify as independent of an organized political party actually cast their votes fairly consistently for one side or the other – they simply don’t like being labeled or categorized. Every Tea Party member I’ve ever met calls him or herself an independent – but none would ever vote for a Democratic politician for a state or national level office. People just don’t like to be judged, even by pollsters, as having anything but an open mind. So they lie. So take this kind of poll with a large dose of salt – if it meant that a large group of American voters can be swayed by policy speeches or the individual qualities of candidates, then we would have a centrist political party or the No Labels movement would be much more effective.
Finally, a couple of notes about third party campaigns. On some level I think it’s helpful to have these voices out there – if only because it sometimes exposes the more extremist voices in American politics and gives them the rhetorical rope they need to hang themselves. But as a structural and institutional matter, our first-past-the-post electoral system makes it all but impossible for a third party candidate to win, and the republican (vice parliamentary) government structure would make a multi-party system all but unworkable. This means that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein would have more impact on American policy by working within one of the existing parties to shift preferences (as Bernie Sanders has done now that he’s running as a Democrat!) rather than attempting to build an electoral coalition around a narrow set of issues or policy proposals.
In the end, political success is about building a coalition of factions which may in some cases have competing interests rather than attacking that system as corrupt from the outside. Bernie Sanders himself understands this: he was until last year a member of the Socialist Party and he could have run for President on that ticket. Instead, he chose to run as a Democrat and move that party to the left. The Democratic Party, after all, has successfully put together a liberal constituency of people who share a preference for collective action in the name of reducing economic and racial inequality, protecting the environment, building and maintaining infrastructure, providing a basic social safety net, and ensuring access to education for those who need and want to acquire new skills. And this coalition is moving American society to the left under President Obama’s leadership. Liberals and progressives need to ensure this shift continues by electing the most liberal President possible and then holding his or her feet to the fire.
The Republican Party coalition depends on business interests and workers who believe free markets and personal/corporate greed can best organize society and religious interests who want government to protect their desire to discriminate against those who reject their doctrine. These interests have used racism and xenophobia to distract American workers from the true causes of their economic woes. One can rightfully criticize the Democratic Party, and its neoliberal wing in particular, for not effectively and aggressively challenging this. Bernie Sanders has helped to change that by raising his voice as a Democrat to point out that his new party has not gone far enough to challenge business and financial interests who privilege the needs of the wealthy over those of working Americans.
A Sanders third party campaign would not do anything to prevent defection from the liberal coalition that he could not more effectively do by simply supporting and campaigning for Democratic candidates. He should work very hard, should he fail to win the Democratic Party nomination, to bring his followers into that party – ask them to join city and county Committees, run for office as Democrats, and thereby displace neoliberals and move that coalition further to the left. He is an important voice and his message has resonated He should not soften that voice with a quixotic Green Party run for President. He should use his voice to help elect Hillary Clinton and a Democratic Congress.