Matt Damon and Third Party Politics

By Steve Hughes of Portland, Oregon. Steve is the state director of the Oregon Working Families Party.

Over the last two years, there's no denying that the Tea Party has shifted the boundaries of the political debate in Washington DC and in state capitols around the country dramatically to the right. No doubt, they did it with the help of a huge amount of corporate money -- not to mention their own cable channel; but you've got to admit, they struck a populist nerve.

If there's one lesson we should learn from all this, it's that there's nothing like an organized, grassroots movement operating outside the two party system to effect change. Indeed, the abolitionists, the suffragists, the populists and the civil rights movement all did just that. And if we fail to build enduring, independent political organizations today that can push Democrats and Republicans, the center of gravity for our national debate will shift ever further toward austerity, tax breaks for the wealthy, and policies that punish working people.

Matt Damon seems to agree. For a while now he has supported the Working Families Party as a viable alternative to the two major parties. As a recent article in Alternet put it:

Last year, [Damon] stumped for WFP in New York in a web video, urging voters to make a proud progressive stand on Election Day 2010 by voting for Democrats on the Working Families Party line (that's called "fusion" voting). In the video he points to the need for jobs, environmental protection and affordable mass transit as reasons to support the Working Families Party.

I’m not usually a fan of celebrity politics, but whether he has been standing up for teachers and teachers’ unions or speaking out about our military adventurism, Damon has gone above and beyond. Far from following the usual Hollywood playbook in which an A-Lister picks a hard-to-disagree-with cause to round out his or her public persona, Damon has taken on causes that some have deemed “unfashionable,” but we at the WFP believe are vitally important.

The WFP does not believe that “third party politics” should be synonymous with “marginal politics.” As the Alternet story continues:

But despite being a "third" party in what’s generally thought of as a two-party game, the Working Families Party has had some impressive successes in just the past year. In New York, WFP led the effort for a landmark Green Jobs initiative that will put tens of thousands of people to work retrofitting homes for energy efficiency – and saving homeowners on their utility bills in the process. In Connecticut, WFP won the nation’s first statewide law guaranteeing paid sick days for low-wage service workers. And in Oregon, WFP has put together an impressive coalition of small business, community bankers, family farmers and homeowners to limit Wall Street’s power over the local economy and make credit more available to Oregonians. [emphasis added]

Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, the United States is not now, and has never been exclusively a two party kind of country. The abolitionist and populist parties proved this to earlier generations, and unfortunately the Tea Party is proving it now.

This history is surely not lost on Matt Damon. (Who can forget his plug for A People’s History of the United States in the movie Good Will Hunting?) So, no, it is not “fashionable,” but by supporting the Working Families Party Matt Damon IS putting his money where his mouth is, and in doing so helping support a growing grassroots movement dedicated to standing up for working people and going toe-to-toe with America’s Tea Party politics.

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    Go Steve! WFP! My favorite party in Oregon.

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    Wait... So the gigantically funded Tea (not a) Party is an example of grassroots movement??

    Is the latest burger from McDonald's striking a populist nerve too?

    Until we get our election system changed, there is next to no chance for a third party system to do much of anything. They lack the money, they lack the networks, and they defiantly lack the corporate sponsorship.

    Public financing and/or Instant Runoff Voting would catapult third parties into viability. Until then, the best they might be able to do is to add an issue to the pre-primary debates.

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      Steve -- thanks for the thoughtful piece.

      Jason -- I agree that the Tea Party is not the shining example of third-party politics. Yes, they're funded by deep corporate pockets and they have no party of their own except for their massive influence on the GOP and their erosion of what was, to start with, a pretty meager moderate conservative bloc. You should acknowledge the populist/grassroots claims to the extent they're true, and dismiss anything beyond as the astroturf it is.

      I also agree that election system reform is necessary. But what really holds third-party candidates and efforts back isn't just structural; it is psychological. Every time a 3rd party candidate starts sounding formidable, the ideologically closest major party scares voters into voting in line with the major party, citing the specter of a splintered base. It's the "You're either with us or with the [other party]" mindset. Until voters can confront and overcome these fear tactics, 3rd party candidates face a seemingly impassible road.

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        But that is true, to some extent. We have seen in the last few years quite a few situations where a third party shaped the outcome on one side or the other. Granted, it was usually an already weak runner (Bush and Perot, or Nader and Gore), but the reason that the third party gained traction (to my thinking, at least) was not because they were exceptional, but rather because the base that was finding it hard to stay to a candidate was attracted by the novelty.

        This is why the Tea Party is interesting. They adopt the mask of an outsider ("We aren't Republicans, we are the TEA PARTY!") while at the same time reinforcing the base (Every single Tea Candidate is a Repub). This WFP appears to mirror that idea. The question is whether it will separate enough to get that novelty feel to it, or will it be yet another endorsement, like the Unions or DAR or similar groups.

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      What you say in paragraphs 3 & 4 is true to a degree, but it's important to note that Oregon has already adopted a version of fusion voting that makes 3rd parties like the WFP more relevant than they are in other states. WFP has already had some success moving policy.

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    Matt Damon? The guy from South Park?

    Wasn't too long ago when the left was completely dismissive of the tea party movement. Then came the elections.

    It's a mistake to write off so-called "teabaggers" as right-wing extremists and it's origins are more grass roots than many. There are a lot of folks from slightly left of center to far right who are extremely dissatisfied with both major parties. They might identify as Independent, Libertarian or Social Conservatives. These groups are growing in number with little appetite for more progressive democrats or neoconservative republicans. Of course the tea party is not a third party. The Republican, Libertarian or Constitution parties would get those votes.

