Barry Commoner and the Dream of a Liberal Third Party


Dr. Barry Commoner listens to Secretary of the Interior Walter J. Hickel address a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in May 1970.

Barry Commoner died on September 30 at the age of 95. The New York Times called him “a founder of modern ecology and one of its most provocative thinkers and mobilizers in making environmentalism a people’s cause.” Among many accomplishments, his pioneering work on the effects of radiation was a major factor in building public support for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War. Time magazine put him on its cover in 1970, the first year of Earth Day.

He also ran for president in 1980 on the ticket of the now-defunct Citizens Party, an episode few on the left remember and the obituaries dismissed as a quirky personal misadventure. It was more than that. The Citizens Party was an effort to respond to the early signals that the Democratic Party was on the way to becoming morally and intellectually bankrupt. Three decades later, that ugly process is almost complete.

No matter who wins this coming election, unless there is a fundamental rethinking of what it means to be progressive in today’s America, the relentless drift toward right-wing plutocracy will continue. Slower if Barack Obama is re-elected, faster if Mitt Romney wins. In any serious rethinking of how to reverse this course, we’d be wise to learn from the experience of our collective past.

The Commoner campaign was a reaction to Jimmy Carter’s weak and conservative responses to the first cracks in the foundations of America’s post-World War II prosperity: the oil price crisis, the initial stages of wage stagnation and rising inequality and the recognition of environmental constraints on growth. As I have written elsewhere, [“Industrial Policy; The Road Not Taken,” The American Prospect, December 2009] by the late 1970s many people saw the warning signs of what was to come. Some business, labor, and congressional leaders proposed a form of national economic planning to try to shape the increasingly uncertain future, rather than be shaped by it.

Carter himself understood that the age of cheap oil was over. But he was an economic conservative. He believed that the problems of rising unemployment and oil-price driven inflation were best left to a combination of voluntary self-sacrifice and the free market. On energy, he lectured the public to reduce its use of heating in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer and pursued a fox-in-the-chicken coop strategy of giving fat contracts to multinational oil companies to find substitutes for their own product. As it turned out, Carter—although he has been our most liberal ex-president—was the transitional figure in our movement from the age of Roosevelt to the Age of Reagan.

Barry Commoner understood that the country’s troubles were systemic, and that the broken system was capitalism.

The ecological principle that everything is connected to everything else did not just apply to the natural world, but to everything—including poverty, war, and social injustice. Standalone piecemeal answers did not address the question we faced. He insisted it was far more efficient for government to prevent environmental destruction than to clean it up afterwards—a central rationale for planning ahead.

Commoner’s integrated analysis had parallels in the thinking of the most far-sighted economists of the time. Robert Theobold’s holistic economics questioned the simplistic worship of material growth. John Kenneth Galbraith viewed economics as embedded in social institutions whose values extended beyond the market.

Wassily Leontieff’s work on input-output models offered a tool for understanding and shaping the market for social ends. These and other progressive thinkers of the time were looking to what would have been the next stage of the New Deal/Great Society progression towards a more rational and democratic society.

But there was no political instrument for expressing this integrated view of the world. The Republican Party was on its way to being captured by the radical right, and the Democratic Party was rejecting the New Deal in favor of a mushy pro-business neo-liberalism.

The Citizens party was conceived in a hotel room at O’Hare airport in January 1979. No one of the small group of us present thought that we ourselves could build a national political institution from the top down. The idea was to use the next election (which at that time most people assumed would be between Gerry Ford and Jimmy Carter) to run a well-known a figure on the mainstream left to get attention and plant a political flag to the left of the Democratic Party around which people could mobilize. After the election the activists would have a national framework for building a sustainable, grass-roots electoral base.

Commoner’s own first choice of candidate was Ralph Nader. But Nader turned us down on the grounds—ironic, given his later presidential candidacy—that he was more effective staying out of electoral politics.

So Commoner it was. I co-chaired the committee that organized the Citizens Party and got him on the ballot in 30 states—no mean feat considering how high the legal cards are stacked against third parties in America. I also chaired much of the party’s raucous organizing and nominating convention in Cleveland, in which 250 delegates from around the country fell into the factional infighting that often seems endemic on the left. One delegate, a journalist from California who then went to Poland to report for The New Yorker on the Solidarity movement that toppled the communist dictatorship, later said that he could not have understood what was going on at a Solidarity national congress meeting had be not witnessed the politics of the Citizen’s Party convention: “Beat up on the leadership for three days and then re-elect them.”

We survived the convention and Commoner dove into the campaign. He was tireless, patient and eager to explain the connections between science and politics to whatever audiences we could organize. He was professorial and intense, with thick imposing glasses that seemed to have an intellectual life of their own. He didn’t have a stump speech. At each event he brought out his thick notebooks in which he’d been accumulating notes from the question-and-answer sessions of his last talk. It was perhaps the only time I have ever seen a candidate truly take seriously the idea that a campaign was an ongoing dialogue with his audience.

