Can the New Party Save the American Left?
Issue #21, October 1995
Ever since the Democrats got trounced in last November's elections, commentators in the mainstream media have been busy proclaiming the demise of the American Left. On talk-shows and op-ed pages, pundits point to the election results as evidence that 'public opinion' — that all powerful figment of the journalistic imagination — has shifted decisively to the Right. The people, it is said, are fighting mad at big government, high taxes and social spending. Everywhere you hear assertions that the Left is 'out of ideas' and 'out of touch'. The conventional wisdom says that the Republicans will enjoy a monopoly on power for several decades to come.
Things do look bad, but it's a bit early for those of us on the Left to throw up our hands in despair. The struggle for democracy and social justice isn't lost yet. It is clear, though, that progressives cannot hope to turn back the rising tide of conservatism without a new and radically different political strategy, a strategy capable of uniting and energizing the significant number of people who share our basic ideals. And — as I will argue a bit later in this essay — at the very center of this strategy should be an effort to build a viable third party, a party much like the recently formed New Party. The American Left has been invisible in the electoral arena since the days of Henry Wallace and it has served us badly. Just how badly was a lesson driven home rather forcefully by the recent Republican victory.
The Lessons of November
Newt and his army of clones won in November largely because the Democrats were unable to mobilize the women, union members and people of color who have been their most loyal constituents and not — as the media would have it — because the public had become more conservative. Republicans galvanized their Christian fundamentalist supporters by promising to 'defund' the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. At the same time, Clinton and the pro-corporate Democratic leadership in Congress had absolutely nothing to offer progressive voters. After all, the Clintonites were the ones who pushed for passage of GATT and NAFTA, caved in on the ?job creation? portion of the budget, agreed to raise defense spending, and embraced the Republican attack on welfare. Predictably, only the most conservative 39% of the electorate bothered to show up at the polls. Even then, the Republican victory was hardly the landslide that media made it out to be. According to an unofficial Democratic National Committee estimate, if a mere 19,500 votes had gone the other way, the Democrats would still be in control of the House. On top of that, there's little independent evidence that the public has undergone a substantial 'shift to the right'. Research suggests that people have grown more suspicious of government and more alienated from politics in recent years. However, when polled, the majority of Americans still voice support for such forward-looking measures as a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the wealthy, more government aid to the poor, deep cuts in military spending and an end to 'corporate welfare'. They strongly support campaign finance reform and stricter penalties for politicians who abuse their power. On almost every single domestic policy issue, most Americans line up to the left of the two major parties.
The main lesson of the November debacle, then, is not that the broad masses identify with the Republican agenda but that they are utterly disgusted by the political status quo. And they have every right to be. Democracy in this country is in a state of crisis. Our elections have become high-priced beauty contests that stifle meaningful debate. Once in office, our politicians are more accountable to big-monied interests than they are to ordinary citizens. The legislative process is shaped from start to finish by pro-business lawyers and lobbyists. The corporate mass media have a virtual monopoly on public discourse and debate. The entire political process is dysfunctional. Because it is dysfunctional, it allows basic social needs to go unmet. And those who are suffering most as a consequence are the most vulnerable — children, single moms, the disabled, and the elderly. Real wages and incomes for most workers are plummeting. Poverty and homelessness are increasing. Unemployment and underemployment have been rising steadily for decades. Our schools are still racially segregated and horribly unequal. Our infrastructure is crumbling. Environmental degradation is quickly reaching the critical stage. The crime rates in our inner-cities are atrocious. The list could go on and on.
These problems have gotten steadily worse over the past two decades. The growing discontent of the American electorate is thus a healthy (although sometimes misdirected) reaction to an intolerable situation. Nothing Newt and Co. are doing will reverse the dismal trends of the past 20 years. Only free-market ideologues and talk-radio junkies believe that slashing the budget for everything from OSHA to AFDC to student aid to the National Labor Relations Board is going improve things for ordinary citizens. More likely, it will accelerate the process of national decline. This is why, in the end, the public will turn on the Republicans, just as they turned on the Democrats.
Crisis conditions such as these ought to be a fertile breeding ground for progressive political movements. In the past, similar conditions created fertile breeding grounds for radical farmer's organizations, militant trade-unions, and poor people's revolts. Think of the Populists of the 1890s , the labor insurgency of the 1930s or the poor people's insurrections in the early 1970s. The protracted social and economic turmoil we are confronting today may ultimately prove to be more devastating — at least in terms of the relative misery caused to ordinary people — than even the Great Depression. Conditions scream out for another Eugene Debs or at least another FDR. Unfortunately, the contemporary American Left is in no position to take advantage of the situation. The question is: Why? What exactly is the Left doing wrong and what can we do to get ourselves and this country back on the right track?
