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The left and the Democratic Party:
With or against?

April 8, 2005 | Page 8

DAVID SWANSON is a board member of the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) and former press secretary for Dennis Kucinich when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. LANCE SELFA's column, "Reading Between the Lines," appears biweekly in Socialist Worker, and he is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review. This exchange came in response to Lance's column on the PDA ("Can the PDA move the Democrats left?" March 25). Here, we print excerpts.

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The PDA can take back the party

I THINK Progressive Democrats of America owes a thanks to Lance Selfa for his article in Socialist Worker predicting that we in PDA will not manage to move the Democratic Party to the left. The warning of the difficulty, and of where we can easily go wrong, is helpful.

Selfa began his article with these words: "In a recent fundraising appeal on behalf of Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), Global Exchange and Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin urged support for the PDA's effort to 'take over and transform the Democratic Party.' But this is only the latest in a long line of attempts to 'take over and transform the Democratic Party.' If history is any guide, the PDA's attempt will end like all the others--in failure."

But for every new development in history, history was not "any guide." New achievements are, by definition, new, and their possibility cannot be ruled out by past failures.

Of course, the Democratic Party has never been what we want it to be--though at times it's been much, much closer to it. We and those who have come before us have tried to reform it and failed again and again. But the organization for which Selfa writes advocates the overthrow of capitalism, and we haven't managed that yet either. If history is "any guide," we won't.

Luckily for progressive Democrats and socialists, and for those of us who sympathize with both, there's as much wisdom in Ford and Joyce as in Santayana. We don't want to repeat historical mistakes, but we do want to awaken from history's nightmares and recognize history, ultimately, as bunk.

The right wing announced that September 11th "changed everything," and then proceeded to change quite a few things. We can, if we choose, announce that George W. Bush changed everything, or that the pathetic failure of John Kerry changed everything. These are not empirical claims. They're commitments. We make them true and give them meaning afterwards.

In reforming the Democrats, the trick, as Selfa points out, lies in maintaining a working relationship with the Democratic Party without selling out to it, without being co-opted, without falling victim to the allure of petty power. The same danger lies in working with large funding sources, of course.

I cannot predict with any certainty that PDA will manage to take over the Democratic Party for progressive popular positions, but I am convinced that PDA is going into this with its eyes wide open.

PDA's approach to Democrats, even progressive Democrats, is not one of subservience, but of useful pressure. A fair number of elected representatives want to move left on various issues, but are reluctant to do so in the absence of public pressure. PDA intends to provide it--when they want it, and when they don't. PDA's support in primary elections will be for progressive candidates, whether incumbents or challengers.

A progressive challenger sometimes has more strength as a Democrat than as the candidate of another party, because she or he is able to draw on the support of the party, even while pulling the party away from its corrupting corporate influence. But Greens and Socialists and other party candidates may also gain PDA support. When their election advances the public good and advances both efforts to reform the Democrats and efforts to build another party, then we need to act, not stop and argue over our long-term visions.

PDA will work for instant runoff voting and for fusion, the strategy that the Working Families Party is using to build progressive power.

We in PDA need socialists with us. But we also need with us many for whom "socialism" is a poorly understood and greatly feared word.

Part of what is required of us is reshaping our public discourse so that majority opinions are not marginalized. The majority of Americans want single-payer health care, serious investment in education, fair and clean elections, democratic media, an aggressive response to global warming, an end to the war, fair trade policies, and numerous other policies that are not acceptable in the corporate media.

When Dennis Kucinich brought up single-payer health care in a presidential candidates' debate, Larry King cut him off and told him it was socialism. Well, we either need to make it not be socialism or make socialism be acceptable (or take our airwaves away from the likes of Larry King), but one way or the other, we need to recognize our own status and strength as a majority.

Our strength will be greater not just if we all work together, but if we concentrate only on supporting candidates who are fully behind our platform. PDA has no intention of wasting energy on lesser-evil candidates. Our work, rather, will go into developing good candidates at the local, state and national levels, and into holding our elected officials accountable.

We'll put on coats and ties and meet with them. We'll flood their mailboxes, fax machines and telephones. And we'll protest their actions through nonviolent civil disobedience. We'll do what it takes to take back our country from robber barons, war profiteers and gangsters, whatever party they try to call their own. We'll succeed if you help us.

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An alternative to the duopoly

I'D LIKE to return David Swanson's thank you to me because I think the kind of debate that we're having here is crucial for the left.

Of course, what happened in the past doesn't predetermine what will happen in the future. But choices of political strategy and orientation do have a way of making some outcomes more likely than others.

Was George Bush and his conservative agenda destined to win the 2004 election in the face of an unpopular war, unprecedented job losses and pessimism about the direction of the country? To many progressives, the answer was "yes," because they believe that the U.S. is an irredeemably conservative country with a population hard-wired to lord it over other countries like Iraq.

But then you have to ask yourself--did the 2004 elections give working people the opportunity to vote against the occupation of Iraq, for national health care, or against attacks on civil rights? The pro-war, pro-business, anti-civil liberties Kerry/Edwards ticket didn't.

The Nader/Camejo independent presidential campaign that Socialist Worker supported did offer left-wing alternatives on all of the key issues. But it was marginalized from the outset by an "anybody but Bush" drumbeat consciously promoted by many leading progressive intellectuals and activists, including many of the current leaders and allies of PDA.

