Pluralistic: When parties fail, movements step up (17 August 2023)

Today's links

Edith Ransom and Charles Zimmerman (center) of ILGWU Local 22 march with others in the 1937 May Day parade.

When parties fail, movements step up (permalink)

Does anyone like the American two party system? The parties are opaque, private organizations, weak institutions that are prone to capture and corruption, and gerrymandering's "safe seats" means that the real election often takes place in the party's smoke-filled rooms, when a sure-thing candidate is selected:

But there doesn't seem to be any way to fix it. For one thing, the two parties are in charge of any reform, and they're in no hurry to put themselves out of business. It's effectively impossible for a third party to gain any serious power in the USA, and that's by design. After the leftist Populists party came within a spitting distance of power in the 1890s, the Dems and Repubs got together and cooked the system, banning fusion voting and erecting other structural barriers.

The Nader and Perot campaigns were doomed from the outset, in other words. Either candidate could have been far more popular than the D and R on the ballot, and they still would have lost. It's how the deck is stacked, and to unstack it, reformers would need to take charge of at least one – and probably both – of the parties.

But that's not cause for surrender – it's a call to action. In an interview with Seymour Hersh, Thomas Frank (Listen, Liberal) sets out another locus of power, one with the potential to deliver control over the party to its base: social movements:

It's been done before. The parties are routinely transformed by power-shifts within their internal coalitions: since 1970, corporate Dems have consistently pushed the party to the right, making it the power of white-collar professionals and relying on working people showing up and marking their ballots with a D because they have "nowhere else to go."

Bill Clinton was the most successful of these corporate raiders, delivering the parts of the Reagan Revolution that Reagan himself could never have managed: dismantling tariffs and bank regulations, passing the crime bill and welfare "reform." He came within a whisper of (partially) privatizing Social Security.

This set in motion the forces that made Trumpism possible: when Dems told deindustrialized workers to "learn to code" and blamed them for the destruction of their communities, it opened a space for Make America Great Again, the (empty) workerist rhetoric of the GOP. The Dems' plan of putting "really smart people" in charge and letting them run things was a (predictable) disaster. "Really smart" isn't the same as "infallible" and really smart people can be spooked or bulled into doing the wrong thing – like Obama "foaming the runways" for the banks with the houses of mortgage holders, and leaving the bankers responsible for the Great Financial Crisis unscathed:

"Really smart people" can't get us out of this mess. Instead, we need the kind of muscular political action – the "whirlwind" – that characterized FDR's New Deal: "complete reformation of the banking industry.. just about every other industry as well. Regulation. Social Security. Public works. Antitrust. Soil conservation."

FDR got there by alienating his former classmates and refusing the go-slow entreaties of his cronies. He got there because there was a mass social movement that made him do it ("I want to do it, now make me do it"):

Every time in US history where one of the political party duopoly listened to its base, it was because of a mass social movement: the farmers' movement (1890s), labor (1930s), civil rights and antiwar (1960s). As Frank says:

Social movements succeed. They build and they change the intellectual climate and then, when the crisis comes, they make possible things like agrarian reform or the New Deal or the Civil Rights acts of the 1960s.

Today, we see the seeds of those social movements: the new union movement. Black Lives Matter. Neobrandeisians with their "hipster antitrust." These are the movements that are creating "ideas lying around": ideas that, in time of crisis, can move from the fringe to the center in an eyeblink:

They are setting in motion another transformation of the Democratic Party, from its top-down, "really smart people" model to a bottom-up, people-powered one, kept in check by movements, not party bosses. As Frank says, "They require the mass participation of ordinary people. Without that, I am afraid that nothing is possible."

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago How the Daily Show’s PVRs work

#15yrsago Transcript of my talk on “Life in the Information Economy”

#10yrsago Cross a border, lose your ebooks;1e13597c.1308&A2=LIBLICENSE-L;1e13597c.1308

#10yrsago Talking about the writing life

#5yrsago NYU makes med school free for all students

#5yrsago Chinese spies force US-based Uighurs into “voluntary” surveillance by threatening their families in China

#5yrsago CEO-to-worker wage gap yawns ever wider, hitting 312:1 in 2017, up by 17.6%

#5yrsago Portugal proves that austerity doesn’t work

#5yrsago Big Bang: the “stupid patent” on teledildonics has expired

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS JAN 2025

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FORTHCOMING TOR BOOKS FEB 2024

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. FORTHCOMING ON TOR.COM

Latest podcast: The Internet Con: How to Seize the Means of Computation (audiobook outtake)

Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest books:

Upcoming books:

  • The Internet Con: A nonfiction book about interoperability and Big Tech, Verso, September 2023

  • The Lost Cause: a post-Green New Deal eco-topian novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias, Tor Books, November 2023

This work – excluding any serialized fiction – is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

(Latest Medium column: "Enshitternet: The old, good internet deserves a new, good internet"

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla