Time for the Progressive Party in the US?

moyersBucky Fuller said:

ìYou never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsoleteÖI look for what needs to be done. After all, that’s how the universe designs itself.”

The US two-party system needs to be changed — it is dysfunctional. The pandering to right-wing power-brokers going on now by the most-likely 2008 presidential candidates, McCain and Clinton, is disgraceful, a complete betrayal of the principles they alleged to stand for and which their supporters believe in. It is a recognition that the power wielded by those who control the machinery of government in the US now, over both parties, and which has bankrupted the US and corrupted the American democratic process, is insuperable within the existing party structure.

The tools that supported Howard Dean in 2004 were sufficient to mobilize millions to support an outsider and carry him to front-runner status, but not enough (scream notwithstanding) to overcome the party machine and the establishment’s interest in keeping the status quo — two parties that essentially stand for the same policies, offering apparently dramatically different ‘brands’ of what is ultimately the same ‘product’ — laissez-faire corporatist, militarist imperialism, a sell-off of the commons to private interests, and the dismantling of public social services. Even Howard Dean, deliciously tested by Jon Stewart last night, laughed off Stewart’s pointed criticisms of Democratic Party betrayals and incompetence and waffled on all the tough questions.

Canadians and Europeans can show you the way. We introduced third parties in our countries, with great difficulty but successfully, when the two dominant parties failed to offer us any real choice. As a result, although our systems are not perfect (Canada desperately needs proportional representation, for example), our model of democracy is much healthier and more robust than the moribund US model.

And all you need to do is what you did to support Howard Dean in 2004, except with a third party and a set of candidates committed to integrity and change. I would suggest the name Progressive Party for this new movement. And the candidates who I believe could give the party momentum and credibility are Bill Moyers (pictured above) and Dennis Kucinich.

By starting now, this party would have time to build sufficient momentum, visibility and credibility by 2008 to contest not just the presidency, but the federal House and Senate as well. The disenchantment with both existing parties is widespread, and building now will not prevent the Democrats from winning back at least one chamber this fall, and then showing America that they’re not really any different from the Republicans by 2008.

There are two first steps: Organization, and platform development. The platform should not be specific programs but rather unequivocal shared principles, a framework that sets out the common beliefs of progressives and against which proposed party policies and legislation can be assessed. That framework needs to be broad enough to accommodate changing needs but uncompromising in the core principles that all progressives hold dear, principles of democracy, peace, consensus, social justice, equal opportunity, environmental, energy and economic sustainability, stewardship and egalitarianism, principles that assert the joint responsibility of citizens and their communities and governments for the welfare of all. That platform need not even be written; it exists now. It was drafted by the US association of green parties in 2000, it is comprehensive, and it needs only the substitution of the word “progressive” for the word “green”. The only reason for even this change is optics: The green party is perceived (incorrectly) to be a narrow-agenda party, and it is easier just to change the name than to have to struggle to change public perception.

The organization process should be grassroots, designed not to find a single national leader so much as credible progressive candidates in every constituency in the US, and allow the leader to emerge naturally from the local candidates. As the party grows in recognition and credibility it should be prepared to entice leading progressive candidates from other parties to join it, but only if they fully embrace the principles of the Progressive Party, not opportunistically.

The Internet will and must be a key organizational enabler for the party, but the organizational process must recognize that some 80% of Americans are not active online, so other media must be used as well. It probably makes sense to organize the party by creating and linking grassroots cells into organic local party ‘organisms’; the cells would remain the lifeblood and key building block of the party — constituency organizations are too broad and vulnerable to ‘take-over’ by the power-hungry or moneyed interests, and tend to wither between campaigns. Cells would work all-year-round, whether it is an ‘election year’ or not — the purpose of the party is to bring about political change consistent with its principles, by any and all means available, not just to elect candidates. In that sense, the party would be more like some grassroots churches than a traditional political organization.

Having said that, we need to create some momentum for the party. That won’t come from full-page ads in the NYT or dependence on a single charismatic leader. It will require the support of some big names (George Soros and Oprah Winfrey come to mind) but the condition of their support will be that they offer it out of principle and not take a highly visible role within the party itself. I’m not convinced we need coverage or advertising in the mainstream media at all — these media are broadly loathed and distrusted by Americans, and I believe viral communication of our message is more affordable, more effective, and more interesting to voters. Simply by eschewing traditional media and methods we can paradoxically attract more attention and be more credible to voters. This new party, taking its lead from Bucky’s quote above, should not play by the old rules. It should make up and use new, guerrilla rules.

