If I may dispense with the historical resonances prompted by observations of this kind, Nader pissed me off in 2000 because his party equivalence thesis was a damned and damaging deception -- even if the Democratic Party wasn't and isn't exactly love's young dream from my perspective as a democratic eco-socialist feminist anti-racist anti-militarist vegetarian atheist queer aesthete academic than it was and is for him. Nader certainly didn't piss me off for "losing Gore the election" because, as it happens, Gore won the election and Republican appointees to the Supreme Court stole the election for the utterly catastrophic George W. Bush.
Now, when I denigrate would-be radical Third Party political efforts I do want to be quite clear that my point is not to extol political moderation or diminish radicalism or deride ethical conviction. Radicalism invigorates public life and is a motor of necessary progressive change. The simple fact is that there is more to politics than partisan politics, of course. And quite apart from that, there is also more to doing good and making progress than politics -- there is making art, there is offering up support in communities, there is living ethically. And confining the focus on politics, I always say the partisan politics of problem solving, compromise and reform is indispensable but inadequate to sustain progress and the movement politics of education, agitation and organization to transform our sense of the possible and the important is just as indispensable and just as inadequate. Neither is adequate on their own, both are indispensable all the time.
You know, I truly respect people of conviction who don't have the stomach or the stamina for the fraught compromises and heartbreaking slowness and exhausting effort of partisan politics and decide to direct their energies elsewhere. In my own life I've moved in and out of movement politics -- my Queer Nation days and a few more recent moments of adjunct organizing are different from the times in my life that I've devoted myself to teaching and writing and the occasional editorial or candidate contribution. My convictions haven't diminished and I hope I never retreat from doing my measure of work to nudge us toward sustainable equity-in-diversity in whatever form -- but definitely I understand that sometimes partisan politics are quite demoralizing and feel too constrained and contaminated to bear. Even in such moments I must say that simply doing one's least part and voting for the best candidates or initiatives on offer doesn't take that much time or energy, after all, and figuring out who to vote for in this moment of utter Republican debasement isn't really that difficult.
What I find quite ridiculous, however, and even frankly contemptible, really, are those who seem to want to denigrate partisan politics while focusing on quixotic hijacking or sabotage efforts within... partisan politics. It is hard to imagine anything more frivolous than someone who wants to declare their radicalism, or even their revolutionary sentiments, who then directs all their attention into a party primary fight of all things. Every candidate is a politician, every politician has compromised, anybody who would seek the highest political offices has to have a touch of the sociopath in them, and nobody remotely plausibly electable (for the Democrats at any rate) will be as far to the left in office as are the radicals of their Base who grasp the real extent of injustice and real danger of climate catastrophe.
A nationally viable party in the wealthy insulated continent-scaled multiculture of the United States will never be a revolutionary organization. Even in the terrible days of DLC capitulation and GOP ascendance, and certainly ever more so as the Party has moved left in the aftermath of ruinous neoconservative war crimes and neoliberal privatization schemes, in the storm churn of Occupy and BlackLivesMatter and queer feminism and climate change activism -- the Democratic Party is a vast, diverse, dynamic, storied, and indispensable collective instrument for transmitting progressive history, addressing shared present problems, and pushing in the direction of sustainable equity-in-diversity. But partisan politics in the United States are not revolutionary, they are reformist. The landscape in which they operate is continent-scaled, resource rich, intersectional in its oppressions, multilateral in its powers. It is not to not concede any measure of righteousness to incumbent elites or reactionary communities that I recognize as viable parties must do their actually real power and actually shared existence in this country demands political compromises I nonetheless morally disapprove. Generations of radical activism and expression might alter culture in ways that bring present radicalisms into a prevalence a nationally viable party might well accommodate (this has repeatedly happened historically), but there are no short cuts for arriving at such accomplishments. People who pretend voting in a party primary are engaging in some kind of Revolutionary activity are mocking revolutionary politics no less than tech-talkers who declare bitcoin revolutionary or marketers who declare a soft drink is revolutionary are mocking revolutionary politics.
More extreme political factions -- the ones that agree with me about ideal social and environmental justice outcomes very much included -- are unable to build or maintain nationally viable parties. This is evident in our Libertarians and Greens, to return to the post's opening salvo. Nor will marginal radical or revolutionary factions be able to hijack a nationally viable party, as independent kinda-sorta-socialist Bernie Sanders has tried and failed to hijack the Democratic Party... Nor, I must add, even if doing so is adding insult to injury, would marginal factions be able to maintain control over a nationally viable party were they to manage a hijacking in a moment of crisis. Such a party hijacking either announces the dissolution and supersession of that party or more pragmatic and mainstream-legible authorities regain control and mobilize a working coalition within and through the party soon enough, as I would say Donald Trump will find to his cost if I thought Donald Trump actually cared one way or another about such a thing.
I daresay our present party duopoly is quite terrible in its way, especially given recent geographical and ideological sorting and consequent polarization, and I might say some sort of Parliamentary system would be more accountable and more efficacious if this were some genial thought experiment. Saying so looks to me just about as relevant as the Founders warning against factions rather than better checking their predictable pathologies in the Constitutional system. It seems to me that in pretty much every practically conceivable instance (for me, you no doubt are smarter and more imaginative than I am), the politics through which one would create and maintain a nationally viable party to accomplish some more radical policy outcome than is presently entertained within the confines of one of our present parties are incomparably more difficult and slow than would be the effort to bring one of those parties around to the effort through education, agitation, and organization. Nationally viable parties are coalitions and they are susceptible to change from within by clear-sighted long-dedicated well-organized forces within them, especially when these changes afford the party electoral advantages in a nation that is also changing. Running a protest candidate, by the way, can be a form of such activism -- but do be sure your protest candidate knows that using a campaign to do issue education is not going to look like a campaign that is trying to win an election. So long as it remains a better bet to work through than outside of parties when what one wants is specific legislative accomplishments, then third parties are going to remain at utterly marginal spoilers at the edges or highly personal settings for indulging in narcissistic purity cabaret.
That state of affairs doesn't exactly thrill me, but the simple truth is that there are far worse problems that demand our attention and that progressive change from movements on the ground and representatives in office is the struggle at hand. If you're not up for partisan politics -- just vote for the best available candidates by your lights and then do such good as is otherwise available to you. But don't expect those of us who know better to indulge the pretense that purity cabaret or hijack fantasies or this-time-it's-happening protest candidates amount either to real radicalism or real reformism. Such efforts are useless and confused and the proper province of pampered narcissists and mis-educated dupes.