How to Save the Democratic Party: Replies
This week, The Nation publishes a manifesto we received from an occasional contributor. Our hope is to stir discussion of one of the most important political issues of our time: how to transform what the author, who uses a pseudonym to avoid personalizing that issue, calls the “bipartisan” Democratic Party into an organization capable of bringing about desperately needed progressive change in America. You can read that essay here, and the replies below.
The results of Election 2012 show the power of grassroots organizing and the potential of permanently setting America on a progressive path. This last electoral round revealed support for marriage equality and rejection of the “war on drugs” and voter suppression—not to mention a total dismissal of Mitt Romney’s brand of corporatism. And for all the progressive complaints about Democrats, these results undeniably came through the Democratic Party apparatus and its highly motivated grassroots base.
The Democratic Party can still be the change agent for our ideals, as it has been since the New Deal and the Great Society. However, since the 1990s our party has suffered from years of neglecting its progressive infrastructure. Note that while many progressives have tossed around the idea of splitting with the Democrats, the Tea Party didn’t leave the Republican Party; it transformed it from within.
Democrats need a strong progressive wing that consistently shapes its platform, offers up progressive candidates, embraces the party’s accomplishments, and encourages necessary changes. We need to organize in a whole new way, but we don’t need to divide ourselves and we certainly don’t need to start from scratch. This is why approximately 300 people met in Charlotte during this year’s convention to identify loyal Democrats who can organize as progressives. Attendees discussed building progressive caucuses in every Democratic organization nationwide, following the example of the New York City Council’s progressive caucus.
But the crucial need is for progressives to revive grassroots organizing expertise. The greatest changes in the United States began from the ground up: abolitionism, women’s suffrage, progressivism and the civil rights movement are the biggest examples. These movements didn’t just replenish a party; they actually forced legislation that changed the fabric of our nation. If we’re going to build on our recent success in this post–Citizens United world, we will have to campaign differently by using new and improved grassroots engagement. This will include more field organizing, less reliance on TV advertisements and more individual relationship building.
The claim that Democrats did nothing to combat the recent economic collapse ignores unprecedented Republican obstructionism. Senator Mitch McConnell announced that the GOP’s goal was to make Barack Obama a “one-term president.” Republicans pursued that goal even when it meant causing a bond rating downgrade; engaging in bigotry and hostility against Muslims, gays, union members and immigrants; and launching a war against women. Yet we have a list of progressive accomplishments: the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights.
And I was proud to see the Democratic platform include progressive ideals, such as calling for Citizens United to be overturned and marriage equality for same-sex couples to be upheld. Election 2012 also saw Maryland citizens vote to allow marriage equality, and in my state of Minnesota, voters rejected constitutional amendments that would have narrowly restricted marriage and required photo IDs to vote. These wins were the result of well-crafted grassroots campaigns—an indispensable part of the party’s future. Instead of allowing impatience to divide us, we need to intensify the engagement of grassroots Democrats with progressive ideals. This is the best way to ensure a fairer, more prosperous America for all.
Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has represented Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District since 2007.
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L.R. Runner sets forth a lovely set of principles and does so in admirably spirited prose. Equal opportunity, a fair marketplace, a truly progressive tax system, strong yet efficient regulations, a demilitarized foreign policy and strict curbs on the ability of the rich to bankroll election campaigns: all are essential to what it means to be on the left in America. Runner could also have included the right of workers to bargain collectively with their employers—public or private—and the urgent need for a humane immigration policy.
I only wish the author’s understanding of political reality matched his or her passion. There are many reasons that the current Democratic Party is not the progressive party of our dreams. Two years ago, Eric Alterman brilliantly analyzed most of them in these pages [see “Kabuki Democracy,” August 30/September 6, 2010].
Of course, the Democrats who triumphed with Franklin Roosevelt from 1933 to 1937 and with Lyndon Johnson from 1963 to 1966 faced serious obstacles, too. But the wind of public opinion was, for the moment, blowing their way—generated in large part by the force of mass movements. The industrial labor insurgency and various share-the-wealth campaigns did much to shift Dems to the left in the 1930s, and the black freedom movement, backed by liberal unions, took up the same task three decades later. For those glorious, if agonizingly brief, periods, it seemed feasible that Democrats could triumph as a rigorously liberal—or social democratic—party.
