Will There Be A National Progressive Voice (Of Any Kind) in 2000?

(This article was written for Z Magazine in late 1999.)

by Ted Glick

The year 2000 Presidential sweepstakes has gotten underway with the wealth primary. As the candidates for President go about their work of raising the millions needed to be seen as serious, there’s one Presidential “horse” that is not even mounting up to be in the race: good old Progressive.

The Republicans have their center-right to far-out-right stable of horses: Dan Quayle, John McCain, Elizabeth Dole, Steve Forbes, Lamar Alexander, George Bush, John Kasich, Patrick Buchanan, Gary Bauer and Robert Smith. The Democrats have only two: center-rightist Al Gore and centrist Bill Bradley.

The left has none. Repeat: a big, fat zero. Paul Wellstone and Jesse Jackson, the two most prominent progressive Democrats, have both officially withdrawn from consideration.

On the face of it, you’d think that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has run up the white flag and surrendered their party to the Clinton/Gore/Democratic Leadership Council crowd. This is so despite the election of an additional 15 or so self-described “progressives” to Congress in November, 1998. According to Karen Dolan, National Director of the Progressive Challenge, which works closely with the Congressional Progressive Caucus, “the number of progressives comes to 90 out of 216 House Democrats.”

What has happened to our progressive leaders in the Democratic Party?
There are certainly a number of reasons to explain this abysmal state of affairs, but
there is no escaping the conclusion that the single most important reason is the mishandling of the sex, lies and videtape scandal we were subjected to from December of 1997 to February of 1999. Clinton has done it again: in addition to the damage he wrought, at least temporarily, on the Republican Party, now internally divided and wounded as it has not been for a long time, Clinton also diverted and deflected progressive Democrats to such an extent that they are now virtually invisible and even less effective than usual when it comes to national politics. The absence of even one progressive Democrat in the Presidential pack is
a symptom of a much deeper, serious problem.

Howard Zinn has written about this. Referring to the impeachment battle and a sexual revolution that he considers to have been essentially won in the hearts and minds of a large majority of the American people, he “suggests that progressives worried about sexual McCarthyism have organized a safari against a paper tiger. They are off in the jungle to wage a war that has largely been won. And they have deserted a battlefield dominated by Clinton and the Republicans, who have joined, through all the years of his presidency, to act against the poor, to make the corporate rich richer, to maintain an enormous military apparatus, and to use it against helpless people abroad. Clinton’s major policies have had Republican support: the destruction of the New Deal’s guarantee to poor women and children, the building of more prisons and the extension of capital punishment, the refusal to sign the land mines treaty and to end nuclear testing, the continued sale of weapons all over the world, the cruel punishment by embargo of the Iraqi people and the Cuban people, the repeated bombing of Iraq, producing civilian casualties, with no rational purpose. In short, many people on the American Left have been hoodwinked (by themselves) into surrendering
their historic mission as critics of the bi-partisan Establishment. They are diverting their energy and talents, at a time when the voices for economic justice at home and human rights abroad need to be louder than ever.”

Keeping Hope Alive

All is not lost, however. Indeed, perhaps history will one day look back to the impeachment debacle as just the final act of the long, bitter, destructive two-party drama that has enslaved and debased politics in the United States for so long. Perhaps, just perhaps, the Left void in national politics will soon be filled by the fledgling, struggling, still-divided but
definitely-growing progressive third party movement.

The sentiment in the country in favor of alternatives to the two corporate-dominated parties has only grown and deepened as a result of the bi-partisan debacle in Washington, D.C. Disillusionment with our political system is widespread and growing. The percentage of registered independent and third-party voters in the United States has climbed from about 2% of eligible adults in 1964 to about 15% in 1996. Earlier this year Curtis Gans, director of the
Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, noted that, “Party allegiance is getting
weaker every year, and there are no signs that will change. It had a major impact in these latest [1998] elections, with Jesse Ventura being the most obvious example. But it’s happening all around the country.”

There are three national progressive parties that have been growing and developing over the course of the decade of the ’90s. The question is, are they up to the task of presenting a visible, national progressive alternative in the year 2000? More specifically, what are the prospects for a progressive independent Presidential candidate?

The oldest of the parties is the Green Party. Actually, there are two national Green organizations, the Greens/Green Party, USA and the Association of State Green Parties. The Greens movement began in the early ’80s, inspired by the success of the German and other European Green parties. It should be noted that the European Green parties have been able to do as well as they have primarily because, under the electoral systems of most European countries, if a party receives 5% or more of the vote they receive a proportional percentage
of representatives in government. There is a growing movement in the United States to change our electoral system to one or another of the various forms of proportional

The Greens were aided significantly by Ralph Nader’s “campaign” for President on the Green line in 1996. State Green organizations got Nader on the ballot in about half of the states, and he received close to 750,000 votes despite spending less than $5,000 on the campaign and fairly serious political and organizational problems. However, despite these problems, the campaign brought new people, new energy and new organizations into the Green movement. It also exacerbated internal tensions that had been in existence since the ’80s, leading to the emergence of the Association of State Green Parties as an alternative, more electoral-oriented formation as compared to the Greens/Green Party, USA.