The Disarray of the Left
That the American Left is today at a low point in its history is obvious. Though we outnumber our opponents, they consistently manage to out-organize us. We are organizationally weak and ideologically fragmented, so fragmented in fact that the progressive community as a whole is less than the sum of its parts. As Joel Rogers has recently pointed out, we mostly consist of a collection of one-issue groups who 'are possessed of more grievances than ideas.' Because we define ourselves less through a positive vision of an attainable future than through a series of complaints about the powers that be, our discussions amongst ourselves emphasize what divides us rather than what we could achieve together. Huge sectors of the America Left regard electoral politics per se as inherently tainted and beneath contempt. And even when we don't adopt such an attitude, we don't participate in electoral politics as a coherent and organized bloc. Few groups on our end of the political spectrum aspire to rule and those that do usually hail from the lunatic fringe. All too often, the rest of us find ourselves trying to influence the political process as lobbyists or protesters whose effectiveness depends on the good graces of unsympathetic and unaccountable mainstream politicians.
The question of how the Left got itself into such a sorry state is a tricky one. One reason we are so divided is that there are legitimate ideological differences (not to mention historically built-up hostilities) between our various factions. Certain groups on the Left still cling to the dogma (common to Marxist-Leninists and anarchists alike) that genuine social progress can only be achieved through total revolution. Others claim we should focus exclusively on overcoming gender oppression or fighting racism, on eliminating economic inequality or saving the environment. Yet the vast majority of the American Left adopts a more flexible, more pragmatic approach to such matters. Perhaps a more important cause of fragmentation is that the forms of civic association that were the social foundation for the Left politics of old — institutions like unions, churches, close-knit urban neighborhoods — have been undermined by recent structural changes in American society (such as the rise of suburbia, the globalization of trade, etc.) To even talk about 'solidarity' amidst the atomization and hyper-individualism of late-consumer capitalism sounds nostalgic. But not even the withering away of civil society completely explains the Left's current disarray.
The single most important factor behind our problems is that we lack a common context in which to relate to each other, share resources and coordinate our various activities. Once upon a time, the Democratic party functioned (albeit rather poorly) as just such a context. That was back when progressives politicians like Harold Washington and Dennis Kucinich, civil rights activists like Andrew Young and Barbara Jordon, and Left intellectuals like Michael Harrington and Irving Howe were still a visible presence in the party.
In recent years, though, the Democrats have become just as beholden to big money as the Republicans and almost as conservative. Especially since the ascendancy of Bill Clinton, the left-wing of the party has been increasingly marginalized. As a consequence, the American Left today lacks an institutional framework which could serve as a meeting ground for its various factions, movements and tendencies. None of the Left formations in this country — socialists, peace activists, feminists, environmentalists, trade unionists, community organizers, gay and lesbian activists, anti-racists, cultural radicals, etc. — have the resources to stand alone and still make a difference. We cannot afford to stand isolated from each other. And yet for the past few years, that is precisely what we have done.
So, what are we to do?
Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils: The New Party Solution
The solution to a sizable portion of the Left's ills is to get serious about electoral politics. If we want to effect fundamental change, if we want to do something about injustice and social inequality, we have to get our hands dirty by running campaigns, winning office and serving the common interest once we get elected. We have to stop carping at the margins and show that we can govern more accountably (and more effectively) than the nation?current leadership. Since the two major parties are basically hopeless, that means creating a third party alternative. Not only would such a party be an ideal place for the Left's various factions to get together to hammer out a common agenda, but it would also provide an excellent recruiting ground for existing projects and organizations. It would facilitate the development of a common Left culture, of shared ideas and values, of a mutually intelligible language of radical political analysis. And, best of all, such a party would stand a decent chance of winning some support , especially if it emphasized bread-and-butter issues of democracy and economic fairness. Recent polls have found that as many as 50% of eligible voters would vote for an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. The time to build a progressive third party is now. And that's exactly what the New Party is doing.
