The New Deal has regained a certain cache within popular discourse over the past two years owing to the pandemic’s economic impact. Liberal supporters of Joe Biden insisted during the 2020 presidential campaign that upon election he would be no less than the second coming of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
But while people fondly recall the programs that the Democratic Party enacted, they neglect one key component, the exertion of outside pressure on the Roosevelt administration that forced these policies to be enacted. This is a very important conversation precisely because of the current circumstances in Washington’s economic policy debates.
Mark Twain once said that, while history does not repeat, there is a rhyming, and right now the stanzas are showing an alignment. The first New Deal legislative package of 1933-34 was little more than a corporate bail-out that favored the rich, not unlike how the pandemic recovery bills have overwhelmingly been targeted towards corporate allies of the Democratic Party. Roosevelt’s decision to pass a second New Deal package only occurred in 1935-36 because of a series of popular uprisings and mobilizations that genuinely frightened Washington where the third party movement played a major role.
Right now, the only action that we have seen in the past year that genuinely frightened the powerful came from the Trumpkins when they attacked the Capitol on January 6th. Owing to how easily manipulated they are by outlets like Fox News, Republican voters operate under the illusion that President Biden is a socialist and so plead for an austerity agenda, which conservative Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin are happy to turn into a “bipartisan” position promoted by David Brooks in The New York Times. The recurring debt ceiling fiasco is a well-choreographed excuse for Biden to pivot into the kind of Grand Bargaining posture to cut entitlement programs and implement brutal austerity that President Obama began strutting in a decade ago.
In order to avoid this, it is necessary for radicals to run against the most progressive members of Congress, such as AOC and the Squad, from the third party Left. Be they Greens, Socialists, or even explicit Leninists of one flavor or another, they need to be exerting outside pressure. The harsh reality is that the 2020 election only truly provided two years of breathing space before the midterm return of the Republicans and that respite can only be responsibly utilized by competent organizing as opposed to brunch.
While the Left is oftentimes sheepish about these direct challenges to the Democratic legislators and taking state power, the Right absolutely is not. The turnover rate for Republicans who fail to dive to the most retrograde position possible in a given election cycle by contrast is extraordinarily high. In the past 50 years alone, they have seen two internal scorched-earth purges, the first led by the neoconservative Reagan Revolution against the Rockefeller Republicans and then, more recently, another housecleaning led by Donald Trump’s nativist populists. By contrast, the Clinton-Obama wing still has an iron grip on power despite the epic boondoggle of the 2016 election loss.
The goal should not be to win office, which would be pointless given how utterly powerless they would be upon assuming these positions. In 1960, Norman Thomas, the standard-bearer-cum-perennial presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America, was interviewed by Howard Langer for Folkways Records wherein he described the the historic role and abilities of third parties.
“In the broadest and deepest sense of the word, it’s educational,” he said. “If you look back at history you will note that no third party ever came to power politically in America. The Republican Party is not an exception. The Republican Party was the second party in its first national election. It completely supplanted the Whig Party which disintegrated. Nevertheless, the existence of third parties has been very much more important than the average superficial historian has allowed. All the ideas were first advanced by the small minority parties, beginning with free public schools by the Workman’s Party and going on down to modern times.”
In March 2009, the radical geographer and historian Mike Davis sat down for an interview with Bill Moyers and echoed this sentiment about the historic task of the Left. “It’s really to try and articulate the common sense of the labor movement and social struggles on the ground,” he said. “The role of the Left is the ask the deeper questions about who has power, how institutions work, and propose alternatives that seem more common-sensical in terms of the direct interest of satisfying human needs and equality in this society.”
Instead of merely focusing upon vote totals, these third party candidates need to be building a mass movement that mobilizes the public in a way that does not play nice with the Democratic Party. In the 1930s, the outside pressure did not try to whisper sweet nothings to Roosevelt, they turned him into a hostage negotiator who told the rich that they would either have to give away a little bit of their money to finance the social safety net or all of it when the guillotine was rolled out. As we commemorate the tenth anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, now is a perfect time to capitalize upon that movement’s major strategic failure, which was the refusal to see Left third party campaigns as an opportunity for further base building and organizing around a radical platform. “In the 1930s, you had vigorous third parties often in power on state levels, such as the Farmer Labor Party, the Commonwealth Federation in Washington, the Nonpartisan League,” continued Davis. “They were the real hammers on the issue, the concentration of economic power.”
Within the Left’s tactical toolbox, electoral politics are the most safe in comparison with the various direct action strategies, such as a sit-ins or a spatial occupation. Election candidates are afforded a certain amount of security by the implications of our liberal democratic social contract. By contrast, we have seen the proliferation of bills in the past few years that seek to penalize #BlackLivesMatter demonstrators for blocking traffic and immunize drivers from prosecution for running over these protesters. Obama coordinated an interstate COINTEL-PRO police state campaign to smother Occupy when it became clear the insurgency would not roll over into his 2012 reelection campaign. More recently, Reichsfrauenführerin Marjorie Taylor Greene published a campaign video featuring her cartoonishly blowing up an automobile labeled “Socialism” with a high-powered sniper rifle, broadcasting an implicit endorsement of vigilantism. That advertisement should lead to a stark conclusion: Challenging a sitting Republican or rural moderate Democrat on even a mild social democratic platform is to risk certain death. Running to the Left of an incumbent in a hard blue district does not require purchase of Kevlar.
Part of shifting the national dialogue towards a more progressive agenda is having an independent, oppositional Left that grabs the Overton Window and makes the Democratic Party seem moderate by comparison. “Mr. Roosevelt did not carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on a stretcher,” Thomas infamously quipped about the New Deal. “We demanded Federal unemployment insurance. Hence any attempt to get Federal security legislation could be regarded as an imitation of the Socialist platform. It was an amazingly bad imitation.”
The consequences of not doing so would be dire. If we were to find another historical rhyme, it would resemble how the Obama administration allowed the newborn Tea Party to take over Washington, which in turn railroaded the national agenda into the six years of stagnation that birthed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Right now, it is the Republican Party with a concrete grasp of the political discourse, which means that The Times is running editorials saying that Biden is a radical. We need to reorient the national discussion by forcing Biden to be a hostage negotiator like Roosevelt.