Angry Voters Do Have Somewhere to Go

David Reynolds

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 3 (new series), whole no. 23, Summer 1997]

David Reynolds teaches in labor Studies at Wayne State University. His book on current third party organizing, Democracy Unbound: Progressive Challenges to the Two-Party System is published by South End Press.

IN THE WINTER 1997 New Politics, Thomas Harrison eloquently identified the changing political environment which has made third party politics not just desirable but actually possible. Today, progressive activists must not only take seriously the prospects for a left political movement, but place their actual time and effort into organizing it. Unfortunately, Harrison follows his excellent analysis with misconceptions about current third party efforts.

In his article, Harrison should have distinguished between running candidates in elections and building a political movement. For example, the "common sense" mainstream wisdom defines politics in the narrow terms of electioneering. Indeed, both major parties offer only candidate-centered, vote-getting machines. However, progressives cannot afford to aim for a left version of mainstream politics by focusing simply on how to run candidates. For one thing, the media on which mainstream candidates rely is quite hostile to progressives. Furthermore, we do not have access to corporate campaign donations. Nor do we really want to focus on the candidate's personality and image appeal used by the two major parties. In short, to be successful, progressives cannot afford to simply run left candidates. We need to build a political movement.

A political movement is, in the broadest sense, a social movement. That means coalition-building among progressive organizations. It means converting the laundry lists of left ideas into comprehensive plans for actually governing. With such a new vision, progressives can redefine the political discussion so that the right debates our agenda rather than the other way around. Most important, progressive independent politics must be a movement of ordinary people politically active 365 days a year and not just during an election season. Such a movement must foster lasting political organizations that serve as living and breathing parts of people's communities.

By focusing on how to run left candidates, Harrison does not raise the more profound issue of how we can build a viable political movement. As a result, he prioritizes the relative merits of local versus national races in the wrong direction, incorrectly frames the issue of interaction with the Democratic Party, and completely misrepresents the strategy of the New Party. Harrison suggests reversing the order of progressive priorities by looking toward a high-profile national race such as Nader's bid for the presidency. This strategy, however, replicates mainstream politics by relying on charismatic candidates running in big-name races and winning sufficient national media coverage to actually inform people about the campaign. It also requires unions and other progressive organizations to take a high-profile leap of faith into political independence behind a bid for an office that conventional wisdom would say is hopeless.

Progressives cannot use mainstream methods to promote left politics. To overcome media hostility, the left has to use the one resource advantage it has: grassroots "people power." Progressive campaigns that mobilize hundreds and thousands of volunteers in their individual communities have a proven track record of success but they take time to develop. "Big name" races are not the place to start. Nor are progressives going to overcome people's cynicism about the prospect for change by running for offices for which they currently do not have the grassroots capacity. Winning five percent or less of the vote inspires no one. It simply confirms their skepticism.

In doing research for my book, Democracy Unbound, I traveled throughout the country interviewing activists involved in various kinds of independent progressive politics. The groups that have done the best jobs of building real grassroots organizations -- ones that last over time, utilize ongoing coalitions, and involve ordinary, previously apolitical Americans -- have relied first on entering winnable local contests. While the left does not yet have the grassroots capacity to elect Ralph Nader as President of the United States, we can elect people right now to school boards, city councils, and county commissions. Harrison argues that these races are less important. I disagree. The Christian Right has effectively demonstrated that these local offices make decisions which have a real impact on people's lives.

For example, the future of public education is being fought out right now in the nation's local school boards. Progressives can easily show how local governments hand over millions of taxpayer dollars every year to companies on rather vague promises of creating jobs. Most important, both the Christian Right and progressive groups have used local contests to build effective grassroots organizations.

Bernie Sanders did not become the sole independent in the U.S. House of Representatives by leaping into Congressional elections. During most of the 80s he led the Progressive Coalition's takeover of politics in Burlington, Vermont's largest city. He also gained the grassroots network built by the Vermont Rainbow Coalition's years of running insurgent Democrats for the state legislature. Sanders was able to win Congressional office in 1990 because his proven track record and grassroots capacity meant that he entered the race as a serious contender rather than a hopeless spoiler who would permit the Republican candidate to win. By contrast, among the diverse Greens we can identify some fledgling local and state groups that chose to leap immediately into state and Congressional battles, neglecting less flashy local contests. Winning only a small percent of the vote and attracting, at best, only modest numbers of new recruits, such groups remain small groupings of Green activists, rather than growing community organizations.

OF ALL THE NATIONAL THIRD PARTY GROUPS, THE NEW PARTY has clearly emerged as most effective at grassroots organizing precisely because they understand the wisdom of "thinking global, but acting local." While Harrison may have had some unfortunate experiences in New York, judging from a national perspective and from the experience of their strongest state chapters, I believe that Harrison misunderstands the New Party's use of the Democratic ballot line. He is mistaken when he says that the New Party endorsed Clinton. Such an action is completely out of line with their strategy. With strategic horizons that focus on building a broad political movement, the New Party's tactics revolve around how best to foster active local groups that will sink real roots into their communities. Electorally, it focuses on running candidates in races it can win or demonstrate a strong showing.

