What You Should Do Now To Influence The Democrats If You’re a Progressive
Third Parties Don’t Work in a Two-Party System, so What Does? Cooperating to Form a Left Wing Coalition
I had this dream I would write the modern history of the Democratic Party and its relationship with the Left. Then I would conclude it with recommendations for the future. It would be a short essay. It wasn’t. I almost ended up giving up on putting the history on Medium, believing almost no one was going to read a short book and an essay. But even if I put the history on Medium, that still left my ideas for the future. I hope some of them resonate at a time when the Left needs to find a way to unite.
One of the lessons of the 2016 election was supposed to be, “Listen to us, progressives. You can’t win without us.” I’ve heard many progressives say they want to blow up the system. It’s as if they want to say, “The country is falling apart because of conservative policies. Take a mega-dose and learn your lesson, America.”
The Left — or “Far Left” or progressives or however you wish to refer to this group of more liberal people — have abandoned the Democratic Party and left it to moderates, even conservatives, numerous times since 1968. They have chosen not to vote at all, which scholars call alienation or indifference toward voting in hopes of sending message to the Democratic Party. It is questionable whether this has resulted in any change to the Party.
You can watch the liberal vote peel off from the Democrats from 2008 to the present. In 2008, 89% of voting liberals reported they voted for Obama. There was a lot of enthusiasm for a candidate perceived to be progressive. In 2012, there were many unhappy progressives who had now heard Obama say, “I am a New Democrat,” which was the equivalent of saying, “I am a corporate Democrat. So, that year, 86% of liberals voted for Obama. This dropped down to 84% of liberals in the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton was missing a potential of 5% of the liberal vote at least.
The Left has tried third parties by forming The Peace and Freedom Party, The People’s Party, Citizen’s Party, The Socialist Party USA, The Natural Law Party, The Green Party, and other smaller ones. The “Far Right” also has its third parties. In both cases, the third-party groups are known not to have a chance of being elected, but it is believed they can earn enough votes to influence the primary candidate on their side.
It’s true that every once and a while, it works. Ross Perot drew an outstanding 18% of the conservative vote, giving the election to Bill Clinton, in 1992. Presumably, this influenced the right-wing to adopt Perot’s positions. Hmm, he was anti-free trade, so it took a long time for his influence to kick in. This eventual, occasional success gives people who endorse the third-party strategy fuel for their argument in favor of using third parties to influence the major parties. Eventually, twenty years later, it could work.
Unfortunately, this strategy has never seemed to have much impact on the Left. If the whole purpose of the third party was to gravitate the Party toward its more ideological form, it has seemed like the presence of third parties actually gave the Democrats a reason to moderate their policies. “The liberals are gone, now we can make centrist policies.”
Bernie Sanders saw the possibility of using the Democratic Party as a tool for Progressives. He was able to influence the party platform to be its most progressive in years. What is interesting about the socialists, even Communists, of the past is that they did their work subversively. This quote comes from UC-Santa Cruz Sociologist Domhoff’s website:
More leftists were elected to Congress in the 1930s and early 1940s as Democrats — from California, Washington, Montana, Minnesota, and New York — than were ever elected earlier as socialists. They weren’t fully open about their socialism, or their sympathy for the Communist Party, but their views were well known to everyone involved in politics at the time.
Professor Domhoff is a strong proponent of abandoning third parties as a strategy for the Left, since they have been unsuccessful for over forty years. He has numerous reasons beyond what I have listed for trying instead to co-opt the Democratic Party. Some of these reasons include the electoral system of the United States, the automatic division created between progressive and moderate liberals with third parties, and the fact third parties have only been successful when they sprung from the center rather than the extremes of our political range.
It is time for a healthy conversation between progressives and centrists on the Left about sharing the Democratic Party. No more slings and arrows about Obamabots and Clintonites who sell out, and no more suggestions to “Emo-progs” that they slice their wrists or Bernie Bros to check their privilege. The next generation saw only 44% of its white voters support Obama in the 2012 election (18–24 year olds). Trump did well with young people as well. It does not look like waiting for the next generations to overcome the effects of racism in politics will be effective for the Democratic Party.
