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Now (That the Dems Have Taken Back Congress) What?

The November ’06 election presents socialists and progressives in the US with a (thankfully) new situation.  The next couple of years offer many opportunities, questions, and dilemmas . If we squarely face the many complications inherent in the current balance of class forces in America, maybe we can help to keep things moving away from Bush-style capitalism and toward a more decent (socialist?) society.

I’ve come across an apocryphal story a couple of times now, and I thought it was worth passing along.

It seems that Karl Rove was holding court in his White House office a few days after the ’04 presidential election.  A number of reporters were present, and one of them asked Rove, “How would you explain the President’s election victory last week?”

“That’s easy,” the President’s right-hand guy replied with a smirk, “‘Bush is Bad’ is not enough.”

I wish that Rove had told John Kerry that same thing before election day in ’04.

During ’06, as the news from Iraq rolled in night after night, I found myself wondering, what’s the count in Baghdad going to be today?  And then I started to think: Well, maybe this year, Bush is bad enough to be enough.  Then, like an avenging angel from a just god, the Foley scandal broke.  Talk about timing!  The deal was sealed.

Rove still contended, with a certain justification, that the ’06 vote did not represent a definitive rejection of Bush and what he represents.  After all, with a switch of only 100,000 votes from Democrat to Republican, the Republicans would have maintained control of Congress.

Phew!

So, now what?

There are some on the left who want to rub the Bushies’ noses in the election.  Rep Cynthia Mckinney (D-GA) submitted, as a parting gesture on 12/8/06,  articles of impeachment against Bush, Cheney, and Condi Rice.  John Nichols of The Nation agrees with Mckinney and has written a new book, The Genius of Impeachment, in which he makes his and Mckinney’s case for the big “I”.  Is this a good way to proceed?

Speaker of the House-elect Nancy Pelosi doesn’t think so, and neither do I.  Maybe Pelosi heard the “Bush is Bad” story, too.  We should remember those 100,000 votes that won the election for the Democrats, and think: What can we do to maintain the Democrats’ lead, and maybe even improve on it a little, in ’08?  Impeaching Bush, while much deserved, would generate a lot of sympathy for the President among the “Reagan Democrats” who came home, for a while, last November.

But, If we aren’t going to go after Bush through articles of impeachment, what should we do?

Let’s do Issues.

During the ’04 presidential debates, I was frustrated by Kerry’s willingness to concede the choice of battle terrain to Bush.  I thought, every time Bush says “war on terror,” Kerry should say, “Americans have a right to health care, and when I’m president, I’m going to make it happen.”  If he had done that, he would have been elected in ’04.  My friend, Rep Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill), agrees with me on this point.

Some of my friends think that we should be investing our efforts in building a “Green” or “Labor” party.  Not many still believe Ralph Nader‘s mantra from the 2000 election: “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Republicans and Democrats.”  George W. Bush showed us what a dime’s worth of difference could amount to.  Al Gore would have been so much better than W, especially after 9/11.

But, for those on the left who want to try and build a third party, I urge the following:

  1. Don’t be spoilers.  Run when there is a decent chance to win.
  2. Work hard in support of the Instant Run-Off Voting (IRV) movement.  That way, the problem of spoiling can be eliminated while new parties are built.
  3. Don’t let the principle of not working with Democrats let those same Democrats off the hook on the issues you care about.  Run in the Democratic primaries!  Push the Democrats!

Speaking of issues, and pushing the Democrats, here is a suggestion for “Now What?”

Maybe it would be best if progressives and socialists avoided the whole party-building swamp, for now.  The Democrats are not a disciplined organization.  They are really little more than an electoral coalition that tries to come together each election cycle.  Think of a blind and deaf caterpillar with a million legs, each walking in its own direction.  If the Democratic Caterpillar doesn’t feel any heat from a mass movement, like it did during the Vietnam War, it does exactly what you would expect: it follows the money.

So, how can a mass movement be built that is capable of exerting real pressure on the Democrats, thus making them a much stronger party, in spite of themselves?

Twice in the 20th century, organizations were formed that were called “the Non-Partisan League.”  Both of these groups were based on the premise that joining a political party was too confining.  While they pushed the issues that their members cared about, they were free to support candidates of either party, if they so chose.

In the teens, the first Non-Partisan League arose in the Dakotas.  Farmers in the Plains States suffered under the stranglehold on the price of wheat held by giant food processors.  The Non-Partisan League fought for a decent price for the crops their hard-working members grew.  The League also ran candidates for office, usually on the Republican ballot line.  Cooperative grain silos were built and a farmer-friendly bank was established.  The League remained vigorous, especially in the Dakotas, well into the 1930s.

Separately from the League in the Northern Plains, John L. Lewis and his Mineworkers formed another Non-Partisan League in April 1936.  This time, the mission was to make it possible for Labor to contribute to Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election effort and still remain independent of the Democratic Party.

