Reviving American Politics:
A Debate on the New Party
Click here to visit the New
Party on the Web.
Last year, while Bill Clinton was running for President, about 2,000 of his fellow
Americans joined the New Party -- a grassroots-based, membership-run, progressive
political party that hopes one day to be a nationally competitive alternative
to the Republicans and Democrats. In November, most New Party members paused briefly
to vote for Clinton, then went right back to organizing their alternative. Now,
with Clinton in office, they plan to keep at it. This year, next year, and the
year after that -- so long as they're making progress toward their long-term goal.
That goal, quite distant from present realities, is a vibrant American democracy
-- a system of American politics far more inclusive in its process, egalitarian
in its distribution of opportunity and reward, and centrally based in the organizations
of ordinary citizens than the system that now exists. New Party members believe
that such a reformed political system will probably require three or more competitive
political parties to work, and that a viable third party, electorally threatening
to the other two, is in any case a practical prerequisite for getting from here
to there. That's why they're trying to build one.
Why America Needs a New Party
Even under the best of circumstances, creating a competitive third party in a
country of this size would be a dauntingly ambitious task. With an active electorate
of 100 million, taking about a third of the action means training tens of thousands
of party operatives and candidates, running thousands of campaigns, and winning
enough of them to gain the governing knowledge and respect needed to create and
hold a broad base of support. Nothing on this scale has even been seriously attempted
in America since the 19th century Populists.
Scale aside, moreover, the U.S. clearly does not offer the "best of circumstances"
for building a third party, but something approximately the opposite -- a veritable
obstacle course of constitutional, quasi-constitutional, and statutory (in many
cases, arguably, unconstitutional) barriers to third party efforts that has routinely
defeated third parties in the past. In contrast to systems of "proportional
representation," which award legislative power to electoral minorities, most
U.S. elections are "winner take all" contests in single-member election
districts. Votes for the candidates of minor parties are usually considered "wasted"
-- or worse, "spoilers" -- leading citizens not to cast them at all.
Nor is the U.S. a parliamentary system, in which the legislature controls the
selection of the executive and the staffing of the executive bureaucracy. Thus,
parties here lack clear incentives to be disciplined, programmatic organizations
-- which makes it more difficult for new parties to distinguish themselves from
the old. State laws passed by the major parties also impose burdensome ballot
access requirements on challengers. Both state and federal campaign finance laws
overtly discriminate against minor party efforts. And most states now ban the
once-common practice of cross-nomination or "fusion" -- the bread and
butter of third party efforts in the 19th century -- which permits minor parties
too weak to win a particular office to nominate a major party candidate on their
ballot line, thus permitting their supporters to register their loyalty without
wasting their votes.
Despite such barriers, it is conceivable that in the high-tech fluidity
of the present age -- where communications costs have plummeted, great walls of
reaction fall overnight, and post-modernists tell us that people change political
identities as fast as clothes -- this New Party might emerge quickly. The market
for the effort exists: some 30-50 percent of active voters now regularly tell
pollsters they would like a reform-minded party alternative. The Perot candidacy
shows that, with relatively modest expenditures (recall that he spent much less
money, even after the primaries, than Bush and Clinton) it is possible to reach
that market, at least twice, with a national candidacy. Still, building a real
party organization is likely to take some time, with a lot of it spent
climbing a very steep hill.
A Different Kind of Third Party
Aware of all this, the New Party thinks of itself as a low-key, anti-heroic, long
play -- probably a 20 year effort -- and has attempted to position itself as a
"different kind of third party" of the sort able to make that climb.
* Unlike the candidate-centered occasionals that dot 20th century American politics
(e.g., Teddy Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette, Henry Wallace, George Wallace, John
Anderson, Ross Perot), its goal is to build a value-centered organization, competing
less on personalities than on an alternative vision of American governance.
* Unlike most third parties, it seeks to avoid "wasting" votes or "spoiling."
It restricts its independent electoral activities to races where it has a serious
chance of winning. Where its own candidates cannot win, it abstains, cross-endorses
the most attractive major candidate it can find, or supports that candidate informally.
In the near term, this means that independent New Party efforts are restricted
to local races, the only places where it has enough power now to win.
* Unlike single-issue parties (e.g., Prohibition, Right to Life) or the social
movements from which they grow, it seeks an encompassing programmatic vision reducible
neither to any single special interest or constituency or the simple sum of such
groups. It wishes to be the party of greens, working people, progressive small
business, and feminists, for example, but not the Green Party, Labor Party, Progressive
Small Business Party, or Women's Party -- or the vehicle for a simple laundry
list of demands from such groups.
* Unlike the mainstream parties, it complements its election work with the "non-electoral"
work -- issue campaigns, political education and membership training, even recreation
and art -- needed to advance democratic politics and to build the popular political
culture on which democratic politics depends.
* Finally and more elusively, the New Party promotes an organizational style that
is at once "political" and moral -- a sort of hybrid of social movements
and experienced politicians that seeks the best in both: "eyes on the prize"
and "what it takes." To advance, in this profane world, the essentially
moral vision of a popular democracy, it is willing to cut deals with strangers
and exploit opportunities as they arise; it recognizes that winning for its principles
requires competence and organizational verve as well as conviction.
Putting this on a long bumper sticker: the New Party strategy is to start small,
think long-term, be value-centered rather than candidate-centered, combine electoral
with non-electoral work, not waste votes or spoil, and be tactically flexible
and organizationally competent enough to win. At least as most Americans think
of third parties, the New Party doesn't want to be a "third" party at
all, but the first party a patriot democrat might actually want to join.
What's Happening, Who's Involved
The New Party started organizing only a few months ago, and it is still far too
early to tell if it will take hold and grow. Based on its experience thus far,
however, things look promising.
Organizing: Last year, New Party members established chapters in nine states
(Arkansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New
York, and Wisconsin). They began running candidates for local office -- things
like school boards, local development authorities, city and county councils, mayoral
and county executive offices, and state assembly seats. And they won most of the
(admittedly, at this point still few) races they entered.
This year they expect to quadruple their number, make a major new investment in
membership training and education, and target and win another select set of local
races in three or four target states. Next year, they expect to double membership
again, and emit a rather loud electoral noise. In 1994 elections, they expect
their candidates -- both for local office and, it is hoped, at least a few statewide
and federal offices -- to gain about one million votes.
The "plan": At present levels of organizing, all plans through
1994 seem likely to be realized. Beyond that, nobody quite knows, but the admittedly
speculative "plan" looks like this. Over 1995-96, double membership
again, enter and win a wide number of state and federal races in, say,
six states. Establish a decisive presence in those states' legislatures by 2000.
Do that in a dozen states, with half as many governorships, by 2004. Rock the
Congress with a small but growing (say, 30 members by 2000, 60 by 2004) New Party
caucus (likely operating in close alliance with the Congress Black Caucus) offering
practical, visionary, egalitarian-minded alternatives to what our current president
has called "the brain-dead policies of both major parties." Try a serious
presidential bid by 2008.
