The Need For A New Party, Redux

Ryan Rafaty
November 9, 2016

‘AT the present time it seems almost silly to advance an argument  for the formation of a new party’, wrote the American philosopher John  Dewey in 1931, shortly after the devastating Wall Street Crash of 1929  and just before the momentous 1932 presidential election contest between  Hoover and Roosevelt. He continues:

In a general way the need for [a new party] speaks for  itself, and clamorously. Of the first ten persons you meet who have no  definite connection with one of the old parties… at least seven or eight  will not question the fact that a new party is needed. What they will  question is the practicability of trying to form one. For the old  parties are so firmly entrenched throughout the nation, and the  organizations are so closely bound to the business system, that  unorganized individuals feel themselves helpless.

Dewey’s short piece, ‘The Need for a New Party’,  could be read today nearly verbatim while retaining the same veracity  and vigor that it had had during the Great Depression. Then, as now,  masses of Americans were jaded, cynically convinced that both parties  were beholden to big business and culture-war coalitions, having ‘lost  all confidence that politics can accomplish anything significant’. At  the time, President Hoover —an unapologetic defender of unfettered  capitalism and racist immigration quotas who had sold the public a  ‘self-confessed fraud’ — was in the White House. He was presiding over  the decline of the Republican Party from majority to minority status,  from which the party wouldn’t recover for decades. But not everyone in  the GOP kept quiet while the ship was sinking.

George Norris, a dissenting Senator of Nebraska, was one of Hoover’s  fiercest critics and an atypical Republican champion of liberal and  progressive causes. ‘[Hoover’s] theory’, Norris wrote, ‘is that if  wealth is made prosperous and that legislation is enacted for the  benefit of the millionaires then some of the crumbs of prosperity will  be pushed off the mahogany-topped desks of luxury and that the common  ordinary people groping around at the feet of wealth will be able to get  some substance therefrom’. Trickle-down economics, for Norris, was too  ridiculous a proposition and political strategy after the worst stock  market crash and economic depression in the history of the country. But  the Republicans, true to form, decided to rest on the laurels of the  bygone days of Lincoln. The Republican National Committee’s Executive  Director at the time, Robert Lucas, covertly funded a campaign against  Norris’s 1930 re-election bid, describing the Senator’s audacious  disloyalty and support for moderate Democrat Al Smith in the previous  presidential election as ‘a growing cancer in the vitals of the  Republican Party,’ one that ‘must be cut out if the Party is to  survive’. In similar fashion, current Republican National Committee  Chair Reince Priebus vowed  during the 2016 election to punish Republicans who refused to support  Trump: ‘if they’re thinking they’re going to run again someday, I think  that we’re going to evaluate the process — the nomination process — and I  don’t think it’s going to be that easy for them’. During his victory  speech, Trump compared Priebus, his loyal lapdog and fundraiser, to a  racehorse Secretariat. ‘I tell you Reince is really a star and he is the  hardest-working guy’.

Intra-party dissent and hostile criticism from progressive  Republicans like Norris was quashed, to the party’s own detriment.  Roosevelt would go on to defeat Hoover in the 1932 election with 57  percent of the popular vote and nearly 90 percent of the electoral vote.  As Dewey observed, ‘a Lucas, representing a Hoover, will always get the  better of a Norris within the party, no matter how personally  independent the latter may be’. It seems similarly plausible that a  Priebus representing a Trump will always get the better of a Powell or a  Romney, particularly with the help of an ignominious Cruz, a spineless  Rubio, a comatose Carson, and a moribund McCain.

But crucially, Dewey, echoing the disenchantment held by a growing  number of Americans, did not see much hope for the Democratic Party  either. Although he correctly believed that the repudiation of Hoover  would be strong enough to elect a Democratic President, Dewey thought  ‘the sentiment will not be accompanied by any hope or expectation,’  since ‘organized finance and industry’ were already ‘casting about for a  candidate who will be “reasonable”—a practical synonym for  subservient’. He continues:

Unfortunately for the permanent prospects of the  Democratic party, its leaders prematurely accepted the gospel truth of  the doctrine that prosperity descends from above. For the Democrats  during the process of assuring the people that they would be just as  “safe” as the Republicans, and in assuring big business—and asking for  campaign contributions on that basis—that they would be as good and  obedient boys as the Republican leaders, not only habituated themselves  to the Republican mode of thought, but committed themselves to the  policy of alliance with big business.

