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Synthesis/Regeneration 16   (Summer 1998)


David Reynolds' Democracy Unbound: Progressive Challenges to the Two-Party System

reviewed by Susan Santone

David Reynolds' Democracy Unbound: Progressive Challenges to the Two-Party System, 1997. 370 pages. Paper, $20 from South End Press, 116 St. Botolph St., Boston, MA, 02115.

In the face of two-party dominance, people looking for progressive alternatives may well feel frustrated and discouraged. However, David Reynolds' new book, Democracy Unbound: Progressive Challenges to the Two-Party System, offers hopeful and encouraging news that progressive activism is not only growing electorally, but part of a broad social movement.

Looking at both the past and today, Democracy Unbound combines an overview of progressive organizing with detailed examples of local group success. Reynolds explains the contrasting strategies used by the Greens, Labor Party, New Party, Vermont Progressive Coalition, labor-community coalitions in New England, and others. He looks not only at the electoral side, but also showcases successful issue campaigns around Living Wages, a progressive income tax, the Contract With America, sustainable development, and more.

Electoral activism alone tends not to build strong grassroots organizations and can leave progressive elected officials hanging on their own.

Reynolds touches on the issues which have animated debates within the Greens for years. While providing a balanced account of differing strategies, the book's examples clearly suggest what works and what doesn't. Reynolds validates the Greens' emphasis on movement building, rather than simply running candidates. He stresses the need to combine electoral efforts with issue campaigns. Electoral activism alone tends not to build strong grassroots organizations and can leave progressive elected officials hanging on their own. However, groups that simply focus on issue work abandon a critical arena. As right-wing groups like the Christian Coalition have well learned, electoral politics offers a key forum for defining the political debate and reaching out to mainstream America.

The successful groups described by Reynolds all share a common trait of focusing on winnable projects. Issue and candidate campaigns must not only highlight progressive politics, but must be seen as serious. Groups which have focused on running people for Congress or Governor, for example, at a time when they can win only a few percent of the votes consistently fail to grow significantly. The same is true for those who have pursued sweeping issue campaigns which they cannot fully realize using their current local resources. Winning motivates people. Mere educational efforts, by contrast, attract little enthusiasm. Indeed, they run the danger of distracting activists from the city council races, school board contests, Living Wage campaigns, local campaign finance reform referendums, and other grassroots projects that provide the basic blocks of movement building.

Credible campaigns need real resources. While Reynolds argues that progressives do not need to raise anywhere near the money that the two parties use, effective grassroots activism needs staffing, office space, and other movement-building resources. Reynolds shows how groups have pulled together such support. Coalitions with progressive community groups have proven a key element. Activists who cannot develop common ground with progressive local unions, for example, will remain in small, isolated groups.

Democracy Unbound also suggests that the dangers of factionalism and internal controversy which have touched the Green experience are not unique. Successful groups have united people around core issues and the strategies needed for concrete action while agreeing to disagree on matters of secondary importance. All of the groups which Reynolds covers have encouraged decentralized and democratic decision-making. The most effective, however, have also built strong national or regional structures which allow activists to work out strategic difference in ways which produce clear and focused strategies.

Packed with examples and analysis, Democracy Unbound offers a potent "how-to" guide for grassroots activists.

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