But asserting the virtues of such an outcome today, as Runner does, is of little use without a strategy to make it happen. Based on the 2012 election results, it is far from clear that a majority of Americans hunger for a party resembling the labor and social democratic parties of Europe. How will progressives convince Americans that our “national security” depends more on a healthy, amply funded welfare state and abundant, well-paying jobs than on lower taxes and a military suited to global empire? How can we build the kinds of institutions—unions, immigrant rights and healthcare consumer rights groups, cooperative banks and more—that would create and support the initiatives of left-wing Democrats? Who will recruit smart, articulate progressive candidates for local and state offices in places like Indiana, Georgia and Texas, and make sure they have the funding to defeat their intraparty and Republican opponents?
To build the kind of party we desire will require finding good answers to such questions, while having the patience to avoid tearing apart the existing Democratic coalition until we do. Otherwise, those who yearn to emulate the triumphant partisans of FDR and LBJ may instead end up like the campaigners for George McGovern in 1972. We already have enough defeated prophets.
Michael Kazin’s most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He is co-editor of Dissent and teaches history at Georgetown University.
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The author of this manifesto makes two assumptions: first, that the Democratic Party has left its New Deal roots to drift around the center and, second, that Democrats have lost the support of much of the public as a result. Neither of these assumptions is warranted, although it can be difficult to step back from the frustrating political process to appreciate all that President Obama’s first term has accomplished.
Obama and the Democrats have clearly not abandoned progressivism. The Affordable Care Act is a case in point: Obama vastly expanded health coverage, a goal that eluded Democrats and reformers for a century. Maybe the author was turned off by the legislative compromises, like dropping the public option, that were required to get the bill passed, and thus doesn’t put Obamacare on the same level as Social Security. However, legislative sausage-making always looks better in hindsight. At the time of its passage, Social Security excluded virtually all African-Americans and a number of occupations. It was significantly expanded in subsequent decades. Likewise, there is still work to be done to improve the health coverage system set down in the ACA. Making already existing legislation better may not be as flashy as declaring a policy of wholesale reform, but it’s much more likely to happen and to make a real difference in people’s quality of life.
I do agree wholeheartedly with the author on the need for the political system to more truly reflect the will of the people. Election spending and corporate donations have gotten out of control since Citizens United, but their influence long predates that 2010 ruling. For politicians to be truly beholden to the people rather than those who finance their campaigns, we must institute a robust system of public financing like the one detailed in the Fair Elections Now Act. Of course, any such act would need the support of politicians beholden to the current system in order to pass. Nevertheless, consistent advocacy is a powerful force—as the eventual passage of Obamacare proves—and Democrats must make a concerted effort to get money out of politics if they are serious about progressivism.
Finally, the Democratic Party should not forget one of its key strengths: advocating for people of all races, genders, religions and sexual orientations. The Democrats are the ones who will stand up for a woman’s right to choose and against racial and gender discrimination. The Democrats, spurred by grassroots activists, are leading the charge for same-sex marriage and LGBT equality. The Democrats are the first party in America’s history to have a majority non-white-male caucus. Americans respect the party for its inclusivity, tolerance and advocacy for all kinds of people—a progressive agenda that will drive the Democratic Party for years to come.
Janine Balekdjian, a senior at Columbia University majoring in Slavic studies, is president of the Columbia Democrats and blogs for the Huffington Post.
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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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No such thing as the Democratic Party exists. There is the Democratic Party as organization (national, state) and the Democratic Party in government (presidential, congressional). Each, with its wings, is largely independent. Under all is the Democratic Party in the electorate (the Democrats who nominate candidates and elect party officials).
As chair of the Democratic National Committee in 1969, I appointed a Reform Commission with members and a chair, George McGovern, who I knew would make the sexist, often boss-ridden and, in many states, racist party organizations democratic and representative. In 1972, progressives were able to take over the national party organization, nominating McGovern for president and adopting a progressive platform. This year’s activist progressive Democrats likewise controlled the national party organization, renominating Obama for president and adopting a decidedly progressive platform.
Activist progressive Democrats who are today’s national party organization (into which Obama for America, together with its financing and technical skills, should now formally be melded) must stay active—pressuring the president and members of Congress, changing the Constitution or the Supreme Court to reduce the political power of money, striking down the Senate filibuster rule, and operating in local Wellstone cells to continually refortify ourselves and educate and mobilize the voters.
There are no other, magic ways to “transform” the party—only militancy and activism. We can’t make a mass movement without the masses. And militancy and activism in the national party organization alone won’t be enough. Militancy and activism in each state and congressional district are required. Militancy and activism are necessary, too, to stop state legislatures and governors from creating Republican-controlled congressional seats through redistricting and from enacting schemes to suppress the vote.
