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Winning Over Grassroots Progressives
by Howie Hawkins, Syracuse Greens
The Nader 2000 campaign precipitated the sharpest split between liberals and radicals since the mid 1960s when radicals in the civil rights and anti-war movements broke with the Democratic Party over its racism and Vietnam. The liberals today work as junior partners in a left-center coalition with more powerful corporate interests inside the Democratic Party, claiming it is the only way to hold off the more conservative Republican right. The radicals want class independence from the whole corporate power structure through a independent progressive political party, arguing that the way to turn the country in a progressive direction is to organize directly around a progressive program, not around the lesser-evil version of the corporate agenda.
The majority base of the Democratic Party remains the majority of the working class, especially African Americans and other people of color, plus the issue-oriented progressives in the women's, gay, peace, and environmental movements. Polling during the 2000 election campaign showed that 10 million of these people preferred Ralph Nader as their first choice and an additional 10 million seriously considered voting for Nader.
Yet 80-90% of these progressives voted for the lesser evil, Al Gore. The liberal leadership elites made attacking Ralph Nader as a spoiler their top priority during the summer and fall, with groups like the National Organization for Women, National Abortion Rights Action League, Human Rights Campaign, and Sierra Club spending more than $6 million on anti-Nader ads in the last few weeks, far more than the Nader campaign spent on its own ads for the whole campaign. The anti-Nader blitz by the liberal lobbying groups was very effective in discouraging potential Nader votes.
Over the next four years, we can expect the liberal lobbying professionals to intensify their attacks on the Greens. They will be calling for a united front inside the Democratic Party...
Over the next four years, we can expect the liberal lobbying professionals to intensify their attacks on the Greens. They will be calling for a united front inside the Democratic Party against the Republican right. In the 2002 congressional election and the 2004 presidential election, they will present the Democrats as the only realistic alternative to everything we oppose about the Congressional Republicans and the Bush administration.
An important question now for the Greens, therefore, is how do we convince the popular progressive base of the Democratic Party that the Greens are a better vehicle for progressive change than the Democrats?
Realignment vs. Independent Politics
The Greens are not the first movement for independent political action to grapple with this question. The Democratic Party has captured every progressive movement since the populists committed political suicide by supporting the Democratic Presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, in 1896. After a period in which Socialist and Farmer-Labor parties had some support in the labor movement, labor went completely into the Democratic coalition in 1936. Since the 1960s, the "new social movements" for racial justice, women's liberation, gay rights, peace, and the environment have also muffled their independent voice and power by entering the Democratic Party.
But also since the 1960s, there has been a persistent and gradually growing thrust for independent progressive politics. Probably the event most responsible for instigating this movement was Democratic Party racism at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City. President Johnson had his liberal errand boys, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, tell the Mississippi Freedom Democrats to accept a "compromise" that would give the Freedom Democrats two token non-voting seats while the segregated Dixiecrat delegation would be seated as the full voting delegation from Mississippi. Black radicals immediately began calling for an independent party. Then, as Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam, many in the swelling peace movement joined the call for independent politics.
The Peace and Freedom campaign…was as committed to direct action as electoral action.
In 1967, a New Politics Conference was held in Chicago, which many hoped would lead to an independent Presidential ticket of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Benjamin Spock. It broke down when black radicals demanded half the voting power because they did not trust the white liberal elites present who had been trying to control the black liberation movement by switching funding from anti-war groups like SNCC to black capitalist groups like CORE. But the movement for independent politics persisted, led in California by the Independent Socialist Clubs and the Black Panther Party, which formed the Peace and Freedom Party for the 1968 campaign, running a ticket of Panther Eldridge Cleaver and socialist economist Douglas Dowd. Other states, under various party names and Presidential tickets, also ran anti-war, black liberation tickets.
The Peace and Freedom campaign of 1968 was a premature Green Party, a New Left type of party that, like the German Greens that emerged a decade later, was conceived of as the electoral extension of the new social movements and New Left of the 1960s. Its platform included strong sections on ecology and women's liberation. It was as committed to direct action as electoral action. It wanted to be structured as a participatory democracy, not a top-down Old Left party. It would not take sides in the Cold War like the Old Left had. It was as concerned with the new social movements' trans-class issues (race, gender, sexual orientation, peace, environment) as with the economic class issues that had pre-occupied the Old Left.
The independent progressive state parties formed in 1968 coalesced into the People's Party for 1972, with Dr. Benjamin Spock and DC Statehood Party founder Julius Hobson heading the ticket. After another People's Party campaign in 1976, the Citizens Party carried the banner of independent progressive politics nationally in 1980 and 1984. Since then, the Greens and, later, the New Party, Campaign for a New Tomorrow, the Labor Party, and the Independent Progressive Politics Network, as well as the old Socialist Party, have all been attempting to build an independent progressive party or alliance of parties.
Throughout these 35 years, in opposition to independent politics, proponents of the realignment strategy such as Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington argued for a coalition of organized labor and allied civil rights groups and middle-class good-government liberals, and later feminist, peace, and environmental groups, inside the Democratic Party. The liberal-labor coalition, or Lib-Labs as they were known, projected a realignment of the two-party system. The Lib-Labs would out-vote the corporate Democrats, take over the Party, chase the southern Dixiecrats into the Republican Party, win over the northern Republican liberals, and run the country based on popular electoral majority.
