IF BARACK OBAMA'S REELECTION does nothing else for the American Left, it has at least spurred a spate of To-Do-Over-the-Next-Four-Years lists. Since the beginning of his second term, there have been plenty of good ideas for such to-do lists, including building progressive state organizations, an activist culture, and much more. One item not on too many lists, though, is the development of 2016 presidential candidates. I’m not talking about a Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden debate here, although ultimately we may wind up with an establishment candidate of that stripe. I mean candidates who would run a campaign that speaks to the issues that matter to the American Left and brings them into the country’s most significant political debate: the election of a new president.
Not that this omission should surprise us though. The last candidate to successfully put together such a campaign was Jesse Jackson, back in 1988 when he ran on a fair approximation of the left’s to-do list at that time: a Works Progress Administration–style infrastructure program; a 15-percent military budget cut; a single-payer universal health care system; the extension of free public education to the community college level; the reversal of tax cuts for the richest; the allocation of revenue for social welfare programs; and even reparations to descendants of slaves. He won 1,219 delegates with that program, just a hair under 30 percent of that year’s Democratic Convention total. No one seemed to consider this anything but reasonable proof of his overall support among primary voters.
And there it ended. One can assume that an American Left has continued to exist in the 24 years since that campaign. By that I simply mean voters who generally favor demilitarizing our foreign policy and spending; expanding our social safety net, particularly to a universal access health care system; reversing the growing disparity of wealth and reducing the power of corporations, etc. And yet, over the course of the six Democratic nominating conventions held since, the grand total of delegates won by candidates with platforms reflecting those positions is 67. So what happened?
The simple answer is nothing. No candidate has since been able to muster the base of support Jackson tapped. And no significant movement has ever come together to try to make that happen.
Gathering support in an election that you don’t have a reasonable expectation of winning always poses a high hurdle — high enough that no one on the left has been able to clear it since Jackson. And yet any political force with long-term ambitions obviously has to find a way to do it. Jackson himself faced serious skepticism all the way through his campaign — at least from political commentators who kept asking, “What does Jesse want?” So far as the voters themselves went, they actually seemed to understand pretty well what Jesse wanted. And they wanted it too — even if they weren’t going to win, they wanted his (and their) ideas to be part of the national political debate that surrounds each presidential election. As a result of that willingness to back someone who wasn’t going to win, Americans heard more about the issues on Jackson’s to-do list in 1988 than they had in a long time.
Some of those ideas haven’t made it back to center stage since. Jackson, we know, brought a unique credential to his candidacy. Although he was a highly controversial figure, his standing as a civil rights leader carried enough weight among African-American voters to allow him to pass the mainstream media’s laugh test. This, in turn, gave him access to an even larger audience. But when Jackson opted against a third run in 1992, the most prominent figure who tried to pick up the baton was Larry Agran, past mayor of Irvine, California — a credential that proved insufficient to get him into the candidate debates, or even to spark a movement asserting his right to be there. Bill Clinton won it all that year and faced no Democratic opposition four years later. Probably the memory of Ted Kennedy’s 1980 challenge to Jimmy Carter — and the sense that it had somehow contributed to Ronald Reagan’s election — played a role in Clinton’s free ride among the Democrats in 1996. But then no candidate of Jackson’s stripe emerged in the 2000 Democratic primaries either — the year that Ralph Nader, who had recognition and support arguably comparable to Jackson’s and had made a couple desultory Democratic primary efforts in prior years, opted to run as the Green Party candidate.
When Dennis Kucinich tried it in 2004, he was certainly better known than Agran. Yet some still seemed to think it presumptuous for a House member with no leadership position — even a boy wonder who had become mayor of Cleveland at 31 before representing the city in the House — to even run for president. Certainly he never caught on the way Jackson had, despite the similarity of their platforms. Although Kucinich secured all of the Democratic convention’s delegates of the left elected since 1988, his overall primary vote represented but a small fraction of the electorate who actually backed him on the issues. The “he can’t win” argument appeared to carry a lot more sway — even among those who agreed with him — than the idea that there was value in electing delegates who supported the left’s positions. (Some may include Al Sharpton’s 2004 candidacy as a campaign of the left. His 20 delegates would raise the post-Jackson total to 87.)
Kucinich tried again the next time around, but where Jackson’s first run in 1984 had netted him over 400 delegates and propelled him to greater success in 1988, Kucinich’s 2008 attempt went pretty much nowhere (as did former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel’s candidacy.) So, while the failure to challenge Barack Obama in 2012 is not unusual in the case of an incumbent president, at this point you have to wonder if this total absence from the presidential election hasn’t really become the new normal for the American Left.