And so on. Gradually, from within government and without, push American politics
toward the sunlight, or at least push a democratic vision of government upward
to the hell of national political power. On this schedule, the fire next time
-- a New Party presidency -- might arrive around 2012, just as baby boomer Social
Security checks really begin to bounce.
People: A democratic party needs to reflect the diversity of community
it claims to represent. It needs, as active and informed members and leaders,
something more than professional activists or middle and upper class elites (useful
as they are too). It needs people connected to one another and, ideally, to larger
communities. And if it plans to be in the party-building business for long, it
needs significant support from youth.
On all these counts, the demographics of New Party membership look good. About
half the members are women. About a third are black, and a tenth Latino. About
two-fifths belong to trade unions or neighborhood organizations, and most live
in population centers (i.e., cities). About a quarter are students or youth. About
three quarters are "production and non-supervisory workers" (i.e., working
class). About one quarter, including some of those just described, have advanced
professional training. Still missing from this picture are any significant numbers
of white middle class liberals and leaders from progressive small and medium-sized
businesses. Among the many problems in building a diverse and capable popular
constituency, however, this is not the worst one to have.
Of great relevance to future organizing, the New Party has also attracted -- along
with many people for whom this is their first political activism -- a striking
number of experienced organizers and community or constituency leaders. Black
elected officials like Major Owens, the Congressman from the Bedford Stuyvesant
community in Brooklyn, and Roger Green, of the New York State Assembly; national
labor leaders like Jan Pierce, the head of District 1 (New Jersey/New England)
of the Communications Workers of America, and Amy Newell, Secretary Treasurer
of the UE; environmental activists like Harriet Barlow (Blue Mountain Center)
and John O'Connor (National Toxics Campaign); regional labor leaders like Wisconsin's
Bruce Colburn (Milwaukee Central Labor Council) and Jim Cavanaugh (South Central
Federation of Labor); feminists like Tani Takagi (Ms. Foundation for Women) and
Antonia Cottrell-Martin (African-American Women's Foundation); urban community
organizers like Maude Hurde (ACORN), Steve Cancian (Coalition for Economic Survival),
and Gloria Quinones (East Harlem Voter Registration Project); farm organizers
like Denise O'Brien (Iowa Farm Unity), Tom Quinn (League of Rural Voters) and
Mark Ritchie (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy).
Taking all this together -- the strategy, the work to date, the people involved
-- what do you have? Not a strong party, certainly. At most, only a baby. But
a baby that has the sweet smell, as only babies do, of a certain real potential.
And for that reason alone, perhaps, worth paying attention to, at least to the
point of figuring out your own view of its merits.
For that to happen, however, we need to stop describing and go back to ask some
questions, all of which at their core reduce to: Are these people crazy and is
their influence benign? Somewhat more particularly, however, we might ask -- What's
really motivating this effort? What do these people have against the existing
parties? Why are they doing this (as against alternatives), and why are
they doing it right now, just when a reasonable looking new president is
entering the White House?
Let me consider those questions in turn. As I do so, however, let me also slip
off any pretense of disinterest. I am in the New Party. I think it's worth doing.
Now, let me explain just why I and all these other people -- no longer "they"
but "we" -- are convinced of that.
What's Motivating These People?
What motivates the New Party effort is a belief in democracy. The democratic ideal
is that citizens should be free and equal in determining the conditions of their
own association. We take this ideal seriously. We don't just favor the "kinder,
gentler" administration of ordinary people. We actually think they can govern
the society themselves.
Democracy is an ideal that's widely invoked in American political rhetoric, but
not very widely respected in our political institutions or practice. Taking it
seriously, we believe, would imply a major overhaul of existing institutions.
To begin with, effective self-government requires that citizens have the information,
organization, and other resources needed both to make informed policy choices
and to carry out decisions made. At present, our political system is almost wholly
dominated by moneyed elites with little accountability
to ordinary voters. Its administration
is impenetrable to most citizens, and the power imbalance between those with "access"
and those without it is grotesque. To restore real democracy to this system, several
basic reforms in democratic decision-making appear
To permit conviction rather than private money to determine who gets to run for
office, we need effectively full public funding of campaigns and elections. To
tighten the reins of citizens on government, we need to expand citizen rights
of recall, referendum, and initiative. To redress imbalances in the interests
represented in administration (which commonly involves the flow of huge public
sums to private actors), we need to subsidize new forms of citizen governance
and oversight -- bank and utility watchdog groups, regional planning authorities
and labor market boards. To assure citizen access to information and capital,
we need to build real mechanisms of control over a range of public and quasi-public
goods -- from the airwaves to worker pensions -- that citizens already purportedly
"own." Many important details aside, the basic point is this: taking
democracy seriously means using policy, explicitly, to provide citizens the resources
needed for its daily operation. We all know that the physical infrastructure of
this country is in need of repair. Similarly, we believe, we need to make an investment
in the infrastructure of democracy itself.
With the possibility of democratic deliberation and governance better assured,
we need to turn to the substance of democratic policy commitments and their administration.
What would "promoting the general welfare" really look like in the late
20th and early 21st century? Surely, we believe, something quite different from
the government policies and programs we have now.
In recent years, as everyone knows, the circumstances of American life have changed
dramatically. The economy has been internationalized. The Cold War has ended.
Women have permanently entered the paid labor force. Environmental problems have
become global. Firms have restructured and "right-sized" in ways that
effectively casualize most labor markets. Promoting "the general welfare"
under these changed circumstances will require better integration of economic
and social policy; more determination of individual welfare through a "social
wage" and less through firm-specific job tenure; a reorganization of career
patterns and reduction in working time to adjust to the changed economic status
of women; throughout the economy, a "greening" of production and consumption
choices; and finding a whole new way of ordering international conflict.
Changed circumstances and policy also imply changes in the instruments of policy.
The national government, for example, is less able to secure the general welfare
than it once was. Internationalization has compromised its control of national
economic aggregates, and its fingers are too stubby to get at the sources of many
current problems originating inside firms, communities, or the work-family connection.
Noting this, much national discussion has focused on decentralizing government,
and handing over its functions to private market actors. We are more impressed
with the need to build some popular organization on the ground, with the
local knowledge and power to make things work, and -- where markets are the best
way to serve democratic ends (which, it might be emphasized, we sometimes believe
they are) -- with the need to get far greater equality in the initial distribution
of property rights people bring to market exchange. Democratic governance needs
to be driven down, and often away, from the state, but it ought still to be controlled
by the people, and it ought to respect egalitarian commitments.
Taking democracy seriously at the moment would mean starting a discussion of how
to rebuild our democratic infrastructure, and of the ends to which democracy might
be used. And then, drawing strength and agility from the support and competence
of ordinary citizens, it would mean finding the will and means to act on the conclusions
of that discussion.
What's Wrong With Our Two Parties
It is just this discussion, and action, that our present party system seems singularly
ill-equipped to begin. This is so for both organizational and ideological reasons.
Organizationally, the major parties are extremely weak. They are not value-centered
programmatic organizations, but candidate-centered campaign vehicles, with little
control over what their candidates say on the stump, or do once elected. And they
have, reflecting this, very weak links with their voting base. The weakness of
their partisan identity means that they cannot frame public debate for voters.
