For American Socialists, there’s good news and bad news

April 26, 2013
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 25: The Federal Election Commission meets on bring your child to work day on April, 25, 2013 in Washington, DC. Pictured, Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub, left, and Vice Chair Donald McGahn II, question witness Craig Engle, center, on a point about contributions from same sex married couples. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 25:
The Federal Election Commission meets on April, 25, 2013 in Washington, DC. Pictured, Commission Chair Ellen Weintraub, left, and Vice Chair Donald McGahn II, question witness Craig Engle, center, on a point about contributions from same sex married couples.
(Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

For the Socialist Workers Party, the Federal Election Commission had good news and bad news Thursday.

First, the good news: It doesn't have to disclose the identities of its contributors, the political committees and candidates it either backs or receives support from, those lending money to it, and people it pays for services.

Now the bad news: It only gets this special treatment -- which it has enjoyed since 1979, with multiple extensions -- because it was persecuted in the past, and it is a minor party largely irrelevant to the modern political process.

The FEC advisory opinion, which the commission approved on a 4 to 1 vote, lists several reasons that American Socialists are on the margins nowadays:

1. "Despite proffering a presidential candidate in every election since 1948 and numerous other candidates for Federal, State and local offices, no SWP candidate has ever been elected to public office in a partisan election," the opinion reads.

2. The Socialist Workers Party presidential candidates are losing ground at the ballot box, getting 3,509 votes in 2012 compared to 9,827 in 2008 and 10,791 in 2004.

3. As of Oct. 20, 2012, only 118 people made contributions to the party this year, and it raised a total of $16,087.

Plenty of campaign experts were watching the case to see if it has broader implications for what other groups have to disclose about their donors, but it's unclear what ripple effects the decision will have. The lawyer representing the SWP before the commission, Lindsey Frank, made a point of saying that protecting American Socialists from public disclosure isn't the same thing as shielding donors weighing in on other controversial political issues such as gay marriage or gun control.

Noting that those involved in the battle over California's Proposition 8, banning gay marriage, raised more than $7 million, Frank said, "It was clearly not a debate that can be described as representing a minor party or an idea outside the mainstream."

So what does Steve Clark, chairman of the Socialist Workers National Campaign Committee, think of his party's current status?

"We think that with the capitalist crisis that's dragged out over the past five to six years, we've found an increasing responsiveness to what we've had to say," Clark said. "It's true right now we don't judge our progress right now on electoral victories. We're focused on organizing, mobilizing and being part of the struggle of working people around the world."

So between that and the FEC's new ruling, American Socialists can only go up from here.

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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