State Green organizations now exist in 28 states. They have ballot
status in 12. Planning is underway for the running of President/Vice-Presidential
candidates in 2000.

The Labor Party recently held a successful national convention in Pittsburgh, Pa. in November, 1998. This was their “First Constitutional Convention” following the founding convention in 1996 in Cleveland.

At this convention the Labor Party decided to begin moving towards the running of candidates for office. A series of requirements were approved that must be met before local chapters can run candidates, which will mean that the number of candidacies that eventually emerge, probably beginning in 2000, will be limited. The Labor Party’s primary focus at this point in time is on the development of national campaigns in five areas: Just Health Care,
Defend Social Security, a Workplace Bill of Rights, a 28th Constitutional Amendment
Right to a Job and a Working Class International Trade Policy.

Unions with memberships approaching 1 1/2 million members have affiliated with the Labor Party, and there are about 40-45 chapters or local organizing committees.

The New Party is going through some changes. Its two co-founders, Joel Rogers and Dan Cantor, formerly Board Chair and Executive Director respectively, are no longer in those positions although they continue active involvement. Cantor has become the interim state coordinator of the Working Families Party, created in 1998 when a coalition of community groups, some unions and other progressives ran Democratic Party machine boss Peter Vallone for Governor.

Last fall the national New Party adopted a permanent constitution and governance structure and held its first election of officers. The previous Interim Executive Committee was replaced by a permanent National Executive Council.

The New Party’s major focus has been and continues to be on the running of local candidates for office. Since their founding in the early ’90s approximately 250 candidates have campaigned with New Party local chapter support. The vast majority have run either in non-partisan races or as Democrats. A small percentage, about 5%, have run on an independent, third party line.

The New Party claims a membership of 20,000 and local chapters in about 10 states.

In addition to these three main national groups, there are other important organizations: the African-American led Unity Party and Campaign for a New Tomorrow, the California Peace and Freedom Party, the Progressive Party in Vermont, the D.C. Statehood Party, the Socialist Party, USA, and the Independent Progressive Politics Network, which links a number of these efforts and is working toward an eventual unified party or an alliance of parties.

Finally, it is important to note the growing political strength and some concrete local victories for two important electoral reform movements: the movement for voluntary (for now) public financing of elections and the movement for proportional representation in the way government officials are elected. In the opinion of many third party activists, the building of a viable third party movement in this country is directly connected to the growing success of these two fundamental electoral reform movements. A big money-dominated,
winner-take-all electoral system is a virtual graveyard for third parties, as we have seen in the United States for over 100 years, since the absorption of the populist movement’s Peoples Party into the Democratic Party in the 1890’s.

Successful state referenda in Maine, Massachusetts and Arizona over the last year and a half have led to the creation of statewide, voluntary public financing systems. There are literally thousands of activists in every part of the country working to replicate this accomplishment in their state or locality via legislation or referendum.

And although the movement for proportional representation (PR) is newer and younger, two important recent developments portend what could come to pass in the relatively near future. In February the New Mexico Senate passed a bill which would provide for “preference voting,” a form of PR, for all federal and state offices. Also in February, Progressive Party legislator Terry Bouricius, with the co-sponsorship of four Democrats and four Republicans, introduced a bill to use “instant runoff voting” for all state elections. The bill, H. 199, has a realistic chance of being adopted into law.

Prospects for Unity and a Common Front in 2000

There’s a lot going on out there in the progressive third party/electoral reform arena. Taken together, all of these groups probably have a combined *active* membership of 20,000-30,000 people or more, many of them activists with years and decades of experience. If all of this organizing, energy and resources came together into some kind of a mutually-respectful alliance, one in which each group continued working and developing on its own but also found ways to communicate and coordinate with the others, there’s tremendous upside potential and real hope for the kind of people’s movement desperately needed by
people all over the world. Is anything like this on the immediate horizon?

Unfortunately, no. Some of these groups are interacting with each other to some extent. The Independent Progressive Politics Network’s primary mission is to help bring all of these, and other, groups together into one unified party, or an alliance of parties, and it is having some success. However, the fact is that no breakthrough has yet taken place in which the leaders of all these important efforts have even sat down together in the same room just to dialogue, much less set up an alliance or engage in concerted action. Perhaps this will change; perhaps something may develop soon which leads to the coming together of
such a long-overdue meeting; but as of now this remains as a “dream deferred.”

