Dialogue & Initiative - No. 12, SUMMER 1996

Are the Democrats the 'Third Party' we've been looking for?
By Nathan Newman

Currently, on the Left, there is a widespread search for and activity in trying to build a "third party." We've seen Green Parties, New Party affiliates, Labor Party Advocates, Ron Daniels' Campaign for a New Tomorrow, and other more state-specific parties like the Peace & Freedom Party.

While many activists are looking to strengthen those third parties (and I would not argue with doing so in many cases), I think we on the Left should also be working to strengthen the other "third party": namely the Democratic Party. I say a "third party" because the Democrats have become a quite different party in the last two elections from the Democratic Party that existed a generation ago.

Obviously, when we speak of strengthening this third party, we don't mean every candidate, but the parts of the Democratic Party that are progressive and tied to grassroots forces. That Democratic Party includes the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, the Progressive Caucus, and much of the Women's Caucus of the Democratic Party. It includes the 100 House Democratic congresspeople who supported a Single Payer Health Care bill in 1993-1994. It includes the Democrats who opposed NAFTA. It includes the vast majority of Democrats who voted for "anti-striker replacement" legislation in both the Senate and House.

Especially during a year when Republicans have attempted to abolish Aid to Families with Dependent Children and are talking about abolishing entitlements to Medicaid for the poor and significantly eroding Medicare, we should have a more serious analysis of the differences in government between Democrats and Republicans.

Why not support the Democrats?

When "third party" advocates reject association with the Democratic Party, it is not always clear what they are rejecting. There is often a vague, amorphous quality to accusations that "Democrats are just like Republicans."

Sometimes the discussion is about the actions of specific individuals, like Bill Clinton, as if the president is the same as the party structure. Given the open primary system in the United States, as opposed to the closed party member elections common in other countries, one sometimes get the feeling that the Left is borrowing rhetoric and analysis appropriate to other countries and stamping it on the U.S. Sometimes the discussion assailing the Democratic Party focuses on congressional candidates. This assault is sometimes surreal, given the spectrum of Ronald Dellums all the way over to Boll Weevil conservative Democrats. Will Rogers' statement, "I don't belong to an organized party; I'm a Democrat," captures the sense of this diversity. W.E.B. Du Bois in his Black Reconstruction, 1860-1880, captures its genesis with more analytic rigor. Du Bois traced the divided nature of modern U.S. political parties to the fact that the North and the South created essentially separate party structures and programs after the Civil War - linking disparate coalitions in the North and in the South to different forces in the free market, free soil West of the time. White populist workers in the North linked up with the white planter elite of the South to form the Democratic Party, while the business elite of the North for its own reasons allied with the radical black Republicans of the South.

This divided party structure, consolidated in conservative directions by the 1876 compromise that ended Reconstruction and conserved even through the New Deal by the exclusion of the (largely Southern and black) agricultural labor force from labor law legislation, has made any national analysis of "a" Democratic Party impossible for most of American history. The Democratic Party has had different internal structures and different policies based on geographic regions.

This is why even a generation ago, we could have Democrats acting as some of the staunchest advocates for civil rights and as some of the most violent opponents of racial equality and could have anti-union Democrats from the South while Northern Democrats depended on labor support. Conversely, we had Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller giving active support to Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, acting as lineal descendants of the pro-business, pro-civil rights Northern Republicans of the immediate post-Civil-War era.

With this mish-mash of internal division, activists might and did argue that a third party was needed to advocate a pure progressive position. This was the position of the Socialist Party throughout the New Deal and the position of the Peace & Freedom Party and various Trotskyist and New Left groups by the end of the 1960s. On the other hand, other left activists (such as the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s and DSA in the 1970s and 1980s) would argue that with a little push, we could "realign" the parties and turn the Democrats into a representative of the progressive elements within the United States.

Empirically, both groups of left activists failed in both the Depression-World War II period and in the Vietnam War era. The "realignment" push of 1938 failed miserably and the Socialist Party faded to near oblivion. In turn, "realignment" failed in the 1970s to the point where over 60 "Boll Weevil" Democrats, led by then-Democrat Phil Gramm, would ally with Ronald Reagan in his first term to enact Reaganomics. As well, the third party efforts of the 60s and 70s led to no viable party that could win statewide or even seriously contest most local races.

