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Aronowitz turns the question right back: Looking at Pataki's double-digit lead in the polls, he says that choosing McCall is the wasted vote in this election. He rejects on principle the idea that alternative candidates are spoilers: if the Democrats lose elections by running for the holy center, he says, that is not the fault of the Greens. But that's not even relevant in this contest, he says: If McCall has no prayer the charge has no teeth.
Not everyone trusts the polls, however. If the black and Latino turnout gets mobilized and if conservative rags-to-riches billionaire Tom Golisano keeps hacking away at Pataki, McCall might not embarrass himself. From Aronowitz's point of view, Golisano demonstrates exactly the power of an insurgent candidate. If the Greens aren't as effective, it's because electoral politics all come down, egregiously, to cash. Golisano has been spending a million dollars a day on TV and radio ads; the Greens have spent $6000and managed to get only on cable.
Third parties have long had significant impact on American politicsso much so, in fact, that in the 1890s fusion was outlawed in almost every state. Today, New York is one of only seven states that still permits it, and the only one where anyone takes advantage of it. Until anti-fusion laws spread across the country some 110 years ago, groups like the People's and Progressive parties ran their own candidates and also used cross-endorsements of both Democrats and Republicans to hold mainstream politicians' feet to the fire. As those pols began to bristle under the third parties' growing power, the two major parties teamed up to outlaw the central means by which both were being influenced by the left. "Industrialization was creating class conflict that manifested itself politically," explains political scientist Ron Hayduk, co-editor of Democracy's Momentand of From ACT UP to the WTO. "The elites were really threatened by labor and socialist movements and didn't want to see them gain power."
In the 20th century the Socialist Party and, later, the American Labor Party played significant roles, even without the fusion option in some states. Thanks to them, such concepts as the weekend or the progressive income tax, once considered absurd, became mainstream. In New York, the American Labor Party, founded in 1936, soon sent a communist to Congress and a decade later put 500,000 votes in Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace's column. An anti-Communist wing split off from the ALP in 1944 to form the Liberal Party, which would help give John F. Kennedy his margin of victory in 1960 and also provide John Lindsay with a sizable shove into City Hall.
The party eventually became a personal patronage mill for Ray Hardingwho parlayed the margin of victory the party supplied Giuliani into a cushy job for his sonand recently has been withering away. That's not just a matter of dubious leadership. Progressive third parties are truly effective, says Hayduk, only when they respond to real mass pressure for change. Populism powered the People's and Socialist parties; civil rights brought forth the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party. "Efforts that are tied to social movements have had a huge impact on moving things that were marginal front and center," Hayduk says. Today's third-party progressives are hopeful that dire economic need, chronic Democratic disappointment, and rising anti-war sentiments might generate a new movement that will give more momentum and shape to both the WFP and the Greens.
While PSC members debated their endorsement on the ninth floor of the CUNY Graduate Center on Thursday, a teach-in on the pending war in Iraq was coming to a close in the basement auditorium. There, the African American scholar and activist Robin Kelley told the crowd that the Democrats have become entirely irrelevant, and thus, presumably, not worth voting for under any circumstances. Playwright Tony Kushner, on the other hand, challenged them to consider whether the left has fallen in love with its own powerlessness and thus given up on securing whatever foothold they can among the Democrats. "Why is there only one Barbara Lee in Congress?" he asked. "Why is the progressive voice silent in the corridors of actual political power?"
Back upstairs, WFP co-chair Bertha Lewis was making the party's case before the PSC's delegate assembly. (Aronowitz had been given the platform at the previous meeting.) She spoke stirringly of the poor and working-class members of her party and their children who were reaching toward a better life in CUNY classrooms and reminded the faculty and staff that no matter whom the assembly endorsed, no matter what the outcome of the election on November 5, "there's a relationship between us and the folks sitting in this room" that would have to form the basis of a movement for the future. "No matter what happens," she promised, "we're gonna wake up together on November 6. That's what's scary to those other guys."
On her way out, she ran into Aronowitz. They threw their arms around each other. And then argued strategy for half an hour.