Future Hope column, August 10, 2012
by Ted Glick
I believe that we must build a movement that is explicitly and primarily focused on rapidly getting off fossil fuels and onto a renewable energy path. That has been my primary work for the last eight years. But I also believe, as I have for decades, that we need to build an independent political movement that is about not just the climate crisis but also the many other crises facing us today. We need to build an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. We need a political force that is based in and accountable to the people, not fossil fuel and other corporate interests.
And I am explicitly saying that what is needed is NOT a new political party, a “third party.” I am saying this even though for over 35 years I have been a member and sometimes a leader of efforts to create such a thing and I still am today, as an active member of the Green Party in New Jersey. Indeed, it is my experiences more-or-less hitting my head against the wall trying to help open up our corporate-dominated, two-party-only system to other voices that has led me to believe and to publicly advocate since about 2010 that what we need is a “third force,” not (just) a third party.
What we need is an alliance which consciously brings together progressive Democrats—including some in office or running for it—Green Party members, other independents, people who see themselves as revolutionaries and those who are reformers, and open-minded grassroots Republicans. More than that, this alliance eventually needs to support and work to elect candidates running both as Democrats and progressive independents, and maybe even an occasional Republican.
To sharpen the point even more: I am completely convinced after over 35 years of being active in organizations trying to build a mass, progressive third party in the USA, that such an approach alone will never, ever get us to a new society. The huge, historically-based, structural obstacles in the way of the formation of a truly mass-based, new political party make it essential that a different approach be used. Those obstacles include: the corrupting influence of the huge amounts of money needed when running for many local, state and definitely national elected offices; the role of the corporate-owned mass media in almost-always excluding serious coverage of other-than-Democrat/Republican candidates; a 19th century system of voting, winner-take-all, rather than proportional representation, or the use of instant runoff voting, in the winning of seats in government; and discriminatory ballot access laws in many states to make it difficult for independent candidates and parties to get on or stay on the ballot.
Other progressives, including proponents of the strategy of progressives working in the Democratic Party, have written recently about the deeply undemocratic nature of our electoral system:
Andy Kroll, writing in TomDispatch.com after the victory of Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker in the early June recall election, put it this way: “The takeaway from Walker’s decisive win on Tuesday is not that Wisconsin’s new populist movement is dead. It’s that such a movement does not fit comfortably into the present political/electoral system, stuffed as it is with corporate money, overflowing with bizarre ads and media horse-race-manship. Its members’ beliefs are too diverse to be confined comfortably in what American politics has become.”
Katrina vanden Heuvel and Robert Borosage had this to say in “A Politics for the 99 Percent,” printed in the The Nation in early June: “Americans understand that the system is broken—and rigged against them. They increasingly see both parties as compromised. . . Progressives must therefore be willing to expose the corruption and compromises of both parties.”
Bob Wing, in Notes Toward a Social Justice Electoral Strategy, wrote: “The undemocratic and elitist character of the U.S. electoral (and governmental) system is one of the main pillars of corporate rule . . . and one of the main obstacles to progressive work. . . Today’s ruling elite and ruling alliance have made sure that our electoral system still retains tremendous bias towards the rich, especially the corporate elite, and towards conservative white affluent and rural voters.”
And there are many other examples that could be listed of this widely shared view among progressives.
To have a chance of overcoming this state of affairs, which we must do if our children and future generations are to have any hope of a decent life, we must build a mass movement of millions, tens of millions, that cannot be denied. And to get to such a mass movement it is absolutely essential to form a broad alliance network that, by definition, is much, much broader than those people currently willing to be part of a progressive third party. That is why we must consciously build a new third force.
When I say “third force,” what do I mean? Has such a thing ever existed in U.S. history?
The 80’s National Rainbow Coalition: I know of only one case on a national level over the last 100 or so years: the 1984-1989 National Rainbow Coalition movement led by Rev. Jesse Jackson. Rev. Jackson himself explicitly spoke and wrote about this movement as a “third force,” used those words, and he welcomed, at first, the active involvement of those of us working at that time for a third party. And in general, at least up until Jackson began winning big Democratic primary victories in his second Presidential bid in 1988, it functioned in a democratic way. Decision-making was done independent of the control of the established Democratic Party structures and leaders, even if there were connections and communication with some of them. The National Rainbow Coalition had a national convention, it elected a national board and that board had periodic meetings, task forces and an essentially democratic structure.
