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American Capitalism’s Memberless Parties
If the left in America is to challenge the capitalist two-party system, it will have to build a political party based on working-class independence from the corporate rulers and their political representatives in the Democratic and Republican Parties. To build that kind of party, it will have to build a mass-membership party that is structured quite differently from traditional American parties. Its members will have to be organized into local branches and finance their party with member dues, just as labor unions do, which is why unions have by far the most resources of any institution on the popular left. A dues-paying mass-membership party has been the missing ingredient in third-party politics throughout American history.
The history of third-party insurgencies on the left in American history teaches us that they have all floundered by structuring their parties on the traditional American party model, with the notable exception of the Socialist Party in the early twentieth century. In this structure, the representatives to the committees and conventions of the party are apportioned from jurisdictions according to the general population, the party registration, or the vote in a recent general election. Representatives in this structure are not elected by an active and organized party membership in those jurisdictions.
These parties don’t have members with rights and responsibilities in the party structure. This structure yields representation and control by party insiders who have no ongoing accountability to rank-and-file party supporters. The party insiders are the politicians and their paid staffs who sell themselves first to wealthy funders and then use those funds to sell themselves to voters.
American parties are not organized parties built around active members and policy platforms; they are shifting coalitions of entrepreneurial candidate campaign organizations. Hence, the Democratic and Republican Parties are not only capitalist ideologically; they are capitalistically run enterprises.
Parallel to the evolution of capitalism from competitive to monopolistic stages, the major party campaign committees have become monopolistic players in the candidate market in recent decades (on the Democratic side, the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and their state-level counterparts). They have been playing an ever-greater role in the selection and management of federal and state candidates using the flood of private money into party coffers that has swelled in concert with the growing concentration of wealth and income in the hands of the 1 percent since the 1970s.
Party conventions were an American invention of the 1820s. But in the post–Civil War period they evolved from deliberative assemblies that met irregularly only as elections approached into patronage boss-controlled rituals. The membership was not organized into active local parties that engaged in regular meetings for education, debate, decisions, and actions. No active membership was organized to elect and hold accountable delegates to the higher councils of the party.
The primary system was instituted in the 1910s and was promoted by the progressive-era good-government reformers to take the process of candidate selection out of the hands of the party bosses and put it back in the hands of the people. But because the people remained an atomized mass of unorganized party followers, the primary process was actually encouraged by the party bosses, who became the brokers of contributions from wealthy donors for candidate-based political operations, which progressively diminished the influence of the older patronage machines. Primaries became plebiscites on politicians who were effectively preselected by the wealthy funders of incumbent or aspiring politicians.