On Saturday July 13th delegates from the Massachusetts Democratic Party gathered in the old mill city of Lowell to approve a platform. Massachusetts Social Democrats was there to raise the SD torch and to kick off a campaign to bring back the issue of full employment to the consciousness of the progressive community.
Massachusetts Democrats hold a platform convention biannually in the off-years, when there are no presidential or gubernatorial contests. The conventions bring together over 4,000 activists from throughout the Commonwealth, and they fine-tune a platform that is already mostly complete.
I was elected as a delegate to the convention on a snowy day in last February by a caucus of registered Democrats in the town of Dedham, where I live. It was not the hardest-fought election I have ever seen, in part because of the overshadowing presence of the Markey-Lynch camapign for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate but mostly because many people don’t care a great deal about the platform. In the event, there were just enough candidates to fill the delegate slots, sparing us the anxiety of a contest.
In the months before the convention, I considered how Massachusetts Social Democrats could best make its organizational debut on the state’s political stage. Clearly it was necessary to bring a Social Democratic issue to the convention in a Social Democratic manner. This meant finding a “next step” that would be acceptable to many delegates but that would be a definite advance in the dialogue. An increase in the minimum wage, with a probable petition campaign in the offing, is the current major issue in the Bay State progressive community, and, as follow-up on MSD testimony to the legislature on this subject, full employment at living wages seemed a logical next measure.
Research on the website of the National Jobs for All Coalition led to H.R. 1000, a bill introduced by Representative John Conyers, Jr., in the Congress last March. This bill would establish full employment as a national policy and would establish an entity to provide job creation. More research led to fact sheets and statements on the bill, suitable for reproduction as leaflets. Only one Massachusetts Member of Congress has joined Representative Conyers as a co-sponsor of the bill, so it was decided to ask convention delegates to sign a petition requesting that other members of the Massachusetts delegation join Representative James McGovern as a co-sponsor. A final touch was a leaflet with quotes on full employment from President Franklin Roosevelt, Senator Edward Kennedy and the draft platform of this very convention. The leaflet’s headline was: “It’s time to keep the promise: full employment and living wages for all.” An inquiry at the state Democratic office yielded the information that an organization could, for a fee, get a table in the convention hall. MSD was ready to go!
The day of the convention was somewhat anticlimactic. Like any Democratic convention, it was noisy, chaotic and full of people who were eager to talk, usually while some bombastic oratory was being served from the stage. Most delegates were idealistic folk who were genuinely concerned about the problems of poverty and joblessness. This being Massachusetts, there was also an air of moral superiority (the city on the hill), although such an attitude suits me better than its cynical opposite. Some 20 “cause” organizations, including Massachusetts Social Democrats, lined a corridor with their tables.
I cannot report that the debut was a world-beating success; I didn’t expect that it would be. I collected about 50 signatures in the full employment petition in 3 hours, but it should be remembered that I was working alone. Nobody signed an SDUSA application, but I didn’t have the impression that other organizations were making many converts, either. I wasn’t making a “hard sell” for memberships; rather, the emphasis was on the issue. If we do a good job on the issues, I reasoned, the memberships will come.
The venture was most valuable as a kind of learning experience. The other “cause” organizations learned about the continued existence of SDUSA, perhaps a not entirely happy experience for DSA comrades, who also had a table. A few delegates were curious about MSD and wanted to talk about its exact position among “left” groups. Perhaps most important were the acquaintances gained and renewed among the “cause” activists with whom we will work in the future. On the whole, the experience should be evaluated as useful and worth the resources expended.
One analytical insight was sharpened by the convention experience and may prove useful to SDUSA in our efforts to frame a productive political strategy: at least in Massachusetts, the Democratic Party is social democratic in its aspirations and even in many of its legislative proposals. Its platform is comparable, allowing for local differences, to those of Canada’s New Democrats and the British Labour Party. Like those parties, the Democratic Party is full of people who are really social democrats, although they may never have heard of the upper-case variety. Our basic strategy of working within the Democratic Party (or local variants such as the Working Families Party) makes sense, just as it makes sense for Social Democrats, in other national contexts, to work in the New Democrats and in the Labour Party.
Apart from rhetoric, however, the reality is different, and that is the real challenge. In Massachusetts, which appears to be so progressive, most of those holding public office have only a remote relationship to the principles proclaimed by the Democratic Party in convention assembled. At best most of them follow the lead of the national administration and at worst some are quiet “blue dogs.” An egregious example of this disconnect is the current minimum wage controversy in the state: the convention endorsed a living wage for all workers, which it has done before and which everyone understood would be higher than anything currently proposed as the minimum wage in the state; in the meantime, an inadequate minimum wage bill languishes in a legislature that has a 75% Democratic membership (and despite support of the minimum wage increase by the Democratic Governor and the Democratic Senate President).
Clearly the grand strategic task in the immediate future for progressives and their Social Democatic allies is to eliminate this gap between announced principles and policies and the actual practice of Democratic politicians. We can do this by putting into public office persons who are committed to the social change advocated by the Democratic Party and by holding them to their promises.