Along the way, Commoner inspired and was inspired by the energy and idealism of his audiences, especially those in small towns and rural areas where there were always people—no matter how conservative a political climate they lived in—who were willing to come out and support a radical alternative that made sense.

Some figures who were in those days well known on the left—Maggie Kuhn of the Grey Panthers, writer Studs Terkel, dissident Steelworker Union leader Ed Sadlowski—supported us. The established environmental movement turned its back; Commoner’s integration of ecology and social justice had little appeal for its upper-class leadership. The labor movement—committed to the Democratic Party—stayed away.

The mainstream media generally ignored the campaign. John Anderson, a moderate Republican congressman running as an independent, took up the space that might have gone to our third party. The New York Times gave us a couple of small stories and there was a short flurry of publicity when we raised enough money for a national radio ad in which Commoners described the agenda of the two mainstream parties as “bullshit.”

We received 234,294 votes—less than one percent. Not enough, thank God, to have been the cause of Carter’s loss to Reagan. But also not enough to make the Citizens Party a political magnet for more-experienced and mainstream progressive activists to take it to the next stage. The people initially involved, including me, went back to their day jobs. The few donors we had lost interest.

According to Dan Lieberman, who wrote a history of the Citizens Party, 40 percent of third-party efforts never make it past the first election. The Citizens Party did run a ticket in 1984 on a budget of $500,000 plus matching Federal funds of $140,000. But the two obscure nominees won only 72,200 votes. One year later, the party was gone.

Still, there was a legacy—some who had been touched by Commoner’s campaign moved on to successful political careers. A Vermont supporter named Bernie Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont a year later, and is now the most progressive voice in the U.S. Senate. Tom Andrews, a delegate from Maine to the Cleveland convention, went on to become a congressman. Another Citizens Party activist, Mark Ritchie, has been the elected Secretary of State of Minnesota since 2006. And scratch one of the older activists in the Green Party that was begun in 1991 and you’ll likely find a political past includes the Commoner campaign.

The Citizens Party clearly failed as a viable alternative. But our assumption about where the country was headed and the improbability of a Democratic Party dominated by big money to alter that direction turned out to be correct. Commoner’s insights on the way the world—natural and human—works were right on the money, too. The Blue-Green alliance is a reflection of his insistence that the labor and environmental movements have a common cause.

Today, with our socio-economic and environmental problems so much more visible, and the failure of our politics to cope with them so much more apparent, many people—almost all outside the Beltway—ask me whether we need a third party on the left. I’m skeptical. It’s not just the formidable legal barriers to ballot access erected by the Democratic/Republican duopoly. The more serious problems are political, including progressives’ fear of repeating the 2000 election, in which the Nader candidacy triggered the events that allowed the Supreme Court to hand the presidency to George W. Bush. Whether or not one believes the debacle was Nader’s fault, the nightmare haunts progressives as the Republican Party continues its relentless move to the extreme right.

For a third party of the left to move beyond the political margins, it will have to attract experienced people who for whatever reason are personally motivated to participate in politics. Most are already Democrats.

Those in the national leadership are hopeless. They primarily run a money machine. Before the election, it raises campaign contributions. After the election, it is a gathering place where the big donors can signal to those they have elected exactly what kind of return they expect on their investments.

But at the level of the precinct and neighborhood and union hall, the Democratic Party is not so much a formal institution as a volunteer social network. The reward for participation is membership in a politically compatible community that grows over time with the common experience of stuffing envelopes, knocking on doors, working in telephone banks. Win or lose, you know that there will be another election and another campaign when you get to be engaged again with old friends and make new ones.

Many Democrats in 1980 told us that Commoner made more sense than Jimmy Carter, or even Ted Kennedy, who challenged Carter for the nomination that year. But could they rely on the Citizens Party to take the place of their local Democratic community, to form a viable alternative year after year? Most people did not think so. And they were right. It takes time to grow political roots, and we didn’t have it.

A better way out of our political cul-de-sac would be through a national mobilization to drive out the big money in politics, which has now grown so monstrous since the Supreme Courts’ Citizens United decision that there is no hope of serious progress for any of our progressive causes unless we do. Large majorities of Democratic and Republican voters already believe the system is corrupt, and such a campaign would be a way to expose the reality that the crucial political divide is not between Democrats and Republicans today so much as it is between the moneyed classes that dominate both parties, and the rest of us. Whether that will lead to a new party or a transformed Democratic party is a question to be answered further down the road.

At any rate, after this dismal election, should progressives ponder a future outside the Democratic Party, they should certainly draw lessons from our collective history, like the Commoner Campaign of 1980.

In addition to the Citizens Party experience, I personally learned a lot from Barry Commoner. He taught me why the poor suffer most from pollution, why you should heat water with gas and drive motors with electricity, and why vodka gives you less of a hangover than scotch or bourbon. The last point being especially useful in times like these.

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