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The Third-Party Delusion and the Need for a Mass Movement for Progressive Change

By Dave Lindorff

I can’t count how many people have bombarded me with criticisms, usually laced with insults and often obscenities, when I have written articles calling for pressure on Democratic politicians to do the right thing, whether that is impeaching the last president and vice president for war crimes or in the case of our new president, standing and fighting for a people’s bailout, instead of a Wall Street bailout.

The common refrain I hear is that the Democrats and Republicans are the same, and that we need a third party. Another common refrain is that “all you suckers” who voted for Obama are to blame. We should have voted for Cynthia McKinney and Ralph Nader, they say.

Now I have nothing against McKinney and Nader. That ticket would make for a wonderful administration, I agree. But I also have to point out that there is zero chance of these two people being elected in my lifetime (I’m 59 and pretty healthy) or theirs.

Third parties have not played a significant role in American politics since the 1930s and earlier, when the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs (and Norman Thomas to a lesser extent) managed to make a significant dent in the political equation, though even it had no shot at winning. And that was back in a time when there were millions of immigrants from Europe who had socialist ideas in their blood, and when American workers were not afraid of the idea either.

Today, there is no mass base for a socialist party. Valiant efforts by some labor leaders like the late Ray Mazzochi to forge a Labor Party failed abysmally. The Green Party is a well-meaning but hopelessly internally fragmented group of people that has for years failed to appeal to any mass base and doesn’t appear to have a clue of how to accomplish that.

I don’t fault third parties for their failure to rise to a position of political relevance. The system of winner-take-all elections is structured against them. But calls to change that system so that third parties might have a chance bump up against the reality that the two parties that have a duopoly on power have no interest in changing the rules of the game to make it easier to bump them off. It simply ain’t gonna happen.

This brings me to my main point, which is that all this formalistic arguing about the virtues of supporting a third party is an infantile diversion. Valuable energy is being wasted on trying to organize little parties which, because they are doomed to insignificance, end up being riven by petty internal power struggles (it has always been the case that the most bitter struggles for power occur in organizations with the least power and significance).

The truth is that enormous progressive change has been wrought in the US, within the two-party system, not by third parties coming to power, but by mass movements that have forced the more liberal of the two parties—the Democrats—to grudgingly do the right thing. It was a mass movement of workers that forced Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party to establish the Social Security Program, and to pass labor laws making it easier for workers to organize. It was a mass movement that led to passage of the Civil Rights Act and that ended Jim Crow. It was a mass movement that helped bring an end to the US War in Indochina. It was a mass movement that led to the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid and other elements of the Johnson War on Poverty.

The people who criticize a policy of building a mass movement to pressure Obama and the Democrats to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to create a single-payer national health system, or to pass a progressive economic recovery program instead of a corporate bailout program, because it means dealing with the Democrats would probably have been criticizing Martin Luther King for seeking to pressure Johnson and the Democrats, for that is what Dr. King was doing—working within the two-party system, but by way of building a mass movement outside of party politics.

In a way, the obsession of some people on the left with third party politics is like a perfect safety valve to prevent real change within the Democratic Party. On the historic evidence, absent a powerful labor movement, which might permit the creation of a real Labor Party alternative as we had in the 1920s and 30s, third parties of the left have accomplished nothing except to draw support away from the Democrats and help elect conservative governments.

I know there are those, like Nader, who suggest that candidacies like his force Democrats running for office to adopt more liberal positions, but I see scant evidence of this. The most one can say is that a candidate like Al Gore, in order to prevent voters from straying to a Nader, might say a few more progressive things on the campaign trail, but once in office, such politicians quickly revert to form. Third party campaigns in the end accomplish very little, and yet can, in key states, as we saw in Florida in 2000, do a lot of harm. (I know, I know, the real vote went to Gore, but remember: if Nader hadn’t run, there wouldn’t have even had to be a recount, folks.)

So, while I expect to be deluged again with verbal brickbats, let me say it straight: third parties are a useless, and even dangerous diversion. What we need to be focusing on is building a mass movement for progressive change—a movement that will bring masses of people onto the streets, especially in Washington, but in every city and town, too, to demand an end to this country’s pointless wars, a huge cut in the military budget, a national health care system, a jobs program, a break-up of the large banking and other corporate monopolies, an end to the national security state, reform of the labor laws, and a restoration of a real progressive tax system.

It is not third parties that make history in America. It is mass movements.

We need one badly.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now in paperback edition). His work is available at

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for a Labor/Democratic Socialist Party to which I proudly belong.

The problem holding back its popularity is the veil of darkness cast over what Democratic Socialism TRULY represents by the programming of the Capitalist Pigs of the past fifty years or so. Any working person or "average" American who doesn't support a Democratic Socialist emergence either is under the above-mentioned veil or doesn't understand what the platform is. I encourage you to click on my link and become aware.

A swing away from Capitalism to "Democratic" Socialism is the only hope of recovering the alleged "Land of the Free" from the grips of the greed mongers.

Same old-Same old is GETTING OLD!!!


because I'VE BEEN THERE OUT IN FRONT MY WHOLE LIFE. Civil Rights, Viet Nam, Impeaching Nixon. I was there and I will take FULL CREDIT for those things getting done.
And I couldn't possibly agree more with this article! :)

On to OTHER ENCOURAGING NEWS (to ME, anyway :)

Looks like another brick is getting knocked out of the wall, eh David! We may just be able to walk through the hole, here shortly and peer inside of the Bush Crime Factory! Leahy is the MAN! And I feel just like him by saying after 40 years I can actually say what I want without FEAR of reprisal!
Once we shoot holes in Bush's infallible legacy, the rethugs will fold like a deck of soggy cards and we WILL see the change we're looooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong overdue. YES WE CAN.
Ha Ha!

