05/28/2008 11:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Green Mountain Uprising: The Quandary of Third-Party Politics

Last night, I joined U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in Burlington, Vermont to officially launch my new book, THE UPRISING (yes, I know - we look like we are wearing matching uniforms). During the day, I checked in with local politicos I know from my time working for Sanders a little less than a decade ago -- and it's clear the uprising is very much on in the Green Mountain State.

Vermont, you may remember, has one of the most powerful third parties in recent American history -- the Progressive Party. It controls seats in the state legislature and on the Burlington City Council, among others. Right now, as the bi-annual gubernatorial contest comes down the pike, the Progressives and Democrats are caught in a bit of a scuffle over the race. Progressive Party standard-bearer Anthony Pollina -- a progressive hero and community organizer -- a while ago announced his candidacy for governor, and now Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington has belatedly jumped into the race -- raising the question of whether the two will split the progressive vote and throw the election to incumbent Republican Jim Douglas? Already, reporters are speculating that a three-way race could be decided by the legislature.

In this scenario, the Progressive Party has a very difficult choice to make. Does Pollina stay in the race, knowing he's going to get billed (unfairly, I think) as a "spoiler," and participate in a situation that will serve the Republicans? Or will he get out and run for Lt. Governor - a race that is certainly lower-profile, but where he has a good shot to win, considering he's run statewide before?

These kinds of questions are ever present in third party uprisings -- even in fusion states like New York and Connecticut that allow smaller parties to cross-endorse the two major parties' candidates and therefore avoid the Nader-style either/or choice. When I reported on the Working Families Party in New York for THE UPRISING, I found that the "spoiler" question was always being considered by the party's strategists.

There is no easy answer to these kinds of questions. Though many liberals blame Ralph Nader for giving us President George W. Bush (an attack that I think is rather silly - Al Gore should have won outright and never let it be that close), third parties are perpetuating a corrupt two-party duopoly when they reflexively back down in the face of the "spoiler" charge. Then again, splitting the progressive vote between a third party and the Democratic Party does only serve the Republicans.

So what to do?

If the goal is turning today's populist uprising into a full-fledged social movement, then first thing's first: the third party movement has to focus on re-legalizing fusion voting in all states like it was 100 years ago. As THE UPRISING, shows, it was the early 20th century's very own Karl Rove - a guy named Mark Hanna - who orchestrated the campaign to ban fusion in most states, because he knew it was empowering progressives. Fusion -- though allowing for the "spoiler" - allows minor parties to wield power without making every choice one between spoiling or not spoiling (for more on how fusion creates power for third parties, see this earlier column I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle).

Short of re-legalizing fusion, third parties have to strategically use the "spoiler" threat as their nuclear weapon - the weapon only used very rarely, but at times when they can actually make Democrats the true spoilers. That brings us to Senator Bernie Sanders.

Back in 1988 when he was mayor of Burlington and first ran for the U.S. House, Democrats billed him as the "spoiler," but when the election results came in, he ran ahead of the Democratic candidate in the losing race to the Republican, Peter Smith. The next time around, Sanders leveraged the run to make the Democrats look like the spoiler - and he won the U.S. House seat, and ultimately moved onto the Senate.

Sanders made a strategic gamble - he bet he could overcome the "spoiler" charge. It was a pretty safe bet at the time -- he was a well-liked leader of his state's biggest population center and had a fabled field operation.

So, I'm not proposing any specific solution to this uprising challenges in Vermont, only saying that it is a difficult situation - and, as THE UPRISING, shows, one that uprisings tend to face as they mature into full-fledged movements. Partisan Democrats reflexively write off third parties - but our history shows they have been integral to uprisings in the past, whether the Populists 100 years ago or George Wallace and Ross Perot in modern times. Understanding how these parties can be the most effective uprising vehicles is essential to understanding how they can be used for progressive ends.

This is an ongoing blog series from the national book tour of The Uprising. You can order The Uprising at