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Reforming the Democrats -- Or a Third Party?


By Bernard Weiner, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers


January 31, 2006

 

The Democratic Party, with its current cast of characters in charge, has refused time after time to stand up and fight for its underlying principles. Its recent incoherent or wimpy positions on the Iraq War, electoral fraud and the Alito nomination make clear that it's stuck in a self-destructive rut and isn't terribly eager (or can't figure out how) to climb out of it.

As I see it, we have two options in dealing with this deficient, bumbling, weak-kneed crew. 1) We get rid of them, work to take over the party from the grassroots up (similar to what the Republicans did after the Goldwater debacle of '64), and eventually bring some coherence and dynamic initiatives back into the party. Or, 2) We give up on the Democrats as an embarrassing joke, and begin thinking seriously about joining with others, similarly disenchanted with the political choices offered, and found a viable third party.

There is another option: doing nothing, just continuing on as a rag-tag, undisciplined, weak OINO -- that's "Opposition In Name Only." But I think we all know that simply makes no sense. Being rolled regularly by the Republicans, or refusing to fight them in ways other than symbolic, gets old real fast.


OPTION#1: REFORMING FROM WITHIN

The first option, in a sense, is already happening. Folks like Paul Hackett in Ohio and Bernie Saunders in Vermont, both running for Senate, Diane Lawrence in a Florida Congressional district -- plus Cindy Sheehan thinking about a Senate race in California -- are willing to put themselves out there. Good people, good Democrats, willing to step out and step up in an effort to try to change the face of party, and American, politics.

So it's possible that many young, and not-so-young, activists from the Democratic base can start reforming from within -- starting at the precinct and municipal level, emerging from state legislatures, moving into statewide offices, taking the leap to running for Congress and so on.

That kind of activist movement, whether coordinated or run on the fly by individuals, takes a tremendous amount of energy, courage, money, and clear-headed planning. It may require a decade or so to even begin to see demonstrable results. Can the Democratic Party afford the luxury of the decade or more it might take? Can the country handle the amount of Bush-like corruption, authoritarianism, wars, torture, moral lassitude that will transpire during that period while the foundation is being laid for a new, re-energized Democratic Party?

Perhaps more important, will the big bucks (George Soros? Peter Lewis? show-biz wealth?) see what needs to be done and provide the required financing and political infrastructure building? When the conservatives got over their '64 humiliation, they didn't sulk; they started a decades-long campaign to take power by buying or creating media organs to get their message out, established think-tanks where policy and philosophies and strategies could be developed, created ways to get college-age youths involved in conservative politics.


EDUCATION COMES FROM EVERYWHERE

In short, they were dead-serious about changing the system that had locked them out for so long. Their big-buck magnates and foundations (Coors, Scaife, Olin, et al.) footed the bill. And, eventually, as we know, they wound up taking over the Congress, the White House, much of the media -- and now are in the process of locking up the Judiciary as well.

Am I suggesting that we imitate the rightwing tactics and strategies -- and smash-mouth politics -- that brought them to power? No way. But, while not abandoning our morality and principles, we have much to learn from that level of commitment and tenacity and patience.

Are we in the Democratic "base" ready to sign on, to sign up, for that level of work and the dedicated slog it will take? Or will we remain a base that energizes itself every four years and then wonders why we keep getting blind-sided by an organization (Rove Inc.) that thinks, breathes, acts politics every waking second? Take your pick.

I think it's not necessarily too late to make the attempt to reform the party from within. But it is late, and it will require a humongous amount of toil, sweat, and lots of tears to turn this supertanker around and then bring this party back to speed and coherence and courage. We must first make the Democrats into a true party of opposition, and then convince the American people that it's capable of governing.

(We're talking about elections here, which means that the Democratic Party is going to have to step out and point out forthrightly that our current voting system is a corrupted mess. It outsources ballot-counting to private corporations with secret software easily open to manipulation from the companies that own the e-voting machines and vote-counting computers, or to hacking from without. Those corporations are Republican-supporters at present, and key recent elections probably were fiddled with, according to scholars and other experts who have examined the shoddy system. If we can't overhaul the current manner of voting and ballot-counting, taking corruption and partisanship out of it, it won't matter how clean and transparent and dynamic our refurbished party is. We'll still continue to "lose," even when we win.)


OPTION#2: REFORMING FROM WITHOUT

I can't tell you how many liberal friends have expressed the same thought to me in recent months, in variations of these words: The Democratic Party is, and probably will continue to be, an embarrassing disaster, and it's time to at least start thinking tentatively about political life without it. That is, a viable third party.

Obviously, we're talking longer-range here, not about what is likely to happen for the 2006 midterm election, although events and scandals are unfolding at such warp speed these days that in some areas of the country, progressive insurgent candidates might have a real chance.

In 2008, if the choice is between a Bush-type clone (maybe even Jeb) and a middle-of-the-road Democrat, with no electable third-party candidate also in the race, we on the Left -- and even many in the middle -- may once again be put in the position, for the sake of the Republic, of holding our noses and voting and working for the Democratic candidate.


PASSION AND PRIDE IN OUR PARTY

But many of us would rather not have to go the nose-holding route again, preferring to have a party and candidates of which we can be passionately proud.

If it can't accomplished within be a refurbished, restructured Democratic Party, the thinking goes, then perhaps it's time for building a new, citizen-based party from the bottom up -- one that is less beholden to corporate and traditional power- and -financing sources, and therefore more free to speak out and act boldly in support of systematic reform and an adherence to policies and programs that make moral and political sense.

