Friday, September 30, 2005

An Argument For A Coalition Of The Left

I have been mulling over three recent posts by Rana at Shakespeare's Sister, by Dave Lindorff at Counterpunch and by C.N. Todd at Freiheit and Wissen. All took as their theme the (by now old) claim that the Democratic Party has ceased to be representative of a significantly large portion of the American Left and moreover, no longer have a "vision worth voting for". That the Democrats have become, by their own intent, Republican-Lite.

This is a familiar story, and one that has been replayed several times - most notably in 2000 and again in 2004. Recently, though, the argument has received new impetus from events. Lindorff puts it best:

Iraq War going to hell, with U.S casualties approaching 2000 dead and 25,000 wounded, at a cost of $200 billion and rising. Poverty in America on the rise in a period of supposed economic growth. Republican Party a cesspool of corruption. White House being investigated for outing undercover CIA agent. Abortion rights under serious threat, with the Supreme Court being packed with right-wing judges. New Orleans, just drying out from disastrous flood, being raped by White House-linked corporate pirates and scam artists. Budget deficit topping half trillion dollars. Gas and heating oil crisis looming, while oil companies reap record profits. Bush poll numbers hit historic low as even some Republicans abandon him as an incompetent. Oh yeah-all this and global warming and the end of human life as we know it.

Man, if you were an opposition politician looking to make a run for Congress next years, or for president in 2008, this would be a magical time. But where's the opposition?

The media tell us that the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 are Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson and maybe John Kerry. What all these people have in common is their deafening silence on all the issues of importance facing Americans and America.


So why are these "opposition" politicians silent, and why are they not so much an opposition as a shadow - administration, not able to stand against the tide of administration policies even with such momentous events as a spur? Well, E.J.Dionne had a pretty good take recently in the Washington Post:

the party's problems are structural and can be explained by three numbers: 21, 34 and 45. According to the network exit polls, 21 percent of the voters who cast ballots in 2004 called themselves liberal, 34 percent said they were conservative and 45 percent called themselves moderate.

You get the idea? If the Democrats want to be elected by the current electorate, then they must move towards a centrist-right politics. They also have placed themselves in the enviable position of needing corporate funds to swell campaign coffers, through inadequately tending the hard left of their funds base. Where the Left sees their traditional party moving to the right for reasons of electability, they are becoming more and more intransigent about funding that party. This is one of the major complaints behind the recent split in the labor movement. The new Change to Win Coalition, made up of seven of the largest unions, recently split from the AFL-CIO partly because of disagreements over being cannon-fodder for the Democratic Party without any concommitant policy support from that party.

However, and its a big however, the current electorate is not the same as the potential electorate. By American standards the turnout for the 2004 Presidential election was high - yet by the standards of other Western democracies it was woefully low. Chris Bowers at MyDD recently researched who didn't turn out to vote and came up with some interesting findings. In 2004, for example, the national median income was $35,100 p.a. yet the median income of the electorate was $55,300 - a difference of 57.5%.

In other words, it is mostly the poorest segment of society who don't vote. Consider that although Bush gained 52% of the electorate, he only got 34% of all the possible votes. That means there is a huge potential constituency out there, between 25% and 30% of the potential electorate, who simply don't vote - and they don't vote simply because neither Republicans nor Republican-Lites have policies that address their concerns!

Lets start by getting rid of the notion that social policies are what sway the poorest voters. Let me assure you, because I am poor working class and live alongside poor working class people (in Texas yet!), we don't care about keeping down gays or blacks or about christian fundementalist power because the gays and blacks and christians are all poor together and we see the common theme first. We don't care about the right to bear arms because although we can't afford guns the gangbangers keep shooting us with them when we get accidentally caught in the crossfire. We aren't anti-abortion because we know stuff happens, especially when you can't afford prescriptions. That few bucks for condoms might be the entire family food budget for today...or even this week! We don't care about immigration because the illegal immigrants are just doing what we would do to find a better life for our kids.