When researching the history of the Democratic Party, there was this quote from Baron (2010) :
“The low cost of voting and the lack of significant effect on the voter’s interests suggest that voting will typically be motivated by moral beliefs, or by expressive concerns, rather than by rational calculation of self-interest (Brennan and Hamlin 2000; Brennan and Lomasky 1993).”
I thought about how this summary of voting behavior is classically how liberals have described poor or working-class white voters. They don’t vote based on rational self-interest. Instead, they seem to be motivated by moral beliefs like religious doctrines. But the irony is the same description applies to the Left whose voting behavior has not been calculated self-interest, but instead motivated by moral beliefs and principles.
There are things progressives can do to develop the Left’s relationship with the Democratic Party. Here are a few suggestions:
- Now there is a fight for control of the Democratic Party through the open chair position. Will Democrats go forward as conservatives or liberals? (Many will say the system is corrupted which is often a way of saying we have gone too far right-wing). Keith Ellison is progressive and he is vying for the DNC Chair. But there are many others with a range of opinions, You’ll likely already heard people talk about a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party or that the Party is in Civil War. President Obama expressed his displeasure with Keith Ellison recently. This is because Ellison is from most progressive wing of the Party, and President Obama actually comes from the more conservative wing of the Democratic Party. Or maybe it’s because Ellison has defended Louis Farrakan, who has said anti-Semitic things. Or it’s because he is Muslim. Research the candidates for chair. Let your representatives know who you’d like to see for DNC Chair.
- Consider building a network of Egalitarian Democratic Clubs suggested by Professor Domhoff. His ideas for influencing the Democratic Party from within are interesting and worth a look.
- Get involved in the Precinct Project. This is a movement to begin influencing the Democratic Party from the bottom up. This is how the Tea Party took over the Republican Party. They have a manual on their website with instructions on how to do this.
- Throughout the early 1990s, I worked my way through college by waitressing in Iowa. Every Wednesday night, year-round, every year, I waited on the Winneshiek County Republicans who met in our restaurant’s basement to strategize how to win elections from the local school board level to the Presidency. Eventually, I decided I wanted to join the Winneshiek County Democrats in their tactical meetings. I was told they only occurred close to elections. We need to take organizing principles from the right-wing if we are serious. We need to commit to weekly in-person meetings. I’m going to try to start one in my county. Already, in Minnesota, we have started a Pantsuits Nation organization that’s had several events.
- Don’t hesitate to use the same methods Lyndon LaRouche used with the Democratic Party when he continuously for years and years ran on the Democratic ticket despite being a right-wing radical. He did this because he ended up with over nineteen million dollars of money from the Party to further his cause. He was able to use the democracy of the Democratic Party structure to infiltrate the party, so this can be a place for a much larger group, progressives, to run candidates. In 1986, two LaRouche followers took the primary seats of “real Democrats” in the Illinois Secretary of State and Lieutenant Governor races. They lost in the general election, but still gained publicity. This could be a good strategy in red districts to get the word out. I think it is a terrible idea for blue or purple districts.
- Recognize that contrary to what you have been taught, lower-income white people have increased their support for the Democratic Party from 1980 to the present (Cizmar, et. al, 2014; Stonecash et al, 2000). The term working class has been used with great fluidity. For example, working-class is presently the most popular self-identification among Americans. Don’t alienate poor white people with incorrect assumptions about how they vote based on how Trump and the media try to spin the election. White working-class voters have dropped out of voting much more than voting Republican, and this comes from a sense of not being represented. According to researchers like Brooks and Manza (1997) and Stonecash and associates (2000), white working-class voting needs to be researched more specifically. Education and income are not always correlated. A lot of people with some college or an associate’s degree are making some good money, and they should be studied separately from white people with high school degrees only, because income influences voting, too.
- Most of all, this is a time to heal divisions. Not a time for civil war. We can assertively pursue a progressive agenda while listening to everyone’s voice. As Howard Zinn teaches us in a People’s History of the United States, the oldest divisions in this country were made based on race in order to cleave away poor whites from poor blacks, because if they collaborated, their power would be untold. There is an alarming development to see them pitting poor peoples against each other. This must be guarded against at all costs.