Twin Cities Area New Party (TCANP) and The Tyranny of the Two-party System

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Political Education Snippet #7

Frances Fox Piven in 2019 — Author with her spouse Richard Clower of Poor People’s Movements. Her ideas were foundational to the New Party. Photo credit — Valerie Chiang for the New York Times.

Lisa Disch’s book, The Tyranny of the Two-Party System, after both a preface and Introduction, opens Chapter 1 – “The Politics of Electoral Fusion 1994-1997,” with the following paragraph: 

At a sparsely attended press conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, on July 18, 1994, a third party and an incumbent state legislator made a historic announcement. They proposed to file the state’s first fusion candidacy in nearly a century. The proposed alliance would have joined the Twin Cities Area New Party to the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party behind the candidacy of Representative Andy Dawkins. TCANP was the Minneapolis-St. Paul chapter of the national New Party.

-Disch, The Tyranny of the Two-Party System

What is fusion? This question is the central thesis of her book, and needless to say, gets answered – and analyzed – over and over again. But here is a basic intro for those who need it. 

Former MN State Rep. Dawkins in 2014 — photo credit — By Jthaines — Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34532888

Full disclosure – I was in that room. Perhaps it was sparsely attended, but it was a tiny room in the State Senate building, at least in my recollection. Andy Dawkins was there, and by that time I had come to know him fairly well, as we, the organizing core of the TCANP and Dawkins, discussed the pros and cons of what we were about to do. Several of the other people mentioned in the book were probably there: M. J. Maynes, Erik Jensen, Sunday Alabi. And some that were not mentioned – probably Steve Macek and Jim Davnie. The presser was covered by the main TV outlets, the Pioneer Press, in a tiny one-incher, and some weeklies, and Erik Escola, who covered politics for MPR.  

For what it is, Disch’s book is a good book. Being an academic book, it’s very narrowly focused. It leaves out most of my favorite characters, events, and wild crazy stories about organizing with the New Party. And it ends with the election of Jesse Ventura, which is a little bit weird, because this is not really tied into the other themes of the book. (Just in case you didn’t know, there was no connection between Ventura and the TCANP, which was called Progressive Minnesota by that time anyway.) The big bang moment of Ventura’s election in 1998 opens the Introduction, before Chapter 1, and somewhat upstages the “historic announcement” of 1994. 

Steve Macek and Debra Keefer chairing the founding convention of the Twin Cities Area New Party

Primarily the problem with Disch’s book is that it’s all about fusion. And that’s fair, because the New Party was all about fusion, at least in the years of the chapter heading, 1994-1997. But that boat has sailed. Fusion is never going to save us from the tyranny of the two-party system. So the most helpful and relevant thing about this book is its explanation of how the two-party system came to be and still is enshrined as a pillar of American democracy, when in fact, it is a weight buckling its pillars and deforming it to something – tyrannical. 

Another problem is timing. The publication date is 2002. So it was after the equally historic election of 2000, in which the spoiler effect, which fusion was specifically meant to avoid, played such a big part. But that election could not really be included in this book, due to timing, and in any case, that would have been a very different book. 

The New Party nationally and Progressive MN were still in existence in 2000, but I was in England and not following US politics that much. My attention was wrenched back to the US by three catastrophic events in a row between 2001 and 2003 – 9/11, the death of Paul Wellstone 11 days before the Senate election that might have returned him for a third term, and the military incursions leading to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the things that I thought was weird to be left out of Disch’s book was Wellstone’s relationship with the New Party. He is not even mentioned. 

Paul Wellstone was probably the highest ranking incumbent to accept a Progressive MN “fusion” candidacy in the brief time that it was legal in Minnesota. He was technically both a DFL and a Progressive MN candidate in 1996. Why, if the book I’m reviewing and this article are all about fusion, and fusion would supposedly be a good thing, do I put it in quotes? As was explained very thoroughly in Disch’s book, after the second ruling in Timmons vs. Twin Cities Area New Party, which said that anti-fusion laws were unconstitutional, MN politicians scrambled to respond. Although they were required by the ruling to allow fusion, neither the ruling nor the lawsuit said anything about the ballot. The State of Minnesota claimed that it was impossible for them to put the candidate’s name on there twice, or even to put little checkboxes below where the voter could communicate on which party “line” they were voting for the fusion candidate. The upshot of this was that though it was legal to say you were running on two lines, it was not effective, so the whole point of fusion was lost. Being on the New Party line, running as Progressive MN, just became another endorsement, which means that Progressive MN had ceased to be fully a party before it had ever achieved a single win. 

In my view, then as now, the only reasonable response to this would be that some candidates had to run on just the New Party line. But the process of progressive DFLers smothering the New Party – or Progressive MN if you insist – to death with their love had already begun. As far as I know, the only person ever to run for any office in MN solely on the Progressive MN ballot line was – me. In 1997, I ran for Minneapolis Library Board as one of a field of ten candidates running for six seats. This was before ranked choice voting, and before the library was handed over to the county, thus abolishing the elected Library Board positions. I came in seventh, just 50 some votes behind number six, who was also a Progressive MN, but who sought and gained DFL endorsement. 

I would love to see a very different book, written not about the failed policy of fusion, but about how the New Party began, how many disparate points in the moribund American Left of its time it touched, and especially, what became of it in the 21st Century. Among other stories, this book would tell about how a young Black organizer with a funny sounding name came to run on a fusion ticket with the Chicago New Party and the Democratic Party, how a flawed but impressive organization called ACORN joined forces with the New Party to fight for poor people, and how shadowy forces in politics sacrificed both the New Party and especially ACORN to get a few people elected who were supposed to Change the World but obviously didn’t. But at least we have this excellent expose of the tyranny at the heart of our democracy, and a few imperfect but wistful memories of the Twin Cities Area New Party. 

Joel Rogers, a major founder of and spokesperson for the New Party

Timmons v. TCANP, in Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School
A brief history of Timmons – MN Supreme Court ruled against TCANP, Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, SCOTUS overturned Court of Appeals. The above is the SCOTUS decision of April 1997. 

What is Fusion (PDF) from Oregon Working Families Party  

Utne Reader piece on The New Party 1996

How the ACORN scandal seeded today’s nightmare politics (Huff Post, 2018)

by Deb K R