The absence of their control over candidates means that they cannot deliver on
the programmatic promises made. The absence of much connection between elites
and masses means that they are not held accountable for either failure, which
amounts to their being accountable to no one but the people who fund them.
The ideology of the parties reflects their organization. Their primary base is
not the disorganized "people," but highly-organized, generally wealthy,
elites. Of course, both parties advertise what they do as in the general
welfare, and both are highly adept at all kinds of discrete constituency service
(from finding lost Social Security checks to bailing out bankrupted S&L's).
But neither, in fact, puts forward programs of broad appeal and manifest general
benefit to ordinary people.
The basic reason is this. Not wishing to be retro here, and certainly acknowledging
all the "win win" gains from social cooperation that are out there just
waiting to be picked up, it seems clear that any genuinely popular program of
social reconstruction implies a significant measure of in-your-face conflict
between "the people" and "the powers that be." And that conflict
won't just be about values. It will be about power. Most Americans, for example,
would like a greener economy, higher and more equal wages, fewer bombs and better
health care, some time with their kids, cities that function, and better relations
between the races. But you can't construct an environmentally sound economy without
reduction in the sources of pollution inside privately owned firms. You can't
bring more equality to labor markets without some measure of wage regulation,
secured either through the state or unions. You can't convert to a peace economy,
or get national health insurance, without eliminating at least some firms entirely.
You can't work out a significantly improved relation between work and family without
assigning real value to things that are not now valued in markets, and getting
people some time away from work while continuing to pay them. You can't find the
funding base needed to rebuild cities -- to pay for cops and parks and education
-- without taxing those who have the funds. And you can't get clear of the wreckage
of 400 years of racism through love alone. For any of these things to happen,
people with power and resources need to accept constraints or reductions in their
relative standing. And that's not something that's ever done without some conflict.
Our present parties -- at great distance from ordinary citizens, not very fond
of them, indeed reliant for most of what they do on citizen disorganization --
seem singularly ill-equipped to manage this conflict. Lacking much real relation
to their voting base, they can use that base neither to relieve it (finding the
elusive "win win") nor assuring success in it (having the "troops")
when it is unavoidable. Simply stated, they are not equipped to do the negotiation
and heavy political lifting that will be needed for democratic reform.
So what do they do? They avoid issues, or talk about them during the campaign
and then forget or lowball them afterward. "Clinton Elected: Moves to Lower
Expectations" is one headline for this politics. "Gridlock" --
which properly denotes not the existence of conflict between parties in divided
government, but the inability of either party to move forward on the reconstruction
desired -- is another.
Why Now? Why Not?
Which brings us, as it happens, back to the New Party and the present moment in
American politics. Even accepting the broad indictment of American party politics
just offered, isn't this a bad time to be building a New Party? Shouldn't we just
work with the new administration, rather than going off on this apparent tangent?
No, not really.
To begin with a Fear Allayer: Nothing the New Party is doing now, or will be doing
anytime soon, can possibly complicate prospects for progressive change in Washington.
The basic reason is that we're only operating at the level of local politics.
Most New Party members describe themselves as "national Democrat, local New
Party," and they're not schizophrenic. While national politics can affect
us, we don't materially affect it. While Clinton and the Congress debate national
health insurance and NAFTA, we'll be struggling away at local economic development,
school reform, urban transportation, changes in welfare delivery, and other matters
that can be improved at the local level, and that are important, but that are
also very far removed from the hum inside the Beltway.
This said, let's say something else. We sincerely welcome the advent of a new
administration in Washington. We also recognize the opportunities it may offer
for democratic reform. As individuals, many New Party members are even working
with the administration to develop those opportunities. But everything
we know about Clinton's past behavior; everything we know about the forces
most vital to his coming to national prestige and office (e.g., preeminently,
business backers of "new democrats" at the Democratic Leadership Council);
and everything we just said about the present difficulty of moving a progressive
agenda in American politics (even if some visionary executive desires it) also
leads us to recognize this: absent economic calamity or really substantial popular
pressure, it is most unlikely that this administration will pursue anything approaching
the wholesale democratic reform argued for here. After Clinton's election (and,
we think, after Clinton), the long play of a radically revitalized democracy remains
to be made. And it's that play that the New Party is intended to make.
Considering this long play, however, you might still ask why we're pursuing the
specifically New Party strategy for making it, as against obvious alternatives.
As we're often asked: Why not just pressure Washington from outside the electoral
system, as a social movement or series of issue-campaigns? Or, even accepting
as reasonable doubts about the Clinton administration, why not seek to reform
the Democratic (or for that matter, the Republican) Party from within,
rather creating a whole New Party?
One answer to both these questions is that we're already doing these things. We
work with movements all the time, support issue campaigns where we can, and have
any number of de facto alliances with party reform folks at the local level.
Another answer is to deny, with history as well as our own practice on our side,
that "hard choices" need to be made among these strategies, or that
progressive parties and movements can't complement each other.
But a third and more direct answer is this: The reason we're building a party,
rather than another social movement or issue campaign, is because we are looking
for something that only a party can plausibly provide. Social movements and issue
campaigns tend to be fuzzy, oppositionist, or narrow. Organizationally, they are
not equipped to articulate, advance, and implement specific, positive, and comprehensive
visions of practical governance. But considering all the big problems enumerated
above, and the dense interaction effects among all plausible strategies for their
solution -- we think that that's precisely what's needed right now in America.
And that, almost classically described, is the work of a political party.
The reason we're not just working to reform one of the major parties from within
is because purely "inside" strategies of democratic reform don't work
very well. For the same basic reason -- real power in American political parties
does not flow from members or voters, but funders and candidates -- even successful
inside reform strategies tend to be cosmetic (reformers capture the party apparatus
and get to do volunteer work, but not to control candidates) or short-lived (the
party "taken over" by McGovernites one year is "taken over"
by the DLC the next). To confront such power, inside reform strategies based on
"voice" need to be complemented with a credible threat of exit if voices
are not heard. The best way to end abuse in a relationship is to develop the ability
to leave it. The best way to get a political party to reform itself, paying more
attention to its voting base, is to offer that base somewhere else to go.
Beyond helping to precipitate real reform (amounting to realignment) in the existing
parties, we think a third party would be a good thing for American democracy to
have on a more permanent basis. A viable third party would force greater clarity
in each party on what exactly it stood for. In addition to improving public debate,
this would strengthen practical governance. Instead of promising widely and delivering
little, the three parties could promise specifically, and then frankly negotiate
compromise based on their respective levels of support. Such a "parliamentarization"
of American politics is overdue. The government is simply too important to our
well-being not to work in more visible and effective ways.
