Highlights from recent writers reflecting on system change

https://www.thenation.com/article/only-socialism-can-defeat-trumpism/   The results of this rightward shift are stark. Poorly paid and precarious workers, the increasingly impoverished elderly, immigrants terrified by xenophobic rhetoric, and disillusioned millennials suffocating in debt are an ocean crashing against shrinking islands of wealth and opportunity.   But the past year has shown that millions of ordinary people are ready for an alternative, one pointed to by the success of Sanders and the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. These leaders have tried to articulate a humanist, social-democratic vision—a platform with concrete demands that, if met, would improve the lives of the poor, restore dignity and means to workers, and assure young people that their efforts are not in vain. This vision resonates with voters. This is the vision that must be built on—and expanded—by any party that wants to be relevant in these times.   Americans—especially young adults and minorities—don’t see Sanders as a dinosaur trading on nostalgia or harking back to an irredeemable past. Instead, they see capitalism as a key source of their troubles. A recent Harvard University poll of Americans between the age of 18 and 29 found that 51 percent did not support capitalism, compared to only 42 percent who said they did. This doesn’t mean a socialist majority is right around the corner—only 33 percent offered it up as an alternative—but the poll indicates a significant shift in attitudes from just a few years ago.

Results like these fit within a broader picture of discontent. A majority of young Americans, including college-educated millennials, saddled with debt and dealing with bad jobs or no jobs, identify as working class—60 percent, more than any other group of Americans, suggesting that a class-based politics is increasingly salient. Even before Sanders ran for president, 66 percent of Americans saw “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between rich and poor, and recent data show that the wealth gap between middle-class Americans and elites has reached a record high. The vast majority of Americans are unhappy with the status quo, and most are willing to pay higher taxes or tax the rich for programs to improve public education and fund Social Security and Medicare.  The Democratic Party’s best bet is to move left and embrace a platform that speaks to the real needs, fears, and aspirations of working people. This doesn’t mean looking back with rose-colored glasses on the New Deal; it means building a coalition of young people, working-class whites, and minority voters around a new politics.   we have a good idea of where to start.

First, call for single-payer healthcare and free, quality public education—including higher education—for people of all ages. Fight for robust maternal and paternal leave and universal pre-K to help young families. These policies, despite debates on how to pay for them, are easily grasped and popular. The widespread support for Bernie’s broadsides against the “millionaire and billionaire” class shows that Americans are tired of handouts to Wall Street and the elite, and are ready for a new, progressive tax scheme to foot the bill.  But gains like single-payer and free higher education wouldn’t just be about giving a handout to working people instead of the rich. They would be part of a social movement demanding a decent life for all Americans. This movement would have a broader vision, one that includes the demand for a national job guarantee. Giving everyone a decent job isn’t a pipe dream. It’s a logical way to address pressing social problems and it’s achievable, through a robust expansion of public employment with an eye toward addressing social needs like infrastructure, education, and scientific research and scholarship in the public interest.  Policies like these will not only help alleviate material suffering, they will eventually help unite a divided electorate. Programs that benefit all Americans will foster the sense of solidarity and political engagement necessary to building a lasting progressive coalition in this country.  The alternative is more anxiety and inequality, a further decline in the Democratic Party’s base, and the continued growth of a Trump-like far right that is actively positioning itself to pick up the pieces.

https://www.thenation.com/article/donald-trump-wants-working-americans-to-fight-each-other/

For those who want to create an America where all people truly have real opportunity to prosper at work, home, and community, we have to be clear about what unites us and not be fooled by efforts to divide us.   That requires tearing down walls while acknowledging the differences. We must embrace a shared understanding of what forces created this moment, and then come together to advance an alternative.  The villain in this story is not each other. 

