FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Personal & collective virtue

Monday, June 20, 2011

Personal & collective virtue

Sam Smith

My piece on mob politics evoked a number of critical responses in part because I suggested that in a two-mob country it was all right to vote for the mob that does the least evil, primarily because change is not going to come at the voting booth but by citizen action:

“This doesn't mean that one doesn't vote for a Demo thug as president or some lower position, but it means that one does so recognizing that the selection of the least dangerous mob in town is a far different matter than backing a political cause.”

Blogger Arthur Silber called me a “pig-fucking collaborationist,” to which I take some umbrage as I once was responsible for the feeding of several pigs and never once found them sexually arousing.

There were also milder criticisms:

“I agree with your conclusion that what really matters are the actions people take outside the voting booth to improve the world. However, I disagree with your cavalier suggestion that people vote for the more moderately thuggish Democrats, as if voting for the lesser evil in itself had no consequences.

“By voting for the lesser evil, we continue to bestow unearned and undeserved legitimacy on the Democratic Party. If it were even possible to reform the party and restore it to its populist roots, we can be sure that would never happen if progressives habitually award it their votes because "otherwise the more evil Republican will win".

“In my opinion, all progressives should bolt the Democratic Party and give their votes to a third party that actually represents their core values. A number of contenders exist: the Green Party (which accepts no money from corporate PACs), the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party of America, etc.”

As one of the founders of the national Green Party, as well as the DC Statehood Party (which held public offices for 25 years) I have long been a fan of third parties. I have been a member of one for four decades. But I have also found that many of those attracted to them view their potential mainly in terms of top down politics. I see it the other way around.

There are also two ethical issues: one the question of the moral position for an individual to take; the other is the political position that will produce the best results.

They are not the same. As I wrote some years back in Green Horizons:

“To slow down traffic I might be morally justified in stepping into the Interstate, spreading my arms, and shouting, "stop," but it is probably not the most useful thing I could do for the cause. Besides, like some third party presidential candidates, I might not have another opportunity. My initial virtue might turn out to have been terminal.”
The conflict is often between antiseptic and useful virtue. The danger with the former is that it too often is a sort of moral narcissism with little social value and the problem with the latter is that it can easily be co-opted and compromised. 

Having a bit of Quaker blood and having gone to a Quaker school, I am not unfamiliar with this conflict. The Quakers, for example, periodically withdrew from conventional politics, engaging instead in what we would call lobbying or activism, pressing specific issues. It is also true that they have been pretty good at compromise. For example, William Penn reached the only European-Indian agreement – and not even in writing – that was actually upheld by both sides. And there is the apocryphal story of Penn’s ship, on its way to the new land, being attacked by pirates and of the great Quaker taking a knife and cutting the line with which they were boarding the craft. Said Penn: “If thee wants this rope, thee may have it.”

Of course, Quakerism is a religion and if your primary concern is your personal righteousness, then that’s not a bad route. If your concern, on the other hand, is the collective progress of a community or a nation, than the messier culture of politics may prove more productive.  

In my article I was addressing those who had suffered the illusion that Obama would bring them hope and change and might now be seeking a new approach. I was trying to nudge them in a better direction. I was not addressing the righteous who deeply believe they have found the way. 

For one thing, it’s usually not worth the effort, and, for another, they tend not to be particularly effective in helping the apathetic, the confused, the strayed, the hoodwinked, the angry and the hopeless in moving in a new direction. It often takes one sinner to move another. 

Sam Smith Green Horizon - In the 20th century, if you wanted to make a big splash in national third party politics, the best way to do it was with a major icon such as Roosevelt, Wallace or Perot. Here are the best numbers for various third party candidates:

Theodore Roosevelt 28%
Perot (1992): 19%
LaFolette: 17%
George Wallace: 14%
Debs (1912): 11%
Perot (1996): 9%
Anderson: 7%

All other 20th century third party candidates got 3% or less, including Debs in three additional runs and Thurmond and Henry Wallace in the hot 1948 race. It is useful to note that all the leading third party candidates - with the exception of George Wallace and Debs - drew heavily from mainstream constituencies rather than running as radical reformers.
Obviously the numbers don't tell the whole story. For example, the New Deal drew from Populist, Progressive and Socialist ideas despite low turnouts for their candidates. The Populists, despite topping out a 9% in a presidential race, influenced the politics of two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin.

Still, if you want to affect national politics with a national third party presidential run, history suggests that getting over 5% - preferably closer to 10% - is a good way to start. Otherwise, you can probably expect a less direct impact for your efforts, perhaps decades in the future. And, in any case, you can expect your swing at presidential politics to be fairly short-lived.

That does not mean, however, that these parties - like certain insects - were merely born, had sex, and then died. In fact, some of the third parties had long, healthy lives, in large part because they were as concerned with local as with national results. The Socialist Party is the most dramatic recent example, with a history dating back over 100 years. The party's own history suggest that eclecticism didn't hurt:

'From the beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of "reform vs. revolution," the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making "immediate demands" of a reformist nature. A perennially unresolved issue was whether revolutionary change could come about without violence; there were always pacifists and evolutionists in the Party as well as those opposed to both those views. The Socialist Party historically stressed cooperatives as much as labor unions, and included the concepts of revolution by education and of 'building the new society within the shell of the old.'"

By World War I it had elected 70 mayors, two members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials. Milwaukee alone had three Socialist mayors in the last century, including Frank Zeidler who held office for 12 years ending in 1960.
Some highly successful third parties never ran anyone for president (except in fusion with one of the major parties). Albeit in a confused and weakened status at the moment, the Liberal Party of New York remains the longest lived third party next to the Socialists. Founded in 1944 - in a break with the more radical American Labor Party - the Liberals benefited immensely from New York's fusion-friendly election laws, which allowed it to support Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and to claim credit for giving Kennedy enough votes for his presidential victory. Other nominees of the party have included Averill Harriman, Mario Cuomo, Jacob Javits, Robert Kennedy, Fiorello LaGuardia and John Lindsey. Swinging the gate of New York politics made it exceptionally important.

The Farmer Labor Party in Minnesota lasted 26 years before merging with the Democrats. During that time it elected a senator and a governor. And in DC, the Statehood Party held an elected position for 25 years and some years later merged with the DC Green Party.

There is, it appears, no one right way to run a third party in the U.S. It always has to be a form of guerrilla politics because the rules are so thoroughly stacked against those not Democrats or Republicans. Thus the judging the right tactics at the right time, as opposed to planning moves strictly on the basis of their presumed virtue, would seem to be the wisest course.