Most New Party campaigns have been local and most (80%) in non-partisan contests. When local activists feel that an independent bid for a partisan race is viable they have run third party candidates. Last November, the Minnesota New Party actively backed Cam Gordon's Green Party bid for state assembly. Gordon did well with 25% of the vote. However, when a fledgling local New Party chapter feels that it could gain from winning certain partisan races but does not have the current strength to do so on a third party line, it may enter a Democratic primary. Roughly 15% of New Party candidates have run using the Democrats' ballot line. Harrison confuses this tactical choice with a strategic orientation. Because he defines politics in terms of candidates running in elections, he concludes that any decision to use the Democratic Party label must implicitly involve support for the Democratic Party. There are groups, such as the state level labor-community electoral coalitions found in many New England states, that run progressive activists in Democratic primaries with the strategic goal of transforming the local Democratic Party. The New Party, however, is not a party-within-a-party, but an independent political organization that chooses to run some candidates as Democrats as one way of building its grassroots organization. Indeed, generally speaking, these "New Party Democrats" have come out of grassroots organizing. Their orientation and loyalty is to the broader movement, not to the Democratic Party. Indeed, local New Party groups commonly have their candidates sign contracts agreeing to support movement-building by placing the New Party's name on all their literature, speaking at New Party events, and promoting the New Party's issues.

History suggests that the key guarantee to keeping officeholders accountable to their supporters and independent politics is not necessarily the party label they used to get elected. Early this century, the growing Socialist Party, in cities such as Schenectady, New York, had problems with candidates who were elected as Socialists only to repudiate their radical roots after policy disputes erupted over how to govern. Candidate loyalty and real public education require an active grassroots base with the power to hold elected officials accountable and to provide the "street heat" needed to overcome the considerable obstacles that any progressive government will face.

FUSION, THE PRACTICE OF TWO PARTIES ENDORSING THE CANDIDATE, is illegal in most states precisely because third parties can use it effectively. One hundred years ago the Populists, in states such as Kansas, used fusion with the Democrats to elect quite radical governments. In cases where they had a strong grassroots base, the Populists succeeded in using fusion while remaining true to their political third party principles. In other states, like Nebraska, where the grassroots movement was weak, fusion politics did open the door for opportunistic politicians, not committed to the roots of populism, to gain elected office with decision-making power within the People's Party. That history indicates that fusion and "New Party Democrats" are not without risk. But it also shows that using such methods do not mean a group has sold out or that these are only "semi-independent semi-alternatives," as Harrison mistakenly says in describing the New Party.

Indeed, what is missing from Harrison's article is any sense of the vast array of grassroots political organizing that must go on outside the electoral process. A progressive political movement is built not just by running candidates. Indeed, non-electoral work has proven crucial for fostering ongoing grassroots groups that remain strong regardless of the current election cycle. Had Harrison had available material on the New Party's substantial non-electoral involvement he might have better appreciated its political independence. The New Party has fought for issues clearly outside those either major party wants to consider. Last November, Arkansas and Massachusetts New Party activists won significant support for real campaign finance reform. Nationally, the New Party has been a leading group in establishing local "Living Wage Campaigns."

The New Party must be evaluated in terms of the sum of all its activities, not the ballot line used by 15% of its candidates. Its flagship chapter in Wisconsin illustrates this point. Only a few years old, the Wisconsin group clearly demonstrates the potential for building a progressive political movement. By entering non-partisan races the New Party now has the dominant voice on the Madison City Council and came close to electing the mayor. In Milwaukee, the New Party has elected several members to the county board and the city council. In the last school board race it led a community battle to block the election of business-backed, right-wing, pro-privatization candidates to the Milwaukee school board. To obtain a voice in the state legislature the New Party elected community activist and African American Johnnie Morris Tatum as a Democrat. At the same time, the growing state-wide movement successfully secured state-wide third party ballot status running Kathleen Chung, a member and shop steward of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), as a "New Progressive Party" candidate for state treasurer.

All these electoral advances are the result of substantial community work. In Milwaukee, New Party activists were key players in launching an independent coalition called Sustainable Milwaukee. Over a year and a half, the coalition developed a sweeping community-driven plan for the future of the city. The initiative's political independence is not in any party label (Sustainable Milwaukee is not an electoral organization), but in the radical agenda it promotes, providing a model of progressive alternatives and sparking considerable grassroots activism. It allowed the Milwaukee New Party to organize the grassroots effort behind an ongoing "Living Wage" campaign which has already won an ordinance requiring companies that contract with the city to pay $6.05 an hour. The campaign has also raised the minimum wages of 3,800 public school employees to $7.70. Through electoral and issue work the New Party has built a solid grassroots base. Two summers of campaigning and organizing in targeted neighborhoods allowed the New Party to establish a Precinct Leadership Action Network complete with 86 Precinct Leaders and several hundred volunteers who signed "activists contracts." This is hardly a "semi-independent semi-alternative." Nor is this growing progressive force "more or less invisible."

Progressives have to look beyond quick fixes and toward a 10- or 20-year plan. Creating the left as a serious political force -- as a mass social movement -- requires the rather unglamourous and painstaking task of pulling people together neighborhood by neighborhood, campaign by campaign. While the real world of grassroots political organizing offers the left tremendous opportunities, it also presents challenges that require creative and flexible tactics. Although the tactical choices need to be debated and constantly reassessed, the left can ill afford to turn them into judgments of strategy. We should avoid bold pronouncements of who is truly "independent" and "significant" and who is not. The debate over third party organizing has to move from the necessary, but often abstract desires for a left political party, to the rather messy details of what actual groups are doing to make it a reality.

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