The missing third force

Published : Oct 19, 2012 00:00 IST

The two main political parties in the U.S. offer no alternative while other parties such as the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, the Conservative Party and so on are disadvantaged by an electoral structure that is designed to facilitate only two parties.

At a $50,000-a-plate fund-raiser in Boca Raton, Florida, Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for the United States presidency, bemoaned the 47 per cent of the voters who were, he said, dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. Romneys disdain for half of the U.S. population became a scandal and resulted in a deep loss of support for his already shaky candidacy. Who were in the room, listening to Romney fulminate against ordinary people?

The fund-raiser was hosted by Marc Leder of Sun Capital, a private equity firm that made its money buying and selling distressed businesses. Leder, who is worth about $400 million, has already donated $312,600 to the Romney campaign. Other large Boca Raton funders of Romney include owners or founders of such firms as Hig Capital (a private investment firm), Antares Capital (a venture capital firm), and Medina Capital Partners (a private investment firm). Romney would have felt comfortable in this room, given his own business history as head of Bain Capital, a venture capital firm based in Boston, Massachusetts. Bain, like Sun Capital, made its money by buying firms struggling to manage the techtronic shifts driven by globalisation, and by selling their properties (asset stripping) or by stock manipulation. Most of those in the room appear to hold their wealth in equity or post-equity, which means that their money sloshes around the financial world rather than emerge out of the industrial one.

When Romney praised his donors for being the builders of America, and not those dependent on government, it is likely that they would have smiled and nodded (the tape of his speech obscures the audience reaction). It is precisely those who can afford to pay $50,000 per head for a meal that benefited the most from the governments tax policy over the past four decades. In 1963, the top U.S. federal income tax was 91 per cent. It is now 35 per cent, with tax rates on dividends and capital gains at 15 per cent. Most of Romneys earnings are treated as carried interest, which shields him from taxation, and so the rate he paid, over the past decade, was 13 per cent. To put this plainly, the tax rate on capital is about 15 per cent, whereas the tax rate on labour is 35 per cent. The Bush tax cuts of the 2000s favoured those who made their money from capital rather than those who made them in wages. The top 10 per cent of the taxpayers absorbed 80 per cent of the Bush tax cuts. They are awash with money and eager to support policies that keep things so.

Fund-raisers and the election process

Fund-raisers have become a core part of the election process. This year, the political parties will spend close to $6 billion in the presidential and Congressional elections. A study by the Centre for Responsive Politics shows that 77 per cent of the money comes from business groups, with the sectors of finance, insurance and real estate (FIRE) in the lead. Money will flow directly into the political parties, but as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission (2010), it will also go to outside groups who are less bound to reveal the sources of their funding and yet can spend money freely to support their favoured candidates and attack their adversary.

The consumer advocate Ralph Nader points out that with Citizens United corporations can now directly pour vast amounts of corporate money, through independent expenditures, into the electoral swamp already flooded with corporate dollars.

In mid-September, former President Jimmy Carter argued that the U.S. had one of the worst election processes in the world, and its almost entirely because of the excessive influx of money. Carter said that the system was shot through with financial corruption, with the richest 1 per cent able to steer the electoral system and subsequently the policy discussion to its advantage.

The day after Carters jeremiad, the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security released its report (Deepening Democracy: A Strategy for Improving the Integrity of Elections Worldwide, September 13). Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annans Foundation and the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance established this Commission, whose members include former heads of state (Mexicos Ernesto Zedillo), former U.N. officials (Rima Khalaf Hundaldi), academics (Amartya Sen) and former U.S. officials (Madeleine Albright). The report lambasted the U.S. for its systematic attempts to suppress the votes of marginalised populations, notably the African American working poor, and for what Carter called financial corruption. Citizens United, the report noted, had undermined political equality, weakened transparency of the electoral process and shaken citizen confidence in Americas political institutions and elections. On that last point, of shaken citizen confidence, the report noted, Nearly two-thirds of Americans said that they trust government less because big donors have more influence over election officials than average Americans.

Average Americans

Where must the average Americans turn for solace? No more than half the eligible voters actually cast their ballots, which means that at least half are disenchanted with the process. The two main political parties offer no alternative (Desolate landscape, Frontline, October 5). Other parties such as the Libertarian Party, the Green Party and the Conservative Party are disadvantaged by an electoral structure that is designed to facilitate only two parties. This has been a problem in the United States since the first election in 1792.

