How to Save the Democratic Party: Replies
The author longs for a party that will lead the people toward justice and equality. No such party exists on the planet, and it is doubtful that in the global society, national parties can claim the power to lead in this way. It’s hard to imagine that an ideologically coherent left party can win an electoral majority given the economic, racial, regional and social cleavages within the working and middle classes. Runner greatly exaggerates the capacity of a political party, even if it controlled the government, to lead major change, given the structures of economic power in global and domestic society. Worse, although Runner acknowledges that there is a growing Democratic left wing in Congress and at the grassroots, the author provides no strategic idea about how that left might organize and for what objectives, other than to stop alleged compromises with corporate power. Runner wants to return to the principles of the New Deal and Great Society, forgetting that in their day, people on the left understood those policy frameworks as compromises with corporate interests and criticized the FDR and LBJ administrations because they were strongly influenced by business—and, in the New Deal era, racist—interests. What worked then, and is working now, is the collective action and mass protests of social movements—movements that are the voting base of the Democratic Party. What’s most missing now is an articulated agenda aimed at expanding electoral democracy, promoting social investment in the green economy and infrastructure (financed by reduced military spending and by taxes on finance and wealth), and improving individual and social wages. Policy proposals directed in these ways are circulating widely; organized effort, inside and outside the Democratic Party, using all avenues for expression and action, now have an opportunity to make real gains. That’s a more promising path than one focused on intraparty infighting.
Dick Flacks taught sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for forty years and is the author of Making History: The American Left and the American Mind. He was an early leader of SDS and has been an activist, locally and nationally, ever since. He blogs at sb.city2.org/blogs/rflacks.
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Dorian T. Warren
There is much to agree with in L.R. Runner’s diagnosis of the failings of the Democratic Party and call to re-“occupy” it. Yet Runner’s prescriptions for empowering the “democratic wing of the Democratic Party” to deal with the multitude of problems between the party and progressives leaves much to be desired. I’d suggest two additional points.
First, political parties are creatures of social movements (or the lack thereof). Can you think of a time when a party has ever led on a social justice issue, absent a disruptive movement? The expectation that somehow the Democratic Party will step out in any progressive direction on its own is naïve. And for better or worse, the emergence of the Occupy movement had little effect on the Democratic Party, which was never considered strategically important by the movement. Runner argues that movements “cannot play the necessary role” for transformational change in American society. I disagree. While social movements might be necessary, but not sufficient, for large-scale transformations in politics and achieving social justice, they are still absolutely necessary. After all, political parties operating during “normal” times rarely achieve transformational change; it is only in concert with active and disruptive social movements at extraordinary moments that we’ve seen giant leaps forward in making America a more just society. History bears this out. The abolitionist movement gave wind to the Radical Republicans in the Civil War–era Republican Party. A populist push by the unemployed and a workers’ movement, often undergirded by the Communist Party, was critical in pushing FDR and the Democratic Party to usher in the New Deal. And, of course, the civil rights movement, in all its diversity but with a militant left flank, pushed LBJ and the Democratic Party to pass the transformational legislation of the 1960s around racial and economic justice. Put simply: no movement, no transformation.
Second, it will be impossible to reform the Democratic Party without a plan and a strategy to achieve true voting reform. We have fifty separate and unequal voting systems in this country, and the rules of the game are stacked against broad access for citizens to participate as well as for viable third parties. Runner’s seventh fundamental principle should be a universal right to vote, guaranteed by the Constitution and enforced by the federal government.
Dorian T. Warren, a Nation editorial board member, is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and an associate professor of political science and public affairs at Columbia University.
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Cities are the engine of economic growth—and of a renewed progressive politics as well.
You want a strong economy, where workers earn a living wage with adequate benefits and sick leave? Cities that welcome immigrants instead of aggressively deporting them? Investments in sustainable infrastructure to create jobs, improve transportation and save our environment? Participatory budgeting that involves people in democratic governance? Then you’ll love Local Progress, a brand-new national network of progressive local elected officials working for “broadly shared prosperity, equal justice under law, sustainable and livable cities, and good government that serves the public interest effectively.”
Local Progress is one answer to L.R. Runner’s call for the “moral imperatives, policy ideas, broad popular support [and] elected officials necessary to lead the nation” in the direction of social justice and opportunity. Through Local Progress, municipal officials will share policy innovations, legislation and organizing strategies; collaborate to advance key campaigns; and elevate the national dialogue.
Local Progress is not a partisan organization, although its members are proudly progressive. We come from deep blue cities like Seattle, Madison and San Francisco, and from places like Westminster, Colorado, where we make common cause with others. We are elected officials who know that it takes social movements to create real change. Building power at the local level means working closely with labor unions, community groups, and grassroots and netroots activists. At our founding gathering in November in Washington, DC, we heard rousing speeches from SEIU president Mary Kay Henry and Joel Rogers (a Nation contributing editor). Our core partners include the Public Leadership Institute and the Center for Popular Democracy, and we’ll be adding many more soon. After decades of rising inequality, rebuilding America requires smart and sustained coordination between progressive advocacy groups and elected leaders.
Just as the New Deal was built on the foundation of state and city reforms, rebuilding America in the twenty-first century requires that we organize and fight for progress in our own backyards.
Brad Lander is co-chair of the New York City Council’s Progressive Caucus. For more on Local Progress, go to localprogress.et.
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Yes, of course: either the Democratic Party needs to embrace the progressive beliefs of the majority, or a third party needs to emerge. But this essay misses the fact that our representation is already shifting to the left, slowly and subtly. Before the 2010 elections, there were fifty-four Blue Dogs in Congress; in a month, there will be fourteen. Meanwhile, the Congressional Progressive Caucus—already the largest and most robust in the party, with seventy-six members—anticipates adding a dozen new ones. The demographics of the Senate Democrats have also shifted. Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln are gone. Now we have Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin and Chris Murphy.
Our organization, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which provides deep support to progressive candidates in the form of fundraising, volunteers, and technical assistance and training, saw a huge groundswell of excitement and support from our members this cycle. Thousands of volunteers made 2 million phone calls for candidates in the month before the election. When we polled states like Montana, Missouri and Ohio, we found that big majorities supported more progressive taxation than anything discussed in Washington today. When we polled in Vermont and New Hampshire, we found that voters supported single-payer healthcare or Medicare for All. We also asked Vermont voters how they identified politically. We found that roughly the same percentage actively identified as “progressive” as those who called themselves “liberal.” This is significant, because it shows that Democratic voters see themselves as progressives. It is part of their identity.
So the progressive movement within the Democratic Party has infrastructure and ideas and growing power. Our challenge now is to continue adding to that power and that base, electing more true, get-it-in-the-gut progressives to office. Our other challenge is to govern progressively—to put big ideas on the table and to wage intellectual warfare on their behalf. A few are out there already, looking to be anchored to a strong advocacy push: a new Glass-Steagall Act, a Full Employment Act, serious labor law and campaign finance reform. Paul Ryan moved the goal posts to the right with the audacious proposals in his budget, and suddenly everyone is talking about cutting Medicare and Social Security as if these are remotely legitimate proposals. It is our job to be similarly audacious in our ideas, and to do it knowing that the public is on our side.
Stephanie Taylor is co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
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