Those who take the most from the table, teach contentment.
Those for whom the taxes are destined, demand sacrifice.
Those who eat their fill, speak to the hungry, of wonderful times to come.
Those who lead the country into the abyss, call ruling difficult, for ordinary folk.
— Bertolt Brecht
Several times in columns over the last year or so I have written about the need for a “third force,” a broad, independent and progressive united front.
Those people who know me might think this is nothing new. After all, for over 15 years I have been a leader of the Independent Progressive Politics Network, which has had unity-building for an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans as central to its mission. However, my conception of a 21st-century-second-decade “third force” has one major difference, which is:
What we need is an alliance which consciously incorporates elected Democrats as well as elected Greens and independents, as well as groups, or individual leaders and members of groups, like Progressive Democrats of America and the Green Party. 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 36 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 the promised land. The huge, historically-based, structural obstacles in the way of the formation of a truly mass-based (tens of millions), new political party make it essential that a different approach be used.
A Green Party Leader’s Proposal
A progressive third party can be formed, and has been, the Green Party. Of all the various national efforts to form a third party alternative over the last 25 years, this is the one which has been most successful. But after all those years, it does not command the support of tens of millions, its growth has been at best incremental over the past decade, and there is no reason to believe that, alone, this will change substantially.
Some Greens, perhaps many, understand that something new is needed. Scott McLarty, media coordinator for the Green Party of the United States, wrote a piece just before Christmas calling for a “voters’ revolt.” McLarty’s piece was “not an exhortation for exclusively voting Green in every election. Greens are not on every ballot, nor would I advise voting according to party without regard for candidates’ qualifications. Rather, it’s an appeal for progressive, antiwar, pro-environmental groups and anyone who cares about America’s future to recognize the alternative party imperative, and to support that imperative however they can.”
McLarty goes on to clarify what he sees as the political vehicle for this “voters’ revolt:”
What we need, as a preliminary for the emergence of the Greens or any other alternative, is a popular voters’ revolt against the rule of the Titanic parties (a phrase coined by Laura Wells, Green candidate for governor of California in 2010). It should be led by a coalition of alternative parties that have found themselves virtually shut out of the political system and the media, including Greens, Socialists, Libertarians, independents and others, as well as Tea Partiers frustrated by their movement’s absorption into the GOP and sympathetic Democrats and Republicans.
Tactically, McLarty writes that “the first step for such a coalition would be a list of demands that presuppose no political ideology beyond a desire for clean and open elections.” He lists his thoughts on those ‘clean elections’ demands, including: debates that include all candidates, proportional representation, instant runoff voting, campaign finance reforms, tamper-proof and open-software computer voting machines, abolishment of ‘corporate personhood,’ and repeal of restrictive ballot access laws.
The successful development of this proposal would be a good thing. Without question, part of the overall platform of the progressive movement, of a new “third force,” should be these kinds of electoral reforms to open up our anachronistic political system. But as THE central strategic objective for progressives and revolutionaries, I don’t see it. And a coalition of the kind McLarty proposes is not a progressive coalition; it’s, in essence, a single-issue coalition, and that is not enough on the issue of clean elections, or health care, or the climate, or racial justice, or war and militarism, or anything else
What we need is a broadly-based alliance involving tens of thousands of organizers — once it gets off the ground — that can effectively put forward and organize around a multi-issue, consistently progressive program on how society can be rebuilt and reorganized for the benefit of the people and our severely threatened ecosystem. Neither the Republican nor the Democratic parties are doing this. Obama’s new chief of staff, William Daley, as well his old one, Rahm Emanuel, in no way have, or had, this as their agenda, in any way, shape or form.
Working Within the Democratic Party
Progressive Democrats and the organization Progressive Democrats of America, as well as many unions, reform groups and groups like the NY Working Families Party, have been fighting for years against this right-of-center direction that leading Democrats are taking the Democratic Party. The likelihood is high that this battle within the Democratic Party will become sharper in the next two years. Daley’s appointment is one of a number of signs that Obama will not be adjusting to Republican control of the House by mobilizing the grassroots or taking progressive positions on issues. Instead, on many issues he will be going out of his way to find common ground with Republicans.
