Alternate Factions

You know how the pundits (and even some more scholarly political scientists) like to say that third parties in American politics never amount to much, that they get a lot of attention but never win, and all that?

I really wonder if the political history fifty or seventy-five years from now is going to see something quite different in that respect. Trump is in certain ways a third-party candidate. He is a Ross Perot who actually won the Presidency. But he’s also an Arnold Schwarzengger and a Jesse Ventura, men who actually won governorships. Meaning, the proposition that just last year a sufficient number of American voters were sufficiently sick of the existing political system or sufficiently desperate in their feelings or sufficiently provoked in their racist and sexist disdain for social change to choose someone like Trump is perhaps complicatedly ahistorical. Maybe we’ve been coming to this moment in a more steady way since George Wallace. Maybe we focus too much on the ephemerality of various named third parties and the specific candidates, and even on the small-ish percentages in many elections (2, 3, 6, 10) and thus underrate the persistence of the underlying desire. Or did until now.

Maybe some people have been trying to vote for this sort of person in a relatively non-ideological way for a while: a person they perceive to be non-systematic, not-a-usual-suspect. An outsider who has had nothing to do with politics up to this moment, or whose politics are imagined to be raw or outside of the conventional punditry and political expertise. The pundits assure us that when people register as independents, they’re really just Republicans of a sort, but that’s always struck me as a superficial reading of the outcomes of their voting rather than the meaningful intention of their statement of affiliation.

Maybe there’s a deeper history still that goes back through LaGuardia and T. Roosevelt? At least in the imagination of latter-day third-partiers if not in the reality of the politics that Roosevelt and LaGuardia were working with in their time and place.

Maybe even Sanders belongs somewhere in here in the sense that this impulse to have someone other than the technocratic political class (right and left) in power is part of (but not all of) his base of potential support.

In this view, suddenly third-partyism of a kind–we might call it instead a rejection of the existing political oligarchy–is not an oddball sideshow or a kind of strange distortion produced by unusual people, but a persistent faction of voters endlessly searching for figureheads who can express their alienation with the usual system. What’s interesting too is that they’re always disappointed: it turns out that amateurs are, well, amateurish, in particular at dealing with legislative and judicial authority. So sometimes you get the sequel of a highly skilled and imaginative insider like Jerry Brown (once an outsider in rhetoric if not in fact!) stepping in to clean up the amateur outsider’s mess.

But the lesson might really be that there’s also a fissure that a person who was both insider and outsider could really punch through–that someone who understood how the political system works and yet who also understood why it is failing–could punch through and make a strong majority feel satisfied. Brown is very nearly there; if you want to go back, I’d argue LaGuardia did it too.

We’d better hope it’s possible–and that someone steps forward from a progressive vector who sees that, not just for President but across the country. Because otherwise I think the desire will remain, and keep seeking and seeking. It cannot be overcome simply through a caretaker who keeps the lights on and the ordinary mechanisms churning.

Not that this is not a personal endorsement of voting third party, which in fact I’ve never personally done, though I have at times registered as an independent. I wouldn’t have ever voted for Stein or Nader, for example, because before we get into anything about the impact of that vote, I’d just personally say that I wouldn’t want either of them to be the leader of anything that mattered to me. But it is to say that trying to beat the *desire* for something new by yelling at people about how they must must must show fidelity to the old until the present crisis is past seems equally foolish, a progressive version of saying that it’s orange alert for terrorism and you have to write a blank check to the security state until we’ve won the battle against the endless insurgencies.

This is not a momentary impulse: it’s a fairly powerful current in postwar American history, gaining force decade by decade. The people we want as leaders and representatives will be the ones who see that motion, are properly fearful of its terrifying dark potential (or less potential and more reality at this awful moment) and manage to re-channel those currents in constructive directions.

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3 Responses to Alternate Factions

  1. Alice says:

    I for one find it a saddening and terrifying impulse. To me, it speaks to fundamental failures of our democracy – failure to represent, failure to achieve political legitimacy. These are essential qualities. Honestly, I think that college professors maybe have more work to do than politicians, because I think a fundamental problem is the hegemony of certain prestigious institutions of higher education and they way that they demand Americans from other backgrounds assimilate into their culture to gain access to political power and economic security. Placing the technical expertise of government in the hands of a single culture is simply unacceptable in a democracy.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think basically that is right, though I don’t think it is as specific as the prestige hierarchies of academia. Meaning, technocratic political influence derives from a number of sources and isn’t just a product of a narrow band of elite institutions.

    But essentially, this is why I think the Democrats in particular but also most Republicans can’t figure out how to respond to this crisis, much as the establishment parties in the UK and France and elsewhere cannot–because in order to respond, they have to understand what’s wrong, and that takes some degree of introspection as well as seeing what’s going on out there.

  3. I know Ross Perot. He is not like Donald Trump at all. He was not like Bill Clinton or George H. W. Bush. He is a better human being than Clinton, and he would have been a stronger and better president than George W. Bush. If he had won, America would have been a better place–at least for a little while.

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