So where are we now?

So it might seem we are at the same place in the Left debate overelectoral strategy: Do we try to push the Democratic Party torealign itself in a progressive direction, or do we form aseparate third party?

Except there is one big difference.
In the 1992 and 1994 elections, the Democratic Party was realigned into a nationally more homogeneous, more progressive party.

The Left at the grassroots had a minimal role in effecting this realignment; instead, the two main forces for realignment were the 1992 reapportionment of Congressional seats under pressure from the 1982 Civil Rights Act, and the Gingrich electoral steamroller of 1994.

The 1992 reapportionment created a massive jump in the ranks of the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses, jumping the congressional Black Caucus alone up to 39 members. These changes significantly moved the center of gravity within the Democratic Party to the left and helped lead to the creation of the Progressive Caucus, led by independent Bernie Sanders and other left-progressives in the House. The Progressive, Black and Hispanic Caucuses became the backbone of the fight for single payer health care and against NAFTA.

Where the 1992 election strengthened the left-wing of the Democratic Party, the 1994 Gingrich-led takeover of the House decimated the ranks of Boll Weevil and "New" Democrats. Democratic Leadership Council leaders like Rep. McCurdy of Oklahoma and Rep. Cooper of Tennessee failed miserably at attempts to move to the Senate. While some liberals were among the 50+ seats that moved over to the Republican column in 1994, the vast majority were from the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. Emblematic of the change was the fact that where roughly 65 "Boll Weevil" Democrats allied with Reagan in 1991-92, there were only 24 Democrats in 1995 that became part of the "Mainstream" or "Blue Dog" forum that signed onto Gingrich's "Contract with America." More significantly, none of the 24 renegade Democrats is in a top leadership position with the House Democrats.

On top of the electoral changes, a number of conservative Democrats have switched parties, especially in the South. Over 150 elected Democrats at the national and state level have changed party registration to Republican since 1992.

And, following the Goldwater-Nixon-Reagan-Gingrich "Southern strategy," the Republican Party that these ex-Democrats have joined bears no lineage anymore to the pro-Civil Rights Republicanism of the past. The Republican Party has been totally realigned from any vestigal progressive tendencies left over from the Civil War into an almost purely reactionary, anti-worker, anti-civil-rights party.

At almost no time in our history have the two parties been more partisanly polarized and this is the first time in history that the Southern Democratic congressional contingent could be considered a progressive force.

Where is the Democratic Party today?

By many historical standards, against left conventional wisdom, Clinton is one of the most progressive Democrats to be elected president. While many leftists bemoan the Democrats supposed degeneration into new "Republican" and "conservative" positions, there seems to be a collective amnesia of the left vilification of Harry Truman for starting the cold war, of "Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today," and the Left's attacks on Jimmy Carter's appointment of Paul Volcker to the Federal Reserve, his botching of labor law reform and his launching of the defense
buildup that Reagan continued.

Explicitly for gay rights, for abortion rights, for gun control, and for taxing the wealthy, Clinton enacted one of the only tax bills in history that raised taxes on the rich significantly while at the same time lowering taxes for the poor (through the Earned Income Tax Credit which gives more money to the poor than AFDC). While lacking the backbone to push forward his agenda for health care reform and a number of other measures, Clinton did push through Motor Voter, the Family Leave Act, and a number of other solid progressive laws. Where he took his most conservative positions (such as on health care and NAFTA), Clinton quickly found himself to the right of House Democrats after the 1992 and 1994 elections as House progressives fought for single payer health care and against NAFTA.

What is more interesting is the composition of the House Democratic leadership today, given its more real relationship as a party structure. Dick Gephardt is a good solid pro-labor liberal, occasionally wishy on social issues like abortion, but a solid opponent of NAFTA and an advocate for many of the concerns of workers' families. Hardly a perfect leader for a progressive party, but you would not imagine that an independent labor party led by the AFL-CIO's Lane Kirkland or even the new "insurgent" John Sweeney would elect someone much different.

