The need for a new party, redux

by Ryan Rafaty

‘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 interviewwhere 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.


About the Author

Ryan Rafaty

Ryan Rafaty (PhD, University of Cambridge) is writing a comparative history of political initiatives to mitigate climate change and reduce fossil fuel dependence in the advanced industrial countries.

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