… and build a viable independent alternative. Over the past few months, I’ve put out various comments stressing the critical need for organization, that the growing cries for action post Egypt/Wisconsin (we must take to the streets, general strike!, vote them out) remain at a level of abstraction, or calls to individuals, calls for morality, calls for courage.
But the masses are not rising up. The Obama/Boehner onslaught continues. The only ones to pretend the left is more than a disorganized rabble are those hardcore Dems who pump this up to make it seem that THEIR fantasy of taking over the Democratic Party is the only game in town. The strongest resistance to Obama/Boehner has been led by the unions in Wisconsin and neighboring states, and that is — at least for the time being — contained in the shelter of the Democratic Party. Repeal, recall, roll the clock back to a couple years ago. But the obvious fact that this resistance comes from organized forces seems to have had little impact on people’s need to address organizational issues.
I could say that the lack of response to my comments shows a lack of understanding on the part of the masses. But while that may be comforting late at night, it might be better to develop the idea further and render it at least a little bit less abstract.
Democrats and independents, and Democrats getting religion and newly proclaiming their independence, continue to act out an oft-repeated ritual. Democratic loyalists point out that they can influence policy from within and, more importantly, that’s where the working class can be reached, for better or worse. Independents point out the utterly craven sellout by the Democratic Party where corporate America holds the high ground and has abandoned any pretext of progressivism.
Both are correct. Both perform their rituals of beating their heads against a brick wall until their heads bleed, Dems begging for crumbs, independents settling for their sub-1% of the national presidential vote.
In the past, I have argued for a progressive* Democratic/progressive independent alliance. Still a good idea — Dump Obama has been its tactical embodiment. But Dump Obama is dependent on a challenger entering the Democratic primaries. So what we need is a plan that goes beyond 2012, and is not dependent on the whims of even most progressive Democratic politicians. So we need a better look at what we are up against.
When people talk about the Democratic Party, pro and con, it tends to be very ideologically defined, policy positions, legislative accomplishments. Or non-accomplishments. This position is a sellout, this is an abomination, this is the best deal possible. Whatever. All very important, of course. But this form of what comes down to quasi-moral analysis leads to the fiery rhetoric about how the two parties are identical. Or different. Good rhetoric but goes nowhere tactically.
So let’s go back to, say, 1970. The Republicans operated directly through their money. Their organizational base was corporate America, various chambers of commerce, and the media. They could outright buy campaigns.
The Democrats, on the other hand, campaigned through a working class base, the unions and the big city machines, organized down to the precinct level. But the power of the unions was in the early stages of a big fadeout, while the new constituency organizations born of the ferment of the 60’s — women, civil rights, militant Blacks, anti-war, gay, etc. — were in the process of taking over the party. Though one might question who was taking over who. This culminated in the 1972 McGovern nomination.
There have been changes since. The Dems have come to resemble the Republicans more and more, giving fewer and fewer crumbs to their base AND their base organizations, relying more on internet groups such as Kos and MoveOn. The Republicans have, in the meantime, developed a more organized mass base, first through the evangelicals, more recently through the tea party movement. But the basic pattern still holds, and the Democratic base organizations are still its greatest point of vulnerability.
As for the independents, they remain as baseless as ever. 40% of the American electorate is not registered Dem or Republican. While all independents are not progressives, the millions of independents who are progressive are not organizationally represented. No 3rd party is speaking to how this will change, except for putting out the same old battle cries that they cannot even make heard.
Fair question. “So what” is that defining the Democratic Party as a functioning organization — rather than ideologically, or by the official party apparatus, or some org chart — focusing on the organized force they can bring to bear on a sustained basis, an activity-based definition, highlights our best point of attack. The base organizations. This is where they get a good chunk of their money, through these they present a facade of progressivism, through these they drum up the volunteers for their precinct operations.
At the same time, the base of these base organizations can provide an organized foundation for the independent movement.
One of my main arguments for the viability of a Dump Obama movement is the huge chasm between Obama (and the rest of the Democratic leadership), and the Democratic base. But that mainly plays out on election day. But that chasm also exists WITHIN these base organizations? Because there the fight can become quite concrete every day of the week and twice on Sundays. There the fight can play out. But will it? And if so, how?
In any fight, the leadership of such groups have some serious advantages. They get paid (which is one reason the label “sellout” applies quite literally). They have staff and offices, they control the internal communications, they control the press contacts, they are blessed with the legitimacy of the party. They are simply better organized than an angry rank-and-file. They will fight for their positions to the bitter end.
The ranks are less organized, tend to have less staying power. An all-too-common dynamic in rank-and-file rebellions is that the rebellious leadership is cruelly abused and quits in disgust mid-fight, leaving the survivors exposed and holding the bag. Nothing gets created and the entrenched leadership is even more entrenched.
But suppose …
Suppose the leaders of a given insurgency weren’t operating in a vacuum, saw the fight extending beyond the boundaries of their particular local or organization. Suppose similar fights were going on within several organizations, such as the NAACP, NOW, HRC, etc., and the insurgent leaders had an insurgent network. That would transform the terms of the struggle.
