Third Party Organizing Under Obama

Future Hope column, Feb. 1, 2009

by Ted Glick

“As a politician, Mr. Daschle often struck a populist note, but his financial disclosure report shows that in the last two years, he received $2.1 million from a law firm, Alston & Bird; $2 million in consulting fees from a private equity firm run by a major Democratic fundraiser, Leo Hindery Jr. . . and at least $220,000 for speeches to health care, pharmaceutical and insurance companies. He also received nearly $100,000 from health-related companies affected by federal regulation.”
-N.Y. Times, Feb. 1, 2009, page 1 story, “Daschle Knew of Tax Issues As Of Last June”

The nomination of Tom Daschle for both White House “health czar” and Secretary of Health and Human Services is in trouble. It’s in trouble because information has come out that Daschle, former Democratic Party leader in the U.S. Senate, didn’t pay until very recently $128,000 in back taxes owed for “the use of a car and driver provided by a private equity firm,” the same one which gave him $2 million in consulting fees.

Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, is quoted as saying, “The president is comfortable with Senator Daschle’s variety of experiences and backgrounds. It’s why he believes he’s best suited to the efforts to reform our health care system.”
Is this really the best President Obama can do when it comes to change we can believe in as far as our seriously-flawed health care system?

It has been like a breath of fresh air to have Obama in the White House. I don’t miss at all reading in the newspaper each morning about the latest Bush/Cheney outrage. Some mornings over the last two weeks there has been truly good White House news to read about: an end to torture, pro-labor initiatives, support for renewable energy, a reversal of Bush’s anti-choice family planning policies internationally.

But the Daschle fiasco, coupled with other problematic Cabinet appointments, particularly Robert Gates, James L. Jones, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, underlines the importance of continuing efforts to build a consistently progressive political alternative—a “third party”—in this country.

The last eight years for those efforts have not been easy. Under the neo-conservative Republicans, the predominant sentiment among progressive-minded people, both activists and the broad swath of voters, has been that it is essential that we get the Republicans out of office. And since the winner-take-all, corporate dominated U.S. electoral system, and the corporate mass media which reports on it, are structured to make third parties seem like little more than “spoilers” (spoilers of a rotten system), it has been a hard, upstream row for groups like the Green Party and the Labor Party, the two surviving, national, progressive third party organizations.

At a local level the Green Party has been able to maintain and strengthen its presence in many, a large majority, of states. It has been electing a slowly growing number of people to local offices like city council while maintaining an activist presence on issues. The vast majority of those local electoral victories, however, have been by Green Party members running on a non-partisan ballot line. Very few of the currently 250 or so elected Greens won office by running on a Green Party ballot line.

On a national level, in both 2004 and 2008, the progressive third party movement was divided between those who supported non-Green Party member Ralph Nader’s independent campaigns and those who supported the candidates chosen by the GP’s internal democratic processes, David Cobb and Cynthia McKinney. In both Presidential election years, Nader got a small percentage of the 2.8 million votes he had gotten in 2000 —460,000 (2004) and 730,000 votes (2008)—and Cobb and McKinney got between 120,000 (Cobb) and 160,000 (McKinney).

It seems to me that if we are ever going to open up the U.S. electoral system to the participation of those who rightly feel very excluded, if we are to ever have a genuine multi-party democracy instead of a two-party duopoly, there are a number of things which must be done by those who support this objective, those who are currently active in groups like the Greens or the Labor Party, as well as those working in or close to the Democratic Party who clearly understand its serious limitations:

-We need to keep building our independent electoral/activist efforts, organizing on issues and running candidates on local and, where it’s strategic, state levels.

-We need to be people who can be counted on to support the struggles of communities of color, labor, young people, women, environmentalists and other progressive-oriented constituencies around the issues they are most affected by. We need to be reliable allies. We don’t have the money and access to corporate media that the Dems and Reps do, but over time we can compensate for that with solid personal and political connections at a grassroots level.

-Along these lines, there is a need to firmly reject sectarian, narrow and divisive approaches toward third party organizing which would isolate us from our natural allies. There are some individual members of the Green Party, for example, who attack as sellouts other Greens who are working with Democrats, as well as non-Green independents and maybe some Republicans, on issues. They have no appreciation of the need to be known not just for having good ideas about what needs to be done to bring about genuine change but for demonstrating in practice an ability to organize effectively through alliance-building.

-Finally, there is a continuing need for the development of arenas for discussion and relationship-building among those who have similar programmatic ideas about what needs to be done but have differences over the political tactics to achieve them—i.e., between progressive Democrats, progressive third partyites and those who see themselves as primarily issue-oriented activists. It may well be the case that such discussions could develop into something more substantial as far as regularized communication and coordination. And perhaps, as we get the mixed bag of results– some positive, some negative, some somewhere in between–that we can realistically expect from Obama and the Democrats, we’ll figure out how to advance toward an effective, consistently progressive, activist and electoral, national political vehicle we can all be part of.

Ted Glick is a former coordinator and continuing leader of the Independent Progressive Politics Network. His primary work for the last four years has been as a climate activist. More information can be found at