The Balance Sheet
So, how does this all add up? For me, it adds up like this: "Politics as
usual" is deeply messed up. Most basically, it is, at least as presently
organized, pretty clearly incapable of delivering on the promise of democracy
-- still, I believe, the most attractive and morally compelling ideal of social
order. If a new party of the sort described could be built, it would advance the
practical realization of that democratic ideal. The odds on success are long,
but our strategy to beat them is plausible. And, importantly, pursuit of that
strategy is in no way destructive of, and in many ways helpful to, more conventional
means of democratic advance. So, it seems like a good thing to do and (for those
with no time for working on it) to support.
The real question, of course, is how it adds up for you. You've just read an argument
for fundamental democratic reform of American politics -- not an argument offered
with a lot of heroics, to be sure, but no less radical for that. Do you value
democracy? Do you think the argument for radical reform is right? If so, are you
prepared to act on it? If not, just how do you suppose American party politics
is ever going to substantially improve?
Click here to return to the menu for the Boston Review Forum, Reviving
American Politics: A Debate on the New Party.
Robert L. Borosage
Joel Rogers is one of the finest progressive political scientists of his generation.
His books, On Democracy and Right Turn, are essential reading for
any small "d" democrat. He has thought long and deep about U.S. political
structure. As the old E.F. Hutton ad put it, when he speaks, people listen. But
here, he seems to be touting a very speculative investment with a very modest
Rogers makes a cogent case for a new party. American democracy would be well served
by a viable third party. The two reigning parties are candidate driven, unaccountable,
and, ultimately, responsible mostly to those who fund them. Polls register large
portions of the public in favor of programs neither party is likely to deliver.
Ross Perot's startling flight across the political horizon in 1992 illuminated
the public's willingness to vote for even somewhat bizarre alternatives. A wealth
of local organizing and movement energies provides natural cadre for a new party
Rogers outlines a strategy to get from here to there. The New Party will "start
small, think longterm." It will be "value-centered and membership based."
While building slowly, it will encourage members to stay active in the Democratic
Party and movement politics at a national level. They needn't "waste"
their votes or be spoilers. Over time, in a couple decades or so, the New Party
will be ready to "be a nationally competitive alternative." Rogers argues
that it is "conceivable" that this might work, and so it is. It is also
conceivable that if we all used bicycles global warming wouldn't be much of a
problem. The question is: what is likely to make it plausible?
The New Party seems focused on form, not content. A central effort has been litigation
to legalize "fusion," enabling the New Party to preserve its line on
ballots even as it endorses the Democratic candidate. (Outlawing fusion was one
of many impediments the two parties erected against third party challengers.)
But isn't the real question not one of form but of cause and passion? Historically,
significant third party movements have been forged when the existing major parties
were unable to address a fundamental crisis facing the society over a long period
of time -- a crisis that roused popular passions. The resulting outrage often
created wrenching splits in one or another of the old parties and formed the basis
of the new. The Republican Party formed around the moral question of slavery and
the economic struggle between industrial North and plantation South over control
of the expanding union. The Populists were an angry expression of small farmers
facing the stranglehold of finance in the advancing industrial age. Socialist
parties could survive repeated witchhunts by offering an alternative vision for
exploited workers. Even Ross Perot's fleeting ascent was partially due to the
inability of either party to address either the deficit -- the "crazy aunt
we keep locked in the basement," in Perot's memorable phrase -- or a sensible
industrial policy after the Cold War.
One can imagine a Green Party, fired by an apocalyptic view of our current course
and a vision of a different world, with its own economics and culture, becoming
a third party that builds as the environmental crisis becomes more threatening.
Or if our cities continue to be reduced to charnel houses, if more and more workers
are reduced to competing with third world wages and conditions, one might imagine
a Rainbow Party or a Labor Party, splitting with the Democrats and creating a
base to challenge it electorally.
What is the glue that will hold the New Party together? What cause would drive
the electorally active to split from the Democratic Party and undertake the terribly
difficult, thankless task of trying to build an electorally viable, national political
party, bottom up, against a stacked deck? Rogers suggests that it is the failure
of either party to revitalize popular democracy for the modern age. This is reflected
in a core program calling for public funding of elections, expanded recall and
initiative, new forms of citizen governance, expanded control over public "goods,"
as well as an expanded "social wage," reduction in working time, greening
of production choices, and the like.
Certainly, democracy is a leading casualty of globalization. People's frustration
with big government and global corporations is growing, as Perot demonstrated.
But one reason the New Party seems more concerned with guaranteeing fusion than
creating fissure is that its agenda -- as presented here -- is virtually indistinguishable
from that of Democratic Party progressives.
Rogers seems to be anticipating a new era of progressive reform, not the political
cataclysm that a viable third party would represent. His description of the New
Party sounds like the progressive movement of the early 20th century, with reformers
grounded in the new, skilled working and middle classes, organizing "local
economic development, school reform, urban transportation, changes in welfare
Many progressives inside and outside the Democratic Party at local levels are
already sowing these fields. Bill Clinton lays legitimate claim to fostering some
of this local reform energy; citizen organization-electoral coalitions in the
Northwest and Northeast, like LEAP in Connecticut, offer bolder, more progressive
versions. What isn't clear is why these groups or the activists and leaders within
them should seek to hang their hat with a New Party, rather than work, as they
have been, to rebuild the Democratic Party.
Rogers suggests that local membership in the New Party is a free good -- one can
be a "national Democrat" and a local "New Partyite." Progressives
can build the New Party locally, while engaging in movement or Democratic Party
politics as fits their taste. This ecumenical spirit is surely welcome among an
often fractious and self-destructive left, but there are costs on both sides of
For the New Party, tacit alliance with the liberal wing of the national Democratic
Party can divorce it from populist passions. For example, this year one popular
expression of the demand for accountability was the demand for term limits on
elected officials. In part because of their Democratic Party sympathies, New Party
members had difficulty deciding how to relate to this populist tempest.
On the other side, in local partisan elections, progressive politicians will sacrifice
natural support if they choose to run as New Party members rather than as Democrats.
For many, the most sensible course will be to remain a Democrat and seek the New
Party's endorsement (if fusion were ever legalized). But then we are a far distance
from building a vibrant, independent new party thirsting to take on the powers
This is exacerbated by a seemingly perverse commitment to ignore what the media
age has done to politics. What is the New Party for? For Rogers, it is to provide
what "only a party can plausibly provide." By this Rogers does not mean
taking power, office, or patronage; he means "putting forth a positive and
comprehensive vision of practical governance."
But by vowing to work locally and stay out of national electoral skirmishes, the
New Party forswears the major opportunity that exists to do just that.
Ross Perot's showing suggests how vulnerable the two parties are to independent
efforts that frame an alternative through the national media.
Of course, Ross Perot used a rich man's gambit to get his candidacy treated seriously.
The mere hint that he might spend hundreds of millions made his candidacy "viable."
His focus on the deficit made his message palatable to the powers that be, so
he got unprecedented free media.
Progressives can't imitate the billionaire's ploy and won't find the major media
as receptive. But federal matching money in presidential primary elections allows
strong progressive candidates to capture massive free media for a progressive
vision and program. Jesse Jackson won seven million votes and national attention
for a progressive message in 1988; Jerry Brown captured equally broad free media,
while winning fewer votes and raising less money.
