"The more things change, the more things stay the same" -- this popular saying came to mind in thinking about a brief way to describe what happened on November 5, 1996. But it's not really accurate. This year, it's more like, "the more things stay the same, the more things are going to change for the worse."
Yet those of us working for an alternative to our country's corrupt two-party political/economic system can build upon what took place over this recent period of political activity. It is entirely possible that by the year 2000, depending upon if and how the green/new/labor/independent progressive party movements overcome our divisions and find concrete ways to work together, we could be in position to be a major political player on the national scene.
. . .by the year 2000. . .if. . .progressive party movements. . .find concrete ways to work together, we could be in position to be a major political player on the national scene.
The two most significant political developments of 1996 were the historic founding of the Labor Party and the Ralph Nader Presidential campaign.
It is significant when the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, the United Mine Workers Union, the American Federation of Government Employees, the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union and others openly declare their intention to work together to build a progressive, alternative political party. Millions of workers throughout the country learned during 1996 that fresh breezes are beginning to blow within the ranks of organized labor, and this can only encourage grass-roots, independent action and struggle.
It is important when a figure of the stature of Ralph Nader openly criticizes both corporate-dominated parties, saying, in effect, that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Millions of people heard Nader's message over the course of the year, and even though his vote total was lower than some Green activists expected, the Nader campaign could be very helpful to the process of building a unified and more effective independent progressive political movement.
Another development of note is the growing support for what goes by the name of campaign finance reform. The victory in Maine of the Democratically Financed Elections referendum was an important victory. The strong showing in San Francisco -- 44% of the vote -- for a form of proportional representation was also important. There were a number of other states where more moderate campaign finance reform referenda passed. And the exposure of the Clinton campaign's illegal efforts to raise money only fed an already primed, growing popular revulsion against the pigs-at-the-public-trough way that politics works at the top in the USA.
Finally, we should not forget that "Too Turned Off to Vote" was the overwhelming winner of this election. 51% of the eligible electorate did not bother to show up, continuing an historic trend. Most of these people are the low- and moderate-income working class people who are and will be responsive to our message if we present it clearly and honestly.
Problems We're Up Against
However, our movement is facing serious internal obstacles to what should be a common project of building a unified third party movement.
One is the on-going problem of "turf politics." It's a fact: within the progressive third party movement there are serious divisions caused by individual and group efforts to be the leader, the most important of the various efforts out there.
Of more substantive importance are the very real differences that exist over the question of how we should relate to progressive Democrats.
Of more substantive importance are the very real differences that exist over the question of how we should relate to progressive Democrats. The New Party explicitly works to build support for progressive Democrats through their fusion approach. The Labor Party has not taken a position on this question; if they had tried to at their founding convention, there would have been serious divisions. The Green Party publicly declares that "fusion is confusion" and has consistently run only third party candidates. The Campaign for a New Tomorrow (CNT), the smallest and most resource-poor of the various national efforts, but of significance because of its organic connections to communities of color, takes a position similar to that of the Greens.
The three major national efforts-the Greens, the Labor Party and the New Party-all have weaknesses, some serious, when it comes to issues having to do with racism. Whether it be low numbers of members of color within their ranks, few leaders of color in key positions, and/or insufficient willingness to explicitly discuss and prioritize this issue, it's hard to deny this as a continuing problem.
Insufficient resources to do the work is a definite problem, although there are distinctions to be made here. The New Party and the Labor Party each have built resource bases that, while relatively modest, are superior to those of the Greens and the CNT. There may be a connection between some of the political/strategic differences referred to above and this state of affairs.
. . .none of these efforts. . .have yet grasped the essential, strategic need for building a. . . way of working and relating to one another, that embodies the new society we say we are about creating.
Finally and, to my mind, the most fundamental problem is this: none of these efforts, not to mention the US Left as a whole, have yet grasped the essential, strategic need for building a qualitatively different culture, a way of working and relating to one another, that embodies the new society we say we are about creating. We are still affected by the racism, sexism, individualism and competitiveness of the dominant system's culture. If we collectively acknowledged this fact and worked to change it, a lot of the petty power plays and divisiveness within individual groups and between and among our groups would be substantially reduced. We would still have our strategic, tactical and constituency differences, but we would be able to talk to each other about them in ways that were positive and constructive. We would be able to come to decisions about concrete, realistic ways of working together around particular projects that, over time, should help us all to see which strategies, tactics and constituencies really were moving us forward. We would all actually enjoy, more or less, working together, because we would feel the power and gain the personal insights that come from principled, working unity across lines of nationality, gender, region, work areas, sexual orientation, etc.
1997 and Beyond
One of the positive things about the Independent Progressive Politics Network (IPPN) is that we have internalized this realization at least as much as any other group. When we have our annual Summits -- next year's will be in May or June, probably in Decatur, Illinois -- we always take time for people of color, women's and lesbian/gay/bi-sexual/transgender caucuses, and for workshops for men on sexism and for whites on racism. We have done a pretty good job of ensuring significant leadership from people of color and women, although we certainly still have weaknesses. We have developed an inclusive, democratic, respectful process of discussion that also gets things done.
The IPPN National Steering Committee recently met and agreed that we would continue two projects, the National Slate of Independent Progressive Candidates and the National Peoples Pledge Campaign, that were implemented in 1996. The National Slate project was more successful, with about 65 candidates from 18 states, including Greens, local independents and 7 or 8 state third parties. Both projects, we believe, have demonstrated that they can be useful at a local level and provide handles for concrete unified work.
All of us should throw in with the various national and state groups which will be running referenda and working around issues of proportional representation and taking money out of politics. The ground has been plowed by the brazen corruption of the Democrats and Republicans; people are ready to support these efforts and we should prioritize this work in the coming period.
We need to look for ways that our different efforts can meet, locally, statewide, regionally and nationally, to discuss what we have in common, what we don't, and how we can work together on what we agree upon to advance our overall common objectives.
But joint discussions and joint work alone won't do it. It's the quality of our interactions that we also need to consciously work at. We need to be so outraged and upset about what is being done to us, to our exploited and abused brothers and sisters around the world and to the natural environment, that we are willing to do whatever is necessary to build a unified and powerful third party movement. Fundamental to this objective is a new way of working, a new culture, a conscious identification and rejection of the ways in which the dominant culture affects how we think, feel and act. It's time; it's long overdue. Let's finally get it right.
Ted Glick is the National Coordinator of the Independent Progressive Politics Network and has been a community activist in Brooklyn, NY since 1979.