When, in 1960, the members of the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation called for the realignment of American parties, they got the theory right. Simply considering their programs, there was no reason why the labor movement, the black civil rights movement, the working farmers, the nascent liberal Democratic clubs, etc. could not have formed a coalition, forced the Southern racists out, and had themselves a progressive party, in which democratic socialists could work with non-socialist forces. The lever to expel the racists, they rightly perceived, was the black civil rights movement, then beginning to develop its power. The memory of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal was still green, and the labor movement organized about a third of the American working class. There was reason to think that such a progressive party would have millions of voters to give its ideas punch. Sadly, reality, then and later, got in the way of theory.
Probably first and foremost, “labor” was not a homogenous movement. It was divided by long-standing feuds, personal rivalries and even ideologies (compare the social democratic Walter Reuther, famously beaten and even shot by goons, to the managerial George Meany, who bragged that he had never walked a picket line). Then, spoken sotto voce, there were the unsavory connections of some unions to the big-city Democratic machines and even to organized crime. These relationships served good and bad purposes for both sides and were not to be easily disrupted. Then, there was the Democratic Party itself, whose positions from top to bottom were filled by people who thought of politics not as a way to change the world but as a career to provide the same benefits as any other: money, self-worth, prestige. All things being equal, these apparatchniks and legislators could be influenced to support an occasional reform, if their interests were not affected, but they were rarely motivated by causes.
All that being said, it was futile to simply take the potential members of a progressive party and add up the members. There was a preliminary step that was necessary. The honest,
principled unions, the progressives, the civil rights movement, etc. first had to establish their own movement and then do unified battle for control of the Democratic Party. The forces of change had to have a common structure through which they could make decisions, plan strategies, determine programs and then execute. The democratic socialists, who on a good day never exceeded 2,000, including the dues cheaters, could work profitably in this smaller organization but would be lost and ignored in the Party as a whole. To bring this movement into existence, something more was needed: a social democratic moment, a moment when millions of people caught the vision of the possible at the same time. Maybe there was such a amoment for the briefest time after the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, but it passed, and as the sixties wore on, its possibility was more and more a memory.
All of this is sad prologue but it is a prologue to opportunity. Friends, IN 2016 WE HAVE COME TO A SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC MOMENT! Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist,
ran on a social democratic platform and didn’t scare people to death. In fact, he got 43% of the elected delegates to the Democratic convention. He carried 23 primaries and caucuses. When the primaries were over, hundreds of thousands of activists had been brought into politics, and Bernie had garnered millions of votes. The essential precondition for a serious effort to take the Democratic Party away from the neoliberals has been met!
So, as someone or other said, what is to be done? Now is the time when we must bring the Bernie activists and other sympathetic progressives together into a movement that can influence the Democratic Party and perhaps dominate it. It is the time to build a people’s
party, a party that addresses and solves the people’s problems. Our movement will be necessarily based on the states because state law controls most activities of political parties. This movement must be democratic and inclusive; as one activist in the Bernie movement said to me yesterday, the emphasis in Our Revolution must be on Our.
What is the practical political potential of such a movement? Let me take the Massachusetts Democratic Party as a hypothetical example. There are about 3,000 delegates to state conventions, which are held annually. Most of these delegates are elected at local caucuses open to all registered Democrats. The rules require that 15% of delegates (about 450) must vote for any candidate for state-wide office to get the candidate on the primary ballot. I would guess that there are 10,000 Bernie activists in Massachusetts who are agreeable to joining a progressive organization, that is, on average, 30 attendees per local caucus. In most cases it will be possible for those who want to become delegates to do so and to form in aggregate more than the 15% necessary to put a candidate on the ballot. The capability
to put a candidate on the ballot means that the Left always has the power to force concessions or to challenge more conservative candidates in the primary.
The immediate political task of social democrats and progressives is to build those state organizations. The social democratic moment is now. Let’s not lose it!
Over 500 Massachusetts progressives met today to discuss the events of the national election and to plan for the future “in dangerous times.” Drawing from peace and community movements but also heavily from the Sanders campaign, the conference expanded into overflow space for its plenary sessions. Interestingly, while no unions were represented as such, several of the speakers were experienced labor organizers and union local leaders. Some of the participants may have come to the conference to huddle together for comfort, but it is fair to say that everyone left with an acquired or renewed sense of “the movement” and a determination to build its strength in enormously challenging times.
Of critical importance were formal and informal discussions about creating a mass, multi-issue progressive organization from the Sanders campaign. There was a strong sense that the Left had come to a historic opportunity in America and that this opportunity must not be missed. Several speakers commented on the need to make certain that the new group was democratic and empowering to the membership. Much remains to be determined about purpose, program and structure, but a definite state-wide meeting of interested persons was set for January 28th next year. Massachusetts probably had 10,000 or more active Bernie workers in the primary, and if they can be effectively organized in a movement, it may well be that the next Democratic state convention will pass a social democratic platform. That, of course, would be simply the beginning of a process of influencing the party structure and the party’s office holders. Interesting days are ahead!