It's precisely because of you and a long, long list of media blow-hards like you that keep screaming that third party candidates have no chance that is the very reason they have no chance! All of you make me sick! If Nader had not been SCREWED out of the presidential debates he could have made a serious impact on the thinking of the American people even of he was not elected this time. Enough positive exposure over time and third parties would have just as much chance in this country as they do in other countries.

Al K.

As an active member of the democratic party it is evident that dems and repubs are working together to maintain the authority of the ruling class. Whichever party is in control pretends to oppose the other on minor issues that those pulling the strings care nothing about, however on substantive issues of war and monetary policy they put the interest of empire over the will of the people. If Lindorff is not a shill of the democratic party and by proxy the same old shit he is doing a good impersonation Chris Dorsey, RVA4Peace

If you feel this way, then why are you STILL an active member of the democratic party?


Yes it seems to be the most pragmatic thing because I believe that the rank and file members of the dem party hold the same political beliefs for the most part. It is the leadership of the dem party that is corrupt and criminal. I may be wrong for still being an active member however I like to watch those shit birds close. Chris Dorsey, RVA4Peace

John Conyers, Pelosi, and the tyrants that control the Democrat, Progressive fraud stomped it out to protect Cheney & Bush. There were petitions, and we went to Conyers office with Cindy Sheehan.

The plan that would work is to take over the Green Party from the knuckleheads. Cynthia McKinney is in a Louisiana swamp looking for 5000 people she claimed were buried there.

All I hear is dumb excuses about third party failures. We know that Mr. Lindorf.

Are there 100,000,000 Americans with brains who will contribute $5 each?

I will never associate myself with any parties controlled by corrupt jew occupiers.

Third parties are badly needed to control the corrupt demasses and repukes. Third parties provide some sense of balance at the very least. A vote for a demass is a vote for a repuke, a vote for a repuke is a vote for a demass.

Lindorff keep dreaming and for those of you who buy this garbage you are doomed to the control of the jew occupiers.

All of you should ask yourself why is it that once these corrupt bastards, demasses and repukes, get into office the american public can never get them out??

There would never have been a revolution in this country if our fore fathers had believed this garbage of Lindorff!



The green party is at least making an effort to fight and they should continue their fight.

One day Cynthia Mckinney and the green party will reach the masses and eventually they will prevail!

It is the corrupt jew occupiers who fund their candidates with obscene corrupt campaign money that causes the green party and other independent parties to be in an up hill battle. TRUE SOLDIERS FOR FREEDOM NEVER QUIT! The fight is with the jew media and the corrupt federal elections committee.

The fight of the green party and other independent parties is the fight of the people for the people by the people.

I appauled the message of the green party and if you notice the current puppet obama is seeking to adopt some of the very agenda of the green party.

Persistence win revolutions not wimping out Lindorff!

While I do not dispute Mr. Lindorff's assertion that we desperately need a strong, organized mass movement in this country to push the Democrats to take more progressive positions, I feel he, like so many on the Left, is too dismissive of third-party candidates.

My major problem with this article is this sentence: "... I also have to point out that there is zero chance of these two people [Ralph Nader, or Cynthia McKinney] being elected [president] in my lifetime..."

I am sorry, but this is such a self-defeatist attitude. Contrary to popular belief, Nader and McKinney were both on enough state ballots to have potentially obtained the 270 electoral votes necessary to win, if only progressive voters actually voted with their conscience, rather than their calculator. I know, I know--People think that sentiment is foolish and naive. Well, I think voting for a "progressive" like Obama whose positions on the issues are actually center/right and expecting him to enact any sort of progressive agenda is foolish and naive.

My point is I feel liberals create a self-fulfilling prophecy by convincing themselves a Nader, or McKinney has absolutely zero chance of winning an election and, as a result, very few people vote for them. Instead of dismissing an Independent/Green candidate outright, why not work to create a grassroots movement around them, thus giving him/her a better chance of winning the election?

Additionally, I think Mr. Lindorff greatly undermines the role of third-party candidates throughout American history, but I don't want to write an essay here... Finally, as far as some of us proud Nader/McKinney supporters jeering "'all you suckers' who voted for Obama are to blame," well.... I do not think that sentiment is entirely untrue, frankly. I think what is a "useless and dangerous diversion," is putting your hopes in candidates from either of the two corporate parties and expecting them to work on the behalf of "We the people." writer, Chris Hedges actually wrote a great editorial the week of the presidential election on why he was voting for Nader. It's worth looking up on the site's archives, because I think he makes the argument for a third-party vote far better than I have.

... the one state that has a posse out looking for Bush and Cheney, also elected an Independent candidate to the Senate; Bernie Sanders. I guess he is "viable" in some circles.

...why not build it behind somebody with conviction rather than trying to press someone else who's heart isn't in it--someone who might give a little up front, but who will most likely be working their ass off back in the back, trying to take it back.

Thing with me is, I think too many who see themselves as left are so comfortable with life in the center that they're too scared of any too radical a change.

Anyway, going to be tough to get any kind of mass movement going in these days of instant information--with so many of the people so isolated at their personal computers that they won't even come out into the streets for an occasional demonstration. Shudder to think what it would take.

R Ap

Why Republicans Won't Support the Stimulus is because the Republicans
are railing for an unsuccessful presidency for Obama. The Republicans
can not succeed if Obama retains his popularity. Next election the
GOP may become powerless.


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