This might sound familiar. The general feeling was only exacerbated  by the presence of the Democratic National Committee’s Chairman, John  Raskob, who was an executive at DuPont and General Motors and a staunch  opponent of Roosevelt. This was a guy who published an article entitled ‘Everybody Ought to be Rich’,  urging poor workers to invest in stocks to earn a fortune just months  prior to the Wall Street crash in 1929. The Senate Lobby Investigation  Committee would later reveal that Raskob, involved in the American  Liberty League, an anti-New Deal lobbying group, was actively working to  undermine Roosevelt by funding his more subservient opponents. As Dewey  predicted, ‘a Raskob will dominate a Wheeler or a Walsh’. But he was  mostly wrong: the forces seeking to undermine progressive tendencies in  the Democratic Party couldn’t stop Roosevelt. For a period Roosevelt’s  New Deal liberalism tempered political gloom and united much of the  country, including large sectors of capital-intensive business that  helped make the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act  politically possible. But for Dewey this was not a long-term panacea,  for ‘even dull eyes can see the foolishness of adopting any measure  which leaves the underlying structure just as it was’. In a subsequent  article in the New Statesman, Dewey would write that ‘as long  as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the  attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance’.

To an alarming degree, Dewey’s argument about the need for a new  party system is both as obvious today as it was then, and as woefully  unfulfilled. The United States remains soldered to the Westminster,  majoritarian model, which has tended towards a de facto two-party cartel  in which the Democratic and Republican national committees have  cooperated with remarkable efficacy to restrict competition. Both  national committees actively exclude third and fourth parties from  presidential debates, as well as from polls that such parties require to  qualify for the debates. But the committees also still work tirelessly  to extinguish intraparty dissent. The DNC email leaks  revealed that the Democratic apparatchiks were actively colluding to  undermine the campaign of Bernie Sanders, casting him as an atheist with ‘no understanding’ of the Democratic Party, and whose campaign was a ‘mess’.  The short-lived primary campaign of Harvard law professor Lawrence  Lessig was also an object of mockery for the DNC (see Lessig’s interview  where he candidly describes what he learned about the primary process  while running for president). Much of the media establishment  regurgitated the fodder, or simply blacked out coverage of the other  candidates. Sanders received by far the least media coverage of any  other viable candidate, as a Harvard study confirmed.  The ignominy, which was always only just below the surface prior to the  leaks, prompted the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz,  as well as the DNC’s CEO, CFO, and Communications Director. Schultz, who  served as Clinton’s most hawkish loyalist, was shortly thereafter hired  back onto Clinton’s team. Sanders helped finance Schultz’s opponent,  Tim Canova, in the primary race for her Florida congressional seat, but  Schultz prevailed in the sunshine state with rose-colored glasses. It  almost makes one think that a Schultz supporting a Clinton will always  get the better of a Sanders within the party, no matter how personally  independent the latter may be.

When Bernie Sanders, the longest serving Independent in the history  of the United States Congress, was contemplating running for President,  one of the decisions he had to make was whether to run outside of the  two-party system. The Republicans had become a radical insurgency and  the Democrats, Sanders and his supporters believed, were too  conservative and cozied up to big money and corporate America. Although  many supporters encouraged a third-party candidacy, Sanders concluded  that, ‘for a lot of reasons, the only way at this particular moment in  history that we can run an effective campaign is within the Democratic  primary and caucus process’. After he lost the nomination to Clinton,  Sanders was invited by Jill Stein to run on the Green Party ticket, an  offer that he respectfully declined. ‘No, I made the promise that I  would not and I’ll keep that promise, and the reason for that is I do  not want to be responsible for electing some right-wing Republican.’  Sanders went on to campaign for Clinton against Trump, arguing that  Clinton was running on the most progressive platform in the history of  the Democratic Party. But one may reasonably wonder what good would have  come from a progressive platform in a country where the legislature has  less than 20 percent public approval and  the incoming president would have been viewed as inept or corrupt by an  alarming proportion of the public and “unfavorable” by more than half the population.

