by Victor Agosto
Since Bernie Sanders declared his candidacy for president, there has been renewed debate over progressive electoral strategy. Some progressives believe we should all support Sanders’s campaign. They say this will shift mainstream political discourse–and eventually the presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton–to the left. As a member of the Green Party, however, I don’t believe in expending energy trying to change the Democratic Party from within and I will not campaign for a Democratic Party presidential candidate.
Historically, the Democratic Party has dragged progressive movements to the right. The late Venezuelan-American Green, Peter Camejo, made a strong case for this in his autobiography, North Star:
The Democratic Party should be seen historically as the most successful political party in the history of the world in terms of maintaining stability for rule by the privileged few. There is no example that comes near what the Democratic Party has achieved in maintaining the domination of money over people.
Through trickery, the Democratic Party co-opted the powerful and massive rise of the Populist movement at the end of the 19th century using precisely the same lesser-evil arguments now presented against the Green Party.
They blocked the formation of a mass Labor Party when the union movement arose in the 1930s. They derailed, co-opted, and dismantled the powerful civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, and the women’s liberation movement. They have even succeeded in establishing popular myths that they were once for labor, for civil rights, and for peace. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Although the room was filled with delegates who were hand-picked by party bosses, the leadership still had to flout its own procedures to have its way. What’s worse, the motion was purely symbolic–even if its failure to pass had been acknowledged, it would not have had any effect on Democratic legislators or the president. We can begin to imagine how democratic the party is when it comes to truly important matters. As Danny Katch wrote, if you support the Democratic Party, you are just a fan:
Think about the structure of the Democratic Party. It’s not a membership organization. You may call yourself a Democrat because you vote for them every election, but you’re actually just a fan. You have as much input into party decisions as I have in the play-calling of the New York Giants, no matter how many jerseys I buy or how loudly I scream at my television.
Malcolm X described those who support the Democrats every election cycle–regardless of what they do while in office–with a different term:
But some keep people trying to guide the party to the left, most notably the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA). The PDA has a progressive platform and many of its members are genuine progressives who are often valuable allies in grassroots struggles. The PDA was largely founded by supporters of Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign. Kucinich ran for president in 2004 and 2008 to ensure that progressives stayed with the Democratic Party and he endorsed the party’s eventual nominees–Kerry and then Obama. The PDA’s modus operandi is not far removed from Kucinich’s. It too seeks to keep progressives in the Democratic Party while denying that the PDA itself is part of the Democratic Party–go figure. Interestingly, Kucinich has admitted that the Democratic Party’s “progressive” caucus–which is highly touted by the PDA–is a “social thing,” with no real obligation on its members to push for progressive legislation.
Some acknowledge that the Democratic Party can’t be reformed, but argue that we must put short term considerations ahead of long term ones and should vote for the Democrats anyway. Camejo breaks it down again:
The idea there is a conflict between the short term and the long term is a cover for capitulation. It has been the endless argument of the Democrats against challenges to their policies. When independent movements appear, they call on people to enter the Democratic Party and work from within. There is no time to go outside the two-party framework, they argue. This argument was made 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 25 years ago and, of course, remains with us today. Millions have agreed there’s no time to do the right thing. Very powerful groups, like the AFL-CIO, have followed this advice. As a result, the number of workers in unions has dropped from 37% of the work force to 12% as they politically subordinated themselves to the pro-corporate Democratic Party.
Rather than success, these movements have found the Democratic Party to be the burial ground for mass movements, and of third-party efforts that sought to defend the interests of the people throughout American history.
If we follow the advice of “left” Democrats who call on Greens to return to the Democratic Party, the Green Party will collapse like the New Party did for fear of confronting the Democrats.
Bernie Sanders has progressive stances on social issues and renewable energy. I appreciate his support for taxing the wealthy and for worker-owned businesses–although what we really need are workers’ self-directed enterprises. There are abhorrent things about Sanders, however, including his longstanding support for funding wars he supposedly opposed and his full support for bombing Kosovo. His defense of Israel’s bombing of Gaza last year was atrocious.
But even if Sanders were solid on all the issues, he does not intend to build movements independent of the Democratic Party and that is a deal breaker. Sanders has joined Kucinich in the long history of progressive Democrats sheepdogging for establishment Democrats. I refuse to campaign for a candidate who will divert the energy of progressive movements to get Hillary Clinton elected.
To shift politics leftward in this country, it helps to consider what forces have brought that about previously. In the 1930s–before the Second Red Scare–the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and independent trade unionists put tremendous pressure on FDR to respond to the alternatives they presented and forced him to pass the New Deal. Independent parties like the Green Party–working together with grassroots movements–can provide similar leverage to transform society.
The undemocratic nature of the Democratic Party makes reforming it impossible. The best thing progressives within the Democratic Party can do to promote transformative change is encourage fellow Democrats to leave the party and join a truly independent and democratic alternative.