The New Party is a grassroots, democratically-run, membership-driven party that aims to once again put progressive ideas and values on the national political agenda. We believe that the social, economic, and political progress of the United States requires a peaceful, democratic revolution in America — a return of power to the people. Toward that end, we support measures like public financing of elections and proportional representation as well a shorter work week, a higher minimum wage, full employment, union-friendly labor law reform, and national health insurance with universal coverage for all. Ultimately, we hope to become the new majority party in this country. We know that left-leaning parties in America have not always had the best of luck, but the New Party has a strategy that we think will help us succeed where previous efforts have failed. Here's what we're doing right:
To begin with, we're bringing together the right mix of people. As befits a party that aspires to be a 'big tent' for progressives, the more than 6,000 members of the New Party are a rather diverse group of people. About half of our members are women. About half are people of color. Three quarters are working class and one quarter have advanced professional training. Over half of our membership belong to labor unions or neighborhood organizations. A fair portion of our membership is already active in the labor, environmental, peace & justice, feminist, and/or civil rights movements. A number of us were involved in Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. The New Party has chapters in 18 states including the cities of Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Baltimore, St. Louis, Little Rock and Washington DC. We've even got a chapter in Jesse Helms' home state.
Second, the New Party is starting local. We're focusing our attention on running candidates for local office — school board, city council, county board, occasionally state legislature — because that's where we have the best chance of winning, because that's where the possibilities of coordinating progressives are best, and because decisions made at this level of government affect everything from the quality of our schools to the cleanliness of our drinking water. Starting small worked for the Christian Coalition and so far it has worked for us. Since 1992, the New Party has run people in over 120 local elections in 9 states and won in about 80. Once we've won a couple hundred of these races, we'll have a solid base from which to run candidates for higher office.
Third, we refuse to waste people's votes. Too often in the past, progressive third parties have played the role of 'spoilers' who run candidates with no chance of winning. The New Party is not interested in symbolic crusades or moral victories. We only target winnable races. We simply won't endorse or run anyone in races where we can't win. Suffice it to say, we won't be running anyone for President anytime soon.
Fourth, we work on issue campaigns as well as elections because that's what it means to be a value-centered as opposed to a candidate-centered party. We've educated students about cuts to student aid. We've collected signatures for campaign finance reform ballot initiatives. We've marched in opposition to welfare cuts. We've done strike support and abortion clinic defenses. Right now, we're embarking on a nationwide campaign to promote and support a 'living wage' for all working Americans.
Fifth, the New Party is willing to work for candidates from other parties (the Greens, the Labor Party Advocates, even the Democrats) where that advances our agenda. We think that where there are good progressives already in office — people like Congressman Ron Dellums (CA), Congressman Bernie Sanders (VT) or Senator Paul Wellstone (MN) — we ought do our best to keep them there. Of course, none of these politicians would qualify as perfect according to our standards. But we refuse to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And, let's face it, someone like Paul Wellstone is as close to perfect as you can come in the current Congress. And until the New Party (or some other left-leaning third party) is able to run its own independent candidates for the Senate, we will continue to support Wellstone and Democrats like him.
Finally, the New Party is planning for the long term. We intend to become the dominant political party in US., but we don't expect to get there overnight. There can be no substitute for the door to door work of grassroots organizing. We know its going to be a long haul. And we've given ourselves some yardsticks by which to judge our growth. In the next two years, we want to increase our membership to 20,000 and run 250 New Party candidates in local and state elections. We want to sponsor legislation and win meaningful electoral reform in 5 states in the next two years. And we want to start several new state chapters. Sometime in 1997 we'll hold a national founding convention and settle on a national platform.
Over the past couple of years, we've accomplished quite a bit with our 'start small, think big' strategy. In Chicago, we've won a seat on city council. We have two city council members in Missoula, Montana. In Little Rock, Arkansas we have a majority on the school board and are holding the line against attempts to privatize the school system. In Madison, Wisconsin we have the largest voting bloc on the city council. In Milwaukee, New Party state representative Johnnie Morris Tatum is leading the battle against the Republican governor's draconian cuts to social services. We helped win campaign finance reform initiatives in Missouri and Oregon. In Minnesota, we've sponsored state legislation that will give third parties fair access to the media. As with any political project, we've encountered a few setbacks and made some mistakes along the way. Despite our various gaffs, we're still growing and we expect to keep on winning.
The Republicans are hell-bent on making this country friendly to business and hostile to civilized human life. With a few notable exceptions, the Democrats are following suit. Both parties have shown that they are willing to sacrifice the interests of the majority in the interest of getting (re-)elected. That leaves the task of saving democracy to the rest of us.
[Note: This essay borrows heavily from the writings of New party members Joel Rogers and Juliet Schor].
For more information about the New Party check out their home page on the World Wide Web page at: http://garnet.berkeley.edu:3333/EDINlist/.election/np/np.html. If you want to get involved E-mail the national office at email@example.com. Or call 1-800-200-1294. Or write the New Party, 227 West 40 St., #1303, New York, NY 10018.
Steve Macek is on the Steering Committee of the Twin Cities Area New Party and a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.