As it now stands, the terms of such a fight would be whether the ranks could take over their organization, or could win a set of policy changes. By those terms, if you can’t win, why bother. This is consistent with the numbers-obsessed, majoritarian-fetishizing, winner-take-all American way. Here it’s worth another look at the Republican model. The very foundation of their party is minority-based, yet they can use their compact minority to force policy and even win elections by out-organizing the more numerous Democrats. The tea party has raised this to a high art so, while liberals snicker at the tea party polling results, the tea partiers are handing the liberals their heads.
The key concept is critical mass. What numbers short, far short, of a majority are required to carry out any given action? Fewer than most people think. Look at what’s happening at the Republican Town Hall meetings lately, with protesters against the Ryan Medicare butchery virtually shutting them down. The numbers involved are miniscule compared to their impact.
I have noted the strengths of the leadership of these organizations. They also have serious weaknesses. Since one of their key roles is to maintain the Democratic Party’s facade of progressivism, they have to worry about that image being exposed to the light of day. And since another key role is fundraising, not just to directly fund the Democrats, but to fund their own campaign operations on behalf of the Democrats, they are quite vulnerable to attacks calling on people to withhold funding. But won’t that damage the good deeds they perform? some might ask. Like the good deeds NARAL and NOW did for women in supporting the Stupak-ridden healthcare bill? Gimme a break!
Anyway, if various insurgencies could link up, they would constitute a viable force.
I’m getting to that. Yes, I have said these base organizations not only SUPPORT the Democratic Party, but are PART of the Democratic Party. And these insurgents would be working under DP auspices. So how would they operate? Under what basis of unity? Fact is, the mere fact of opposition doesn’t create more than a short-term thrill. The demands are out there. U.S. out of Afghanistan and the Middle East. Protect and strengthen the social safety net. WPA-style jobs programs. Tax the rich. Defend abortion rights. Demand gay marriage. Reasonable enough, would have once been considered moderate. In fact, there are lots of good resolutions floating around. But where’s the tactical sting?
The Democratic Party is not an aggregation of individuals
Yet we treat them as such. Thus in the healthcare fight, individual Dems supported the public option and opposed Stupak, and that was good enough. No, it wasn’t good enough. The option died and Stupak carried. What was needed was for the Democratic Party as a party to strip the likes of Conrad and Baucus and Lieberman and Stupak of their congressional positions, chairmanships, seniority, all of it, make it toxic for anyone to work for or contribute to their campaigns. (The Republicans have a much better idea of how to operate like this.) Thus it wasn’t good enough for Kucinich and Sanders to vote for some good amendments. They needed to demand that these blue dogs be driven from the party. That must be our standard. Thus the stance of insurgents within base organizations wouldn’t just be to support Dems who supported the public option, for instance, but only those Democrats who called for the party to wage war on the traitors in their midst, the Stupaks and the Conrads, etc.
Another losing fight? Yeah. In traditional terms, perhaps. But if victory were measured in terms of determining the terms of political dialogue, it would be a huge step forward. With a goal of political independence, these fights would reinforce each other to create something new.
Please note that this stands the traditional radical approach on its head. Rather than issuing extreme demands, but having nothing to back them up with, it entails issuing relatively moderate demands, but treating them like DEMANDS! Much harder to dismiss.
3rd party revisited
As mentioned, our 3rd parties have remained pitifully weak for generations, arguably since they lost their roots in the trade union movement back when the trade union movement was a fighting movement. Unlike the Republicans, they aren’t rich. Unlike the Democrats, they lack mass-base organizations. Their message is buried and unheeded. That they aren’t even trying to make a splash for the 2012 presidential elections says it all — they’re not even trying.
However, if the independent political movement could connect with insurgents who had roots in existing base organizations, that could foreshadow an independent party that had muscle. And teeth.
If you’re so smart …
… why ain’t you rich? Yes, this runs up against my own incessant complaint about how to get from here — an alienated, atomized blogosphere — to there. More specifically, what organizational vehicle(s) can advance the cause. So here are a few scenarios to consider:
(1) A group of progressives could come together around this plan or something like it, begin working in constituency organizations, forming a cross-constituency group from the start.
(2) One of the 3rd parties could adopt this plan, building their electoral base at the same time.
(3) Insurgents within one constituency organization could adopt such a plan, beginning in place and extending outward from there.
This all may raise more questions than it answers. There is no clear path to any of the 3 options above. But even as individuals with all the accompanying limitations, we could still organize within whatever milieu we find ourselves while looking for others of similar ilk. How many of us are members of groups like MoveOn, NOW, PDA (I’m AARP) even now? Can we start trying to work this out?
As Archimedes said, “give me a place to stand and I can move the world!”
*I admittedly throw the term progressive around a bit loosely. By progressive I mean first those on the left of the mainstream political spectrum, pro-jobs programs, anti-war, pro-abortion and social safety net. AND I include all to the left of that (socialists, radicals, revolutionaries, syndicalists, etc.), provided they are willing to work with more moderate elements rather than treat them as the enemy.