There was some discussion, in 1936, of the potential for starting a labor party, but Lewis felt that would be a mistake, before a majority of the nation’s industrial workers were organized.  Lewis reasoned that Roosevelt’s support and the weight of the Federal Government would be needed  to complete their organizing drive aimed at bringing all those industrial workers under the CIO banner.  Labor’s Non-Partisan League contributed substantially to victory for Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal in 1936.

Is a new Non-Partisan League possible in 2007?   The answer to this question lies in the answers to four related questions:

  1. What issues would the New Non-Partisan League (NNPL) take up?
  2. Who would join such an organization?
  3. Who would lead (build) such an organization?
  4. What are the obvious factors existing in America today that might make forming such a group difficult or even impossible?

Issues

Phil Talmadge, a former Washington State Supreme Court member and one-time candidate for governor, spoke last year at a progressive Democrats meeting where he suggested that the group narrow its focus to 2 or maybe 3 main issues.  His point was that progressives often dilute the effects of their advocacy by adopting a “laundry list” of positions.  I think it would be a good idea to take Phil up on his suggestion.

An NNPL should work on issues that lend themselves to building a mass movement of Americans around them.  This means that the slogans need to be universal, simple, clear, powerful, and relate closely to the things working people in the US care most about.  I would suggest:

  1. Stop the Iraq war.
  2. Make health care of equal high quality everybody’s right.
  3. Make equal high quality education everybody’s right.
  4. Keep Social Security healthy — no benefit cuts.

From our experience in Seattle, 70% of the people in our country would be in favor of an NNPL.  That’s the percentage of the “yes” vote that we had for the idea that “Health Care Is a Right.”  We had absolutely no resources for a campaign leading up to the election, and we figure it would have been 80% “yes” with even a minimal effort to promote Seattle Measure #1 in November ’05.  For more on the Seattle “Right to Health Care” campaign, please see my article, “Seattle Votes for a Right to Health Care,” on mrzine.org.

80% of the public might well join us, if we fight for things that the vast majority of people in our country need.

Finding leadership for an NNPL will be a little tricky.  As the editors of Monthly Review and others have said many times, a resurgence of the Labor Movement in the US will be a necessary precursor to accomplishing progressive change in the country.  I’m a retired member/organizer from UFCW, where I was the steward for my bargaining unit, and I totally agree with John Bellamy Foster and Michael D. Yates on this point.

But I have to say that rebuilding the unions looks like a pretty tough nut to crack.  The current constellation of leadership in the unions looks completely self-serving (defense of staff jobs, maintenance of dues payments) to most workers.  For my suggestion on how it would be possible to put a more rank-and-file face on the unions, and make them more attractive to everyday workers, please see my article on Stewards’ Councils at mrzine.org.

Assuming a pleasantly changed situation in the Labor Movement, with a section of the unions where the rank and file have achieved a position of real influence, one can easily see the possibility of an NNPL being built by the left unions.  I like to imagine a formation like Tony Mazzochi’s Labor Party, only dominated by union stewards, instead of  union staffers.  Are you interested, Ralph Nader?

The other key element of leadership for an NNPL would be some kind of socialist group that would help guide the stewards and the new members of the League.  I’m not calling here for yet another Leninist formation.  I’m a great admirer of the legendary leader of the Bolsheviks, but, I gotta say, the performance of “democratic centralism” during the 20th century left a lot to be desired.  And we better get it right this time because we’re not going to get too many more centuries to, in the immortal words of Paul Sweezy, “get rid of capitalism.”

As for my fourth question, about factors that will make building an NNPL hard, just look around.  It will be enormously difficult to overcome all the opposition that will emerge to a project like the one I’m suggesting here.  I think that the forces against us, in the unions, the Democratic Party, and yes, even on the left, will be enormous, determined, and brutal.  But what the heck, just think how things will be 50 years from now if we don’t do something like this.

I was talking to an 85 year old friend of mine the other day, along the same lines as outlined here.  Specifically, our conversation was about the Seattle “Right to Health Care” campaign.  My friend opined that we would probably have to wait till a health care crisis emerged before we’d see any real action.

I’ve considered his comment for a few days, and my thought now is, what if there’s never a real crisis?

Every socialist worth her or his salt has imagined being in Petrograd in early 1917.  What if that kind of revolutionary situation doesn’t happen in the US for a couple of hundred years?  What if it never even gets like 1933 again, until Social Security is gone, health care and education are but faint memories, or climate change undermines planetary food production enough to reduce humankind to a hungry remnant?  What will our grandchildren think of how we frittered away our time on fantasies and old arguments?

Let’s start organizing a New Non-Partisan League, and push the Democrats as hard as we can.  They will scream and squeak, but they will win more elections.  The issues are there for us to take up.  It won’t take millions of people at first.  A few committed people can accomplish a great deal, like we did in Seattle, with our successful “Right to Health Care” campaign.  Before long, we’ll be talking about the New Non-Partisan League leading us to a new New Deal.  And just maybe, down the road, we’ll look around and say, “Hey, we finally got rid of capitalism!”


Brian King is a former steward in UFCW Local 1001 in Seattle.



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