What might some of those principles be? Here are a few, which could apply as well to a renovated Democratic Party, if some of the old baggage can be jettisoned: war only out of of necessity, never a choice; more devotion to most peoples' actual needs (affordable health-care, improving public schools, infrastructure repair, clean air and water, enforcing safety regulations in mines and other workplaces, etc.) and less to giving even more tax breaks to the already wealthy and rapacious corporations; more fiscal responsibility in budgeting; paying down the humongous deficit; paying serious attention to reality (including science) and less to mere belief and political fantasy; going after terrorists without fatally compromising our morality or civil-liberties, etc.

If there were to be a new, viable third party in 2008, it's possible that this potential alliance could field candidates for President and Vice President -- assuming somebody of great character and political savvy emerges to help lead the way. But if the 2008 scenario unfolds something like what is described above, and if we've been busily building a grassroots alternative party from the ground up -- getting candidates elected on the local, district, state and congressional levels -- this new movement will be able to flex its growing political muscle by forcing the Democrats more toward a progressive agenda, all the while it prepares a future national slate of electable candidates for President and Vice-President.


A PROGRESSIVE'S ODYSSEY

Before I go deeper into this possible scenario, and where the starting base for a viable third party might originate, it may be important for readers to know where I'm coming from politically and that I'm not speaking totally off the top of my head. So here's a brief chronological history.

Raised in the South, I was a Democrat up until 1968; along with many other young people, I become more radicalized by events in "The Sixties." Appalled by the Democratic Party's sell-out on the Vietnam War, I joined with Marcus Raskin, Dr. Benjamin Spock and others to help found The New Party, and was active mostly in Washington State, where I was teaching college, in promoting that new, more radical alternative party. When the Vietnam War ended in the mid-'70s, and The New Party demonstrated that it had no legs for the long haul, I returned to the Democratic fold as the electable alternative to the Republicans. I worked as an activist journalist for, among others, Northwest Passage in the Pacific Northwest, and then later as a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, and as a free-lancer for The Nation, The Progressive, the War Resisters League's WIN magazine and others.

In 1996, I supported Ralph Nader's insurgent candidacy for President. In 2000, even while more closely aligned with Nader's point of view, I supported Al Gore, as the one candidate who had a chance of stopping the Bush juggernaut. After 9/11, I began writing on a free-lance basis for a wide variety of progressive and liberal websites (TruthOut, CounterPunch, BuzzFlash, SmirkingChimp, et al.), and in November of 2002, Ernest Partridge and I founded The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org) as an independent progressive voice. In 2004, despite my deep revulsion at his position on the Iraq War, I worked for the election of John Kerry, as the only viable alternative to a second Bush term, which promised to be one dedicated to even more White House horrors.

As you can see, though I have an long-term affinity for the Democratic Party, that relationship is not set in cement and I have no animus toward the establishment of third parties, though starting one up requires much more difficult  work than taking over an existing institutional party. My aim always is to work toward enactment of forward-thinking, progressive legislation and policies, which can be most effectively accomplished by getting honest, dynamic, progressive candidates elected. I believe, along with many others, that a party, Democratic or otherwise, has to be serious and (eventually) electable to justify putting lots of my time, energy and money into it.


A TRUE PARTY, NOT AN EGO-RUN


And that alternative party would have to be organized as a genuine grassroots political organization, around for the long haul, not an election-specific movement dependent merely on the candidate. That was Nader's weakest link; it seemed to be solely about electing him, not in building a true, small-d democratic party. Indeed, virtually all "third-party" movements in recent elections have seemed to have been designed more to garner "protest" votes -- John Anderson, Ross Perot, Nader, et al. -- rather than aimed at building a full-fledged party that could assume power at some point.

So, looking around the liberal-to-progressive political landscape these days, where might a new alternative party come from? Things are much in flux, of course, and what seems reasonable and logical now might not hold true six months or a year from now. (Who knows? Given Bush's Iraq deceits, lies and incompetence, plus the fallout from the Abramoff scandal, plus the likely indictment of Karl Rove, plus the aversion folks have to being spied on by government agents without a court-sanctioned warrant, we may by then be seeing Bush and Cheney in the impeachment well in the Senate.)


THE ALLIANCE'S CHARTER MEMBERS

So who would make up the core of this party? I would guess that the base of a party -- for want of a better name, let's call this entity the New Democratic Party (NDP) -- could be constructed from elements within the Progressive Democrats of America, Green Party, the Change to Win union coalition, angry Guard and military troops and veterans, peace groups, and other similar disenchanted organizations and individuals.

This new alliance might also attract a wide variety of distressed Libertarians and traditional Republicans horrified at how their party was hijacked from them by rightwing extremists. These disenchanted conservatives, unable to bring themselves to vote for Democrats, might be willing to join together with liberals on civil-liberties and sound money-management grounds -- or as a vehicle to defeat the dangerous forces that have captured their party, which would provide an opening for their more moderate conservatism to fight for power in a reconstituted Republican Party.

As you can see, this proposal is the merest outline of the possible. My main objective here is to get some discussion started about the advisability of both staying with and reforming the Democratic Party, and testing the political waters for a third-party movement. If there is genuine and widespread acceptance to either idea, then it will be time to brainstorm about how best and most effectively such a movement can be actualized.

All we know for certain at this stage -- looking at the current badly-warped, deficient Democratic Party -- is: Never Again! We have to move, and quickly, one way or the other.

If you have ideas about either possibility, I'd love to hear your comments, suggestions, alternative scenarios, etc., which will be distilled into a future article to help continue the dialogue and build political momentum. Onward!


Copyright 2006, by Bernard Weiner

 


Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at various universities, worked as a writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment, write >> crisispapers@comcast.net <<.


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances