What happens when fringe political positions become the norm?
Picture America, but different: one where jobs, health care, and college education are guaranteed public services; one with reformed immigration and criminal justice systems; one where the dignity of underserved and the worth of historically marginalized communities are not only recognized but prioritized and promoted by the State; one which ensures the distribution of wealth rather than its concentration; and one which leads in climate-conscious initiatives rather than working against them.
This America, or something close to it, has become the progressive’s idyllic vision in response to the Trump era: to increase partisanship and the environmental crisis. But long before mainstream Democrats began “feeling the Bern” and embracing the Green New Deal, this was the vision of largely ignored third parties like the Green Party and the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
That vision, in fact, was Peta Lindsay’s platform two election cycles ago. Lindsay’s campaign for President in 2012 as the candidate for the Party for Socialism and Liberation was more symbolic than serious, as she wasn’t even eligible for office at 28 years old. A self-proclaimed Socialist running on an anti-war, social-justice focused platform, her small-dollar campaign went largely unrecognized by mainstream media; instead, she spread her message on college campuses and in high schools.
This campaign trail landed her at Ithaca College in October of 2012, where she held a rally that was, incidentally, covered in the November 2012 issue of Buzzsaw by Qina Liu. In Liu’s account of Lindsay’s speech, it’s clear that Lindsay’s ideas are radical and far outside the realm of mainstream media. And she wouldn’t deny that—the purpose of her campaign was to expose her ideas to whoever would listen.
For the most part, that audience was young people, perhaps not yet jaded by mainstream politics, who might be open to her message. Her profile was limited by a lack of big donors and media attention, but she said: “I firmly believe that if we were … on all the major broadcast stations, that if millions of people actually heard that there was a presidential candidate who was calling for the immediate cancellation of all student loan debt, I believe there would be a million more socialists overnight.”
But she didn’t get that media attention, she didn’t attract big donors, and she couldn’t establish a formidable constituency. In the general election, she got 7,791 votes, which translates to about 0.01%.
And yet, from the perspective that only temporal distance can give, we can hear the truth in her prophecy.
In 2016, Bernie Sanders rose to prominence as the unlikely Democratic star, his celebrity grown through the enthusiasm of young people eager for immediate, radical change in the face of an unrepresentative, even perhaps undemocratic, government. The established two-party system and prudent political observers alike resisted the idea of such a radical candidate; after all, no self-titled Socialist could possibly carry enough votes to put him in the White House.
Instead, the opposite brand of radical—nationalistic, hyper-individualistic, defensive, and protectionist—landed there. By stoking and encouraging radical, jingoistic fears about declining hegemonic power, the Trump Campaign built the intensely loyal base that won him the election. And in giving racist ideologies like white supremacy a platform, he proved the depth of their roots in our society.
And Sanders and Trump—apparently about as ideologically far apart as possible— are the two frontrunners for nomination in the 2020 election. Sanders outraised the entire field of Democratic primary hopefuls in the first quarter, bringing in $20.7 million, according to FiveThirtyEight. Trump, by contrast, raised more than $30 million in the first quarter.
These numbers and their 2020 presidential campaigns are a useful, if sometimes fallible, yardstick in reading the political climate and the state of party ideology in the country. Middle-of-the-road candidates no longer seem to be resonating with or tapping into “the American psyche” as it’s characterized through media and polls.
The support for both candidates is visceral, emotional, and impassioned. This energy fosters walled political communities and leaves little room for amicable disagreement. It’s an energy which, for better or for worse, used to be considered fringe, but is now mainstream.
A Pew Research Center survey conducted every few years since 1994 shows clearly that the median Democratic ideology is consistently becoming further and further distanced from the median Republican ideology. So, what does this mean for those formerly fringe parties? Have they shifted with the mainstream politics, or have they become the mainstream?
The Democratic Party, anyway, seems now to occupy the place that Peta Lindsay’s party—the Party for Socialism and Liberation—occupied in 2012. The issues listed on Bernie Sanders’ website as his 2020 priorities now include eight out of 10 of the issues outlined in Lindsay’s 2012 “10-point plan” platform. The point of the third party is not necessarily to hold positions of power, but to pull major party ideology further to the left or the right. In a balanced system, this presence provides a healthy and necessary check on the establishment, but today, one of its effects is to further alienate the parties from each other.
Pew Research also found that the priorities of the two major parties no longer compete—they have departed from any sort of significant common ground in the last two decades. As the radical, more extreme viewpoints take center stage, debate has become primarily intra- rather than inter-party. In this system, bipartisanship isn’t even coherent; the opposing “side” is non-sequitous.
Centrism is no longer middle ground. Centrism is slowly but surely becoming the new third party. This isn’t to say that the socialist agenda doesn’t deserve air time, or even that the kinds of grievances Trump draws out from the shadows don’t need to be voiced. Protests, riots, and even terrorism prove again and again that without attention, any ideology or even person will use any means at their disposal to be acknowledged—even violence, if suppressed long enough.
The respective performances of this historically large and diverse slate of candidates making bids for the 2020 Democratic nomination will undoubtedly be informative in measuring our ever-evolving political climate. The ballot includes every option from centrist to self-described socialist, from ages 37 to 77, from establishment to first-time political candidate, with candidates representing states from California to Massachusetts.
Even the fact that 22 different Democrats think they have a chance at the nomination is telling. It shows how factious the party has become, it shows how obscure the mythical “average voter” has become. But it also perhaps hints that politics is becoming more accessible. In 2012, Peta Lindsay said to Ithaca College students: “It’s funny because they say that anybody can be president, but when you actually run for president, you realize how untrue that actually is.”
But maybe this is changing. The fact that our mainstream ideological landscape is growing more diverse makes for a disunified system right now, but also seems to be creating space for a larger, more bottom-up marketplace of ideas. Whether a better government can come out of this confused climate remains to be seen; but for now, take advantage of and take part in the noise. Representative democracy can only be realized when every ideology has and uses their voice.
Isabel Brooke is a junior writing major ready to make her voice heard in the 2020 election. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.