While they seem to exist at opposite ends of American life—one rural and white; one urban, Latino and black—the median incomes of Medora, Indiana, and West Humboldt Park in Chicago are nearly identical. They are examples of what happens when capital flees, when government disinvests, when people and place are abandoned.  Donald Trump wants us to address this disinvestment by turning on one another, by having the people in Medora blame the folks in West Humboldt Park. But it wasn’t immigrants who brokered bad trade deals and undermined the right of workers to form a union. It wasn’t working-class black people who deregulated the financial sector and then crashed the economy, and who are now hoarding money in tax havens overseas. Those were the actions of wealthy CEOs and billionaire businessmen like Donald Trump, along with politicians who do their bidding. He, like so many in his party, encourage us to fight among ourselves so we won’t focus on what they are doing to us.

Conservatives laud our capitalist system as one that efficiently sorts out the economy’s “winners” and “losers.” Yet even its boosters are beginning to recognize that today’s brand of capitalism is particularly extreme, producing a handful of big winners while pushing the majority to the sidelines, in a continual struggle to make ends meet.  Racism is a system that also sorts out who wins and who loses, but based on race. From the genocide of Native Americans, to slavery, Jim Crow, and the near-daily killing of black people by police, you don’t need an eye for nuance to see the power of race in determining people’s quality of life—or even their right to live. While working-class white people benefit on many levels because of race, we ultimately lose because racism effectively divides the Medoras and Humboldt Parks of America, preventing us from coming together to address the mass inequality that marks today’s economy. As a result, the big winners are people like Donald Trump and others who are concentrating power to write the rules in ways that allow the rich to get much richer, at the expense of the rest of us.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/09/rise-of-the-davos-class-sealed-americas-fate Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.  Success is a party to which they were not invited, and they know in their hearts that this rising wealth and power is somehow directly connected to their growing debts and powerlessness.  For the people who saw security and status as their birthright – and that means white men most of all – these losses are unbearable.  Donald Trump speaks directly to that pain.  Trump’s message was: “All is hell.” Clinton answered: “All is well.” But it’s not well – far from it.  Neo-fascist responses to rampant insecurity and inequality are not going to go away. But what we know from the 1930s is that what it takes to do battle with fascism is a real left. A good chunk of Trump’s support could be peeled away if there were a genuine redistributive agenda on the table. An agenda to take on the billionaire class with more than rhetoric, and use the money for a green new deal. Such a plan could create a tidal wave of well-paying unionised jobs, bring badly needed resources and opportunities to communities of colour, and insist that polluters should pay for workers to be retrained and fully included in this future.  It could fashion policies that fight institutionalised racism, economic inequality and climate change at the same time. It could take on bad trade deals and police violence, and honour indigenous people as the original protectors of the land, water and air.  People have a right to be angry, and a powerful, intersectional left agenda can direct that anger where it belongs, while fighting for holistic solutions that will bring a frayed society together.  The Democratic party needs to be either decisively wrested from pro-corporate neoliberals, or it needs to be abandoned. From Elizabeth Warren to Nina Turner, to the Occupy alumni who took the Bernie campaign supernova, there is a stronger field of coalition-inspiring progressive leaders out there than at any point in my lifetime. We are “leaderful”… So let’s get out of shock as fast as we can and build the kind of radical movement that has a genuine answer to the hate and fear represented by the Trumps of this world. Let’s set aside whatever is keeping us apart and start right now.

Where Does the Left Go From Here?

J.M. Smucker – Director, Beyond the Choir  “If we are to win in 2018 and 2020 and to do effective damage control in the meantime, progressives will have to expel the current failed leadership of the Democratic Party. Social movements will have to push from the outside. Savvy progressives will have to run for office and/or support other progressives who are doing so. We will need to articulate a progressive aspirational vision of an America that works for all of us. We will need to force the Democratic Party to stand up and actually fight for working people. Our united front against a dangerous Trump Presidency will not be effective if we don’t win a long overdue fight over the leadership of the Democratic Party. Spineless centrist neoliberal careerists have had their day. Their failure to fight for—and thus inspire—working people is what enabled a Trump Presidency. It is time for them to step aside. It is time for us to step up.

