We’re “On Our Own”

Future Hope column, November 14, 2009

By Ted Glick

“The financial elites have flourished in recent decades to a great extent because they have had government on their side, with the politicians working diligently to ensure that rules, regulations and tax policies established an environment in which the elites could thrive. For ordinary Americans, it has been a different story, with jobs shipped overseas by the millions and wages remaining stagnant, with labor unions under constant assault and labor standards weakened, with the safety net shredded and the message sent out to workers everywhere: You’re on your own.”

-Bob Herbert, A Recovery for Some, NY Times, 11/14/09

Why are so many people disappointed by what has been done, or not done, by the Obama Administration and the Democratic Party since their big election victories a year ago? Or, more to the point, what is it about the U.S. political system which prevents the kinds of changes, on issue after issue, urgently needed—war and empire, the climate crisis, health care, labor law, immigration, and on and on?

It’s not just that the independent and progressive Left is weak. I don’t think, by and large, that those of us who see ourselves as part of the movement for peace, justice, a cleaned-up environment and all the rest are that different than our companeros/as in other countries who are more successful. I think the primary problem is the inherently undemocratic nature of a two-parties-only, winner-take-all political/electoral system. Such a system essentially 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 Democratic Party. This system weakens progressive organizations and the overall progressive movement because we are given the choice of either backing Democratic Party candidates and processes that are in no way consistently progressive, or supporting third party candidates and parties who face immense obstacles in their efforts to win and grow.

Many activists, myself included, have been trying for decades to alter this set of realities. During the 1990’s and into the first decade of this century, there were three national third party efforts that were progressive in their political orientation and substantive in their efforts: the Labor Party, the New Party and the Green Party. Today, as we’re about to enter this century’s second decade, the New Party doesn’t exist, the Labor Party barely exists and the major accomplishment of the Green Party, which does exist and is active, is just that, that it survives.

As someone who has been deeply involved in efforts to form a progressive third party since 1975 and who’s been active with two other significant, mass-based independent movement-building efforts, the Rainbow Coalition of the 80’s and the on-going U.S. Social Forum process, 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 electoral/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, as important as both those things are. What we need is something which brings together progressive third parties like the Green Party, individuals and groups like Progressive Democrats of America working within the Democratic Party in support of a strong progressive platform, and independent-minded organizations and activists working in communities, schools or workplaces who are not necessarily involved in any political party.

We need a broad, independent and progressive, united front, a progressive third force with an electoral strategy that involves support of both progressive Democrats and progressive third party candidates.

What would unite these candidacies? Several things.

One would be a consistently progressive platform on the issues. Single-payer health care. Reducing the bloated military budget. De-escalation of the war in Afghanistan and all troops and military contractors out of Iraq. Ending all fossil fuel subsidies and shifting them to renewables. Policies to reduce carbon emissions by half by 2020. Marriage equality and full civil and human rights for l/g/b/t people. Government programs to create jobs and stop foreclosures. Racial and gender justice. Major changes in our unjust and racially discriminatory “criminal justice” system. Fair, non-racist immigration policies. A wealth tax on the rich and progressive tax reform. Breaking up the “too big to fail” banks and investment houses like Goldman Sachs. Land reform and support to sustainable family farms and farm coops. Defense of women’s right to choose on abortion. Support for instant runoff voting, proportional representation, public financing of elections and other electoral reforms. And more. Candidates would be required to commit to vocal support of this platform before they would receive any support from the united third force.

A second would be a commitment to tactical flexibility as far as elections. For example, there could be a local situation where both a progressive Democrat and a Green wanted to run for Congress, one attempting to get the Democratic Party nomination in the DP primary, the other collecting signatures to be placed on the ballot as an independent (or running as part of an already-ballot-qualified third party). Before the local unit of United Progressives (a possible name for the progressive third force) agreed to support both of these efforts, I would think it would be necessary that the third party candidate agree to end her/his campaign if the progressive Democrat won in the primary, and the progressive Democrat would have to agree that if she/he didn’t win the primary that she/he would actively support the third party candidate.

The bottom line would be that there could be no United Progressives candidates running against one another for the same political office and that the relevant organizational unit—a local chapter, a state chapter or the national organization—would have the power to decide which candidate to support if there was a conflict.

Finally, United Progressives and its candidates would consistently give leadership in the effort to bring our 19th century political system into the 21st century via a whole series of reforms to open up and democratize it. Most of the functioning electoral democracies in the world use a system of proportional representation in electing people to office. If a party gets 5% of the votes, it gets 5% of the representation in government. The influence of corporate money is nowhere close to its role in U.S. elections. In some countries all political parties have free access to the mass media. It must be a primary function of this new third force to champion serious electoral reform.

I am fully aware that this project, if/when it begins to develop, will be attacked from both the “left” and the “right.” From the left, activists who view any involvement with Democrats, even progressive ones, as a form of betrayal of principles will cry “sellout.” Greens part of it will be labeled “Demo-Greens.” From the right, those afraid of risking the ire of and reprisals from the Democratic Party for working closely with third party activists will do their best to sabotage and undercut this effort.

But what’s the alternative? Continuing to hope for the best with the Democrats as they reveal under Obama all too clearly that while there may be a change in the skin color of the President, there’ve been few substantive changes in policy from the days of Bill Clinton? Or continuing to run Green Party and other third party campaigns that help to keep hope alive for an alternative but which have made little progress building a truly mass party, one which commands the allegiance and support of many millions, tens of millions over time?

That is what we need, the sooner the better.

We need to combine the energies and resources of those of us who get it on the extreme limitations of the two-party system but who also understand that the process of building an alternative to it involves both allegiance to principles and tactical flexibility.

In this work we need to be “realistically visionary” in building this coalition. Doing so involves, first, recognizing that each of us brings our particular experiences and truths to a coalition but that others do too, and that all of us, whether third partyites, progressive Democrats or dedicated community or union organizers, have been frustrated by the systemic obstacles put in our way as we have tried to build a strong independent progressive movement.

We need a style of discussion and decision-making that is healthy and mature. Immanuel Wallerstein has written of what is needed in the context of linking different movements, but his words are completely appropriate to the process of forging something like United Progressives: we need “a conscious effort at empathetic understanding of the other movements, their histories, their priorities, their social bases, their current concerns. Correspondingly, increased empathy needs to be accompanied by restraint in rhetoric. It does not mean that movements should not be frank with each other, even in public. It means that the discussion needs to be self-consciously comradely, based on the recognition of a unifying objective, a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian world.” (from “Antisystemic Movements,” in Transforming the Revolution, Monthly Review Press)

The longer we wait to get organized to begin developing something along these lines, the longer it will be that we continue to struggle along in a decidely uphill fashion with our respective issue struggles or electoral campaigns. We may win an occasional victory, or half- or quarter-victories, but there absolutely will not be the kind of victories, and solutions, our threatened ecosystem and our struggling peoples need.

Bob Herbert is right. We are on our own. Let’s act accordingly, coming together to maximize our strength to fight against the corporate elite and their allies in government and elsewhere. It’s trite but just as true as it ever was: in unity there is strength.

Ted Glick is a climate activist who continues to work with the Independent Progressive Politics Network. He would love to hear from others who are in general agreement with this perspective. Past writings and other information can be found at http://www.tedglick.com.