There is no hope that either of the old main parties is  going to change. The reason lies even deeper than the self-interest  which binds leaders and office holders so closely to “business” that  they can be freed only by acts of treachery. Their mental habits are  formed in the pattern of this alliance. Conservatism tends to come with  age, and the two parties are old. It comes the more surely and exercises  its reactionary effect the more disastrously when professed leaders  have based the very structure of their beliefs on the doctrine of  popular salvation by means of dependence on property interests. Whatever  may be the convictions of individuals within the parties, the parties  themselves are property-minded. In the clash between property interests  and human interests, all their habits of thought and action fatally  impel them to side with the former. They make concessions, but do not  change the direction of their belief or behavior.

Dewey did not predict the generosity and succour of the social  policies enacted under Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms. But he also did not  think they fundamentally changed the way politics was, in the eyes of  so many Americans, ‘the shadow cast on society by big business’. And  very little has changed: from the beginning of the 2016 election season,  approximately 76 percent of  Americans believed ‘the wealthiest individuals and companies have too  much influence over elections’ and 80 percent said the same of ‘wealthy  special interest groups’. Dewey understood the miasma of troubles  wrought by the public’s perception of legislative corruption, whether  justified or not, long before Transparency International’s  cross-national surveys  of corruption. This enabled him to foresee the troubles of America’s  democratic malaise and crisis of confidence today, long before Citizens  United, Wikileaks, or Trump’s refrains about a ‘rigged’ system  controlled by ‘crooked’ politicians.

Dewey’s pessimism about piecemeal reforms harkens back to the  ‘Founding Father’ John Adams, who once wrote in a letter to Jefferson  that ‘parties and factions will not suffer improvements to be made…’

As soon as one man hints at an improvement, his rival  opposes it. No sooner has one party discovered or invented any  amelioration of the condition of man, or the order of society than the  opposite party belies it, misconstrues it, misrepresents it, ridicules  it, insults it, persecutes it.

We will hear many people aching for the bi-partisanship of a bygone  era (which era?) over the next four years, but that will not resolve the  fierce strife and faction of a politics marred by the perception of  corruption. It will be up to both the Democratic and Republican parties  to assuage this old American pastime of diminished expectations and  disenchantment. They could begin by splitting into multiple parties that  better represent the diversity of over 300 million Americans who did  not deserve the sad spectacle and truncated choices of this morose  election season. Clinton was right in more ways than one when she said  the United States is not Denmark, a country of six million people with  at least eight competitive political parties.

The current political schisms in the United States —and the United  Kingdom, for that matter — present a historic opportunity for electoral  reform. The Washington-Westminster model of single-vote, plurality  elections is anachronistic and badly broken; political scientists such  as Patrick Dunleavy who prematurely claimed to have disproved Duverger’s  law – i.e. that plurality systems tend irrevocably towards a two-party  duopoly – have misread Anglo-Saxon politics and perpetuated complacence  with the broken party system; journalists such as Ezra Klein who have said  that ‘we have no way to fix’ the ‘frightening weakness in American  democracy’ must also recognize that the problem, and therefore the  solution, starts with the corrupt party system itself. There are many  conceivable ways in which institutional reforms that would accommodate  third and fourth parties, such as ranked-choice voting (which was on the ballot and has just won  in Maine for the first time in American history), could be implemented  under the American system and could resuscitate confidence and  participation in the political process. Under a ranked-choice system, a  Trump primary victory might have been far less probable, and other  candidates such as Sanders could have conceivably stayed in the race  without being a ‘spoiler’.

Even better than ranked-choice voting would be constitutional reform  to create a multi-party proportional system, which would not fully  attenuate the ‘shadow cast on society by big business’ but would at  least necessitate greater compromise and concertation. It would have  enabled the ‘unthinkable’: a minority coalition government between a  centrist and leftist party, perhaps led by Clinton and Sanders  respectively, to outnumber the forces of right-wing extremism. But all  such electoral reforms would require courageous dissidents within both  parties in order to form new parties or factions with unprecedented  resolve and unwavering opposition to the ways of yore. ‘The follies of  our own times are easier to bear when they are seen against the  background of past follies’, Bertrand Russell wrote  in the gloomy year of 1943. There’s a hint of truth in this, but  studying the interwar period, during which Dewey’s ‘new party’ never  surfaced, does not provide much comfort for our own times. Neither does  the civil war period, shortly before which the modern Democratic and  Republican parties, founded by Jackson and Lincoln respectively,  themselves emerged from faction.


All by
Ryan Rafaty