Massachusetts Social Democrats had a literature table at the event and distributed papers on Social Democracy by Professor Sheri Berman, the featured speaker at our 2014 convention, and by Ed Broadbent, a former Leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party. We also distributed papers commemorating Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 Economic Bill of Rights speech and looking at poverty and inequality from a Massachusetts perspective. These papers occasioned many interesting discussions. We happened to be placed next to the table of the Democratic Socialists of America and we were frequently asked, “What’s the difference between the two organizations?” Our explanations would begin, “We were both in the Socialist Party and then in 1972…” Shortly after that, the questioner’s eyes would begin to glaze over!
Minnesota’s progressive Congressman Keith Ellison is mounting an unusual campaign for Chair of the Democratic National Committee, unusual, among other reasons, because it is even happening. In normal times the Party’s Chair is in the gift of insiders who choose one of their own (think Donna Brazile). Ellison is campaigning hard and publicly for the job with a fundraising effort and a 12 page platform, and his effort has begun to draw early support.
There is, as would be expected, support from the usual suspects: Senators Sanders and
Warren. Not so expected is the support that he is getting from outgoing and incoming
Senate Minority Leaders Reid and Schumer. There is talk of an endorsement by the AFL-CIO, and the presidents of the American Federation of Teachers and the State, County and Municipal Employees are already behind him. In addition to the big names, Ellison is looking
to the party’s grass-roots to back his programmatic campaign to rebuild from the ground up
(again, the emphasis on program is unusual; the DP Chair is customarily conceived as a nuts-
and-bolts mechanic whose job is to tune up the Party machinery).
Without discussing the recent Democratic debacle, Ellison’s platform shows where he would put the emphasis in the future. It is clearly on the concerns of the working class and progressives. The Congressman has been the co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus
and was an strong Sanders supporter, and as the progressive/social democratic forces come together on a local level, it is likely that he would give them a sympathetic ear.
In 1960 the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation, the predecessor of SDUSA, issued a political statement in which it announced two decisions: that, for the first time in its history, it would not run a presidential candidate, and that it would work for the realignment of the political party system so that a programmatic liberal-labor party would be created. The SP-SDF promised to work within such a party as a “loyal and honest democratic socialist wing,” with the expectation that a socialist program would eventually prevail in the party. Those who supported the “realignment position” had a definite idea of what the party and its antagonist would look like: “Let labor, the farmers, the Negro people and other minorities, the liberal and peace forces, come together in a party of our own; and let the forces of conservatism and big business, the militarists and nationalists, the stand-patters come together in a party of their own.” (The full statement is available on this site at “Various Writings.”)
More than fifty years later we can see that the model they projected for a liberal-labor party has come about– more or less. The Democratic Party has largely shed its racist wing and become not a Left but a center-left party. The Republicans have acquired
that racist wing (not so open today but still there) and become a center-right party. Again, the SP-SDF foresaw this development: the critical lever to push the Dixiecrats from the Democratic Party was the movement for equal rights for American Negroes, they predicted. If the Socialists of 1960 were so farseeing, why don’t we have at least a vigorous social
democratic party today in the form of the Democratic Party?
It’s tempting to try to answer this question by rehearsing the sad history of the Democratic Party since 1960, a history that includes the catastrophic split in the sixties between labor and liberals over the Vietnam war, the cultural tension between these groups that continues until this day, and the rise to intellectual and political power of the neoliberals. However, I want to answer more hopefully by saying: within the Democratic Party today we do have a strong and vigorous multitude holding social democratic opinions (unlike, by the way, the DP in 1960). This multitude is not yet organized into a movement, but when it does organize, it can take power in the Democratic Party and turn it into the political instrument envisioned in 1960. This social Democratic Party will then have a reasonable chance to win the presidency.
Such a statement seems incredible, as President-Elect Trump is picking a cabinet of breathtaking reactionaries, and as we are hoping that they inflict limited damage on our country in the next four years. However, we need to examine some important trends:
First, there is the strength of the Sanders movement within the Democratic Party. Bernie
(crotchety, not the best orator, a largely unknown Senator from a small state) won 23 primaries and caucuses and 43% of the pledged delegates against the vaunted and well-financed Clinton machine. Although he calls himself a democratic socialist, in fact he ran on a social democratic program and defines his socialism as the kind they have in Scandinavia. Much of his program ended up in the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party, as the Clinton forces recognized the strength of his supporters and the attraction of his program. These accomplishments occurred despite the near-total lack
of an organized movement when he began his campaign.