Above all, it needs to start and remain accessible to every citizen. There should be no need to have ‘constituency offices’ and make quadrennial whirlwind door-to-door tours. The elected representatives of the Progressive Party should be among us, highly visible always, passionate about local issues, less concerned about formal, meaningless debates in faraway legislative houses and more concerned with helping each cell achieve meaningful change in their own community. The legislation they introduce should be designed to equalize power, wealth, services and opportunity for all, eliminate pork and corporate welfare, restructure the economy around sustainability instead of growth, exercise social and environmental responsibility and stewardship, and restore the integrity and regulatory discipline of the nation so that the laws apply to all, not just those who can’t afford to buy their way around them.

And to those who are worried that a Progressive Party would ‘split the left’ and allow Republicans to win elections with as little as 34% of the vote, I would argue that the opposite is the case — the Democrats and Republicans can split the vote of those who continue to like pork-barrel, trough-feeding, arrogant, say-one-thing, do-another, back-room politicians who think the status quo is wonderful. We’llsettle for the 90% of the population looking for a New Deal.

What do you think? Hopelessly idealistic? Anyone have a manual for cellular organization? What other spokespeople (not leaders) for the movement would you suggest?

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14 Responses to Time for the Progressive Party in the US?

  1. Gary J Moss says:

    I would say first things first. That means first we concentrate on the midterm elections in the fall and worry about our presidential candidates after them. And the first order of business is for Democrats to get control at least one house of Congress so that we get subpoena power to investigate all the crap that has been perpetrated by the Republicans in power. Then we concentrate on electing a Democrat to the White House. Once that is accomplished

  2. John Frost says:

    Any third party that does not take equally from both parties is destined to give the election to the party it leaves standing stronger. That’s a sad fact of the way our two-party system is set up via state election laws. Have you read Crashing The Gate (crashingthegate.com). It provides a roadmap for changing the Democratic Party from within by using many of the same methods you list in your post. As above, I suggest concentrated on these midterm elections first. If we can’t do it in 2006, I suggest rather than form a progressive party on the national level we concentrate on a few states where moving a couple thousand people in as residents would make a big difference in the electoral vote (Oregon, Massachusetts, Nevada). Get a block of 8-10 Senators that can provide a progressive swing vote in the senate and build from there.

  3. Meg says:

    I’m not so certain Canada does the multi-party thing very successfully — and it’s always the left-of-centre that gets split, whether here or in the US. I agree with working on the party that shows the most potential for positive change, instead of trying to develop something that fragments the party with the most positive, useful platform. And I’d resign if I got Oprah’s endorsement. She’s gone from bootstraps and courage and intelligence all the way to self-deification.

  4. Joe Slag says:

    FYI, It’s “Howard Dean”, no e on the end.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Joe: Oops, thanks, corrected.Meg: Actually the right split here when the conservatives and reform were running, and arguably in the US with the reform party there. Proportional representation and a STV would solve this problem.Gary/John: I have read Crashing the Gate. Maybe I’m just too cynical, but I think the Democratic Party is now beyond hope. This year, as I said, I hope they weaken the Republican stranglehold, which is dreadful, but the system that the Dems and Republicans both run on is terribly broken — it encourages vote-buying and back-room deals, pork-barreling, a cult of leadership, obscene simplification of important matters to sound bites, gerrymandering, and ignoring long-term and important issues in favour of short-term and ‘sensational’ ones. Some of the worst legislation of Cheney-Bush was only accomplished with votes from Democrats. The longer we put off replacing this system with one with works, the worse, I think, the dysfunction will become. Just study what the Democrats have been doing over the past 5 years. I don’t believe this party has either the will or the competency to even start to undo the destruction of Cheney-Bush. One step forward, two steps back, constant rear-guard action, and the ‘lesser of two evils’ is just not good enough. The people deserve better, and they’re going to have to take matters into their own hands and make the two-party system obsolete to get it.

  6. John Frost says:

    When the next party takes office (hopefully in 2008) and starts to undo the damage, I expect a huge backlash from the right the next time there is anything resembling a terrorist attack. How this all gets ‘framed’ in the discussion is of utmost importance. It might be easier to be a third party that can say, “that mess was not of our making.”