Zephyr Teachout – Fordham law professor and anti-corruption activist

The most important thing people can do is get off the internet and join their local democratic club, and then recruit others to join, and become part of team of moral resistance fighting for the rights of unions to organize, joining cause in the fights for clean water around our country, and elect local democratic leaders who care about the basics: good jobs, union power, clean water, infrastructure.

Mike Sylvester – Democratic State Legislator from Portland, Maine. He is currently the only open, Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) member holding state office.

We just saw an election where a “change candidate” beat an “establishment candidate.” To most of us on the left, the changes that were being proposed by Trump were abhorrent, inhumane or even ridiculous. Most of of our fellow Americans saw it differently or stayed home. Trump’s supporters saw a broken system and figured any change would be better than more of the same.

I ran for state office to support a socialist vision of change. Within days of filing my papers, I attended a training where an “expert consultant” explained that candidates should be as vague as possible so that we couldn’t get “trapped” by our beliefs. My campaign responded to this advice by creating signs that said DEMOCRATIC SOCIALIST and LABOR DEMOCRAT and PUBLIC WATER NOT FOR SALE and MORE LOVE, NO HATE with a cartoon figure of me in my hoodie and jeans, leaning against my name. Here I am, the signs said. Here is what I believe. Big mistake, some said. We won by 82%.

If economics is the dismal science, political science is the deceitful science. It flourishes by spreading a false narrative of ‘the other’ which is just as popular in racist circles as amongst us lefties. Political Science also tells a false narrative of ourselves. We are not better than we are. If we are going to win on our justice issues, we must not fall prey to these comforting but false narratives. We must base build, teach the base how to run tight campaigns, get out of the way and not think we know better. We must say to the working poor of every class, skin color, race, gender and sexual orientation that “your fight is my fight” if we want our fight to be their fight. We have to march down dirt roads and into broken cities. We have to tell our honest truth, warts and all. We have to listen.

Dan Cantor – National Director, Working Families Party …To defeat both we’ll need to start with a new vision for America with a democracy that truly works for all of us, and seeks justice: economic justice, racial justice, gender justice, environmental justice, educational justice and so on. We’ll need to wage a fight for the direction of the Democratic Party. In 2017, we’ll aim to recruit, train and elect hundreds, or even thousands of candidates seeking local office to run on a shared platform. And in 2018, we’ll have candidate seeking state and federal office on that bold vision as well. Democratic candidates will either embrace that vision — instead of the neoliberal framework — or else risk challengers. In times like these, only progressive populism will defeat phony right-wing populism.  And we’ll be launching chapters across the nation to do it. Want to start or join one?

Join grassroots organizations active in your area. For starters, look at the organizations in the Movement for Black Lives and see which members of that coalition are active where you are. The anti-police brutality movement needs more support than ever now that the man police unions endorsed is President-elect.  Two other key battles over the next four years will be over unions and reproductive rights. If you can join a union or help build one at your workplace, do so.  Finally, consider joining the International Socialist Organization, Democratic Socialists of America, or Socialist Alternative—all are socialist organizations operating independently of the Democratic Party.  Above all else, don’t wait for direction from political elites or pundits. They’ll be fine under a Trump presidency—it’s us that need to get organized.

