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The U.S. ‘Six-Party System,’ Ver. 5.0

We can best understand the major political parties in the U.S. as constantly changing coalitions with no firm commitment to program or discipline. The electoral strategic terrain is constantly changing...

Democratic National Convention 2012.,Photo by Anthony Quintano from Westminster, US, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2014, I first suggested setting aside the traditional “two-party system” frame for US politics, which obscures far more than it reveals, and making use of a “six-party” model instead. Every two years, I’ve revised the model, and now, with the November 2022 elections coming up, it’s time for another update. What follows is an abbreviated version of the explanation; you can read it in full here.

 Some critics have objected to my use of the term “party” for factional or interest group clusters. The point is taken, but I would also argue that the major parties in the U.S., in general, are not ideological parties in the European sense. Instead, they are constantly changing coalitions of these clusters with no firm commitment to program or discipline.

The Democratic and the Republican Party each contain three such clusters, as they have since 2016. Under the Democratic tent, the three main groups remain as the Blue Dogs, the Third Way Centrists and the Rainbow Social Democrats. The GOP umbrella covers Donald Trump’s Rightwing Populists, the Christian Nationalists, and the Never-Trumpers.

But since our last update in 2018, the question of a clear and present danger of fascism has moved from the margins to the center of political discourse. Far from an ongoing abstract debate, we are now watching its hidden elements come to light every day in the media. We also see the ongoing machinations in the GOP hierarchy and in state legislatures reshaping election laws in their favor. Now, the question is not whether a fascist danger exists, but how to fight and defeat it.

So here’s the new snapshot of the range of forces for today.

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The Six-Party System

The Right-wing Populists

This “party,” as mentioned, has taken over the GOP and is now tightening its grip.

The economic core of right-wing populism remains anti-global “producerism versus parasitism.” Employed workers, business owners, real estate developers, small bankers are all “producers.” They oppose “parasite” groups above and below, but mainly those below them—the unemployed (“Get a Job!” as an epithet), the immigrants, poor people of color, Muslims, and “the Other” generally. When they attack those above, the target is usually George Soros, a Jew.

Recall that Trump entered politics by declaring Obama to be an illegal alien and an illegitimate officeholder (a parasite above), but quickly shifted to Mexicans and Muslims and anyone associated with Black Lives Matter. This aimed to pull out the fascist and white supremacist groups of the “Alt Right”–using Breitbart and worse to widen their circles, bringing them closer to Trump’s core. With these fascists as ready reserves, Trump reached farther into Blue Dog territory, and its better-off workers, retirees, and business owners conflicted with white identity issues—immigration, Islamophobia, misogyny, and more. Today they still largely make up the audience at his mass rallies.

Trump’s outlook is not new. It has deep roots in American history, from the anti-Indian ethnic cleansing of President Andrew Jackson to the nativism of the Know-Nothings, to the nullification theories of John C. Calhoun, to the lynch terror of the KKK, to the anti-elitism and segregation of George Wallace and the Dixiecrats. Internationally, Trump combines aggressive jingoism, threats of trade wars, and an isolationist ‘economic nationalism’ aimed at getting others abroad to fight your battles for you. At the same time, your team picks up the loot (“We should have seized and kept the oil!”).

Trump’s GOP still contains his internal weaknesses: the volatile support of distressed white workers and small producers. At present, they are still forming a key social base. But the problem is that Trump did not implement any substantive programs apart from tax cuts. These mainly benefited the top 10% and created an unstable class contradiction in his operation. Most of what Trump has paid out is what WEB Dubois called the “psychological wage” of “whiteness,” a dubious status position. White supremacist demagogy and misogyny will also continue to unite a wide array of all nationalities of color and many women and youth against him.

Trump’s religious ignorance, sexual assaults and a porn star scandal always pained his alliance with the Christian Nationalist faction (Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos, et. al.), and the DeVos family (Amway fortune). They were willing to go along with Trump’s amoral lifestyle for the sake of his pending judicial appointments. The Feb 7, 2022 5-4 Supreme Court ruling on gerrymandering  against Black voters in Alabama is only one case in point. The Trump-Christian alliance, nonetheless, has become more frayed since Jan. 6 and the ‘Hang Mike Pence’ spectacle. 

The Christian Nationalists

This “party” grew from a subset of the former Tea Party bloc. It’s made up of several Christian rightist trends developed over decades, which gained more coherence under Vice President Mike Pence. It includes conservative evangelicals seeking to recast a patriarchal and racist John Wayne into a new warrior version of Jesus.