Rogers argues that the two major parties are unable to "frame public debate
for voters," and that both fail to "put forward programs of broad appeal
and manifest general benefit to ordinary people." But surely in the primary
challenges at a presidential level, progressive candidates have been able to do
just that for millions more people that the New Party can hope to reach for a
Rogers suggests that these candidate centered movements don't build anything,
while the New Party can. But as Jim Hightower says, "why talk about a third
party, when what we need is a second one." New party progressives might be
better off directing their energy at an electoral and ideological challenge inside
the Democratic Party from the left, as the Democratic Leadership Council did from
the right. With unions moving from their Cold War myopia and the Rainbow constituency
providing a solid progressive base, progressives increasingly ought to be able
to capture Democratic primaries in local, state, and congressional races, creating
a New Party in the bowels of the old, as the Religious Right has in the Republican
Party. Building from within makes the threat to leave, were that to become necessary,
both more powerful and more legitimate.
There are many problems with this strategy, but surely not as many as those facing
the New Party. Its commitment to local, longterm organizing is surely noble, but
perhaps not wise. Its good ideas and best leaders will be co-opted by Democrats.
In the end, it is likely either to wither from lack of exposure or to be swamped
by political upheavals for which it is neither cause nor result.
Click here to return to the menu for the Boston Review Forum, Reviving
American Politics: A Debate on the New Party.
Electoral Myths, Political Realities
Steven J. Rosenstone
Joel Rogers issues an impassioned call to arms. Indicting politics as usual, he
sketches a set of democratic principles that should guide political parties, inform
political discourse, and shape the role that ordinary citizens play in their own
governance. He proposes a political strategy -- the New Party --whose electoral
successes will redefine American politics and help to advance those principles.
And he challenges readers to join that party: "a grassroots-based, membership
run, progressive political party that hopes one day to be a nationally competitive
alternative to the Republicans and Democrats."
These are remarkable ambitions, but Rogers offers a "plan" -- "admittedly
speculative" -- for achieving them. According to this plan, the New Party
* Garner 1 million votes in 1994.
* Win state-wide or federal races in six states in 1996.
* Capture 30 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000 and have a decisive
presence in six state legislatures.
* Capture 60 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004 and have a decisive
presence in 12 state legislatures.
* Elect its candidate President in 2012.
American political history is rich with failed third parties -- there have been
more than one hundred since 1840. Why, then, will the New Party succeed in altering
this unbroken record of defeat? Because it will be, according to Rogers, a "different
kind of third party," cherishing values instead of personalities, embracing
programmatic vision and a broad constituency instead of special interests. Given
these commitments, success will come as a reward for its "anti-heroic"
patience, hard work, and attention to local rather than national contests.
The Dismal Historical Record
This combination of moral vision and political diligence is attractive. But it
also sounds familiar. In the closing three decades of the nineteenth century,
for example, the Greenbacks and then the Populists mobilized citizens to join
the battle against the railroads, the banks, the grain monopolies, and hard money.
These parties were not organized around a single personality nor were they concerned
with a narrow issue or constituency. Instead, the Greenback and Populist movements
grew out of economic crises and social changes of profound proportions. They championed
the farmer and the laborer and attacked the problems caused by industrialism.
They advocated a progressive agenda: an eight-hour work day, curtailment of child
labor, a graduated income tax, women's suffrage and equal voting rights for blacks.
Greenbackers and Populists were not impatient people. The movements persisted
in various forms for more than three decades.
Moreover, in an era in which politics was a part of the social fabric, these parties
built and sustained vibrant local, state, and national organizations. Farmers
and workers pushed their agenda strategically at the local level where they ran
for office. They slated candidates for state and national office when it seemed
prudent to do so. They worked with the major parties when that made more sense.
In short: these were value-centered organizations pursuing politics at the grassroots.
They were guided by a programmatic vision with broad appeal. And they were built
through the hard work of patient people. Yet, neither the Greenbacks nor the Populists
became a nationally competitive alternative to the Republicans and the Democrats.
Why, then, is a third party strategy viable now when it has never been so in the
The New Party, Rogers tells us, will have a different fate in part because New
Party supporters, unlike their predecessors, will not get discouraged. The Democrats
and Republicans will be unable to co-opt New Party supporters the way they co-opted
third party activists in times past. Unlike its predecessors, the New Party will
overcome the constitutional, legal, and financial obstacles to success.
This is wishful thinking -- doubtless the kind of optimism that makes it possible
for movements of this kind to get off the ground -- but wishful thinking nevertheless.
Rogers's electoral projections are not credible; they describe ambitious targets,
not a realistic scenario for overcoming a "veritable obstacle course of constitutional,
quasi-constitutional, and statutory... barriers to third party efforts."
Thirteen years from now the New Party will neither capture 60 seats in the U.S.
House of Representatives, nor will it be a competitive alternative to the Republicans
Rogers's optimistic rendering of New Party prospects is also based on a misreading
of the 1992 election. It is easy to see why he thinks that 1992 signals the increased
willingness of voters to abandon the two major parties. With one in five voters
casting their presidential ballot for someone other than Clinton or Bush, there
must be a vast pool of voters ripe for the picking. The reason, political pundits
tell us, is that Americans have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the major
parties, with the candidates, with politics, and with the mess in Washington.
To be sure, American voters are disaffected, but no more so than they were when
John Anderson ran in 1980. I suspect that the Perot boom in 1992 was not produced
by a rise in disaffection or a further loosening of party ties, but rather by
Perot himself, and more importantly his campaign. The resources that Perot pumped
into his campaign pried people away from the major party candidates in 1992. Rogers
is mistaken when he says that Perot's "modest" expenditures were much
less than those of Bush and Clinton. When all is said and done, the data will
show that Perot's spending, particularly in the crucial final two weeks, kept
pace with his major party rivals. This is unprecedented. Taking major party expenditures
as a point of reference, Perot spent almost twice as much money as John Anderson
(1980), George Wallace (1968), and former President Teddy Roosevelt (1912).
In sum, Perot's support stems not so much from a new wellspring of public disaffection
as from his ability to buy his way around the constraints that third party and
independent candidates before him have faced.
Changing the Rules
Rogers acknowledges that the constitutional and legal constraints that govern
the conduct of elections in the United States create an inhospitable environment
for third parties. But he seems to think that these are small inconveniences that
can be overcome through patience, flexibility, organizational savvy, and hard
work at the grassroots. Two centuries of electoral history in the United States
suggest otherwise: the rules of the game are stacked against third parties. Before
third, fourth, or fifth parties can viably contest elections in America, the institutional
arrangements that govern the conduct of elections will need to change in fundamental
ways. Here are some proposals:
1. Replace single-member-district, plurality elections with proportional representation.
Virtually the only democracies in the world with vibrant third parties are those
in which legislative seats are allocated in rough proportion to the vote rather
than by winner-take-all. (The exceptions occur in polities where third parties
are regionally concentrated.) Under the winner-take-all system that prevails in
the United States, third parties are unable to reap electoral rewards even if
they attract 30 percent of the vote; the major parties have great incentives to
co-opt third party supporters and build heterogeneous coalitions; potential third
party voters feel they are wasting their votes. Despite Rogers's optimism that
New Party backers will not get discouraged and will resist co-optation, no other
party operating under the rules that govern U.S. elections has yet managed to
muster this degree of diligence.