Roqayah Chamseddine – Sydney-based Lebanese-American journalist and co-host of Delete Your AccountThere are already people in our communities that are doing the work, so find them, direct others towards them, and only mobilize once you have organized strength. The Left is fractured and will continue to be exhausted by weak job prospects, collapsing social services, and pervasive state repression. It’s not enough to simply mobilize an ever-shrinking Left that will be further weakened by a Trump presidency. Once involved with these organizations it’s imperative that people feel like they have ownership over them. They should be made to feel that they aren’t serving the organization but that they are the organization. Hillary Clinton not only failed to address material needs of marginalized people, her campaign offered no space for their voices and concerns. Instead of a movement owned by constituents and bolstered with her support, voters were expected to amplify her voice while stifling theirs. The impact that this had is what’s arguably led to the beginnings of the Democratic Party’s death knell.  Any protests we organize must be done with the purpose of pulling people into a sustained movement, not just for expressing anger, and that means, for example, having people with clip boards collecting email addresses, or at least handing out literature with contact information. The work doesn’t end when the protest does—knock on doors, talk to coworkers, engage with people in your community who want to do something but don’t know how to get involved. Connect with people outside your comfort zone. Preaching to an ever-dwindling choir isn’t enough if we want to win.  The growing #NotMyPresident protests are important for giving space for communicating rage, creating a show of force, and for plugging people into organizations, but it’s not enough to confront and reject Trump and his worst supporters. We must [be] engaging with those who are supporting him out of ignorance and desperation. Our rejection of Trump and his ideology must always be clear, but this doesn’t mean leaving no room for redemption for those attracted to his, and Hillary’s, false promises. We must engage with well-meaning people fooled by both candidates. Our future depends on building with those we disagree with, and moving them towards our positions.

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/11/the_democratic_party_establishment_is_finished_after_trump.html  The voters of the party got taken for a ride by the people who controlled it, the ones who promised they had everything figured out and sneeringly dismissed anyone who suggested otherwise. They promised that Hillary Clinton had a lock on the Electoral College. These people didn’t know what they were talking about, and too many of us in the media thought they did.  Hillary Clinton was just an ambitious person who wanted to be president. There are a lot of people like that. But she was enabled. The Democratic establishment is a club unwelcoming to outsiders, because outsiders don’t first look out for the club. The Clintons will be gone now. For the sake of the country, let them take the hangers-on with them.

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/bernie-sanders-democratic-labor-party-ackerman/  …Today we can learn some lessons from their effort. A true working-class party must be democratic and member-controlled. It must be independent — determining its own platform and educating around it. It should actually contest elections. And its candidates for public office should be members of the party, accountable to the membership, and pledged to respect the platform.  Each of those features plays a crucial role in mobilizing working people to change society. The platform presents a concrete image of what a better society could look like. The candidates, by visibly contesting elections and winning votes under the banner of the platform, generate a sense of hope and momentum that this better society might be attainable in practice. And because the members control the party, working people can have confidence that the party is genuinely acting on their behalf.

the United States is different. Beneath our winner-take-all electoral rules, we also have a unique — and uniquely repressive — legal system governing political parties and the mechanics of elections. This system has nothing to do with the Constitution or the Founding Fathers. Rather, it was established by the major-party leaders, state by state, over a period stretching roughly from 1890 to 1920.

the parties — which were then wholly private, unregulated clubs, fueled by patronage — chose their nominees using the “caucus-convention” system: a pyramid of county, state, and national party conventions in which participants at the lower-level meetings chose delegates to attend the higher-level meetings.

At the base of the pyramid were precinct-level caucuses: informal, little-publicized gatherings where decisions on delegates to be sent to the county convention were sewn up through private bargaining among a few patronage-minded local notables.

In the 1880s and 1890s, this cozy system was disrupted by a new breed of “hustling candidates,” who actively campaigned for office rather than quietly currying favor with a few key party workers. When informal local caucuses started to become scenes of open competitive campaigning by rival factions, each seeking lucrative patronage jobs, they degenerated into chaos, often violence.

Worse, candidates who lost the party nomination would try to win the election anyway by employing their own agents to hand out “pasted” or “knifed” party tickets on election day, grafting their names inconspicuously onto the regular party ticket.

Party leaders were losing control over their traditional means of maintaining a disciplined political army. Their response was a series of state-level legislative reforms that permanently transformed the American political system, creating the electoral machinery we have today.