The Democratic number-two man in the House, David Bonier, is even more progressive, in fact an explicit member of the Progressive Caucus. His unrelenting attacks on the Gingrich agenda has earned him the special hatred of the far right as Rush Limbaugh has morphed his face onto a pitbull (a compliment in my book). Bonior on a daily basis rails against the greed of both the Republican leadership and the corporate interests they represent who fail to pay workers a fair return while corporate profits boom.

The Southern congressional contingent shows the most massive changes from a generation ago. Instead of the white segregationists of a generation ago, the most prominent Southern House members are now mostly African-American. This change was foreshadowed by Jesse JacksonÕs run for the presidency in 1988, when he won the most primaries in the Super Tuesday races in the
South. The conservative Southern wing of the Democratic Party is no more. Instead, for the first time in U.S. history, there is now a pro- civil rights, pro-labor base of a progressive electoral structure in the South through the Congressional Black Caucus.

What should the Left do?

Obviously, even the realignment of the Democratic Party has not made every member as progressive as the Progressive or Black Caucuses. Even if they were, many of us have demands that go beyond even what the Progressive, Black and Hispanic Caucuses are supporting.

So what are we on the left to do?

Some will continue to argue that there is no difference between the Republicans and Democrats on key issues and doggedly reject any association with Democrats whatsoever. Aside from considerable evidence of the difference of at least some Democrats from the Gingrich Republicans, the problem with the pure third party advocacy is that there is no credible "how do we get there from here" plan. Despite the existence of over 1,000 third parties in the 200-year history of the United States, none of them made it except for the Republicans, born in the cataclysm of the Civil War. Despite all the third party activity of recent years, only three out of 6,775 state legislative seats are filled by third party candidates and Bernie Sanders is one of the only independents to enter Congress in the last half-century.

Proportional representation is one strategy promoted to open the way for a third party. While a good rallying cry and a possibility for some state legislatures where it could be passed as an initiative on the ballot, it seems an unlikely proposition to become part of our national Constitution any time soon.
So in order for a third party to appear, it will have to be elected at the expense of present Democratic and Republican representatives.

This raises the disturbing vision (and present reality in many cases) of the overwhelmingly white top leadership of our present third party efforts (Labor Party Advocates, Greens, New Party, etc.) challenging members of the Congressional Black Caucus or other Progressive Caucus candidates. Whatever your theoretical view of "class independence" of political parties, the reality is that many progressive and left activists will defend those incumbents, leading to the certainty of nasty, harsh division in left ranks.

The other possibility is that third party efforts could avoid challenging progressive Democrats in favor of organizing for victory in Republican and conservative Democratic areas. So far, the evidence is that almost all the present third party efforts are directed out of the liberal bastions of college towns and solidly liberal Democratic areas and all the present Green Party elected officials have been in the liberal bulwarks of Berkeley, Santa Fe and Hawaii.

And even in the unlikely possibility that third party candidates were elected and came to power, the history of betrayal of progressive positions by the New Democratic Party in Canada and the Socialists in France shows that a "non-capitalist" party line is no magic wand in passing progressive policies.

Building third parties may still be a key strategy in forcing the Democrats to compete for votes to their left as well as to their right, but as a strategy for electing a serious number of elected national representatives, it looks like a longshot at best and a recipe for left internal warfare at worst.

The Left needs to build a mass-based organization to expand the ranks of the Progressive, Black and Hispanic Caucuses. The Christian Coalition learned many lessons from the New Left in organizing and mass action. We should take some lessons from the Christian Right in order to create a disciplined mass organization that can take control of party machineries in states across the country, run our own candidates in the primaries, and force more conservative members of the Democratic Party to move to the left or forfeit their seats.

To accomplish this goal, we need all the elements that those advocating a third party argue is necessary: a structured organization in every state representing the diversity of the progressive movement, a large base of members who are active in both electoral and non-electoral battles, and an independent funding base from dues paid by individual members. This will take a lot of work but, given the solid base of progressives and even socialists in important leadership positions within the Democratic Party, this will be a much more likely route to electoral victory. Especially key to this possibility is the massive realignment of the Democratic Party in the South. In the past, every attempt to expand the progressive base in the Democratic Party was halted by the racist electoral
baronies of the South.

With the "boll weevils" converting to Republicanism and the "New Democrats" routed in the 1994 elections, this is an opportunity to expand the progressive base that never existed in the past.