2. Reform the Electoral College. The Electoral College discriminates against
third parties that do not have a strong regional base. In practice, the Electoral
College is little more than a weighted single-member-district plurality system
that awards all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most
popular votes in the state. If electoral votes were awarded in proportion to a
party's popular vote and if an absolute majority in the Electoral College were
needed to capture the White House, the American two-party system would be dead.
If we were to abolish the Electoral College altogether, replace it with the direct,
popular election of the president, and require that the president win an absolute
majority of the popular vote, the two-party monopoly would be broken.
3. Liberalize ballot access laws that discriminate against third parties.
Unlike the major party candidates who are automatically listed on the ballot,
third parties must petition to have their candidates appear before the voters
on election day. Eugene McCarthy and John Anderson's legal challenges in 1976
and 1980 overturned some of the more onerous requirements, but ballot access laws
still place an unfair burden on third
4. Change the role of money in election campaigns. The few efforts to reduce
the influence of big money on politics have largely failed. Strategists cook up
clever schemes (such as bundling and soft money) to get around reforms designed
to build a wall between economic resources and political advantage. Some people,
to be sure, contribute money out of commitment to a party, a candidate, or a political
cause. But big money is more strategic -- for large contributors, political spending
is an investment decision. Incumbents and committee chairs raise huge sums because
they are sure bets for re-election. The investment is secure. Newcomers to this
game are disadvantaged because they are risky investments.
The 1974 Federal Elections Campaign Act occasioned the public funding of presidential
elections. It also froze out new parties. Prior to the election, the Federal Elections
Commission provides the major party presidential nominees with a lump sum ($54
million in 1992). Third parties, on the other hand, are eligible to receive public
funds after the November election, and then only if they appear on the ballot
in at least ten states and obtain at least five percent of the national popular
Reforming American politics -- through proportional representation, direct presidential
elections, liberalized ballot access, and a reduced role for private campaign
contributions -- would not, of course, ensure the success of any third party.
It might help the Religious Right even more than the New Party. What does seem
clear, however, is that without such fundamental changes in the rules of the game,
the New Party's epitaph will read like its predecessors': noble goals, impassioned
rhetoric, and electoral failure.
Click here to return to the menu for the Boston Review Forum, Reviving
American Politics: A Debate on the New Party.
Morality and Political Efficacy
Joel Rogers presents a bold new strategy for forming a progressive third party
in the United States. He argues that a substantial market already exists for such
a party. And he claims that it can, over the next 20 years, grow into a "nationally
competitive alternative" to the two major parties if it starts locally and
avoids wasting votes or acting as a spoiler.
I disagree with each of these points. I am skeptical about the extent of the market
for a third party. I think that local politics is more a swamp than a stepping
stone. And I believe that a party concerned with maximizing its votes will neglect
just those issues that now deserve our greatest attention.
One of the major weaknesses of the American left lies in our inability to accept
our political marginality. Simply put, the left, as currently constituted, has
no significant electoral presence in American politics. This is not merely the
result of our ineptitude but of the vicious state assault on the left through
most of the 20th century. Whatever its sources, our electoral weakness is a reality
that we must strategically recognize. Some leftists -- for example, Michael Harrington,
late chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America -- escape into the belief
that the core values of the Democratic party are similar to those of the democratic
left. Harrington's left was far less isolated than the one I depict. But Harrington's
vision was doubly flawed. He understated the political isolation of the left,
and at the same time promoted an electoral strategy of endorsing any and all Democratic
candidates simply because they were better than the Republicans. In effect, Harrington's
electoral politics were too pragmatic. In 1984 I found myself trying to figure
out how Democratic Socialists could endorse Mondale despite the fact that he was
literally ignoring the plight of America's most destitute citizens.
Joel Rogers is less pragmatic than Michael Harrington. But he shares Harrington's
desire to be part of the decision making arena. In some sense, of course, this
is the goal of the left. But how can we even imagine ourselves as viable contestants
for state power in 20 years when we were unable to generate even a kernel of serious
opposition to the Reagan-Bush regime? During the last twelve years the country
was governed as if the left did not exist. And, for all practical purposes, it
did not. Rogers seems to believe that there is a large proto-left voting constituency
"out there" just waiting to be tapped by a progressive party. While
I do believe that there are progressives in America who might rally to a New Party,
I do not believe that they are nearly so large a group as Rogers assumes. In this
respect, I think Rogers has engaged in his own form of escapism.
Rogers presents the Perot phenomenon as a sign of hope for the New Party because
it indicated just what a third party candidacy could do with limited resources.
Were Perot's resources so meager? Moreover, can we really draw such optimistic
conclusions from Perot's success? His campaign made me more pessimistic about
the future of a viable left and forced me to an awareness of just how crazy our
electorate now is. After all, here was a man who was able to convince millions
of Americans that the country should be run like a business. Symbolically, the
Perot candidacy spoke to the desire of Americans for a billionaire autocrat who
listens to no
one but gets things done -- in short, to their desire for less rather than more
of the democracy that inspires Rogers's argument.
Whither Local Politics
Rogers correctly notes that a New Party must begin as a local party. For reasons
of limited resources and low name recognition, the local level seems to be the
perfect locale for launching New Party oppositional efforts. But while the local
level generates the greatest democratic expectations, it also controls the fewest
resources capable of significantly altering people's lives. How many times throughout
the country during the last 20 years have progressives celebrated the election
of city council members and new school boards only to discover later that their
impact has been negligible at best. In most large and medium sized cities the
fiscal cupboard is bare. Whoever wins cannot possibly begin to address the needs
of his or her constituency. In effect, city politics in many places is a no-win
Consider, for example, Hartford, Connecticut. A progressive black, Latino, and
white coalition called People For A Change has been able to elect several city
council members. Their victories were hailed as a new day for Hartford politics.
But these electoral victories have had at best a minuscule impact on the lives
of Hartford residents. A great deal of oppositional energy and rhetoric has been
exhausted in the election of persons who simply cannot substantially alter the
lives of their constituents. The reason is simple. Hartford is broke. Not surprisingly,
progressive city councilors find themselves essentially administering and legitimating
reductions in city social services.
The case of Hartford is just one illustration of a broader national phenomenon.
As long as local political jurisdictions depend on larger jurisdictions for their
revenues, the action really is not taking place at the local level. This is particularly
the case in urban areas where large numbers of poor Americans reside.
This is not a call for progressives to abandon local politics for the sake of
keeping their hands clean during economic hard times. It is, however, a call to
recognize the structural limitations of attempting to generate a national party
via a grass roots strategy. In effect, local jurisdictions are often political
Winning Elections, or Changing the Culture?