Should the independent progressive movement take up this battle within the Democratic Party as its primary strategic task in the coming period? Given the deep-seated structural impediments to the formation of a mass third party, does it make sense that this is where we put our focus?
There is no question that a progressive united front would be involved with efforts to oppose Republican and Tea Party regressivism and Democratic capitulation to it or to the corporate and banking elite which dominates Washington. We should work with those Democrats (and Republicans) who support solidly progressive positions on issues, positions consistent with our own overall policy approaches. A key part of our work must be work on issues, not just by organizing around a longer-term agenda for what’s really needed — like universal single-payer health care or hundreds of billions of dollars in reductions in the Pentagon budget — but in the world of here-and-now where we’re not yet strong enough to enact those needed objectives. Indeed, much of that work over at least the next two years will be defensive, like defending Social Security and Medicare.
But this is not the same thing as a determination that, strategically, OUR MOVEMENT should prioritize day-to-day work within the Democratic Party. Some of those who must be part of a broad progressive third force are doing, and would continue to do, that. For the alliance movement as a whole, however, we must build the strength of independent political organizing — involving progressive Dems, Greens, other independents, unaffiliateds, soft Republicans and skeptics-of-elections — at the grassroots, statewide, regionally and nationally
Independent, Mass Movement Building
THIS must be our continually-affirmed and continually-assessed objective. Just as the decade of the 1930’s was the decade of resurgent labor, just as the decade of the 60’s was the decade of civil and human rights, just as the decade of the 80’s was the decade of a multi-cultural rainbow movement, the second decade of this century must be the decade of people’s power. We must be about inspiring, nurturing and organizing millions of people to assert and organize for their right to live decently and with dignity in a world with clean air, clean water, clean energy and in balance with our natural environment. Any of our tactics, including electoral tactics, must always be determined with this overriding objective in mind.
And we must go about this work crystal clear that what stands in the way of our achieving these objectives are the coal and oil companies, the for-profit health care industry, the too-big-to-fail greedy and criminal bankers, the military-industrial complex — in short, the powerful monied interests who have hijacked our democracy and are pulling the strings behind the Tea Party, the Republican Party and powerful sections of the Democratic Party.
Just as our movement is multi-issue, so must be our tactics. Some of those who are part of the alliance may have little to do with elections. There are many excellent and dedicated organizers who are skeptical about relating to electoral politics. But the hard fact is that if we are talking about a mass movement of millions, tens of millions ultimately, the movement as a whole must intervene within an arena that, rightly or wrongly, a vast majority of people in this country see as the way to “do politics.” As we do that work, as we connect with more and more people, we can show by example that electoral politics is only one of a number of things that we need to do to be about social, economic and cultural transformation.
Many of us, those skeptical of elections and those who see it as a key arena for struggle, will continue their day-to-day grassroots organizing around the issues most important to the people in their workplace, community or mass organization, or by bringing the action campaigns of the broader movement to those people. Some will want to focus on the organization of “street heat,” mass demonstrations and civil disobedience. The third force must appreciate the lesson of history that mass movements, to be successful, must up the ante, push the envelope, risk arrest in order to underline the urgency and seriousness of the situation we are in.
Non-Sectarianism and a Healthy Style of Work
We need to firmly reject sectarian, narrow and divisive approaches when it comes to building our movement, while constructing a style of work which welcomes constructive criticism. Members of the alliance movement need a way of talking with one another and with those we are reaching out to which consciously looks for points of connection that are then built upon. We need a “we,” not “I” mindset. We need to become known for being good allies. Our organizing work should be about working with others in such a way that they grow from being new members of our movement to the point where they are able to give leadership and, indeed, become “leadership trainers” themselves. This is central, fundamental to our ability to build a people’s power movement that can grow strong enough to eventually win.