The first two parties in the new United States were the Federalists and the Democrat-Republican Party, but when the first imploded, the second split into its two wings. Since the 1820s, with brief departures of emphasis, these two parties (the Democrats and the Republicans) have dominated the political landscape. Challenges have come from all sides, most spectacularly from the Populists, the Progressives and the Socialists. Electoral rules (winner takes all procedures and ballot access) have restricted these parties to the margins. Whenever they come close to a breakthrough, the political class puts its entire energy into thwarting it.

In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt yoked the left wing to the Democratic Party as much as possible and then cut it to size. In a private letter, Roosevelt wrote, We have on the positive side eliminated Phil Lafollette and the Farmer Labor people in the Northwest as a standing Third Party threat. The Chicago Sunday Times crowed, Once again the two-party system in this country has been firmly entrenched. Threats of Third Party movements have evaporated like the morning dew under the rising sun. Strong disinfectants from the two parties have fumigated the ability of a third party on the Right (Libertarian and Constitution Party) and on the Left (Green Party) to break into the mainstream.

Role of community organisations

Beneath the electoral battles, in the eviscerated cities and bleak rural towns, community organisations have been at work building up bases of disenfranchised people to fight to maintain access to, among other things, health care, affordable housing, educational services and meaningful work. Many of these organisations emerged in the 1970s on the ground prepared by religious service providers and a slowly disappearing mass socialist movement. The globalisation of industrial production and the mechanisation of agriculture displaced very many people from work, and the withdrawal of the U.S. state from the provision of state support left them abject. It was in this context that the community organisations began to grow. Private foundations funded their work. The restrictions of the law constrained them to educational work (including advocacy) and service provision. Section 501c3 of the Internal Revenue Code does not allow these non-profit organisations to enter electoral politics.

Over the course of the past 30 years, these base building organisations have considered their limitations and sought to find ways to engage with political power. The 2000 election was a major eye-opener. Money flooded the electoral process, the right-wing suppressed the vote in working-class communities, and then when it came to the final decision, it was the Supreme Court that delivered the election to George W. Bush. It was after this election that the community organisations began serious conversations about entry into the electoral fray. Guillermo Quinteros of the Solidago Foundations Electoral Justice Program told me that the 2000 election brought a realisation that there was a need in these communities to be more engaged. The group Incite: Women of Colour Against Violence hosted a conference to break the link between the non-profit organisations and the foundations (which resulted in the 2006 book This Revolution Will Not be Funded. Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex). Others began to ask how to use the foundation money to help them go beyond their defensive work on service provision towards a more offensive push towards actual political power.

Many of these groups, Quinteros told me, went into voter mobilisation and to fight against voter suppression, which is allowed by their otherwise restrictive tax status. But very quickly they realised that there was no point in bringing voters to the polls if the choices before them were less than impressive. As ReNEW Minnesota put it, The electoral infrastructure that progressives have built in recent years now raises more money, efficiently mobilises more voters, articulates a more compelling message, and is winning more elections. Yet, despite this, bold policy change is still elusive. This is because for all of our electoral success, we as progressives have failed to expand the definition of what is politically possible.

Community formations move into electoral work

Across the U.S., older community formations have now moved tentatively into electoral work. The Miami Workers Centre and its allies are part of the Florida New Majority, while the Alexandrias Tenants and Workers United and its allies grew into the Virginia New Majority. The Oakland Rising and the San Francisco Rising are the platforms for groups such as the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Causa Justa, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, People Organised to Win Employment Rights and Chinese Progressive Association. In the U.S. heartland there is the Minnesota Take Action and the Citizen Action, groups that try to mine the old Midwestern progressive traditions whose embers still flicker on occasion.

The straitjacket of U.S. elections hems in these exciting initiatives. One of their principal allies is organised labour, which has a habit of yoking itself to the Democratic Party. The main labour unions, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), do not at this time see any alternative to the Democrats. The new progressive formations, however, hope that as they put forward candidates into the primary arena, in the contest amongst the Democrats for instance to chose their standard-bearer, labour unions and advocacy groups might reconsider their calcification and ally with them. Until this occurs, the lonely hour of the voting booth will push the progressives to draw the dark line under the name of a neoliberal Democrat, whose austerity agenda is forgiven in comparison with the anachronistic social agenda of the Republicans. Alternatives, in other words, sit suspended like a large question mark above words like Expediency and Lesser Evil.

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