Over the three decades following US entry into World War I, as working-class and socialist parties burgeoned throughout the industrialized world, American elites chose to deal with the problem by radically restricting access to the ballot. In state after state, petition requirements and filing deadlines were tightened and various forms of routine legal harassment, unknown in the rest of the democratic world, became the norm.

The new restrictions came in waves, usually following the entry of left-wing parties into the electoral process. According to data gathered by Richard Winger of Ballot Access News, in 1931 Illinois raised the petition requirement for third-party statewide candidates from one thousand signatures to twenty-five thousand. In California, the requirement was raised from 1 percent of the last total gubernatorial vote to 10 percent. In 1939, Pennsylvania suddenly decided it was important that the thousands of required signatures be gathered solely within a three-week period. In New York, according to one account, “minor-party petitions began to be challenged for hyper-technical defects.”

“Although these statutes have been assailed on all sides,” a 1937 Columbia Law Review article reported, “their severity is constantly being increased, probably because the interests oppressed seldom have representation in the legislatures.” Indeed, when the Florida legislature found socialists and communists advancing at the polls, it responded in 1931 by banning any party from the ballot unless it had won 30 percent of the vote in two consecutive elections; naturally, when the Republican Party failed to meet that test, the state immediately lowered the threshold.

Today, in almost every established democracy, getting on the ballot is at most a secondary concern for small or new parties; in many countries it involves little more than filling out some forms. In Canada, any party with 250 signed-up members can compete in all 338 House of Commons districts nationwide, with each candidate needing to submit one hundred voter signatures. In the United Kingdom, a parliamentary candidate needs to submit ten signatures, plus a £500 deposit which is refunded if the candidate wins at least 5 percent of the vote. In Australia, a party with five hundred members can run candidates in all House of Representatives districts, with a $770 deposit for each candidate, refundable if the candidate wins at least 4 percent of the vote.

In Ireland, Finland, Denmark, and Germany, signature requirements for a parliamentary candidacy range from 30 to 250, and up to a maximum of 500 in the largest districts of Austria and Belgium. In France and the Netherlands, only some paperwork is required.

The Council of Europe, the pan-European intergovernmental body, maintains a “Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters,” which catalogs electoral practices that contravene international standards. Such violations often read like a manual of US election procedure. In 2006, the council condemned the Republic of Belarus for violating the provision of the code proscribing signature requirements larger than 1 percent of a district’s voters, a level the council regards as extremely high; in 2014, Illinois required more than triple that number for House candidacies. In 2004, the council rebuked Azerbaijan for its rule forbidding voters from signing nomination petitions for candidates from more than one party; California and many other states do essentially the same thing.

In fact, some US electoral procedures are unknown outside of dictatorships: “Unlike other established democracies, the USA permits one set of standards of ballot access for established ‘major’ parties and a different set for all other parties.”

That America’s election system is uniquely repressive is common knowledge among experts. “Nowhere is the concern [about governing-party repression] greater than in the United States, as partisan influence is possible at all stages of the electoral contest,” concludes a recent survey of comparative election law.

“Perhaps the clearest case of overt partisan manipulation of the rules is the United States, where Democrats and Republicans appear automatically on the ballot, but third parties and independents have to overcome a maze of cumbersome legal requirements,” writes Pippa Norris, a world elections authority at Harvard and director of democratic governance at the United Nations Development Program.

“One of the best-kept secrets in American politics,” the eminent political scientist Theodore Lowi has written, “is that the two-party system has long been brain dead — kept alive by support systems like state electoral laws that protect the established parties from rivals and by federal subsidies and so-called campaign reform. The two-party system would collapse in an instant if the tubes were pulled and the IVs were cut.”

