Take Back the Democratic Party

Sometimes you have to confront friends with unpleasant realities. In this past election, the people were offered the choice of Democrats, Republicans and in many races Greens, Libertarians and other scattered independent parties. The people spoke -- with their butts. Less than 40% of the voting-age population cast ballots in the mid-terms. If those who actually showed up didn't choose the Democrats, they didn't really give the Republicans a mandate either, although the GOP were handed temporary control of Congress, and they will attempt to make as much hay as they can in the next two years.

However, the people certainly didn't choose the Greens (or the Libertarians, for that matter). One victory in a state representative race in Maine, a 9% showing in the Maine governor's race and scattered victories for local offices in Rhode Island, Hawaii, Texas, Minnesota, North Carolina and California were the electoral highlights for the Greens. Those wins are important, to be sure, but even in California, the most fertile ground in the nation for Green activity, with the most dismal selection of established-party candidates for governor in memory, Green gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo pulled only 5% of the vote.

You can lay the blame at the feet of the established news media, who are controlled by big corporations that have no interest in promoting populist candidates. But that doesn't change the reality. Greens have not shown a broad base of support in general elections. Most congressional districts where Greens might have a chance of winning in a fairly covered campaign probably already are represented by progressive Democrats. The more races Greens run against Democrats, the more they alienate potential allies, particularly in organized labor and the environmental movement.

The Greens and other progressives should take a chapter out of the playbook of the Christian Coalition, which transformed the Republican Party over the past 20 years, all but driving moderates out of the ranks of GOP elected officials. The right-wingers started by taking over school boards, city councils, county executives, and worked their way up to state legislatures, Congress and the presidency. The Greens have followed that model in some towns, particularly in California, where they recently held on to a majority on the Sebastopol city council and gained a majority on the Nevada City school board. They now count more than 170 elected officials nationwide, and good for them. The difference is that the Christian Coalition strengthened the GOP and moved the party to the right while Greens have split the progressive electorate and show no sign of achieving political power in the foreseeable future. In the meantime the Democratic Party, with the loss of its left wing, moves further toward the right.

We agree with the Green Party's distrust of big business and support for independent and socially responsible businesses. We promote living wages, health care for all and economic development that protects the environment and workers' rights. We believe government should encourage cooperatives and public enterprises that distribute resources and control through democratic participation. We believe that the system of legalized bribery of political candidates should be replaced with public financing of elections. The use of gerrymandered districts and winner-take-all election system, which deny voters real choices, should be replaced with proportional representation and instant-runoff voting. However, we think those views can best be advanced through a strong progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Greens say they help keep progressive Democrats honest, but when Minnesota Greens persisted in putting up a challenger against Sen. Paul Wellstone, that convinced many progressive Democrats around the country that Greens were simply kamikazes. Even if the 10,000 votes cast for Green nominee Ray Tricomo didn't cause Walter Mondale (Wellstone's stand-in) to lose the election, the fact that Greens were not a factor in Minnesota, nor in any other Senate race on Nov. 5, simply reinforces the argument that Greens should redirect their energies where it might do the most good -- changing the direction of the Democratic Party.

Greens don't need to apologize for anything they've done, as some Democrats expect. They shouldn't be sorry for running Ralph Nader in 2000. Nader certainly owes no apologies for running to win, which meant going after voters that otherwise might have voted for Al Gore. If Nader arguably took enough votes from Gore in Florida to give Bush a chance to steal the election, Nader and the Greens were simply playing by the rules. We just don't see the sense in repeating that exercise.

The Labor Party model of organizing around progressive issues makes more sense to us. [See www.thelaborparty.org; also "Ralph, Don't Run," by Ronnie Dugger in the Dec. 2 Nation. For a dissent, see Ted Glick's column on page 15.]

It is difficult to defend spineless Senate Democrats who, as Geov Parrish noted at workingforchange.com, were steamrolled by Bush with the USA PATRIOT Act, had a year to absorb the lessons, and then got steamrolled in exactly the same way in the lame duck session with the 500-page Homeland Security bill. It passed the Senate 90-9 on Nov. 19 despite questionable provisions that infringe on corporate and government accountability, privacy, civil liberties, worker rights and sets up a federal secret police bureaucracy with 170,000 patronage employees. (Thanks to Democratic Sens. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Carl Levin of Michigan and Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, as well as independent James Jeffords of Vermont, who voted against it. Others spoke against the bill but ended up voting for it, which makes us shake our heads.) That performance, and the confirmation of two right-wing appeals court judges in an attempt to appease the Senate Republican leaders, gives us little hope that Senate Democrats will be up to the task of blocking GOP excesses in the next two years. But rather than give up on the Democrats, we should make use of the next two years to put up good progressive candidates that can be elected around the country. If we have to take down some mossback Democrats in the process, it's better to overtake them with a progressive alternative in the primary instead of splitting the center-left in November and let the GOP fill the gap once again.

We know we can't expect the corporate lobbyists to finance populists as they do the pro-business Democratic Leadership Council crowd. We can't count on the corporate media to cover populist issues fairly and it's getting worse as the Federal Communications Commission under the Bush administration removes the last vestiges of regulation of broadcasters.

To elect progressive candidates will take grassroots organizing, fundraising and media that are willing to provide a forum for a populist insurgency. Publications like The Progressive Populist can air the issues at the national level but similar journals are needed at the local level (see www.nhgazette.com/nr.html for instructions on how to start one). At the same time, we can demand that corporate-owned media cover progressive populist candidates and points of view. Let radio and TV stations (and more importantly their advertisers) know that if they boycott progressive voices you'll boycott the products they advertise. Also, explore new ways to broaden the progressive electorate with email and the Internet.

A progressive government is possible, but it will require progressives to stick together. As Benjamin Franklin once said in another time of difficulty, "We must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately." -- JMC

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