The Lib-Labs have mutated into the Lib-Lobs, the liberal lobbying groups.
Despite the pro-war AFL-CIO undermining his campaign, when the anti-war liberal, George McGovern, captured the Democratic nomination in 1972, the Lib-Lab argument gained credence with some radicals. Soon former SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) leader Tom Hayden and Black Panther leader Bobby Seale were running for office as Democrats. Even though the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party quickly re-established control in 1976 by installing the Jimmy Carter, the election of Reagan in 1980 tended to push even more former radicals back into alignment with liberals in a united front to defeat the Republican right, with Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition runs in 1984 and 1988 being the most notable expression of this coalition.
From Lib-Labs to Lib-Lobs
Today, after 35 years, the bankruptcy of the Lib-Labs' realignment strategy is plain. The two corporate parties did realign. The southern conservative Dixiecrats are now Republicans and still control the South. Northern Republican liberals are virtually extinct. And the whole two-party spectrum has shifted to the right under corporate financial sponsorship, with a "New Democrat" Clinton/Gore administration in the 1990s implementing a Republican-authored program that is well to the right of the Nixon/Ford policies of the 1970s and even the Reagan/Bush policies of the 1980s.
The Lib-Lobs…serve the important system-legitimizing function of providing liberal cover for conservative policies.
Although still the largest popular organizations in the US, organized labor's share of the work force today has declined precipitously from over 30% to less than 15%. It now no longer dominates the liberal-labor coalition. Meanwhile, civil rights, women's, gay, peace, and environmental organizations have increased their size and influence. The Lib-Labs have mutated into the Lib-Lobs, the liberal lobbying groups. They still cling to the Democratic Party. Just as the Lib-Labs bitterly attacked the anti-racism and anti-war radicals of the 1960s and 1970s for failing to unite with the liberal center against the Republican right, the Lib-Lobs of 2000 harshly attacked the anti-corporate radicals who supported Ralph Nader and the Greens.
The corporate Democrats led by the Democratic Leadership Council are firmly entrenched in power in the Democratic Party and openly oppose the policies the Lib-Lob groups advocate. But it is not about policy for the Lib-Lob leadership. It's about careerism. The Lib-Lobs are co-opted into the system of corporate rule. They serve the important system-legitimizing function of providing liberal cover for conservative policies. They have become a business of their own, with vested career interests in the election of Democratic administrations. The Democratic Party may not be the vehicle for the polices their organizations profess, but it is the ticket for career advancement for the professional liberals who lobby in Washington and the state capitals.
A United Front from Below
If the Greens are to emerge from the margins into a major force in American politics, they are going to have to win over the grassroots bases of the labor, civil rights, women's, gay, peace, and environmental movements. That will take joint action on issues and education about the real nature of the Democratic Party and the Lib-Lob leadership.
Action is the first step. Joint action creates a basis of trust in which educational dialogue can take place. And the possibilities for action are enormous because the Lib-Lob leadership is more focused on their elite access to the power structure than on mass action that builds popular power. Greens should forget about the Gloria Steinems and Carl Popes and focus on building a united front from below. We should work with the grassroots leadership of the progressive movements, meeting with them, locality by locality, to develop issue-driven campaigns.
...the possibilities for action are enormous because the Lib-Lob leadership is more focused on their elite access to the power structure than on mass action that builds popular power.
As relationship are built between Greens and grassroots activists in the progressive movements, trust is developed and the basis for education about the Democrats becomes possible. It is not only the Lib-Lab leadership that orients these activists to the Democratic Party as the only realistic alternative. There is also massive propaganda from the corporate media that covers up how diametrically opposed to the progressives' positions the Democrats are on most issues.
So Greens have also got to constantly expose the Democrats' actions, as opposed to their liberal public rhetoric. To take just a few examples from the last two months of the Clinton/Gore administration: Gore's opposition to Justice Department intervention concerning the suppression of the black vote in Florida, the sabotaging of the global climate accords by Gore's people, Clinton's failure to pardon Leonard Peltier, Clinton's failure to protect the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling through an executive order making it a National Monument. The corporate media will not carry our message for us. We will have to develop every available means of independent media and grassroots organizing to distribute our message.
The corporate media will not carry our message for us.
Between the corporate monopolization of the media and the plurality-take-all electoral system, winning over progressives is not going to be easy. It is going to be a protracted struggle where independent radicals will argue that working inside the Democratic Party is self-defeating. We can expect to be constantly attacked for "objectively" aiding the Republican right. We should welcome these attacks as opportunities to join the argument.
We can win over grassroots leaders who are opinion leaders in their own civil rights, feminist, gay, peace, and environmental communities and who will bring over more people to support the Greens. We can win over union locals and local chapters of the NAACP, the Sierra Club, Peace Action, and NOW. We can solidify relations with the more radical groups, like the anti corporate globalization groups, that are inherently anti-capitalist. We can reach the largest party, the party of non-voters, the party concentrated in the lower two-thirds of the income distribution, with policy platforms and action that address their concerns. Local elections, where the stakes are not as high and the lesser-evil argument is less forceful, provide a great vehicle for getting progressives to begin considering the Greens as a realistic alternative.
Reorienting these movements to independent politics at the grassroots will be like turning around a big ship, not a sports car—it will happen almost imperceptibly at first, but once the momentum begins to shift, it will be hard to turn back.