We don’t have to reinvent the Democratic Party, and it’s easier to take it over than to beat it. So run for party or public office yourself. Get involved in campaigns to elect the right people. Then stay on them. It’s true, as Barack Obama has said: We are the change we’ve been waiting for. We are the Democratic Party—or can be.
Fred Harris, a former US senator, is a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and an activist progressive Democrat.
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Benjamin Todd Jealous
The author of this piece argues that Democrats should return to their progressive roots. A recent NAACP poll suggests that they need to.
President Obama personally inspired many African-Americans and Latinos to vote this past November, and to vote for him. This was evident in two ways: the sky-high and often decisive margin of support he received from voters of color, and the unprecedented high levels of turnout in these communities, fueled by new and unlikely “surge voters.” Many Democrats further down the ballot also benefited from the surging black and brown vote.
But a recent, nonpartisan NAACP poll of black voters suggests that it would be folly for Democrats to assume that their majority coalitions will continue to hold in key swing states—or that demographics alone will let them do as many have predicted and turn Georgia blue in 2016. According to our poll, taken days before the election in key battleground states, the only issue that has the potential to spur “Obama levels” of turnout and support in future years is the same one that allowed FDR to begin attracting blacks into the party in the first place: jobs.
With Obama off the ticket, enthusiasm for voting Democratic drops 20 percent among black voters in Ohio, Virginia, Georgia and Florida. What is more, a Republican presidential candidate who strongly embraces civil rights could receive as much as 15 percent of the vote among those African-Americans who do turn out. Such significant shifts in allegiance and enthusiasm could easily swing a number of battleground states from blue to red.
On a more positive note for Democrats, almost two out of three African-American voters in these states chose jobs as their number-one concern at the ballot box. If Democrats want to retain African-American support and maintain African-American turnout, they will have to provide clear leadership in tackling the decades-long recession in our community, while at the same time doubling down on their commitment to defend and extend civil rights. Doing so would require party leaders to push policies that truly lift all boats with the zeal that defined FDR. Such a strategy would have to have a heavy emphasis on spurring job creation and fighting employment discrimination.
The motto of the Congressional Black Caucus is “We have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies—only permanent interests.” Based on the results of our poll, this maxim seems to apply for the African-American voters who carried Obama to re-election. Democratic leaders would be wise to heed this timeless wisdom and pass a new New Deal for those Americans who are still locked out of the land of opportunity that so many of us take for granted. President Obama’s legacy—and his party’s future success—may depend on it.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is the president and CEO of the NAACP.
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Bemoaning the Democratic Party’s drift to the right is nothing new. The challenge is to identify the practices that have sustained this drift and to establish a plan to do something different. As a step in that direction, I applaud this manifesto. However, I think we need to be specific about the groups that would make up a more progressive faction within the party. In a sense, the party is the sum of its parts. So what are its parts?
The party relies heavily on several groups that political scientists call “captive constituencies”: labor, women and African-Americans chief among them. They vote heavily Democratic, yet they yield little influence in pushing for a more progressive trajectory within the party because they are perceived as having nowhere else to turn.
The captives are united in being dissatisfied, but they are not united in opposing the main force pushing the party in a neoliberal direction. Some of the big-money interests within the Democratic Party may join with the party’s core constituencies in acknowledging the reality of inadequate social services, struggling schools, stagnant wages and unaffordable healthcare. But their solution is the market. They envision private sector businesses (albeit incentivized by tax breaks and other public support) as the answer. Unions, community groups, faith-based organizations and other social movement actors—the institutional representatives of the captive constituencies—are regarded as part of the problem. Along with government itself, they are seen as impediments to various neoliberal “reform” efforts that have set the agenda of Washington Democrats in recent decades.
To combat the dominance of neoliberalism, we need policymaking that rejects the notion that the market is the best and only answer to social problems. How will we know when we’ve achieved a more progressive political party? The standard will be when the core Democratic constituencies are engaged not as lesser-evil voters to be turned out at the end of each election season so as to prevent a disastrous Republican win. Instead, it will be when these groups and their institutional representatives are empowered as a countervailing force to the market and considered partners in governance.
It’s time that core Democratic constituencies raise their expectations and demand to be more than a voice at the table. It’s time for the captives to break free.
Amy Dean is a fellow of The Century Foundation and principal of ABD Ventures, LLC, an organizational development consulting firm that works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations.
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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.
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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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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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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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.