What we want is education as a right for our kids for as far as the kid is capable of going (not just till High School), some help to find work that isnt minimum wage (travel, education, childcare) or some help with the bills if our work isminimum wage (or below - which is still legal if you are waitstaff for instance), a livable income if we really truly cannot work, medical care where the first question is "what's wrong?" not "how will you pay?", a break on crippling interest and bankruptcy cycles because you worry about how to pay after the kid is cured, that kind of thing.

On a wider canvas, when we get a breath from worrying about bills, we are concerned about the alarmingly rising rate of poverty which is consigning more and more Americans to the life we live - and we don't wish it on them any more than we would wish it on us. We care that workers in other countries can take our jobs primarily because both Democrats and Republicans have pushed globalized free-trade without pushing its balance - globalized worker's rights and benefits. We care intensely that our hard earned pay is funding graft for corporations who buy and sell whole administrations and their oppositions via the lobbyist system.

Sounds pretty progressive, eh? Those are the goals of the real workers, the manual workers and of the poverty stricken. And as long as neither Dems nor Repubs have that agenda then that 30% will not vote.

But I have an answer.

Its a safe bet that neither Greens, nor any kind of American Labor Party nor any socialist group nor Naderites will mount enough of a challenge in the near future to break the dual-party system, even with the massive potential electorate they have. Partly this is because of demonization as "tree-huggers" or "commies" that both major parties gleefully indulge in.

Democrats, the ones with the most vested interest, are the most aggressive about this. Arguments include "Americans would never vote for a socialist" and "splitting the left's vote would hand perpetual power to the Republicans". Both are utter nonsense. In the first place, Bernie Sanders never seems to have any problem getting elected and is a shoo-in for Senator in 2006. Many Green and Labor candidates would have excellent chances of election in areas where the Democrats have no chance and Republicans rule - mostly because of the successful demonization of the Democrats as "latte-sipping elitists". As Chris Bowers figures above show - far from splitting the left vote a strong party advocating for the working class would actually increase the size of the electorate by engaging all those voters who currently have no-one to vote for. They could pick up that unsung 25% and leave room for the Democrats to move to the moderate-right to their hearts content!

Moreover, why would the Dems have to run against any further Left party? They don't put up a candidate against Sanders because they know he is very popular and he will be part of their caucus in the House. Its called coalition government. If the Dems stood back and let real Lefties run in certain areas where they could really capture the vote then together the Dems and the Left could beat the Republicans...and for sure the Dems ain't going to do it on their own. So, to turn the argument around - do the Dems want to be a The Only Alternative so much that they are willing to sacrifice power to the Repubs for it? It seems some are.

A strong third party would also mean that both established parties would have to be on their merits not on their laurels - constantly looking over their shoulders to see what the new kid is saying. That could hardly be bad for the nation.

But if no leftwing party at present is strong enough, then what? Remember the old Polish "Solidarity" movement? A coalition of the progressive left that effected real change against an entrenched system. that should be the model. Sure, there would be fueds and differences over concepts - but the small groupings on the real Left are far more used to using a system of consensus and laisse-faire historically in any case. They are used to a system where prominent leaders are delegates as well as representatives. Any union body, any Green party local branch, is used to the give-and-take an American Solidarity would require. It could be done.

Moreover, it makes good political sense - the Republicans know this because they modelled their current heirachy on those very leftwing organistations that would make up such a coalition. As Bill Bradley wrote back in March for the New York Times:

To further the party's ideological and political goals, Republicans in the 1970's and 1980's built a comprehensive structure based on Powell's blueprint. Visualize that structure as a pyramid.

You've probably heard some of this before, but let me run through it again. Big individual donors and large foundations - the Scaife family and Olin foundations, for instance - form the base of the pyramid. They finance conservative research centers like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, entities that make up the second level of the pyramid. The ideas these organizations develop are then pushed up to the third level of the pyramid - the political level. There, strategists like Karl Rove or Ralph Reed or Ken Mehlman take these new ideas and, through polling, focus groups and careful attention to Democratic attacks, convert them into language that will appeal to the broadest electorate. That language is sometimes in the form of an assault on Democrats and at other times in the form of advocacy for a new policy position. The development process can take years. And then there's the fourth level of the pyramid: the partisan news media. Conservative commentators and networks spread these finely honed ideas.

