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Yes, We Can (Build a Major Third Party)--A Response to Robert Reich

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Robert Reich and I disagree about some things. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to discuss our differences amiably and respectfully. Let's say he came up to me in the street and said, "Jerry, you should have voted for Gore in 2000." I would just shrug and say, "Well, I think you should have voted for Nader. And for Jill Stein in 2016." And that would probably be the end of it.

But maybe not. To judge by his article from back in April, "A Third Party?" (, it looks like Reich can't simply disagree with somebody like me. He has to insist that my vote, in a sense, belongs to him.

To get a better understanding of what I mean by that, it might help for me to tell a fast story about where I got the idea in the first place. On October 28, 2000, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader spoke to a capacity crowd at Cooper Union in New York. Singer-songwriter Patti Smith introduced him. She articulated what many people in that hall were thinking and feeling that night: "I am weary of people telling me that my vote is anything but my own," she said to the cheering of that audience of 900 Green Party members and supporters. "A vote for Nader is only a vote for Nader. It is not a vote for Bush, it is not a vote for any other candidate."

She hit the nail right on the head. Just as Robert Reich's vote belongs to him and him alone, so Smith's vote belongs only to her. This basic respect that every voter ought to have for every other voter--this basic equality--is essential for a healthy democracy. But Reich seems to demand a little extra respect and a little extra equality for himself and for his party. This is obvious from the attitude he takes right at the start of his article.

Reich begins by asking his readers if they have lost confidence in the two major parties. If so, he continues, should those voters give their support to a third-party candidate instead? He answers his own question by blaming Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party for failing to support Hillary Clinton in 2016. Had these two candidates not won the support of more than 4 million voters, Reich laments, then today "Donald Trump wouldn't be in the White House." Further, according to Reich, Ralph Nader "sealed the fate" of Democrat Al Gore in 2000 by tempting almost 3 million Americans to vote for him and the very progressive Green Party platform.

According to Reich, "votes for third party candidates siphon away votes from the major party candidate whose views are closest to that third party candidate." I'm a "siphoner," as Reich sees it, and a repeat offender at that.

When I saw that word "siphon," I remembered the days back in the '70s when some people would siphon gas right out of the tank of somebody else's car. That was theft, of course. I wondered: Is Reich calling me a thief? I didn't "steal" anyone's vote in 2000 or 2016, or ever. Neither did Nader or Stein. Anyway, in theory the "siphoning" could go both ways, couldn't it? Why can't we think of the theft being perpetrated by the major-party candidates? After all, Democrats and Republicans have much more money and power to influence the voters--and to steal votes, for that matter.

Indeed, Reich seems to take the supremacy of the two major parties entirely for granted, and he tries to lock it down by invoking the iron law of "winner-take-all." The standard pitch here is that because the presidency confers such immense powers, and because a candidate can win by the slimmest of margins, the sensible thing for voters to do is to consider only the two major candidates and ignore all the "third" candidates. Only the Democrat and the Republican in the race have a realistic chance of winning, the reasoning goes, and so voters must pick one of those two.

What else is this but a trap? Vote Republican, and you help hand the government over to the control of big banks and corporations. Vote Democrat"and you help hand the government over to the control of big banks and corporations. (Well, with the Democrats you get a little phony talk about their deep concern for "working families.") Limiting our democracy like this just makes rich, powerful people even richer and more powerful. This approach is not just undemocratic, it is anti-democratic. It pushes people out of participation, encourages conformity, and hands a gigantic advantage to two organizations who have shown again and again who they're really concerned about--and it ain't you and me.

At this stage Reich might suggest that in 2000 my views were "closer" to Al Gore's views than to George W. Bush's. I was indeed a registered Democrat from 1984 to 1997, and I've never voted for a Republican. (I was also a registered Green from 2000 to 2009, and a registered Populist thereafter.) Hence Reich would probably throw me into the category of prodigal sons and daughters who need to be brought back to the Democratic Party. But I do not accept the idea that I owe some sort of allegiance to the major party that I am "closer" to. And for a very good reason: I'm not nearly as close to the Democrats as the Democrats and Republicans are to each other. They're a team.

Like so many Democrats, Reich seems to make the mistake of assuming that former Democrats like myself still respect the Democratic Party. I don't. I don't respect the Republican Party either, but since I'm an ex-Democrat many progressives might expect me to still have a certain amount of loyalty to my former political organization. But I don't. I always intensely disliked the Republicans (politically, not personally), but I was never especially happy with the Democrats and I gave up on them altogether back in the twentieth century. The Democrats of today do even less to oppose the Republicans than they did 20 or 30 years ago. While there are a few differences between the two major parties, those few are hyped constantly by the major parties themselves and by the major media, while the many similarities between them are almost entirely ignored. How can an honest person respect either one of them?

Reich may also assume that my true objective is to help "pull the Democrats to the left." Nothing could interest me less. Aside from the fact that they seem to be un-pullable, the Democrats, as I see it, blew it a long time ago by caving into the Republicans again and again. Trying to pull them anywhere, it seems to me, is a big waste of time. The best (and fastest) way for us to achieve progressive goals is to start from scratch and build our own party.

We need our own non-corporate--anti-corporate--party. My votes for minor-party and independent candidates have never been "protest votes." For many years now I have used my vote (and my runs for local office) as ways to help create a new party that represents working people instead of big corporations. That project goes beyond protest. It seeks not just to criticize the system but to fundamentally change it.

Strange to say, in the summer of 2016 Reich appeared to be predicting the rise of a new, progressive party in an informal debate with Chris Hedges on Democracy Now! Reich spoke of progressives developing "a third party--maybe the Green Party!--that holds the Democrats accountable Now, in 2018, he no longer predicts or welcomes the coming of a new, independent party. And though he endorsed sometime-Democrat and ostensible revolutionary Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries, Reich later enthusiastically endorsed Hillary Clinton in the general election.

Reich seems like a nice guy. He has always struck me that way. His tone is not contentious or sarcastic. He appears to be very gently coaxing us independents back into the flock where he thinks we belong. But while his tone is friendly enough, his goal of winning us back into the Democratic Party is dead serious. In pursuit of this goal, he uses what amounts to peer pressure to embarrass or shame former Democrats into coming home to a party they don't believe in anymore. Grown adults are supposedly immune to peer pressure, but in fact most of us want to feel accepted and approved of by the people around us. Relatives sometimes disagree on political matters, and it's often inside families that individuals are least likely to budge from the political positions they've staked out. But with friends, co-workers, and even casual acquaintances, it's quite different. Those who feel the need to express political opinions--right or left!--would much rather do it around people who are not going to disagree with them. Again, we want to be accepted, we want to be liked. We want to "belong to the tribe," as Lenny Bruce used to express it. Reich is undoubtedly smart enough and experienced enough to know this, and to exploit it.

To be fair to Reich, he does put one item on the table that very few Democrats even talk about, much less recommend. I refer to Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV), an electoral reform the Greens and others have been promoting for many years now. The idea of RCV is to allow a voter to vote for more than one candidate for a given office and rank her choices, from her favorite to others that she is less crazy about but would still find acceptable.

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Jerry Kann has made his living in New York City since the late 1980s in a variety of odd jobs--proofreader, copywriter, messenger, secretary--all while pursuing the very challenging avocation of independent politics. For years Kann's primary (more...)

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Yes, We Can (Build a Major Third Party)--A Response to Robert Reich

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