A good number of Christian nationalists are Protestant theocracy-minded fundamentalists, especially the “Dominionist” sects in which Ted Cruz’s father was active. The ‘End Times’ Domininists present themselves as the only true, “values-centered” (Biblical) conservatives. They argue against any kind of compromise with the globalist “liberal-socialist bloc,” which ranges, in their view, from the GOP’s Mitt Romney to Bernie Sanders. They are more akin to classical liberalism than neoliberalism in economic policy. This means abandoning nearly all regulations, much of the safety net, overturning Roe v. Wade, getting rid of marriage equality (in the name of ‘religious liberty’) and abolishing the IRS and any progressive taxation in favor of a single flat tax.

The classic liberalism of most Christian Nationalist is also a key reason they attract money from the Koch Brothers networks. While the Kochs hold Trump and his populists in some contempt, the Christian Nationalist faction has access to Koch funds and its American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) legislative projects, along with access to the DeVos fortunes. Effectively, Christian nationalist prosperity economics amounts to affirmative action for the better-off, where the rise of the rich is supposed to pull everyone else upwards. Those below must also pay their tithes and pull upward with their “bootstraps.”  They argue for neo-isolationism on some matters of foreign policy. But as “Christian Zionists” they favor an all-out holy war on “radical Islamic terrorism,” to the point of “making the sand glow” with the use of nuclear weapons. They pushed for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and ripping up the Iran nuclear deal. All this is aimed at greasing the skids for the “End Times” and the “Second Coming.” With Cruz, Pence and DeVos as leaders, they have become the second most powerful grouping under the GOP tent, and the one with the most reactionary platform and outlook, even more so than Trump himself in some ways.

The Establishment Neoliberal ‘RINOs’

This is the name now widely used in the media for what we previously labeled the Multinationalists. It’s mainly the upper crust and neoliberal business elites that have owned and run the GOP for years, but they are now largely out in the cold. This neoliberal grouping included the quasi-libertarian House Freedom Caucus, the smaller group of NeoCons on foreign policy (John Bolton and John McCain), and the shrinking number of RINO (Republican In Name Only) moderates in The Lincoln Project. The Establishment also favors a globalist, U.S. hegemonist, and even, at times, a unilateralist approach abroad, with some still defending the Bush-Cheney disaster in Iraq. Their prominent voice today is Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

We also need to keep in mind the global backdrop to these shifts. The worldwide process of technology-driven financialization has divided the ruling class of late capitalism in every major country into three—a local sector of the transnational capitalist class, the nation-based multinationals, and an anti-globalist national sector. Thus among traditional U.S. neoliberals, some are U.S. hegemonists, but many have a transnational globalist understanding of the world with vast amounts of their money in foreign stock. China and global value chains integrate them with other global capitalists. This is why Trump’s trade policy is so controversial with Wall Street elites of both Republican and Democratic leanings. U.S. economic hegemony makes no sense at this financial and productive integration level. The global three-way division also serves to explain why Trump’s rightwing populism, despite its American characteristics, is connected to the rightwing nationalist-populist rise in all European countries. He is not ‘explainable’ in American terns alone.

This subordination is a big change for the traditional GOP top dogs. They would like to purge a weakened Trump from the party and rebuild, but so far lack the ability. They could try to form a new party with neoliberal Dems. Or, more likely, they could join the Dems and try to push out or smother those to the left of the Third Way grouping. At the moment, however, the much-weakened GOP’s old Establishment is left with the choice of surrender, or crossing over to the Third Way bloc under the Dem tent. A good number already did so to vote for Biden in the Dem 2020 primary and general, expanding the Dem electorate to the right.

Now let’s turn to the Dem tent, starting at the top of the graphic.

The Blue Dogs

The Blue Dog grouping has close ties to big corporate interests, including the fossil fuel and health insurance industries and Big Pharma. It has PACs “that raise millions of dollars every cycle from hundreds of corporate PACs, then send maximum donations of $10,000 back out to their members and more business-friendly Democratic House candidates.”

This small “party” has persisted and gained some energy. The recent effort of West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin to block or gut Biden’s reforms is a case in point. One earlier reason was that the United Steel Workers and a few craft unions had decided to work with Trump on tariffs and trade. The USW also got firmly behind Connor Lamb (D-PA) for Congress. Lamb won a narrow victory in a rural, conservative Western Pennsylvania congressional district, but with many USW miners’ votes. He was endorsed by the Blue Dog PAC, although he is not a formal member of the caucus. Getting into a nearly physical floor fight with the GOP over Jan. 6 “radicalized” Lamb a bit, moving him leftward.

