Johns Hopkins: Workers were more interested in economic rather than
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
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."
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
"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
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.