In fact, we might ask if the left’s continued nonparticipation in the country’s central political arena refutes the contention that there actually is something we can call an “American Left.” To play devil’s advocate, I’ll suggest a thought experiment: imagine political analysts from another world studying our system. Let’s say that by now they’ve learned the rough meaning of left, center, and right in various nations on Earth and are trying to determine if a left (i.e., a movement with a progressive agenda like that of the ’88 Jackson campaign or today’s to-do lists) actually exists in the US. Presumably, just as our earth scientists look for certain signs to determine the existence of life on Mars, our imaginary extraterrestrial political scientists would develop benchmarks of their own. Wouldn’t an essential indicator of the existence of a political movement be whether or not it presented itself to the electorate when the nation chose its leaders? Might not our distant observers then reasonably conclude that for some reason there was no “left” in the United States?
For a lot of Americans back here on earth, whether or not the left really exists may not mean much. After all, “left,” “right” and “center” are just words that don’t necessarily tell us a lot about our political life. What may matter, though, is the silence of last year’s presidential campaign on the left’s most vital issues. The war in Afghanistan, for instance. The only arguments you heard against it last year — or against the illegal bombing of Pakistan or even the entire “military industrial complex” — came from Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who ran in the Republican primaries. A lot of what Paul had to say about those issues was excellent, but since these views floated in a sea of other positions that were anathema to most people who might agree with his foreign policy, his candidacy was of no use at all in fostering an antiwar movement. A year-end New York Times headline summed it up: “Among Top News Stories, a War Is Missing.” The paper reported that the Pew Research Center, The Associated Press and Yahoo all failed to list “the 11-year-old war in Afghanistan and American-led counterterrorism efforts around the world” among 2012's top stories. 68,000 American troops still deployed in our longest war ever, and it wasn’t an issue — because no one said it was, or at least no one who could be heard.
Or health care. If you were hoping to hear anything about how much more sense a Medicare-for-all/single-payer/nonprofit health insurance system (call it what you will) would make in implementing the Affordable Health Care Act, then last year was not your year. The only critique of “Obamacare” out there at all in 2012 was that it represented an unwarranted federal government intrusion: socialism. This national year of silence showed early effect in California, where for the first time in 10 years no single-payer bill has been filed in the legislature. First introduced a decade ago by Senator Sheila Kuehl (once known to the nation as Zelda on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), the bill has twice passed both branches and been vetoed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yet not one of 27 Democratic Senators or 48 Assembly Members (a two-thirds majority in both houses) would sponsor the bill this term. Given its recent level of support, it would be difficult to imagine the bill being “disappeared” so easily, had we not just experienced a presidential race in which a single-payer system was mentioned not at all.
Does any of this matter? Depends on what we think politics is all about. Despite never having a horse in the presidential race, our views on what the government ought to be doing with our money are still out there. The arguments the Jackson platform once brought to the nightly news are certainly still being discussed in college seminar rooms. Plus the internet is now available for leftists (and rightists and centrists) of all stripes to weigh in. But if politics implies action, then our absence from mainstream debate is a serious shortcoming — maybe our most serious. Unless we devise a way to inject our issues into the presidential debate, not only are we not a serious force in American politics, but if not being part of the solution means you’re part of the problem, well, we’re part of the problem. In short, if we truly want someone to take on the banking industry, the for-profit health insurance business, the military-industrial boondoggle, and all the rest in the 2016 campaign, we need to start asking: where are the candidates who will make that happen?
The closer you look at our history, the harder it becomes to avoid the conclusion that we on the American Left have never mastered our political system. So far as the history of our electoral activity goes, the story is reminiscent of the philosophical paradox of the donkey caught midway between two bales of hay who can’t decide which one to turn to and as a result goes nowhere. Granted, in our case, we have actually made moves toward one bale or the other — the Democratic Party or a “third party” — but the fact is that we have never committed. And so, as far as electoral politics goes, just like that donkey, we are still nowhere — well into the 21st century.
Our two political hay bales each have their pluses and minuses — but that does not mean that they are equal. “Third party” options do have one immensely appealing aspect: they offer the prospect of clarity. Backing a presidential candidate from a third party presumably means that on election day you won’t be stuck voting for one you really only agree with maybe 55 percent of the time. And the fact is that within this country’s immensely complex political system, with its great variation by state and locality, “third parties” have worked well in a variety of situations. The presidential level, however, is another matter.
Most wish lists of the American Left probably include some type of significant electoral reform, and many might prefer some sort of a parliamentary system where your preferred party could, if necessary, combine forces with your second favorite to block a victory for your least favorite. We could call this an “additive process.” Under those circumstances, an argument for a party to the left of the Democratic Party that, if need be, could join forces with the Democrats in opposition to the Republicans might make perfect sense. But unfortunately the system we’ve actually got does not work that way at all. Today, a vote for the “third party” you really want in a presidential election always comes with the risk of increasing the chances of getting what you really don’t want — in other words a Republican president. We might call what we’ve got a “subtractive process.” And this fact probably poses a permanent roadblock to third party presidential candidacies as an avenue for social change. The last big one, Ralph Nader’s 2000 Green Party run, for instance, started with great expectations, yet left nothing behind at the end — largely due to the widespread perception that it had helped tip the election to George W. Bush.
