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Benjamin Ginsberg, Johns Hopkins: Workers were more interested in economic rather than political issues

September 10, 2012

As this year's U.S. general elections draw near, it is safe to say that the vast majority of winners will be members of the country's two main political parties -- the Democrats and the Republicans. Why is the United States the only major democracy without a viable third party, particularly a socialist or working class political party?

Many analysts agree that the United States is typical of most advanced industrialized societies, except that it does not have a major socialist party at the national level.

"America is very unlike other Western democracies," says Gary Marks of the University of North Carolina, who points to what scholars often call an "American Creed" -- the ideals of equality, social mobility, self-reliance and limited government that Americans have held since declaring independence from Britain in 1776.

"While we often complain about the size of the state [i.e., the government] and try to minimize this, the state -- if you look at it across every level -- is the lowest in the Western world," says Marks. "What we've seen in the United States is a culture that has emphasized individualism and anti-statism. And the role of government in the society is much less than it is in European societies, for example."

With each new wave of immigrants, people from around the world have adopted America's common values, which most scholars agree are not in keeping with traditionalism socialism.

Early Gains and Structural Challenges

By the eve of World War I, poor working and living conditions in American cities helped clear the way for socialism. In 1912, Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs won 6 percent of the popular vote. And there were hundreds of Socialist elected officials in cities and towns across the country. But the party had its problems.

"The Socialists, who were a small third party, had very little to offer," says political scientist Gary Marks. "What they could offer was ideological purity. They could offer a beacon for a different society. But the labor unions were rooted in the 'here and now.'"

Unlike the socialists, who were utopian and suspicious of the country's major political parties, labor unions generally worked with the Democrats and the Republicans to win higher wages and better living standards.

According to Benjamin Ginsberg, director of the Washington Center for the Study of American Government at The Johns Hopkins University, workers were more interested in economic rather than political issues.

"In the United States, when labor became a force, white manhood suffrage was already a long established fact. There was no need to struggle for political rights," says Ginsberg. "Labor unions tended to join the parties that already existed -- the Democratic Party, the Republican Party and before that, the Whig Party. So labor already had an open avenue for political struggle."

The economic upheaval of the 1930s gave many socialists hope that the time had come for a workers’ party in the United States. But political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg says it was too late.

"During the period of the Great Depression and economic downturn, there was more of a possibility for the creation of labor parties," says Ginsberg. "But with the advent of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal coalition, labor became such a prominent force within the Democratic Party that most labor leaders could see no advantage to trying to go out on their own."

Two-Party Dominance

Labor unions have been very active in promoting voter participation within the context of America's two-party system. And since the Great Depression, organized labor generally has supported the Democratic Party, which has embraced many people on the left of the U.S. political spectrum.

"The socialists never really understood the logic of the American political system," says scholar Gary Marks, who points out that unlike in a traditional parliamentary system that emphasizes candidates winning a majority of votes in elections, politics in the United States is characterized by an opponent simply winning more votes than his or her rival.

"Essentially this means that third parties have no chance to gain representation at the national level in the United States. So it's a logic where one has to try to create the broadest coalition that one can," says Marks. "And to do that means that under normal circumstances, one has to downplay ideology and appeal to as many diverse groups as possible."

Since the Civil War, America's two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, have averaged between them about 95 percent of the popular vote in national elections -- a trend that is not expected to change any time soon.

As long as the United States remains "exceptional" in its politics, there is near universal agreement among scholars that a viable socialist party will be merely a hope for a few.

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