But the small Blue Dog resurgence may not last. On the one hand, the DNC Third Way gang currently loves people like Lamb, and wants to see more candidates leaning to the center and even the right. On the other hand, an unstable Trump out of office has little to offer on major infrastructure plans save for “Build The Wall” chanting at rallies. His potential votes among USW and other union members may shrink.

The Third Way New Democrats

First formed by the Clintons, with international assistance from Tony Blair and others, this dominant “party” was funded by Wall Street finance capitalists. The founding idea was to move toward neoliberalism by creating distance between themselves and the traditional Left-labor-liberal bloc, i.e., the traditional unions and civil rights groups still connected to the New Deal legacy. Another part of Third Way thinking was to shift the key social base away from the core of the working class toward college-educated suburban voters, but keeping alliances with Black and women’s groups still functional.

Thus the Third Way had tried to temper the harsher neoliberalism of the GOP by ‘triangulating’ to find neo-Keynesian and left-Keynesian compromise policies. The overall effect has been to move Democrats and their platform generally rightward. With Hillary Clinton’s narrow defeat, the Third Way’s power in the party diminished somewhat, but it gained clout with the Biden victory.

As mentioned above, its labor alliances have weakened, with unions now going in three directions. Most of labor has remained with the Third Way. Some moved rightward to the Blue Dogs while others—Communications Workers, National Nurses United, and the U.E.—endorsed Bernie Sanders and are part of the social-democratic bloc. Regarding the current relation of forces in the party apparatus, the Third Way has about 60% of the positions and still controls the major money.  

The key test was the November 2020 battle with Trump: Which political grouping under the Dem tent in 2020 inspired and mobilized new forces within the much-needed ‘Blue Wave’, gave it focus and put the right numbers in the right places? This question brings us to the last of the six “parties.”

The Rainbow Social Democrats

This description is better than simply calling it the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), as this article’s first version did. I’ve kept the “Rainbow” designation because of the dynamic energy of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad. (The Third Way has kept the older and more pragmatic voters of the rainbow groupings under its centrist influence.)

The “Social Democrat” title doesn’t mean each leader or activist here is in a social-democrat or democratic socialist group like DSA. It means the core groups–the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), Working Families Party (WFP), Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Justice Democrats and Our Revolution and Indivisible—all have platforms that are roughly similar to the left social democrat groupings in Europe. Germany’s Die Linke’s election platform, for example, is not that different from Bernie’s or the Working Families Party. This is made even more evident with AOC and Bernie’s self-descriptions as “democratic socialists” in the 2020 primaries and the general election, where it only seemed to help. The platform, however, is not socialist itself, but best described as a common front against finance capital, war, and the white supremacist and fascist right. This is true of groups like Die Linke as well, which met recently with PDA and Congressional Progessive Caucus members.

This grouping has also been energized by the dramatic growth of the DSA since the 2016 Sanders campaign. Now with nearly 100.000 members and chapters in every state, DSA has already won a few local and statehouse races. They are now an important player in their own right within these local clusters.

This overall growth of this “party” is all for the good. The common front approach of the Social Democratic bloc can unite more than a militant minority of people who identify as socialists. It can draw a progressive majority together around both immediate needs and structural reforms, expressed in a platform like the “Third Reconstruction” program championed by the Poor People’s Campaign.

What does it all mean?

With this brief descriptive and analytical mapping of American politics, many things are falling into place. The formerly subaltern rightist groupings in the GOP have risen in revolt against the Neoliberal Establishment of the Cheneys, Romneys and the Bushes. Now they have rightwing populist and white nationalist hegemony. The GOP, then, can be accurately called the party of the neo-Confederates and the main target of a popular, anti-fascist front. Under the other tent, the Third Way is seeking a new post-neoliberal platform, through President Joe Biden’s reforms. The progressive-center unity of the earlier Obama coalition, with all its constituency alliances, is still in place. At the same time, the Third Way still wants to co-opt and control the Social Democrats as an energetic but critical secondary ally. The Sanders forces have few illusions about this pressure on them, and don’t want to be anyone’s subaltern without a fight. So we on the Left are continuing to press all our issues, but adapting some policies to the common front against the fascist right. If we work well, we will build more base organizations, more alliances, and more clout as we go.

[Carl Davidson is a national committee member of the Committee of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a DSA member in the Steel Valley, an activist with Progressive Democrats of American in Western PA's 17th CD, and a LeftRoots Compa. The views expressed here are his own.]