We need an alliance culture that is about respectful listening, cooperation and the common good (“an injury to one is an injury to all”), as distinct from the currently-dominant culture’s individualism, power-seeking and greed. Indeed, today’s right-wing culture has evolved into a mean-spirited, dishonest and violence-producing approach to politics that is a dangerous and very real threat to our common survival and progress. To the extent that we model a very different way of standing up for our beliefs in an organized way, to that extent will we win over large numbers of people and, over time, expose and isolate the ultra-rightists.
Critically, the movement’s leadership and many of its members must appreciate the need for an anti-oppression consciousness, one which opposes racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, etc., if we are to build the unity required to take on our common enemies.
When it comes to making decisions we should use what I like to call a “striving for consensus” model. Such a model proceeds from an understanding that we should try to make decisions through the kind of dialogical process that involves a willingness to see more than one side of an issue before coming to a decision. At the same time, it understands that it is not always possible, or there is not enough time, to arrive at a full consensus and that sometimes a vote passed by a majority, or 2/3 or 3/4 of those voting on the issue at hand, is appropriate.
What would be the range of positions on issues, an essential “glue” to this effort? Here are some general sketchy thoughts, admittedly incomplete:
Single-payer health care. Significant reductions in the bloated military budget. De-escalation of the war, ending the occupation of 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 lbgt people. Government programs to create jobs and stop mortgage foreclosures. Labor law reform that protects workers in the workplace. Racial and gender justice. Major changes in our unjust and racially discriminatory “criminal justice” system. An end to Israel’s illegal occupation and support for Palestinian rights. Fair, non-racist immigration policies including an amnesty program. A wealth tax on the rich and progressive tax reform. Breaking up or taking over the “too big to fail” banks and investment houses like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. Breaking up huge corporate industrial farms, land reform and support to sustainable and organic family farms and coops. Defense of women’s right to choose on abortion. Support for instant runoff voting, proportional representation, public financing of elections, an end to “corporate personhood” and other electoral reforms. And more.
Would the alliance be a coalition of organizations or an individual membership organization? Those specifics will be determined when the organizing process begins for this needed people’s power vehicle. Almost certainly, at first, it would likely be more of a network linking together those, whether organizational representatives or individuals, who come together to make it happen. Over time, especially as it involves itself in electoral activity, it would need to develop local and state organizational structures to decide democratically who, if anyone, should be supported.
The key at the beginning of the process is to allow for full discussion and back-and-forth over the basic idea of what a third force should look like, to allow the maximum input into the decision-making process. A national leadership to advance the alliance-building process and its program of activities would need to be created that is broadly representative of our country’s major constituencies, different parts of the country and the political tendencies within the alliance.
Possible First Action Campaign
One possibility for how to get this off the ground, once a critical mass of progressive leaders has come together, would be to organize throughout the country a series of meetings, hearings, conferences, street rallies and other ways to develop a “people’s program.” This campaign would have several purposes. One would be to identify those people prepared to work together in an alliance. Another would be to get lots of popular input into what should be the overall platform/program of the alliance. And a third might be to use the developed set of positions on issues in some way during the 2012 national elections.
Perhaps we could call it a 21s century bill of rights. It may be that, more than just a set of positions written down on paper or posted electronically, the process of constructing this bill of rights/program could be done in such a way that the involvement of people in different types of actions in support of the platform planks could be built into the process.
It could well be that there is a better way to proceed. Maybe it will take some time before a critical mass of progressive leaders with organized bases and constituencies comes together to move this proposal or something similar to it forward. I hope not too long.
There is an urgency to this project. Our country and our world are in deep, deep trouble. What we do here in the USA this decade will be decisive for those who come after us. Time is running out to reverse the many very real crises that are driving humanity and all life forms toward the abyss. History is calling upon us to step it up now.