Toward the end of the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders’ supporters voiced the need for a third party to emerge in the United States political system. Indeed, though the majority of voters lean to the right or left, polls have shown that independent voters outnumber those who officially affiliate with the Democratic or Republican Party.
The necessity of a third political party was exemplified by the 2016 presidential election. The parties ran two of the ugliest presidential campaigns in modern history. Votes were cast not so much in support of one candidate, but in opposition of the other. Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s campaigns were more focused on disparaging the other candidate than debating policy issues.
This constant smearing led to doomsday scenarios on both political spectrums and, after denigrating third party candidates, critics of the two-party system fell in line behind one candidate or the other. “This will be my last election as a Democrat. I’m moving on and hope you do, too,” wrote New York Daily News columnist Shaun King in an op-ed published in May, outlining how corrupt the Democratic Party has become.
“I urge you to turn Bernie’s campaign into a movement – even a third party – to influence elections at the state level in 2018 and the presidency in 2020,” wrote Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, in a Facebook post.
But now that the election is over, calls for a third party are nowhere to be found.
Millions of Sanders supporters became even more disenfranchised after evidence was leaked confirming their suspicions that the DNC, under Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s leadership, rigged the primaries against Sanders. This resentment could have been channelled into the emergence of a viable third party, but instead Hillary Clinton’s campaign fueled fears that Trump would win if progressives failed to unite behind her. Sanders supporters, in response to the urging from Clinton partisans, settled down.
However, once Sanders formally endorsed Clinton, his supporters were completely ignored by the Clinton campaign. Her vice president pick was a slap in the face to progressives and her campaign hired Wasserman Schultz after she resigned from DNC chair and replaced her with another loyal Clinton surrogate, Donna Brazile. Expecting to win by attacking Trump, Clinton abandoned progressives to focus on courting wealthy donors from both political parties. Obviously, lining up behind Clinton to save the Democratic Party from losing the election backfired.
In the wake of Clinton’s embarrassing loss, the opportunity for a third party has once again emerged. Not surprisingly, the Democratic establishment has skirted responsibility for losing the presidency, failing to recoup majorities in both houses of Congress, and losing representation in local and state level offices across the country. The party’s leadership is hoping a tweak in strategy and a failed Trump presidency results in the Democratic Party recouping its losses from the past eight years. But preserving the Democratic status quo is a losing strategy. Progressives should not let Democrats expect their repeated support.
One of the biggest obstacles in developing a third party is that the figures in the U.S. who should be leading these outside movements spinelessly abandoned their progressive principles for establishment access. In other countries with successful third parties, this is not the case.
In Canada, the Green Party is led by Sierra Club Canada’s former Executive Director Elizabeth May, the party’s first elected member to Canada’s Parliament, where she has served since 2011. When May was not invited to the debates preceding federal elections in 2008, enough Canadians protested the media networks and other political parties that she was ultimately invited. In contrast, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club in the United States formally endorsed Hillary Clinton, choosing to ignore that Clinton supported fracking around the world and thinks environmentalists need to “get a life.”
The United States was founded on the mission of democracy, yet our government falls far short from upholding those principles today. America’s diversity and wide range of ideas should be reflected in our political system. The only way to do that is to establish a third party to champion progressive values instead of casting them aside to support a system perpetuated by the lesser of two evils scenario.