Does America need a socialist party?

In the aftermath of the disappointing results for the Sanders campaign in the primaries following Nevada, supporters of the self-described “democratic socialist” Senator from Vermont have been discussing what happens next.

If Sanders chooses to leave the race, he has already announced – many months ago – that he will endorse and campaign for any candidate chosen by the Democratic Party. Most of his supporters will follow Sanders’ lead, as they did in 2016 when he endorsed Clinton. Sanders has made clear that the top priority must be to defeat Trump, and if that means campaigning for the tired and uninspiring Joe Biden, so be it.

But for a small minority of Sanders supporters, as in 2016, other options tempt – including not voting or voting for a fringe political party.

Fringe political parties in the US, especially on the left, exist – but they are both rare and very small. Even in 2016, when Hillary Clinton’s popularity among American leftists was at its lowest, her main rival to the left, Dr Jill Stein of the Green Party, received just over 1% of the vote – and no votes in the Electoral College, which chooses the president.

This year, no one expects the Greens to do any better. A socialist, Howie Hawkins, is running in the Green primaries and currently has a lead in the delegate count. But to give an example of the gap between Greens and Democrats, Hawkins won the California Green primary with just 3,556 votes. In the Democratic primary in the same state the winner was Bernie Sanders with 1,548,025 votes. For every voter in that state who voted for a Green, 435 chose to back the socialist running as a Democrat. Third party politics remain as unpopular as ever.

Why would that be the case? Why is there no movement to create a party (or parties) to the left of the Democrats? And why are the most important and successful socialist politicians in the US – including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – remaining in the Democratic Party?

Some of the explanation is rooted in the difference between 2016 and this year. There is no evidence that the leadership of the Democratic Party is working to undermine Sanders in the way that they did four years ago. That’s due in part to the successful effort by the Sanders campaign after 2016 to reform the party. While it did not get everything it wanted, it got a lot – including new rules to reduce the influence of “super-delegates” at the convention

And Sanders has succeeded in pushing other Democratic politicians to the left, most notably Elizabeth Warren.

Even if many Sanders supporters decided that in the long run they wanted to leave the Democratic party rather than take it over, they would need to understand that the history of the last century does not give cause for optimism

The Greens ran six presidential campaigns from 1996, and never got more votes than with Ralph Nader as their candidate in 2000. He won just 2.7% of the popular vote, and no electoral votes. And before Nader, the last relatively large third party effort on the Left was the 1948 Progressive Party campaign of former US vice president Henry Wallace, who won even fewer votes than Nader. It has been more than a century since the Socialist Party was able to win 6% of the vote under the charismatic Eugene V. Debs.

There are many reasons why third parties don’t succeed in America. Ballot access is a problem – which is why Ralph Nader, who was not active in the Greens chose to work with them so people could vote for him in all states.

There’s also the widespread belief among workers, including union members, that the Democratic Party is somehow their party – a party which they fund to the tune of millions of dollars every election, and for whose candidates they mobilise and campaign. Despite decades of campaigning on the left for unions to withdraw their support from the Democrats, there is no evidence that there is any interest in doing so.

For those reasons, and based on a century of experience, as the American Left contemplates its future post-2020, it is very unlikely that the option of a socialist or labour party will get any traction at all.

This article appeared in the current issue of Solidarity.