The perverse consequences of the system are often at their most visible when third parties do succeed in getting on the ballot.  These parties are frequently forced to devote the bulk of their resources not to educating voters, or knocking on doors on election day, but to waging petition drives and ballot-access lawsuits. The constant legal harassment, in turn, ends up exerting a subtle but powerful effect on the kinds of people attracted to independent politics. Through a process of natural selection, such obstacles tend to repel serious and experienced local politicians and organizers, while disproportionately attracting activists with a certain mentality: disdainful of practical politics or concrete results; less interested in organizing, or even winning elections, than in bearing witness to the injustice of the two-party system through the symbolic ritual of inscribing a third-party’s name on the ballot.

The official parties are happy to have such people as their opposition, and even happy to grant them this safe channel for their discontent. And if, unexpectedly, a third party’s fortunes were to start rising, the incumbents could always put a stop to it, simply by adjusting the law.

One lesson from this history is clear: We have to stop approaching our task as if the problems we face were akin to those faced by the organizers of, say, the British Labour Party in 1900 or Canada’s New Democratic Party in 1961. Instead, we need to realize that our situation is more like that facing opposition parties in soft-authoritarian systems, like those of Russia or Singapore. Rather than yet another suicidal frontal assault, we need to mount the electoral equivalent of guerrilla insurgency. In short, we need to think about electoral strategy more creatively.

Boring From Within?

Does that mean opting for the strategy championed by most progressive critics of the third-party route — namely, “working within the Democratic Party”?

No. Or at least, not in the way that phrase is usually meant.

It’s true that a number of sincere, committed leftists, or at least progressives, run for office on the Democratic ballot line at all levels of American politics. Sometimes they even win. And all else equal, we’re better off with such politicians in office than without them. So in that limited sense, the answer might be “yes.”

But electing individual progressives does little to change the broad dynamics of American politics or American capitalism. In fact, it can create a kind of placebo effect: sustaining the illusion of forward motion while obscuring the fact that neither party is structurally built to reflect working-class interests.

Think of Ted Kennedy or Mario Cuomo in the 1980s; Paul Wellstone or Russ Feingold in the 1990s; Howard DeanElizabeth Warren, or Bill de Blasio since 2000. Each emerges into the spotlight as they launch their careers or seek higher office. Each promises to represent “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Each generates a flurry of positive coverage in progressive media and a ripple of excitement within a narrow circle of progressive activists and voters.

Orbiting around these ambitious office-seekers are the progressive “grassroots” organizations exemplified by MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, or Progressive Democrats of America. (In an earlier, direct-mail era, it was Common Cause, People for the American Way, or even the Americans for Democratic Action.)

Run by salaried staffers, these groups monitor the political scene in search of worthy progressive candidates or legislative causes, alerting their supporters with bulletins urging them to “stand with” whichever progressive politico needs support at the moment. (Support, in this usage, usually means sending money, or signing an email petition.) Such groups generally maintain no formal standards for judging a candidate’s worthiness. Even if they did, in drawing up such standards they would be accountable to no one, and would have no power to change those candidates’ policy objectives.

Although it’s too early to tell, Bernie Sanders’s recently created Our Revolution organization seems in danger of falling into the same trap: becoming a mere middleman, or broker, standing between a diffuse, unorganized progressive constituency and a series of ambitious progressive office-seekers seeking their backing.

In this “party-less” model of politics, it’s the Democratic politician who goes about trying to recruit a base, rather than the other way around. The politician’s platform and message are devised by her and her alone. They can be changed on a whim. And there is no mechanism by which the politician can be held accountable to the (fairly nebulous) progressive constituency she has recruited to her cause.

The approach taken by the Working Families Party (WFP) is different, but it, too, remains vulnerable to the problems of such “party-less” politics. The WFP has built an impressive record of policy achievements in its New York State home base, using “fusion” voting — a ballot strategy forbidden by most state laws. (The ban on fusion is another legacy of the two-party election reforms of the 1890s.) Under fusion, a minor party places the name of a major-party’s nominee on its own ballot line, hoping that, if the major-party candidate wins, he or she will feel beholden to the minor party for however many votes it managed to “deliver.”