What about a viable independent Presidential candidacy in 2000? Is that
a possibility?

Because of activity taking place within the Greens, the answer to this one is a definite yes. There is little question but that the Greens will run such a candidate (and Vice-President) in 2000.

There are three semi-separate but somewhat-interrelated efforts along these lines within the Greens.

An ad hoc grouping of Greens from around the country has approached Angela
Davis to see if she is interested in running.

The Association of State Green Parties, which links 28 state organizations of varying strength and experience, has established an organized process to reach out to possible candidates. Ralph Nader is a definite possibility, although if he became the candidate it would be because he agreed to run a serious campaign, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars at least, and speak to the wide range of Green platform issues which, by and large, are not substantially different than the platforms of all of the other progressive third parties. Other individuals who have been approached include Jerry Brown, Lester Brown, Noam Chomsky, Ron Daniels, Ron Dellums, Lani Guinier, Dan Hamburg, Jim Hightower, Molly Ivins, Winona LaDuke and Toni Morrison.

The Greens/Green Party, USA, the oldest and more direct action-oriented wing of the Greens (although not exclusively), recently called for a unified national convention bringing together the ASGP, the G/GPUSA, state Green parties, and non-Green groups like the IPPN, Socialist Party, Peace and Freedom Party, Campaign for a New Tomorrow and others. Out of the convention and the work leading up to it, a Presidential/Vice-Presidential slate would emerge, one which would hopefully have a broad base of active support from both Greens and non-Greens.

There are a number of questions posed by these developments.

The immediate one, of course, is whether or not the Greens will be able to unite their efforts behind one candidate. My guess is that, yes, although somewhat messily, this will take place. Even with the internal differences and the two national Greens groups, there is enough overlap and enough maturity within the Greens generally that there is virtually no possibility of anything other than one President/Vice-President slate.

A bigger question is whether the Greens candidate would be able to garner
significant active support from the other third party efforts, from non-Greens. The answer to this one will depend to a great extent upon who the candidate is. A Ralph Nader, Ron Dellums or Jim Hightower, for example, would present the Labor Party and New Party with a difficult problem. Do they stand aside, stay silent, as a “name-recognition,” widely-respected progresive faces off against Al Gore (or Bradley) and Bush/Dole/whomever? Would the New Party again implicitly support the Democratic candidate, as they did in 1996? Would the Labor Party, which invited Ralph Nader to speak at their November, 1998 national convention, sit on their hands and do nothing to help him, or the others, mount a credible

There is also the question of political breadth to the campaign. The social
base of the Greens tends to be white middle class. This is not an absolute; there are people of color and working class people certainly involved and in leadership of the Greens, but, particularly for people of color, they are very distinctly in the minority. One way the Greens could deal with this problem (on a short-term basis; longer-term more is necessary) would be to run a person of color/white person for President/Vice-President (or vice-versa) as well as a slate of “cabinet officials” that would demonstrate breadth and inclusiveness. This is not a new idea for the Greens; it is certainly a possibility.

Is There a Spark Out There?

This article is written at the end of a three-week period of massive civil disobedience led by Rev. Al Sharpton and other progressives in the African- American community against Rudolph Giuliani and the NYPD following the Amadou Diallo murder. Over 1,000 people have been arrested so far. One month ago, anyone forecasting such a development from the dispirited, fractured, demoralized New York City progressive movement would have been seen as delusional. Today, it’s a whole new political world in New York City.

Giuliani is on the defensive and is plummeting in the polls. African Americans, Latinos, Asians and whites are marching together and getting arrested together, going to the 7th police precinct station in paddy wagons together. Something important is happening in this city. And it shows no sign of going away anytime soon. The organizations, the networks, the linkages that have been developing, refusing to give up, refusing to go away, refusing to give
in to the Giulianis of the world, have come forward to advance our movement to a new level
of possibility. It remains to be seen exactly where and in what way it is going to advance forward but advance it will.

Could something like this be on the horizon nationally? The conditions are similar, in many ways. Is there a spark, some leader, some new initiative or development that is going to catch hold and generate such a movement on a national scale? It could be.

Let’s hold on and keep plugging away, doing the best we can, looking for that spark that can light a prairie fire. It’s happened before and, sooner or later, it will happen again. Let’s do our best to make it sooner, make the year 2000 the year that we begin to emerge onto the national scene with a loud, unified, independent voice. Let’s make this our time, the peoples’ time. The need is tremendous. History is calling.

(Ted Giick is National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics Network and has been a third party organizer since 1975. This spring Times Change Press will be publishing his first book, Future Hope: A Winning Strategy for a Just Society.)