On Third Parties and Electoral Extravanganzas: Kshawa Sawant Pushes on an Open Door


Last Tuesday, two persons of color believed to be socialists competed against well funded candidates representing the interests of the wealthy and corporations.

In one of these contests, Socialist Alternative candidate Kshawa Sawant acquired 28% of the vote in a Seattle district.

That was the important race.

The other one–not so much.

Of course, Obama’s election, as Chomsky, Doug Henwood, Daniel Ellsberg and others have been arguing, was probably preferable. Or, more precisely, Romney’s defeat combined with successful gay marriage initiatives in four states, legalization of marijuana in two others and the defeat of three strikes and anti-union initiatives in California may amount to a serious setback for the Dixie-centric theocratic right, possibly a permanent one, as Republicans such as Bruce Bartlett are predicting. If so, that would be a good thing on balance.

But the emphasis should be on “may.” A more charismatic candidate without competition from Libertarian Gary Johnson could have picked up the wavering percentage of swing voters required for victory, especially if circumstances were more favorable.

And they easily could have been. Had the next in a series of inevitable financial crises materialized prior to the election, a bible thumping huckster offering what Marx famously described as a heart in a heartless world might have been enough to tip the balance among an electorate driven to the depths of despair.

That that didn’t happen was for the best-at least for the short run. But it is the long run which needs to concern us and that brings us back to the good news of the 2012 election cycle: Kshawa Sawant. Her extraordinary campaign is well covered in articles by Nick Wing in the Huffington Post, Pham Binh in the North Star and in a candidate interview at the New Politics website so it is unnecessary to revisit the details here.

What is worth emphasizing are two strategic points.

First, Sawant’s run while unsuccessful at achieving office gave a good indication of the potential of third party challenges. These constitute, as Sawant notes, a vastly underutilized resource in numerous localities dominated by the remnants of big city Democratic Party machines. There the third party is the effective second party and thereby exempt from the exclusionary statutes which naysayers and Democratic Party apologists routinely cite as insurmountable obstacles to building a left alternative.

Furthermore, in many large cities a third party affiliation can be a distinct advantage. The new breed of machine Democrats, as personified by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel are widely detested by those suffering under the fiscal meat axe wielded by what Political Scientist Corey Robin has referred to as “the new party of austerity.” It also explains why, on a shoe-string budget, a political unknown like Sawant was able to acquire over 14,000 votes. (My own election some years ago benefitted from a similarly decrepit Democratic machine.)

It is an encouraging sign that Sawant has pledged to turn her attention to municipal office where she has a very good chance of not just an impressive showing, but an actual win. This, as Bernie Sanders has demonstrated, can provide a path for left alternative party candidates to state and eventually national level office. There is no good reason why we couldn’t have nine or ten Bernie Sanders in the Senate. The main reason why not is our failure to walk through the door which Sawant has just shown can be pushed open.

Perhaps most importantly, Sawant and her party not only embrace socialism, they also name the system which they are committed to dismantling: the capitalist system. A generation ago, with the century long history of witch hunts still in living memory, this would have been political suicide. Hence, the conspicuous absence of both the word and the thing socialism from most other progressive third party platforms such as the twelve key values of the Greens.

In a new century defined by kleptocratic plutocracy of Wall Street bailouts, rampant criminality and endemic sleaze affecting even the most sacrosanct capitalist institutions, this coyness may now be obsolete. Not only does Socialist Alternative not have to apologize for failing to join with in the halleluah chorus of praise for free markets, they are poised to benefit from an explicit identification with an economic system which, according to a recent poll, is viewed favorably by 47% of those under the age of 30.

It is a small chance, but perhaps not too much to hope that Sawant’s race is one of the sparks setting ablaze the barren landscape which has been the legacy of the capitalist system.

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