Rogers errs significantly when he dreams of a New Party as a viable electoral
challenger to the two existing parties. He errs precisely because the usefulness
of a New Party lies in its ability to help stimulate a democratic political culture,
and that vocation is unlikely to be advanced by a strategy aimed at electoral
success. The task of democratizing American political discourse is complex.
First, the task of the New Party should be in part to facilitate the political
expression of many Americans who are not represented in established electoral
arenas. But there is little reason to assume that the voice of economically and
culturally disenfranchised Americans is going to be politically progressive. Does
the New Party have the responsibility for helping poor, conservative blacks obtain
a political voice? Second, the New Party should champion a range of issues that
the major parties will not touch. Rogers acknowledges this as one of the New Party's
Third, and most important, the New Party must participate in the arduous task
of constructing a democratic sensibility in America. This will take place on two
fronts. It must champion democratic electoral laws and procedures. Such reforms
are essential if the New Party is ever to take off electorally. (See the contribution
by Steven Rosenstone to this issue of the Boston Review.) And it must wage
an assault on American political culture. This is its most difficult task and
the one that I think Rogers mistakenly downplays. After all, the New Party is
committed to democratic values, values not presently championed by any mainstream
political organization. The duty of a progressive party is to advance these values
even at the cost of limiting its own electoral viability.
There is a major weakness in a New Party intent on maximizing its vote. Such a
party might do so at the expense of championing certain controversial issues.
Jesse Jackson was an outstanding advocate for the socially marginal until he began
to think that his power lay in the size of his voting constituency. At that point
his rhetoric changed. The logic of vote maximizing is quite inconsistent with
being the champion of certain issue positions. How, for example, will the New
Party handle the hyper-stigmatized plight of black poor urban dwellers? Will they
become one aspect of a mosaic or will the party claim that the plight of the black
urban poor is essential to its self-definition. If the party declares them to
be central it will certainly have a great deal of negative electoral baggage,
for the plight of the black urban poor is simply not popular. What does the New
Party do in such instances? The problem is that the left has too often engaged
in pragmatic political compromise. It would be advantageous to have the emergence
of a left that would criticize Bill Clinton as fiercely as it criticized George
Bush. Such a left might hurt the electoral chances of a Bill Clinton. But it would
be a left that realizes that the lives of the underfed and ill-housed under Clinton
will be as wretched as they were under Bush. On some matters there are no lesser-of-two-evils.
It would be wonderful to see a new party that realizes this simple moral fact.
Click here to return to the menu for the Boston Review Forum, Reviving
American Politics: A Debate on the New Party.
The Difference a New Party Would Make
When New Party supporters call for a third party, they focus principally on the
changes that such a party would bring to U.S. electoral politics. Here I want
to explore a different and, in my view, more interesting issue: the importance
for the American labor movement of a progressive third party with strong
links to organized labor. I think that an activist party could help to work constructive
changes in working people's understandings of coalition building, social action,
the nature of American society, and the possibilities of electoral politics. And
I think that a third party might also have good effects on the ways that working
people's organizations -- especially unions -- function.
These judgements are supported by two sorts of historical experience, each of
which I will briefly sketch here. The first is the weakness of American labor,
which traces in part to the political isolation of unions from likely allies.
The New Party might help to end that isolation. The second is the Canadian experience
of a mutually beneficial alliance between unions and the New Democratic Party.
The New Party might take that alliance as a model for its own efforts.
The Costs of Isolation
We commonly use the term "labor movement" to describe the world of organized
labor. In most advanced industrial countries, that world includes organizations
of working people in both workplace and community. While unions are the main form
of organizing in the workplace, labor-based political parties organize in the
community. In these countries, when people talk about a "labor movement"
they are talking both about trade unions and about this wider spectrum of organizations
often including much of the progressive community.
In the United States today there are trade unions -- though they now represent
only 16 percent of the workforce -- but there is really no wider social and political
labor movement at all. Not that U.S. trade unions have been entirely unsuccessful.
On the contrary, for their own members they have been the most successful in the
world. Unions here have won for their members a social wage -- including health
care, paid vacations, and pension -- that working people in other countries were
able to achieve only through political action and legislation.
But these successes have carried substantial costs. Because the impressive social
wage was extended only to union members and not all workers, there developed little
sense of a "labor movement" beyond the ranks of unions or of unions
as only one center of organizing for a broad-based movement for the transformation
of society. Instead "business unionism" emerged, dominated by the view
that unions and collective bargaining, like insurance, are simply services purchased
by collections of individuals. This strengthened the ideology of the isolated
individual and diminished ideas of solidarity among working people in general.
In short, workers here did not develop a notion of themselves as members of a
class with different interests from employers in the community and political arena,
as well as the workplace, and organized labor was cut off from its allies in the
unorganized workforce and in the society generally.
The full impact of this isolation has been felt over the past 20 years. Because
so many of the benefits won by unions were provided by employers rather than the
state, increased international economic pressure has made it particularly rewarding
for employers to destroy unions. By eliminating unions, employers here can shed
the cost of many worker benefits. Canadian labor, by contrast, has been more successful
in enshrining benefits in legislation. As a result, crushing existing unions and
resisting new ones do not produce the same dividends for Canadian employers. By
concentrating so exclusively on benefits to their members, American unions turned
themselves into attractive targets for employers and government, while cutting
themselves off from a broader movement of allies to call on in their defense.
Moreover, labor and working people in the United States have in effect relinquished
the field of electoral politics to parties vying to represent the real "special
interests" in the U.S. -- business and corporations -- and, as a result,
have been unable to develop political programs that describe their own vision
of a just society. In the absence of competing visions about the proper role of
government and the services that should be delivered socially, politics is reduced
to personalities and to choices between lesser evils.
The combination of political isolation and electoral weakness encourages individualistic
rather than solidaristic thinking. It reinforces the ideology forcefully stated
in former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's remark that "there is
no such thing as society, only individuals and their families."
There are, of course, individuals; but there are also societies, communities,
and collectives. And working people in all countries have always engaged in concerted
activity out of a recognition that their collective strength in the workplace
and in the wider political sphere is required to improve conditions for themselves,
and for all of society. Beginning from this recognition, labor and all progressive
groups here need to join a process of discussion about the costs of isolation,
about why ordinary Americans need a party to represent their interests, and about
why that party must be based on their movements and organizations and not beholden
Lessons from Canada
What might such a constructive alliance between worker organizations and a political
party look like? Political models cannot, of course, be transplanted intact across
national borders. But there are lessons for U.S. labor and the New Party that
can be drawn from the Canadian labor movement and its decision more than 30 years
ago to launch its own political party -- the New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP).
I want to highlight four points about that experience that bear directly on the
debate about the New Party.
1. Political parties can win reforms without winning power. Canadian history
is full of examples of how the NDP, even in opposition, managed to pressure the
Tory and Liberal parties to implement its program. NDP provincial governments,
for example, deserve credit for much of Canada's more progressive labor legislation,
as well as its comprehensive health-care program. That program began as a provincial
experiment by an NDP government in Saskatchewan, and proved so popular that the
federal government extended its principles throughout the country. Today, over
38 percent of the workforce in Canada is organized and the NDP governs in three
provinces accounting for over 50 percent of the country's population.
