If it weren’t already apparent, our country already has a crisis of political legitimacy. That point was hammered home thoroughly last week, when Clinton was not so much voted the Democratic presidential nominee as crowned by the media. As the keenly-insightful Thomas Frank put it, “Clinton won by an act of professional practice.” A fitting end, indeed, to a months-long display of pseudo-democratic bungling which had been meant to confirm what had already been decided behind closed doors, and which was subjected to a (politically-speaking) last-minute act of political insurgency from the outside in the form of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, which can now be not-so-safely ignored (but ignored all the same) by the party faithful. So what are we left with?
We are now facing a singularly bleak prospect in our national presidential campaign. Both nominees from both major parties now represent: the continued dominance of baby-boomer narcissism in our public life; the triumph of scripted narrative over substantive issues; the tired clichés of ‘60’s sexual radicalism (whether of the Hugh Hefner or of the Gloria Steinem variety); the continued hostility to organized labor; the unimpeded privatization of public goods; the predominance of military interventionism in our foreign policy; and the continued deep influence of big biz in our nation’s agriculture and energy sectors. Despite Donald Trump affecting something of a popular style which stands likely to win him the election, it is becoming ever clearer that his “populism” is not the real McCoy. For all the supporters of one candidate love to fear and loathe the other, it seems clear now that no matter which one of the two major party candidates wins this election, business-as-usual will continue inside the Beltway. Once again, those of us who are concerned about the militaristic-neoliberal drift of our national politics will have to turn to a third-party insurgency that combines elements of the economic “left” and the cultural “right,” as we have done often enough in the past.
But what will such a third-party movement look like? As the historians of these movements, such as Lawrence Goodwyn and Robert Morlan, make clear: in the past, these third parties—the National Independent (later Greenback Labor) Party, the People’s Party, the Nonpartisan League, the Farmer-Labor Party—drew upon an acute awareness of structural deprival among specific constituencies, notably farmers and urban workers. This awareness had been built up through their experiences in cooperative and collective-bargaining movements—unions, credit unions, wholesale stores. In America now, though, organized labor has been broken, seemingly beyond repair. Many people who were industrial laborers are now either out-of-work or doing part-time make-work to stay afloat. Farmers have either gone big or gotten out, often to disastrous effect. What we have now in the United States is a vaguely-proletarianized labor force, consisting of temps, retail, transportation, service-industry and office workers and low-rung professionals. What we all have in common appears to be a state of economic anxiousness about long-term (or even short-term) prospects, combined with skyrocketing rates of consumer debt.
One trick that any new third-party movement will have to pull off, if it is to address both the rural rancor currently running the Trump train and the youthful yearnings of the baccalaureate Bernie backers, is to get this large, diffuse underclass of debtors to identify with each other, in ways that bridge the cultural gulf between town and country. The Farmers’ Alliance, which grew into the People’s Party, drew on a broad swathe of shared economic concerns, and it deliberately ignored the regional sectionalism and partisanship which was the primary driver of politics in the wake of the Civil War. If we want to forge a new Debtors’ Alliance or People’s League or Solidarity Party, we will have a similarly Herculean task ahead of us. If we want to set up collective bargaining institutions that represent the labor force in meaningful ways—whether credit cooperatives or guilds of part-time or contract-based workers in the service or transportation sectors—those institutions will have to deliberately draw on mixed bases of urban and rural members. This will be necessary in order to cut through the miasma that has separated us into members of largely-symbolic cultural cliques. It should hardly need saying that, being equally vulnerable to personal, consumer and property-based debt, out-of-work miners in Appalachia and English-major baristas in the Acela Corridor do themselves no good screaming at each other. (I say this not because I believe that cultural values are unimportant, or because I don’t believe one side gets more right than the other. But the culture is hardly well-served as it is by setting two increasingly-meaningless sets of identity-totems against each other in pitched battles as the whole field around us burns.)
This may seem an insurmountable obstacle. But it can be done. And I think it should be done. We are looking at an election wherein two highly-distasteful, widely-disliked candidates have been nominated by the major parties. The sixth party system looks to be busted wide open. In its place, there ought to be a movement that speaks to the real concerns of the American electorate, rather than to those of big corporations. Regardless of party, most people in this country, I should think, don’t want to be shackled to payday lenders and collection agencies from here to Kingdom Come. They don’t want to worry about choosing whether to eat or pay the medical bill. They don’t want to worry about whether they’ll even have a job, or a roof over their heads, three months from now. Most people would prefer not to depend on government or corporate largesse for their own livelihoods, but would rather have a fairer distribution of property.
Let’s not shy away from these concerns.