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How to Save the Democratic Party: Replies | The Nation

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How to Save the Democratic Party: Replies

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Bill Fletcher Jr.

While agreeing with much of L.R. Runner’s essay, I found that I must take issue with its premise: that one can actually transform the Democratic Party. Despite this, the piece is well grounded in the realities of US electoral politics, recognizing that given the undemocratic nature of the US electoral system, the creation of a sustainable third party is immensely difficult.

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Can the party can be transformed? I have my doubts, though those doubts—perhaps paradoxically—do not lead me to disagree with Runner’s suggestions. The Democratic Party, like the Republican, is a party-bloc. It is a coalition that exists in the form of a political party. It lacks the ideological coherence of other mass parties like the African National Congress of South Africa, possessing what could be more described as “sentiments” rather than anything approaching ideology. More importantly, the party is very much controlled by the political tendency that Runner identifies, that is, forces deeply wedded to Wall Street, to warmed-over neoliberal economics and to empire.

At the same time, the struggle to transform the party exists as one playing field on which progressives should be operating as we conduct our electoral work. It is precisely due to the undemocratic nature of the US electoral system that Runner is correct in questioning the viability of most national third-party strategies. At the same time I would suggest, at the risk of appearing to be engaging in semantics, an orientation toward forcing a political realignment. In other words, there are rare moments in US history where there is a reshuffling of the deck that may result in either the transformation of an existing political party or the emergence of another. The emergence of a new mass party is not the result of a founding convention but on the basis of an adjustment and repositioning of political constituencies. This is a matter of mass politics, including but not limited to electoral action. As such, one does not need to conclude that the Democratic Party can and will be transformed. One must, however, strategically conclude that operating both inside and outside the party is essential in laying the foundation for a progressive electoral/political realignment. In that sense, much of what Runner suggests is quite appropriate.

I would quickly add, however, that one cannot think of such an electoral/political realignment in the absence of discussions of race/ethnicity, class and gender. As became clear in the November 6 election, the demographics of the United States are undergoing significant changes that will help to lay the foundation for the sort of progressive realignment we need to bring about. If progressive politics lacks an awareness and sensitivity to the strategic significance of race/ethnicity, gender and class, a realignment could conceivably occur, but one favoring right-wing populism.

Bill Fletcher Jr. is a racial justice, labor and international activist and writer.

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Jim Hightower

After Bill Clinton made clear, shortly after his 1992 election, that his vaunted “third way” was actually nothing but a slogan for the same ol’ corporate way, a farmer friend of mine said with a heavy sigh: “I don’t mind losing when we lose, but I hate losing when we win.”

Let’s stop doing that. Our progressive movement is not a weak, unpopular outlier in American politics but a potential powerhouse of true populism that can win—and govern—by keeping faith with our nation’s historic democratic values of economic fairness, social justice and equal opportunity for all. Contrary to right-wing fabulists and conformists, the majority of Americans have a deeply progressive streak within them, and many are yearning for an unvarnished, unabashed politics that taps directly into that rich vein.

Unfortunately, the progressive movement—especially some of the leaders of our national groups—has been too polite, too quiet, too deferential to accommodationist Democrats in Washington, hoping against hope that something good will come our way. That’s a “movement” that doesn’t move.

On the other hand, in November’s elections, we saw not just run-of-the-mill Democrats but some real Democrats stand up, push back, speak plainly and score solid populist wins, including in Hawaii, Massachusetts and Wisconsin Senate races, as well as in House races in Orlando, Duluth, Phoenix and elsewhere. Likewise, dozens of boldly progressive ballot initiatives were passed by feisty groups willing to get in the face of the power elites.

So, yes, sign me up on the manifesto! Then, let’s get to work on the grassroots strategizing, organizing and mobilizing it’ll take to occupy and transform our party. Democracy-building is never easy—but it’s been done before, we’re savvy enough to do it again and people are already reaching for it. Besides, what better way to spend the next four years?

Jim Hightower, a former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, is a syndicated columnist and publishes a monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown.

