America Needs a Genuine Political Party
My recent article, Shackled to a Corpse: Progressives and the Democratic Party, generated such interest, insightful comments and thought provoking discussion that I’ve decided to follow up with a more in depth look at what I believe to be one of the most important political questions for our time: Can the Democratic Party be revitalized into, “a genuine political party that takes active responsibility for its adherents?” as the journalist William Greider wrote of in 1992, do we need to start fresh and cut all ties to “the corpse?” or, given the peculiarities of the American electoral and party systems, do we need to think way outside the box in grappling with the obstacles our system places in the path of launching a new, genuine political party?
Before we get into this, let me lay out a scenario for you: Unless, something changes radically over the next twelve months, which is at least a possibility, the Democrats are going to get creamed in the 2022 midterms. This is partially because voters see them as the “party in power” (however marginally), yet either unable or unwilling to deliver on many of the promises they made during the 2020 elections. But the defeat is likely to be even more severe and inevitable because of an unprecedented, no holds barred Republican assault on voting rights and election integrity. Where are the Democrats on this? First, they actually came out with a strong voting rights/elections bill called the “For the People Act” but were unable to surmount the obstacle of the filibuster, one of the Senate’s ridiculous, arcane rules (nowhere present in Constitution), which has made it impossible to pass much needed legislation. This was largely the work of one man, West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin, who represents less than two million people. Typically, the Democrats then fell back on the somewhat weaker Freedom to Vote Act, which Tsar Manchin said he would support but they’ve been unable to pass that one either. There’s a good chance we are going to head into the 2022 elections without any action on protecting voting rights and the reliability of election results at all.
If history is any guide, what we’ll hear from a lot of libs and Dems on Facebook etc. will be, “Well, then we’ve all just gotta get out there and vote even harder!” And when that doesn’t work, the party establishment (+ its allies in the corporate media) will blame progressives and “the Squad” for the defeat, while others will lash out at the voters themselves for being, “Ignorant,” “Apathetic” or too choosy about candidates (ie “Vote Blue no Matter Who”). A winning strategy for building strong opposition to Republican fascism if I’ve ever seen one.
So, what do we, who are terrified by where this country is probably headed, do about it? Raise the white flag and throw our hands up? Hope that voters get disgusted enough with the Republicans to throw them out eventually and swing America’s political gerbil wheel back to the Democrats yet again, even though the Republicans’ rigging the system in their own favor is making that increasingly unlikely? We hear so much today about “disruptors” in the economic realm. What we need is a political disruptor, a movement and party that will arise from the people, which will self-organize to fight for and take political power any way it can by any and all means available to it, regardless of how bad things get in the immediate future.
So, how do we get this party started? Maybe the first step is to analyze what has gone wrong in past attempts to both reform the Democratic Party from within and to establish a completely new entity to compete with it. In his 2016 article, A Blueprint for a New Party, Jacobin executive editor, Seth Ackerman notes:
“Working within the Democratic Party” has been the prevailing model of progressive political action for decades now, and it suffers from a fundamental limitation: it cedes all real agency to professional politicians. The liberal office-seeker becomes the indispensable actor to whom all others, including progressives, must respond.
In this “party-less” model of politics, it’s the Democratic politician who goes about trying to recruit a base, rather than the other way around. The politician’s platform and message are devised by her and her alone. They can be changed on a whim. And there is no mechanism by which the politician can be held accountable to the (fairly nebulous) progressive constituency she has recruited to her cause.
[I]n a genuinely democratic party, the organization’s membership, program, and leadership are bound together tightly by a powerful, mutually reinforcing connection. The party’s members are its sovereign power; they come together through a sense of shared interest or principle. Through deliberation, the members establish a program to advance those interests. The party educates the public around the program, and it serves, in effect, as the lodestar by which the party is guided. Finally, the members choose a party leadership — including electoral candidates — who are accountable to the membership and bound by the program.
With regard to the myriad past and present attempts to create an independent party that can successfully compete with the Democrats, Ackerman observes:
Typically, advocates of the third-party route depict their strategy as a revolt against a rigged two-party system; sometimes they even castigate doubters as timid accommodationists. Yet, in the context of American law, when such advocates speak of creating an independent “party,” what they mean, ironically, is choosing to subject their organization to an elaborate regulatory regime maintained by, and continually manipulated by, the two [major] parties themselves.
This is one fundamental problem with the third-party strategy: the need to continually maintain ballot status — an onerous process in most states — places the party’s viability at the mercy of the [Democratic or Republican-controlled] legislature.
Through a process of natural selection, such obstacles tend to repel serious and experienced local politicians and organizers, while disproportionately attracting activists with a certain mentality: disdainful of practical politics or concrete results; less interested in organizing, or even winning elections, than in bearing witness to the injustice of the two-party system through the symbolic ritual of inscribing a third-party’s name on the ballot.
What Ackerman proposes in response to the difficulties with both the “take over the Democratic Party” and “Build a completely independent party” approaches is to “stop the suicidal frontal assault” and instead “mount the electoral equivalent of guerrilla insurgency.” He continues by asking, “What Is a Democratic Party?” (as opposed to a party that merely uses the label “Democratic”):
This new type of party would actually bring back the kind of strong local community organization the Democrats once had (see my previous article, hyperlinked in first paragraph above for much more on this). It would have chapters at the state and local levels but it would also have something the Democrats never did: a binding program arrived at by democratic discussion and debate among the party’s members, each of whom will have one vote on the finished product. It would use the same procedure to elect leadership accountable to its members and to approve candidates to run for office with the party’s support. Importantly, it would also have a procedure to expel candidates and elected officials who do not continue to adhere to the program the majority voted to support and withdraw all party support from them. It would have a national educational apparatus, recognized leaders and spokespeople at the national level. Also important, as Ackerman notes. this new type of party could use campaign finance rule changes in the wake of Citizen’s United and subsequent rulings to it’s own advantage, both in terms of how to legally constitute itself and fundraise (see Ackermans’s full article, also hyperlinked above for complete details on how this would work).
So, what then is different about this idea from all the others that have come before it and failed? In Ackerman’s words:
[I]t would avoid the ballot-line trap. Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line.
[B]allot line would thus be regarded as a secondary issue. The organization would base its legal right to exist not on the repressive ballot laws, but on the fundamental rights of freedom of association.
Final point for now, such a party may also have to make some compromises with the existing system in order to survive and grow, such as defensive electoral pacts, where the new party agrees not to run candidates against, say the Democrats, in certain specified districts. Though the times and systems were very different, this was one way the emerging Labour Party in Great Britain was able to survive and eventually supplant the Liberal Party.
Can this work? As Ackerman himself recognized, it’s a big project that would likely require the assistance of dissident elements of American labor unions. It’s a “blueprint, not a panacea,” to paraphrase him.
At a minimum, I think it’s an idea at least worth exploring and discussing. If you think so too (or even if you don’t — lol!), let me know!