But the contradictions of its 2014 endorsement of New York governor Andrew Cuomo showed how the WFP’s fusion strategy can place it in the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, the party remains chained to the interests of Democratic Party politicians, forced to endorse candidates that are not its own, who run on platforms far removed from its priorities, as if it were a mere faction of the Democratic Party. On the other hand, it still needs to worry about keeping its third-party ballot line, leaving it exposed to the kind of ballot-repression problems that more marginal third parties face.

At a deeper level, the “party-less” model that dominates progressive politics today is an outgrowth of America’s lamentable history of “internally mobilized” parties: that is, parties organized by already-established politicians for the sole purpose of creating a mass constituency around themselves. The Democratic Party — created in the 1830s by a network of powerful incumbents led by New York senator and power broker Martin Van Buren — is the classic case.

This stands in contrast to “externally mobilized” parties: organized by ordinary people, standing outside the system, who come together around a cause and then go about recruiting their own representatives to contest elections, for the purpose of gaining power they don’t already have.

For reasons that are not hard to guess, historical parties of the Left — true parties of the Left — have, almost without exception, been mobilized externally.

As the historian Geoff Eley recounts in his history of the Left in Europe:

Parties of the Left sometimes managed to win elections and form governments, but, more important, they organized civil society into the basis from which existing democratic gains could be defended and new ones could grow. They magnetized other progressive causes and interests in reform. Without them, democracy was a nonstarter.

By contrast, not a single externally mobilized party has ever attained national electoral significance in the United States. “The major political parties in American history,” writes Martin Shefter — who first introduced this taxonomy of party mobilization — “and most conservative and centrist parties in Europe,” were founded “by politicians who [held] leadership positions in the prevailing regime and who [undertook] to mobilize and organize a popular following behind themselves.”

“Modern democracy,” in E. E. Schattschneider’s classic formulation, “is unthinkable save in terms of the parties.”

Popular, working-class democracy, on the other hand, is unthinkable without parties mobilized from outside the political system — that is, by people organizing around common goals.

What Is a Democratic Party?

In a genuinely democratic party, the organization’s membership, program, and leadership are bound together tightly by a powerful, mutually reinforcing connection. The party’s members are its sovereign power; they come together through a sense of shared interest or principle. Through deliberation, the members establish a program to advance those interests. The party educates the public around the program, and it serves, in effect, as the lodestar by which the party is guided. Finally, the members choose a party leadership — including electoral candidates — who are accountable to the membership and bound by the program.

It might seem obvious that those are the characteristics of a truly democratic party. Yet the Democratic Party has none of them.

Start with the most fundamental fact about the Democratic Party: it has no members.  Just as the Democratic Party has no real membership, it offers only the most derisory semblance of a “program”: a quadrennial platform usually dictated by an individual nominee (or occasionally negotiated with a defeated rival) at the height of the election-season frenzy, a document that in most years no one reads and in all years no one takes seriously as a binding document. (At the state level, party platforms often reach hallucinatory levels of detachment from real politics.)

It’s true, of course, that in a constitutional democracy there’s never anything stopping an elected representative, once elected, from doing the opposite of what he or she had promised.  To whom, then, is the senator accountable? An electorate, in theory, come reelection time. But no party.

This is the treadmill we need to get off.

A Party of a New Type

The widespread support for Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, particularly among young people, has opened the door for new ideas about how to form a democratic political organization rooted in the working class.

The following is a proposal for such a model: a national political organization that would have chapters at the state and local levels, a binding program, a leadership accountable to its members, and electoral candidates nominated at all levels throughout the country.

As a nationwide organization, it would have a national educational apparatus, recognized leaders and spokespeople at the national level, and its candidates and other activities would come under a single, nationally recognized label. And, of course, all candidates would be required to adhere to the national platform.

But it would avoid the ballot-line trap. Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line.

The ballot line would thus be regarded as a secondary issue. The organization would base its legal right to exist not on the repressive ballot laws, but on the fundamental rights of freedom of association.