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Andy Schmookler

As L.R. Runner says, the crisis that besets the American political system can be blamed not just on today’s off-the-wall Republican Party but also on Democrats. But I see the essence of the problem differently. Runner’s analysis is about policies and interests. Those are certainly relevant, but the heart of the battle lies deeper.

Wherever there is a battle line drawn in our political process, the Democratic position is the one that’s more in the directions that Runner and I would prefer. The question is how the battle gets fought, and as a result of how it’s fought, where the battle lines get drawn.

In my recent run for Congress in Virginia’s most Republican District (the 6th), I focused on the political dynamic that has been degrading our nation. The Republican Party—which I described as now driven by the most destructive and dishonest force that has ever appeared at center stage of American politics—makes a fight over everything. But this force has been able to wreak its destruction because the Democratic Party has been unwilling to fight over anything.

Call this a relationship of the bully and the bullied, the abuser and the abused.

However, I think that the force that degrades our politics lies deeper than the political level—and deeper than the psychological level—though it works through both. Something dark has developed in America at what might be called the moral and spiritual level.

This destructive force has worked, with considerable success, to divide power and righteousness in the American political arena. Separating the ability to succeed in grasping for power from the moral conviction to use power for the good, this force has transformed both political parties, in different ways, over the past generation.

So we end up with one party that’s morally bankrupt but succeeds in maximizing its power (R); and another party that stands for mostly just causes but fails pitifully in the struggle for power (D). This opens the door for that destructive force to shape America’s destiny, acting through the first party and rolling over the second.

There are signs that the Democratic spine may be stiffening.

In any event, I believe our energies should be focused less on bending Democrats on policy and more on rousing Democrats to fight with the intensity and courage and will to win that is needed to counter the relentless assault on our democracy from the political right.

Enough of Democrats as Chamberlain. We need Democrats fighting with the spirit of Churchill.

Andy Schmookler ran this year for Congress in VA-06. He’s an award-winning author, political commentator, talk radio host and teacher. A summa cum laude graduate of Harvard, he earned his Ph. D. from Berkeley writing the first of his books analyzing the forces that operate in civilized systems, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.

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Dan Cantor

Okay then, what should we do, seeing as how we can’t do everything at once. The writer isn’t wrong about the history, but she is diagnosing the problem, not writing an organizing plan. We’ll turn to that.

Our starting point is the states. The change we seek won't begin in the corridors of power in Washington DC. If we want the next four years to look different than the last four (or forty), then we need to dig in and build political power at the state level. That’s where we have a comparative advantage, and where it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to do good political work.

Specifically, the left should build “independent political organizations” in the states that can elect Democrats, but also push, yank and prod them to actually deliver on progressive values. That will mean running challengers to unacceptable Democrats in primaries, even as we simultaneously work to defeat Republicans in the general elections. We must do both.

Over the next two years, institutional progressives could productively focus in 10-15 states that have  both promising electoral targets and credible labor-community-green-feminist relationships and alliances. We should beat some corporate Democrats and tell the story of why we did so. We should mount ballot measures that really clarify things for voters, allowing them to take sides in the war for a decent, more equal America. We can and should mount multi-state, coordinated issue campaigns on the very “rules of the (electoral) game,” expanding the electorate and changing how campaigns are financed.

There is (and always will be) an endless set of good ideas that we will want to advance. Pick your entry point—climate, jobs, militarism, unions, race, schools, finance, incarceration, immigration, housing.  Wherever you enter the debate, you’ll go further if you have real power. And you’ll be kidding yourself if you don’t.

Fortunately, the ingredients that go into building power and organization are not mysterious in the slightest: talent, money, rules, ideas and a plan. And there are many organizers and leaders across the land who understand this and are already trying to figure out how to do this in their state as well as unite across state lines.

Once we have something real in the dozen or so states that comprise 66% of all the Democrats in the House, we can turn our attention to asserting ourselves in national debates in a truly potent way. Given the stakes on just about everything, we really should get going. It’ll cost maybe $20m per year. As they say, bupkis!

Dan Cantor is the Executive Director of the Working Families Party, New York's progressive third party.

You can read the essay that sparked these replies here.

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