And the program that was put forward by Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 Presidential bids and the Rainbow Coalition movement connected to them was a very progressive program. A major 1988 campaign tabloid, “On March 8 you can help the South make history,” included these programmatic points:
-Guarantee a uniform national income benefit to needy families.
-Create a national health care system so that every American can be cared for no matter what their income.
-Repeal “Right-to-Work” laws.
-Raise the minimum wage to a livable income.
-Provide equal pay for comparable work done by women.
-Double spending for education and equalize funding between school districts so that educational quality is not determined by the community or region of the country you live in.
-Embark on a major effort to research and produce energy from alternative sources such as solar, wind, hydro, and agricultural products.
-Eliminate unsafe toxic waste sites, aggressively enforce the Superfund cleanup program and make polluters pay.
-End dual primaries, gerrymandering of districts, and at-large elections which make it difficult for blacks, Hispanics and poor whites to be fairly represented.
-Impose comprehensive sanctions on South Africa, end all aid to the contras, and ensure long-term stability in the Middle East by guaranteeing Israel’s security while creating a Palestinian homeland.
-Negotiate an end to development of new weapons systems and deep cuts in the nuclear arsenals of both superpowers.
And there was much more along these same lines.
In mid-1988, following the electoral successes of the Jackson campaign in a number of states in the spring, state Rainbow organizations began to organize state conventions to discuss how to build upon those successes and strengthen this burgeoning effort. I remember hearing about upwards of 8-10 of them which took place or which were beginning to be organized. However, in a tragic development, the national office of the Jackson campaign/Rainbow Coalition ordered that these efforts be halted. Soon afterwards, a restructuring commission was set up to look at how the Rainbow was organized. This commission ended up dividing into two groups, which came up with two proposals for restructuring. One, the majority proposal, would have the effect of restricting the Rainbow’s democratic character and centralizing power at the top.
At a Rainbow national board meeting in March of 1989, the restructuring proposal of the majority of the commission was adopted with virtually no discussion of the second, more democratic, minority proposal. This took place as Rev. Jackson, chairing the meeting, made it very clear that he wanted no discussion and the majority proposal. This turned out to be the end point for the democratic and progressive, “third force” Rainbow Coalition movement.
As I wrote in a book, “Future Hope: A Winning Strategy for a Just Society,” in 2000, “Ever since, Jackson has been a loyal Democrat, and the National Rainbow has become a shell of its former self. And, surprise of surprises, the Democratic Party has moved steadily rightwards. A classic case of retreat, coopt, undercut and, as a result, continue to rule.”
Does this experience of the Rainbow mean that a third force, just like the Democratic Party, would be doomed to internal divisions and power plays? I don’t think so, although I’m sure it would have its share of internal differences and vigorous debates. I think that progressive organizers and activists of the 21st century are more appreciative of the importance of democratic process, participatory internal processes, than were those of us who grew to political maturity in the 20th century. I have seen this in many situations and organizations. One of the best examples is the U.S. Social Forum movement.
The U.S. Social Forum Movement: Growing out of the World Social Forum movement which began in 2001 in Brazil, a U.S. Social Forum movement emerged about five years later. This overall movement is progressive, multi-tendency and diverse. More than anything it is a political space for people who are active on a wide range of issues to come together periodically to talk with one another, both with people working on the same issue and with people working on other issues and from other countries, cultures and backgrounds. A strength of the movement is its diversity.
An example of its importance is that it was through the WSF network that a call was issued in
early 2003 for coordinated actions on February 15th of that year against the U.S. and Britain’s plans for a military invasion of Iraq. On that day 10-15 million people demonstrated all over the world.
In the United States there have been two US Social Forums organized, in June of 2007 in Atlanta, Ga. and in Detroit, Mi. in June, 2010, with a third one projected for either 2013 or 2014. 12,000 people came together in Atlanta and 20,000 in Detroit for five days of meetings, dancing, singing, listening, planning, marching and inspiration. The Atlanta USSF was described as a “beautiful coming together” by one of its planners, Ruben Solis. It was a classic example of how empowering it is to have an open and inclusive process and structure. Any organization which registered was able to organize workshops on subjects of its choosing as long as the subjects were politically consistent with the USSF’s broad principles. What this meant was that on the three full days where workshops were held, people could choose between 100 different options each workshop session, 900 in all.