Such a project probably wouldn’t have been feasible in the past, due to campaign-finance laws. For most of the last four decades, the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA), along with similar laws in many states, would have left any such organization with little alternative but to fundraise through a political action committee (PAC). That PAC would have been limited to giving a maximum of $5,000 (the current threshold) to each of its candidates per election, and barred from taking money from unions or collecting donations larger than $5,000 from individuals. That kind of fundraising could never support a national organization.

All of these restrictions would be waived if, like the DNC or RNC, the group registered as a “party committee.” But there’s a catch: a group can only register as a party committee if it runs the ballot-access gauntlet at the state level (a requirement from which Democrats and Republicans are exempt), then wins a ballot line and runs its candidates on it. (Here we find one of the many reasons scholars have described the FECA as a “major-party protection act.”)

In the years leading up to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, these regulations were already being eroded by the emergence of so-called “527” groups, which evaded the laws by taking unlimited donations to finance “independent expenditures” on behalf of candidates.

In addition, it would be allowed to establish a PAC that maintains two separate accounts: one permitted to donate to, and directly coordinate with, individual candidates (though subject to FECA contribution limits and allowed to actively solicit contributions only from the organization’s own members); and the other allowed to accept unlimited contributions and make unlimited independent expenditures on behalf of its candidates (though not donations to candidates themselves). A separate online “conduit” PAC, on the ActBlue model, could aggregate small-donor hard-money fundraising on a mass scale to finance the individual campaigns.

To put the electoral possibilities of this approach into perspective, consider a few numbers. In 2014, there were 1,056 open-seat state-legislative races (races where no incumbent was running). The median winner spent only $51,000, for the primary and general elections combined. Two-thirds of the races cost less than $100,000. And in 36 percent of all state-legislative races that year — almost 2,500 seats — the winner had run unopposed.

I think this model can work. But like any blueprint, it’s not a panacea. Simply filing the paperwork to create such an organization is not going to magically conjure a large and successful movement into existence. To make it work, it needs to be a real vehicle and voice for working-class interests. And that means a significant part of the labor movement would have to be at its core.

Celebrate the forthcoming issue of Jacobin, The Party We Need,” with a discounted subscription. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/11/bernie-sanders-democratic-labor-party-ackerman/

From Rules for Revolutionaries:

As things get worse and worse, voters will support candidates who promise radical action. And if there are no principled alternatives emerging on the left, this creates an opening for right-wing candidates like Trump, no matter how reprehensible and no matter how crazy their solutions may be. This is a well-established pattern in history for democracies in crisis.162 Passing laws and paying for government programs will not even scratch the surface of what must be done. This will require organic mass movements in neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions. It will require unions and small business associations organizing not simply to demand concessions from big businesses but to actively reshape the economy. 

Big organizing is what leaders do in movements that mobilize millions of people. Not everyone in these movements is a leader, but in big organizing, volunteer leaders emerge by the thousands from every church, classroom, family, office and work area, neighborhood, and prison block. The movement doesn’t need to awaken or even train them—these leaders emerge ready to make change, and they bring their full selves and life experience to the task of building a movement that works. Our families, workplaces, schools, social networks, and other institutions are all inherently political. And in the current social context, people don’t need to be awakened politically—they are ready to get to work to make change. A movement powered by big organizing provides these already existing leaders with a scalable way to make a difference that evolves and becomes more sophisticated and powerful over221

The point is not that the revolution will be phone-banked but that the revolution will be led by volunteer leaders who take on the work of a campaign plan, a plan that is so big it can only be accomplished when everyone who wants change (a majority of the people) works together. This could be everyone on a campus, in a community, in a workplace or industry, or in the entire country. In big organizing, leaders operate with a high level of autonomy and creativity while all working toward the same, centrally determined, shared goal. Sometimes that shared goal is decided upon by a central movement leadership and sometimes it is presented by the circumstances of history.229