The result of these political choices in 2004 was disaster: the complete marginalization of any progressive ideas, the suspension of antiwar organizing for the better part of a year, and a possibly fatal blow to the Green Party as an independent force--all for a strategy that failed on its own terms (i.e., of electing Kerry).

We agree that what working people do to shape the political alternatives available to them is crucial. That's why we argue that working people should build their own alternative to the two big business parties rather than try to "transform" the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to this goal is the Democratic Party itself.

The Democratic Party is one of the two parties of big business rule in this country. Despite its name, it is not a democratic organization whose members control it. So any activist or trade union or popular attempt to "take it over" always faces a counter-attack by the people who really control it--the big-business interests, who will use every underhanded trick in the book to maintain their hold over it.

Thus, in 1934, the radical novelist Upton Sinclair actually won the Democratic primary for the governorship in California on a progressive platform. Did the Democratic establishment, including President Franklin Roosevelt, show loyalty to the Democrats' democratically elected candidate? No. Democratic big business money shifted to the Republican candidate and financed a red-baiting scare campaign that defeated Sinclair. And this was at the height of the social upheaval that included the 1934 San Francisco general strike.

That might be crude example of Democratic strong-arm tactics. Most often, left-liberal challenges to the Democratic status quo are headed off with a combination of political attacks and co-optation.

Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition campaigns in 1984 and 1988 excited millions of voters who were looking for some way to express opposition to Reaganism. But Jackson never made any threat to break with the Democrats. So after a few symbolic concessions from the party establishment (for example, a phrase in the 1988 platform condemning apartheid South Africa as a "terrorist state"), Jackson announced his support for the hapless losers Mondale and Dukakis.

Jackson has since become a member of the Democratic establishment whose main role appears to be to try to convince activists to "keep hope alive" in the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, the Democratic Leadership Council--set up to counter Jackson's supporters--continues to set the course for the party.

But let's not reach back too far back in history to provide an example. How about the 2004 campaign of Dennis Kucinich, which has supplied many staffers to PDA? Kucinich remained in the race long after Kerry had locked up the nomination. He said he was going to bring his delegates to the Democratic convention to fight for progressive issues like ending the war in Iraq and for single-payer health care.

Instead, the Kerry-controlled Democratic platform and convention committees compelled the Kucinich forces to recant their positions. The Kerry forces could have simply outvoted the Kucinich forces. Instead, they demanded unconditional surrender. And Kucinich gave it to them.

Is this what Swanson means when he says that PDA will support progressive candidates in "primary elections"? I note he doesn't make a similar commitment to the general elections (i.e. those against Republicans). I don't believe this is an oversight on Swanson's part.

The problem with committing to working within the Democratic Party means that you'll always end up backing "lesser-evil" candidates--even if you don't want to. Even after Kerry's minions made sure that none of Kucinich's issues saw the light of day at the Democratic convention, Kucinich endorsed and campaigned for Kerry. The ABB liberals and radicals did the same.

That's what it means to work to change the Democratic Party from within. If you ever hope to "take over" the Democratic Party, you have to prove your right to work within it, which means supporting and campaigning for its candidates. Unfortunately, that means a lot of "wasted energy" campaigning for lesser evil candidates like John Kerry.

That's why I think that the PDA--Swanson's pretenses to working inside and outside the Democratic Party aside--is primarily a vehicle to attract people who would otherwise consider building an independent left-wing alternative outside the Democratic Party. PDA's October 2004 "Progressive Plan for Change" makes this explicit in it first point: "Create local 'homes,' chapters and caucuses inside existing Democratic Party structures at the state and local level (why reinvent the wheel?)."

Swanson cites the Working Families Party in New York and "fusion" politics as another inspiration for the PDA strategy. This analogy gives the game away. The WFP, set up by New York trade unions, models itself consciously on the American Labor Party (ALP) of the 1930s, which was independent from the Democrats in name only. The WFP merely provides another ballot line on which to vote for the Democratic candidate.

Thus, in the 2002 New York governor's race, the WFP worked for the hopeless Democrat Carl McCall against Republican George Pataki--and against the Green Party's Stanley Aronowitz. After the election, Aronowitz wrote in New Politics: "Even leaders of the Working Families Party which, during the last weeks were [McCall's] only field operation in the City, admitted that my positions were closer to their own than McCall's, especially on taxes. But neither they nor, indeed, the so-called "democratic left" intellectuals and activists close to the Committees of Correspondence and Democratic Socialists, were prepared to support an independent candidacy against the duopoly that controls the electoral process and the state's political and legislative agenda. In fact, many were hostile to my candidacy and, in bad faith, never tired of bringing up the Nader issue in the 2000 presidential race, even though Pataki was no Bush, and McCall was a political corpse."

To paraphrase Aronowitz, WFP activists sacrificed the "progressive agenda" in order to stay true to the Democratic Party. No doubt, PDA--which I note identifies itself as "Democrats" and uses a logo of green donkey--will face the same pressure.

If we ever hope to win support for left-wing ideas in the electoral arena, we must build a political alternative that's independent of the Democrats. Postponing that task with yet another attempt to "take over and transform" the Democratic Party will only delay the day when working people can vote for something that they can actually support, rather than always being forced to choose between "terrible" and "not as bad."

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