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      Actually, there was a political survey across a statistically significant sample size done several years ago, made more fascinating because it was done before the teabaggers came into being.

      Their conclusions were as follows: before Teabaggers were Teabaggers, they were nearly all extremely conservative, nearly all Republican, and far more to have been involved in politics members of the regular population. Mostly, they were fanatic "Christian" Dominionists who come from the South (not the North East).

      While some on the far left believe that Teabaggers are a purely astroturf group - that they don't actually exist except in the fevered news stories on FOX showing sparsely attended rallies - the truth is that they do exist, and have always inflicted themselves on America.

      To a certain degree, one might almost say that it's a good thing they've taken off the hoods and stopped the "Christian" practice of burning crosses on black people's lawns. I only wish Democratic politicians would stand up to them a little bit more, instead of giving them an effective veto over getting the country back on the right track.

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        There is no 'Tea Party'.

        There certainly are 'Teabaggers' however. These are the same people who came out against the civil rights movements, and against suffrage, and against emancipation, and for preventing the Chinese from flooding our land in search of work on the railroads, and against the Irish flooding our cities, and against the Red Devils from taking our women and horses, and against the French or Spanish or Dutch or Catholics or Anglicans and so on and so on until the first colonies on this continent. (Before that too, but I'm keeping this an American story for this point)

        They have always been with us, and centuries from now they'll be out protesting cyborg lifeforms or for keeping out people born on the Moon or Mars from taking our jobs...

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      1) South Park? Trey Parker and Matt Stone once made a joke about Matt Damon in Team America, but I didn't know that Damon had anything to do with South Park...

      2) From the looks of things, the right was pretty dismissive of the Tea Party. And from the sudden outpouring of recall elections, a lot of so-called 'teabaggers' are pretty upset at them too.

      3) The people who are dissatisfied with the left generally cite the lack of leftist policies from them. In America, we have a centrist and far-right division, made even more so by the emergence of the so-called 'teabaggers'.

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    Well there you have it. All who take issue with some of the policies of Barack Obama or the progressive left are Klansmen. Well done Sir. If nothing else, you're most adept at pouring gasoline on a fire.

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      I didn't say "all", and it is disingenuous for you to suggest I did. There are always more than a few deluded fools who follow any movement.

      However, it is absolutely true that most of the old racist southerners who fought integration tooth and nail, cheered Gov. Wallace's actions, called race-mixing "communism", and switched to the GOP when the Democrats decided to stop being racist, haven't actually died yet.

      And these are the exact same people who are now screaming about that 'socalist kenyan muslin in the whitehouse'. The racist signs they hold up at their rallies, displayed with nary a peep of protest from their fellow travelers, are a dead giveaway. As is the fact that they're fans of Rush Limbaugh (who told a black caller to "pull the bone out of her nose").

      I would love to believe that the Oregon version of teabagers are somehow better, but talk to one and scratch the surface about their views on "government spending", and you find out most are not at all against benefits for their own deserving selves and wars they love, they just think too much money is wasted on those people, the identity of whom they never quite state, because they know its unacceptable to say openly. And it's wasted through phantom programs they think exists but don't, because they don't know much about anything.

      Truth, plainly stated, is often uncomfortable. Inflammatory, even. However, it remains the truth.

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      Bravo! Way to ignore the tons of criticisms that both sides have poured upon this administration's decisions. I really do admire anyone with the upper body strength to paint with that broad of a brush.

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    I love the idea of a third party devoted to the concerns of working people. (Seems like we used to have one, but I digress.) The problem is, I question the thesis that the US isn't a two-party country. Rare cases offer support, and the institutional power of the current two parties means we need big election reform (which must come from the parties themselves...good luck) before it's possible.

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    I don't care whether the US is two-party country, a three-party country, or a ten-party country. The WFP might be just what we need to get progressives' hearts pumping again.

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    Today I registered to vote at my new address, and once again checked the Working Families Party box!

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    Steve, has there been any discussion of cross-endorsing among small parties using fusion lite? E.g. WFP/Progressive/Independent (or other permutations w/ Pacific Green)?

    I tried to ask this question at a Portland WFP meeting in July, and took the answer to be "no" since the question appeared to be so far from WFP practice as to be incomprehensible. Everyone rushed to assure me that WFP had endorse a Republican in Pendleton for state leg., which wasn't what I was asking.

    The examples you cite (abolitionists, People's Party) were not afraid to be "spoilers" and had a credible exit threat. WFP makes a big point of not being a spoiler. Tea Party works inside RP primaries for their threat. WFP seems to be doing some good things but I still don't see a cohesive strategy.

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    Of course a large number of those "racist southerners" mentioned well might have been registered Democrats, eh Steve?

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    I'm late getting to this, but want to say thanks for airing it here. When I saw Matt Damon make the speech, I felt good for a whole day.

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    It's tempting to think of the TEA Party as a grass roots movement but in fact it's the lawn mower. This heavily funded movement wouldn't be to square ZERO if not for the "liberal" media gyrating every time 15 Tea partiers get together and start skwakin about how gov't better lay off their medicare. what do you hear about the 1200+ people who just got arrested for trying to block the tar sands project? ZERO. Grass roots movements are not lead from the top, they are base that supports the upper load.

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