While on vacation last week I had the opportunity to hear Dennis Kucinich speak, and I took advantage of it. I was not disappointed. I was impressed by Kucinich’s consistently progressive positions on every issue he addressed or was asked about. I appreciated the way he spoke about a “politics of the heart,” and the need for a movement for fundamental transformation of this nation. He came across genuine and honest.
He was also very forthright about being not just a Democrat but about his efforts to recruit Greens and other third party-ites to join and support his campaign. He spoke with understanding about why many of us have rejected the corporate-dominated, two-party system and indicated openness to the emergence of a genuinely democratic, multi-party system, but he made it clear that he believes the path to fundamental change lies through the Democratic Party.
I hold no hopes for the Democratic Party and haven’t for over 30 years. But I recognize that there are people like Dennis Kucinich, or Al Sharpton, who have looked at the current reality of the U.S. political system and have come to believe that they can be most effective, at least for now, if they function within that flawed and highly problematic structure. There are many tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of activists around the country who fall into this category.
It is critical that those of us who are actively working to build a genuinely progressive party not lump such people into the same category as the Democratic powers-that-be–the behind-the-scenes corporate contributors, the well-connected political operators, the most powerful elected officials. Indeed, it is critical that we recognize that there are really two Democratic Parties, and that in one of them are to be found many of the people essential to the emergence of a visible, effective and powerful progressive party.
This situation is a difference between the Republican and the Democratic parties, and it is not a small one. There are no Republican congresspeople in the Progressive Caucus. Of the 155 members of Congress who voted against the Iraq war authorization in mid-October, 2002, only six were Republicans. And there could be other examples.
Of course, it must be said that many of those who voted against the war authorization, and some of those in the smaller Progressive Caucus, are inconsistent as far as their progressive politics. We’re not talking here about revolutionary leaders. But only a narrow sectarian would discount the value of progressive voices in Congress, especially those like Kucinich who have a solid track record.
The Greens or any independent political party or movement which ignores this reality about the Democratic Party, which does not take it into account when determining strategy and tactics, has little chance of ever becoming a powerful political force.
How are we going to construct a strong progressive alternative to the Dems and Reps, one capable of seriously challenging for power? In my view there are three major aspects to this process.
1) We need to run candidates on “third party” lines and build up independent organizational forms engaged in grassroots organizing around the issues affecting working people. We need candidates willing to stand up and be crystal clear about their allegiance to the interests of the people and not the corporate-dominated parties, able to demonstrate that there is a growing base of voting support for independent candidacies. As much as possible there should be connections between the electoral and non-electoral activity.
2) We have to be about the process of changing the electoral rules of the game. We need instant runoff voting and, longer-term, proportional representation. We need clean money, public financing of elections. These are the two electoral reforms that can do the most to open up the political system to those who have been historically disenfranchised.
3) We need to pay careful attention to the struggle within the Democratic Party between its progressive and centrist/conservative wings. We should maintain our connections with those willing to work with us and support our demands and programs. Strategically, we must build unity of action with the forces inside the Democratic Party who are open to or moving towards independence.
Why do we need to relate to progressive Democrats? One good example of why is the Nader example.
Where would the Green Party be right now if Ralph Nader had not decided in 1996 to allow the Greens to use his name as their Presidential candidate? Prior to this development Nader had been in and around Democratic Party circles for close to 30 years. His decision to move outside those circles made a huge difference for the Greens, giving them national visibility and confidence they did not have before this time.
Imagine the national political impact if the internal struggle between the Democratic Party’s progressive and centrist/conservative wings, combined with the growth and strengthening of the Greens and other independent political efforts, leads to a major split, or a significant number of progressive defections to the Greens/the independents.
Is this an unrealistic hope? I don’t think so. There is a great deal of discontent at the grassroots of the Democratic Party over the Republican-lite policies it has often followed for many years. If they end up nominating someone like Lieberman, or another candidate who gets elected and then follows the same Bill Clinton-like script, the ground will be very fertile for the seeds and shoots of political independence.
A damn-both-the-parties, down-with-all-the-Democrats approach, on the other hand, while perhaps feeling more radical and righteous, is at best a prescription for slow growth. While at times that’s the most that can be hoped for, in today’s world, given the urgency of the many crises facing us—from global warming to permanent war to major repression—it just doesn’t cut it. Especially when we may be on the verge of something much more profound and significant, taking this road is a definite detour.
We need Green Party and other independent progressive candidacies. But we need a strategy and tactics, especially regarding a Green Party Presidential campaign, which I support, appropriate for this particular moment in history.