Running within the Democratic Party, on the other hand, may seem too murky a proposition for some. Want to know what the Green Party stands for? Google it. Want to know what the left wing of the Democratic Party stands for? Subscribe to five magazines and discuss. You could support a great candidate all the way through the primaries and still end up having to vote for that 55 percent candidate — or maybe even a 51 percent candidate — on Election Day. On the other hand, this strategy has the very significant advantage of avoiding the risk of your vote helping the candidate you really don’t want. The difference is crucial. Dennis Kucinich may have been ignored, but no one ever claimed that he helped Bush get elected.
Also widely ignored is the fact that the presidential primary process actually does embody one of the most desirable characteristics of a parliamentary system: the ability to combine forces. It is an additive process, at least potentially. As it turned out, Jackson’s delegates weren’t needed for Michael Dukakis to secure the 1988 Democratic nomination, since they were the only two candidates still standing by the time of the convention. But given that three other candidates — Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, and Paul Simon — had actually won a combined 11 primaries, it could easily have turned out that Jackson’s delegates did matter. And if it had, so would have their issues.
Most people may have actually lost sight of this aspect of the process, given how accustomed we have become to seeing one candidate wrap up the nomination before the party’s convention even begins. In fact, in 2008, Hillary Clinton was pilloried by Obama supporters for proposing to continue her pursuit of the nomination right up to the convention, as if doing so would constitute an act of disloyalty to the party. But candidates were not always chosen on the first ballot. Most famously, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who went on to win four presidential elections, was nominated on the third ballot in 1936 (nomination then required two-thirds support instead of the current simple majority).
Does the idea of reviving a Jackson-style candidacy fly in the face of the relentless trend toward media-driven conventions where unity is all and issues and platform are naught? Certainly, but then the whole point of a presidential candidacy of the left would be to reverse that process and to reassert the importance of program over personality. Make no mistake about it, committing to such issues-based candidacies on the presidential level will be neither simple nor easy. Presidential primaries operate under a complex set of rules that require different calculations in each state. It will involve compromise and disagreement. It will be messy. Some of our favorite ideas may not sound as good as we might hope when they get broader exposure. We might have to take some things back to the drawing board. But it would be real politics — on the highest level. And in politics, no matter how good your theories may be, there is just no substitute for reality.
Traditionally, running for president of the United States has been something of an entrepreneurial endeavor. Candidates surface and then go off seeking support, organization, money and, ultimately, votes. They’re cultivated by groups and organizations along the way, but there is no recognized forum for choosing them, save the party nominating convention itself. All of which means that if we want to be in the game in 2016, we need to be looking and listening for candidates now. Who knows, there could even be more than one candidate of the left; two or more people calling for major change would not necessarily be the worst thing. It might just push the rest of us to get involved and decide between one or the other.
More likely, though, we could have too few candidates, which is to say none. At the risk of losing any Democratic “party regulars” who’ve stuck with me thus far, I’ll mention a suggestion of Ralph Nader’s for dealing with the lack of a truly national candidate: reviving the tradition of running favorite sons or daughters, candidates who run only statewide or regional campaigns with the aim of winning convention delegates committed to a point of view.
Eventually, we could imagine that if candidacies of the left were to become a habit, the democracy deficit in the current ad hoc process might well spur a call for something more participatory down the road. And ideally, we’d also want to develop some way of maintaining organizational continuity over the periods between presidential elections. But right now we should be so lucky as to have such problems. First we have to start to take the presidential primary process seriously.
We face three basic options for 2016. we can commit ourselves to teasing out the microtonal differences between “mainstream” candidates like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and resign ourselves to the fact that the vast array of issues they don’t disagree on won’t be part of the national political discussion next time either; we can stand on the sidelines and criticize the fact that the candidates never discuss the important issues; or we can find a candidate (or maybe more than one) who does say what we think and try to make that candidate’s voice heard. In other words, we could dare to take ourselves seriously.
We will make mistakes surely, but one mistake we should avoid from the outset is thinking that an every-four-year presidential candidacy would, should or could supplant other political activity. A presidential campaign won’t substitute for running candidates for Congress or state or local offices. It can’t replace a revived labor or “Occupy”-type movement. It would not be a reason for stopping ongoing campaign finance or electoral reform efforts. At the same time, the more significant a presidential candidacy of the left might become, the better the environment for all of those other equally important activities. Not everyone, of course, can or should drop everything and throw in on the next good presidential campaign to come around. But at the least we should all be keeping our eye out for one — and asking ourselves how we’re going to help it along when we find it.
Tom Gallagher is a past member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives currently living in San Francisco. He is currently working on a book on the overlooked potential of the presidential primary process.