We are far from having such an unorganized movement today. It is estimated that 400,000 activists watched the rollout of Our Revolution, and while national OR will do little with them beyond soliciting donations, local organizations of grass-roots Bernie supporters are forming in my state and, I suspect, in many others. An example occurred last Sunday, when a spontaneous local group of more than 100 met in Cambridge, MA. In addition, a statewide group is forming in Massachusetts. It is likely that this group has a potential membership of 10,000; with the right organizing moves, it will swing great weight in the Massachusetts
Democratic Party. With the right candidate, a national organization growing out of the Bernie campaign can carry a majority of delegates to the Democratic convention in 2020. This is an opportunity for social democrats that never came after 1960.
We have also come to a point when the neoliberalism that dominated the Democratic Party has been smashed. The working class of this country, having had virtually flat wages for 40 years, finally handed the Democratic elites their heads. Make no mistake: the election was not a defeat for progressives and progressive policies. It was a defeat for the Clintons and their political machine, a defeat for obscene privilege masquerading as “practical progressivism.” The fundamental strategic task of progressives is to force the Democratic Party to go to the people in 2018 and 2020 with a program and candidates that address the real hurt that the people are feeling. Such a program and such a party will be social democratic. Victory after 6 decades!
Probably many of us are getting urgent e-mails asking us to express our approval of President Obama on the eve of his departure and, not so incidentally, back up sentiment with a generous donation to the sponsoring organization. Generally, I am heartily glad to see the back of a leader who has led a failed administration. On the other hand, considering who will replace him, I would rather he stay in the White House and keep Trump out.
Bill Press, reporter, broadcaster and former Chair of the California Democratic Party, probably also has mixed feelings. It’s safe to say, I think, that he wrote this book with the expectation of a different outcome to the election. Perhaps he would have pulled some punches had he expected that any of his words would have helped Trump. However, the book he
did write is a useful cautionary tale for progressives in the future.
The most important take-away from the book is the overwhelming importance of the person who
occupies the Presidency. He or she sets the priorities and strategy. He/she hires the chief advisors and administrators who will help set policies and supervise their execution.
The choice of assistants, however, is not a value-free process. As Elizabeth Warren has said, personnel is policy. People who are eligible for high government positions typically have histories and agendas. Thus the President knew, or should have known, what he was getting when he chose Larry Summers and Tim Geithner for the chief economic positions in his administration. Summers had bounced around Harvard, government and Wall Street, picking up
animosity and several million dollars along the way. Geithner was head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, and it would have been difficult, geographically and ideologically, for him to be closer to Wall Street. As the President wrestled with greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression, he chose how he would address that disaster when he chose Summers and Geithner.
Their first concern was to restore “confidence” on Wall Street. This was done by massive bailouts and friendly sympathy, extending even to allowing bailed out companies to pay bonuses to the executives who had presided over the actions that had led to financial collapse. Understandably, as millions of houses went into foreclosure and entire communities cratered, the average American understood that “Socialism for the rich” was alive and well.
Not so healthy was concern for the millions of workers who lost their jobs. Of course, capitalism was trying to solve the problems it had created by throwing its burden on the backs of the working class. There were two broad ways put forward to alleviate the problem of unemployment: government austerity, which meant cutting expenditures for social services,
and the Keynesian method of large, pump-priming government expenditure on public works and social services. Obama more or less chose the second method, whose planning exemplified the process that would characterize many other decisions over the next eight years. First, the
Council of Econmic Advisers estimated the bare minimum of government expenditure necessary
to maintain employment at its previous level (not at full employment, of course; that would have been socialism for the poor). Summers, et al., were aghast at the political naïveté of
the economists. Congress would never approve such an outrageous number, said they, so they cut the proposed appropriation approximately in half (Congress was still in Democratic hands), meaning that it was bound to fail to restore adequate employment. When the already compromised measure got to Congress, it was met with further demands for compromise. The result was a bill that was a mixture of tax cuts and public works projects, one that was totally inadequate to stem the avalanche of unemployment
Press observes that Obama and his appointees did not seem to know the first rule of bargaining: you never present your final offer first. Everyone in government understands that the first offer is just the beginning of negotiations. Repeatedly Obama’s positions had been compromised within his administration before they reached Congress, where they were further whittled down. Look at the Affordable Care Act, the President’s signature achievement, as an example of this model, and it’s apparent why it has been at best a modest success.
A related part of the Obama failures was his apparent unwillingness to follow a basic rule in negotiations with others and especially negotiations with opponents: you have to fight your corner. You have to believe in your own case and,as Elizabeth Warren has said, be prepared to leave blood and teeth on the floor. Certainly compromise is probably necessary in the end, but the other side has to know that it has been in a fight. Otherwise, the President will be in Obama’s position: the Republicans sized him up as a wimp and would not bargain with him; and, after all, they didn’t have to negotiate. After 2010 and 2012 the Republicans took the House and then the Senate. A courageous, progressive President- the kind that Obama told us he would be in 2008- might well have held the Congress.
So I think I will skip signing the sorry-to-see-you-go card.