At the very top of the pyramid you'll find the president. Because the pyramid is stable, all you have to do is put a different top on it and it works fine.


Whereas

To understand how the Democratic Party works, invert the pyramid. Imagine a pyramid balancing precariously on its point, which is the presidential candidate.
Democrats who run for president have to build their own pyramids all by themselves. There is no coherent, larger structure that they can rely on. Unlike Republicans, they don't simply have to assemble a campaign apparatus - they have to formulate ideas and a vision, too. Many Democratic fundraisers join a campaign only after assessing how well it has done in assembling its pyramid of political, media and idea people.

There is no clearly identifiable funding base for Democratic policy organizations, and in the frantic campaign rush there is no time for patient, long-term development of new ideas or of new ways to sell old ideas. Campaigns don't start thinking about a Democratic brand until halfway through the election year, by which time winning the daily news cycle takes precedence over building a consistent message. The closest that Democrats get to a brand is a catchy slogan.

Democrats choose this approach, I believe, because we are still hypnotized by Jack Kennedy, and the promise of a charismatic leader who can change America by the strength and style of his personality. The trouble is that every four years the party splits and rallies around several different individuals at once. Opponents in the primaries then exaggerate their differences and leave the public confused about what Democrats believe.

In such a system tactics trump strategy. Candidates don't risk talking about big ideas because the ideas have never been sufficiently tested. Instead they usually wind up arguing about minor issues and express few deep convictions. In the worst case, they embrace "Republican lite" platforms - never realizing that in doing so they're allowing the Republicans to define the terms of the debate.

A party based on charisma has no long-term impact. Think of our last charismatic leader, Bill Clinton. He was president for eight years. He was the first Democrat to be re-elected since Franklin Roosevelt. He was smart, skilled and possessed great energy. But what happened? At the end of his tenure in the most powerful office in the world, there were fewer Democratic governors, fewer Democratic senators, members of Congress and state legislators and a national party that was deep in debt. The president did well. The party did not. Charisma didn't translate into structure.


So where to start? Well, what the Greens and the Unions and the Laborites should do is get together for talks about establishing exactly that kind of grassroots up structure for a coalition movement on the Left - a true American Solidarity. I will even suggest a slogan; "we won't be Left unheard". There are even some bigger names who are currently in the Democratic camp who could be enticed, perhaps, into becoming the faces of the American Solidarity movement. I am thinking of people like bernie Sanders, John Conyers and even Chuck Pennaccio of PA. They should be approached with offers of support and funding. The Democratic Party should be approached as a possible ally, with a level of co-operation in caucus negotiated and a deal to not run against each other where demographics say it would be counter-productive.

And Lefty bloggers should be doing their bit too - we could even be pathfinders in the grassroots movement. Bloggers on the non-latte-sipping Left are pretty good at getting along even where we differ on details. We can form one or more of the think-tanks that are so needed by this new movement. We can also act as fundraisers and talent-spotters, targeting independent (i.e. non Dem or Republican) candidates for everything from local dog-catcher on up. Remember, that massive constituency is out there and I know from experience they would love to have someone to vote for.

What do you think? Is it an idea worth talking about? Is it an idea worth actually doing something about instead of just endlessly talking? Let me know.

Update
This Gallup poll couldn't be more timely or more pertinent.

Dean's World reads it thusly:

Gallup reports that nobody likes either major political party.

Okay, actually, they report that both parties have their highest unfavorability numbers in history. Does that mean a breakout of a third party as a major force in the next election? For 2006, not a chance. For 2008: only if things remain this way, and if both parties nominate someone seen as an "establishment" candidate.


Time to start organising.

Up-update

Shamanic, guest-blogging at Shakespeare's Sister, is tracking where this conversation is going from here with input from various bloggers. Its worth keeping track of where this goes.

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