The daily culture of the USSF—the way in which we interacted with one another—was deep and profound. During the Atlanta event, despite the heat and humidity of a deep South summer, logistical challenges like long waits for overloaded elevators, and the inevitable glitches and problems, the dominant spirit all throughout was collaborative, comradely and cooperative. It was truly beautiful rubbing shoulders, sitting next to, talking with, dancing with, feeling love and solidarity with thousands of sister and brother activists of so many cultures and nationalities.
Both of the USSF’s were very participatory, almost to a fault. This was partly on purpose and partly because this was necessary to attract the big numbers that were wanted. Probably a majority of the people at each of the USSF’s were under 30, young people who are prepared to struggle for change as long as their voices and feelings are respected.
It was similar with the Occupy movement of 2011. Occupy Wall Street, for example, would not have happened, would not have hung together for so long despite very adverse conditions at Zuccotti Park, if not for the general assemblies that allowed for everyone to have a voice.
These examples are indications that if a progressive third force came together, the chances are pretty good that it could avoid the internal democracy problems which had much to do with sinking the Rainbow third force of the 80’s.
Deciding What Candidates to Support: How would an alliance which included progressive Democrats, Greens and other independents decide what candidates to support? The simple answer: democratically, by the members within the particular electoral jurisdiction where there are potential candidates who are members of the alliance and want its support. In many, probably most cases at least for a while, more of those candidates are going to be running in Democratic primaries than are going to be running on an independent line. Where there could be a conflict is where there are two candidates who want to run in the same district, one as a Democrat and one as an independent. What might happen then?
One option, of course, is for the alliance membership to decide which of the candidates they are going to support — democracy at work.
Another option would be something like this, if there is much support for both candidates and the alliance members are concerned about internal divisions resulting from choosing one over the other: a decision could be made to support the progressive Democrat in a primary. If that candidate wins, the full alliance would get behind him or her. If he/she does not win, then the alliance would support the candidate running on an independent line.
Inside/outside: Whoever and however candidates are supported, the alliance must never forget that we will only get changes in law, changes in policy, changes in society when we are able to combine the “inside” work of progressive elected officials standing up in support of strong people’s legislation with an “outside” mass movement that is visible, demonstrative, determined, creative and edgy, changing the political dynamics accordingly.
We saw a good example of what this kind of outside mass movement can do with the fall, 2011 upsurge all over the country of people-led occupations of Wall Street and other locations of the 1%. For several months that inspiring, youth-led, people’s movement held firm, and U.S. politics changed rapidly as a result. The dominant national issue went from being government debt to inequality and injustice. Those issues continue to resonate a year later, even after that movement was temporarily set back by government infiltration, police harassment and the mass media playing up of internal differences and weaknesses, all of which made it possible for most outdoor occupations to be shut down by December of 2011.
Summing up: It is encouraging that there are a growing number of calls for and some organized efforts toward what could become a new third force. We need this badly. The primary reason why legislation that is being produced on Capitol Hill is so weak and problematic has to do with the inherently undemocratic nature of a two-parties-only political system. Such a system muffles the voices of those tens of millions of people who have political views that are more progressive than those of the big money-dependent, corporate-influenced, national Democratic Party.
Much too often this system weakens progressive organizations and the overall progressive movement because we are given the choice of either backing problematic Democratic Party candidates and processes, supporting third party candidates and parties who face immense obstacles in their efforts to win and grow, or just not voting. These are not good choices, and this is why many activists consciously put their energies into the building of extra-electoral movements and organizations.
As someone who has been deeply involved in efforts to form a progressive third party since 1975, who was active in the Rainbow movement of the 80’s and has been part of the U.S. Social Forum process since before the 2007 Atlanta forum, I continue to believe that a key part of a strategy for fundamental social and economic transformation in the U.S. is the development of a strong, mass-based, political alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. However, hard experience has shown that it’s not going to happen solely by establishing a third party organization and/or running third party candidates. We need a broad, independent and progressive, united front, a progressive third force with an electoral and activist strategy.
It sure would be a good thing if those organizers with constituencies and bases who agree on the main outlines of this approach would connect and start communicating.
Ted Glick has been a progressive activist and organizer since 1968. His primary work since 2004 has been on the climate crisis. Past writings and other information can be found at http://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on twitter at http://twitter.com/jtglick.