  7. Todd W. says:

    Dave,Is Britt Blaser’s weblog “Escapable Logic” [1] the type of resource you’re looking for? He was one of the technology advisors for Howard Dean’s campaign. [1] <http://www.blaserco.com/blogs/>

  8. Gary J Moss says:

    Dave, you may think I’m nuts, but I think Al Gore is the real thing. Of course I hated the campaign he led back then, but I think he is the better for having been denied his victory. I am looking forward (well, not really) to seeing his new movie. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know it’s going to be very effective. Moreover, Al is now on the enemies list of the oil industry, a very good sign. http://thinkprogress.org/2006/05/17/attack-on-gore/

  9. RM says:

    I agree with Gary, I think Al Gore has good prospects for the 2008 election, even with all the focus on Hillary.I certainly don’t think there’s any need for a “Progressive Party” however. Why?Because it already exists — it’s called the Green Party and Ralph Nader, although he didn’t run officially under their banner, is the epitome of the principles, integrity and vision that the Green Party represents.

  10. medaille says:

    I think the progressives need to start working with the Libertarians because there is a lot of common ground between the two viewpoints. We’re both for small governments (well at least “smaller”), we’re both against imperialist policies, and against freedom restricting legislation. Plus, for the most part they can actually see things for themselves relatively cleanly, which most conservatives seem to have trouble doing. They also know what its like to be a minority party and want to see the political system altered to allow more views to be heard.I definitely think the free market concept is idealized and fails to take into account some basic human fundamentals that need to be addressed that they ignore, and some of their spokespeople can be blinded by their ideals, but if any party can capture the right leaning people that are more fiscally conservative and less socially conservative than its the Libertarians.

  11. medaille says:

    I don’t see the point in starting with the presidency. That’s a waste of time. What would it accomplish anyway, besides damage control? While the neocons certainly need to be removed from power in all places possible, electing a democrat as president isn’t going to really change things, even though I liked Gore before his presidency run and think he’d be ok now. What’s needed is a grassroot movement to take back our governments at all levels. We need non-social-elites in power. People that weren’t born to be in office. People that at least understand what it’s like to be middle class or below.It’s at least possible to elect senators and representitives that would be willing to make the changes necessary to have an actual democracy.

  12. Justin K says:

    I think there’s one important factor missing from the comparions between US and Candian/European politics, which is that the US is a presidential system. This means a particularly huge amount of power is held by a single individual who does not have to answer to his (or her) own party and is extremely difficult to remove once in office. A multi-party Congress might actually make the problem worse, rather than solve anything, because we’d end up with a deadlocked legislature, leaving even more control of the gov’t effectively in the hands of the executive branch and its appointees.

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    John: Great point. Todd: Thanks for the link to Britt. I used to follow his stuff and somehow lost track of him. I like the ideas he’s expressing here (especially on the fact organizing tools must be intuitive to use and dead simple to set up). Gary: I like Al Gore, too, but my sense is that the Democratic Party machine is against him. Would a new progressive party welcome a guy who accomplished so little as VP, and would he have the patience to work to build a new party? Not sure. If he tries to win the Democratic Party nomination I think he’ll lose, and in the process waste a lot of energy for nothing, as well as losing a lot of political capital. RM: I liked Nader in 2000 but I really soured on him in 2004, when he caused a lot of damage by refusing to compete for the Green nomination. The Green Party has (or had) the right idea, but it has too much one-issue baggage (unfairly, but perception is reality in politics) to become the third party that could win an election. Medaille: As Lakoff argues, there are two flavours of Libertarians, the larger one socially conservative and the other socially progressive. The only thing they have in common is anti-government ideology. Get them in one room talking about real grassroots issues and they’d be at war with themselves, and I don’t think we need that in a new party. Justin: Maybe, although a deadlocked Congress could block just about anything a president tried to do — it would require consensus to get anything accomplished, and without the current complicity of the two parties that process would probably be more transparent.

  14. Seth Wagoner says:

    I think what is needed is a well funded nationaly co-ordinated campaign to get referenda onto the ballot in every individual state for some form of STV/MMP system, and enough voter education to actually get them to vote for it. There will probably never be a better time, given the level of dissilusionment with both parties. Progressive democrats could then force their candidates into supporting the idea by saying they won’t volounteer for them unless they support the referenda. Ideally one could drum up support from the dissilusioned *conservatives* as well – the libertarians would see the point, I think. That would actually give a 3rd party a whelk’s chance in a supernova of getting a few seats the next time around. I simply don’t think a 3rd party has any chance at all before 2016 without a change in the voting systems, unless the democrats show themselves to be complete failures when they return to power, and lets face it, after the current lot *anyone* could make themselves look good by comparison.

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