2. Parties help to define the political agenda. Parties do not just win
(and lose) elections; they also define what is considered a legitimate political
issue, how politics are conducted, and what relations and conflicts may be resolved
through the political process. The NDP has, for example, assisted the labor movement
in shaping its concerns and putting them on the national agenda. In so doing,
it has moved the whole Canadian political spectrum further to the left.
3. Parties can alter the shape of social organizations and movements. Political
parties are not simply conveyor belts for the demands of their social base; they
can also help to define the organization of that base. Here the example of the
NDP and Canadian unions is striking. In part because of the alliance with the
NDP, labor has had to broaden its concerns beyond its own ranks and include the
interests and needs of the majority of working people in Canada, including the
unorganized. To be sure, Canadian unions are far from perfect, and are often leery
of and occasionally even hostile to the new social movements. But through the
NDP, movement activists and trade unionists learn to work together, building the
trust and experience required to work in coalition -- sometimes, necessarily,
even beyond the parliamentary and electoral concerns of the NDP. Although there
is a constant tension within the NDP -- rooted in the diverse beliefs and organizational
practices of members -- it is for the most part a healthy tension. The NDP serves
as a vehicle for organizations to work together politically, to influence each
other, to enhance dialogue, and at the same time to provide the pressure and cohesion
necessary to keep these disparate groups together.
4. Parties can achieve genuine cohesion while remaining democratic. The
NDP is a self-regulated, voluntary, mass membership organization. Self-regulation
and self-organization are central to both the labor movement and progressive groups.
The contrast with the Democrats and the Republicans is striking. In fact, by the
rather crucial criterion of ownership by members and self-regulation, the Democrats
and Republicans are not in any meaningful sense political parties at all. In most
states, there is not even a "membership," but simply the declaration
of a registration preference. There is neither an inside nor an outside to these
parties. There can never be any meaningful party program and accountability by
elected officials of these organizations, because they are not self-governed but
rather they are registration mechanisms, run by government instead of members.
Of course, if any other country tried to institute such government controlled
political party structures, it would be correctly denounced as a major denial
of democracy. After all, the right to political and industrial self-organization
is a central tenet of democracy.
A healthy, democratic labor movement is vital for any democracy. But the long
run survival and growth of that movement requires that it reach beyond trade unions
and work in partnership with other community and progressive organizations. It
must also work to develop its own vision and program for society -- and that requires
political action and self-organization, something difficult to imagine outside
of the context of new politics and a New Party.
Click here to return to the menu for the Boston Review Forum, Reviving
American Politics: A Debate on the New Party.
The New Party -- Now More Than Ever: Rogers Replies
These excellent comments advance discussion by being pointed, and I shall try
to return that favor in reply. Borrowing freely from Elaine Bernard's helpful
list of comparative lessons, I will focus on the critics, considering the remarks
of Steve Rosenstone, Jerry Watts, and Bob Borosage in turn.
Steve Rosenstone makes three points: that formidable barriers to third parties
exist, that a reform movement aimed at removing those barriers is a worthy focus
of democratic energies, and that success in such reform is needed for the New
Party to realize its grandest ambitions. I agree, as does everyone else in the
New Party. That is why we are working -- directly and in coalition with unions,
community organizations, black churches, the "public interest" community,
other third parties, and anyone else we can find -- to implement the sorts of
reforms that Rosenstone recommends. Bob Borosage notes our efforts to restore
the "fusion" option to American politics. We have also been active in
promoting public financing of campaigns, universal voter registration, and free
media for campaigns. And there is more to come. When we say the New Party strategy
is informed by notice of third party barriers in the U.S., we mean that we are
doing our best not only to navigate those barriers (through patience, irony, and
other good revolutionary traits), but also to remove them.
So where is the disagreement with Rosenstone? Since he does not draw conclusions
beyond those noted above, I will have to guess, but my guess is this: Rosenstone
may think that it is a waste of effort to start a third party before the project
of electoral reform is substantially complete. If he does, then we disagree, for
First, while our grandest electoral ambitions (e.g., capturing the Presidency)
cannot be realized without systemic electoral reform, more modest ambitions (e.g.,
winning office in Milwaukee or Boston) can. Also, as Elaine Bernard notes, parties
don't always need to win at all, much less all over, to significantly influence
public policy. If the New Party succeeded even in dominating a few city and state
governments, it could influence national policy through examples of reform. Even
if it did not rule the cities and states where it was most active, it could influence
their government by popularizing policy alternatives, or offering support to a
major party in return for its support for them. We want eventually to win up and
down the electoral ladder. But we don't need to win top national office, or win
everywhere, to advance our basic purpose of more democratic government. And we
don't need to wait for systemic electoral reform before beginning to do that.
Second, waiting on a third party until the barriers fall means waiting until you
are dead, since third parties will be needed to knock those barriers down. Who
else might do the job? The major party architects of those barriers? A public
interest community heavily dependent on those parties, and on foundations barred
from direct involvement in elections? A new social movement arising from mass
protests over disaffiliation rules in California or filing deadlines in Missouri?
Not likely. As Rosenstone's own example of ballot access reform arising from the
third party challenge of John Anderson implicitly suggests, most electoral reform
arises from organizations with a very direct stake in the outcome. When it comes
to eliminating barriers to third parties, that means third parties themselves.
We need one, now, to carry electoral reform forward.
Jerry Watts also makes three points: that the initial market for a progressive
third party is limited, that efforts to enlarge that market will force compromises
of principle (perhaps particularly along lines of race), and that local politics
is both a necessary focus of independent politics and a graveyard for its hopes.
Each of the concerns flagged by these points is real. By themselves, however,
they tell us nothing about whether the New Party is a good idea or not. Political
argument is about on-balance judgments: given competing concerns and rival strategies
for meeting them, what is the best course of action? Watts doesn't offer such
an argument, since he never pauses to consider any competing considerations. Does
he think that his convictions are best advanced by withdrawing from electoral
politics entirely? Does he believe that the New Party would make more radical
and principled non-electoral efforts less likely? Watts doesn't say, and that
leaves the force of his criticisms uncertain. Still, the concerns need to be addressed,
so let me consider them in order.
First, the market for the New Party is people like Jerry Watts -- concerned democratic
Americans who want to promote the common good. We can debate precise magnitudes
forever, but this is simply not a tiny market. Second, while there are tensions
between a politics of principle and a politics of vote maximization, the value-centered,
membership-controlled New Party is less susceptible to indefensible compromise
than the candidate-centered, money-controlled major parties. If Watts is concerned
that the New Party draw the line on the urban poor, I suggest he join us. Immediately,
he will have more power to make that line stick than he ever will in a major party,
because as a member he will run it. Third, local politics can indeed be a swamp.
But it is too important a site of experiment in all manner of issues of public
concern -- industrial policy, military conversion, education and welfare reform,
environmental controls -- to be abandoned. And the fact that we are a national
effort, linking different local struggles into a broader framework of action,
makes it less likely that we'll get bogged down in any single stretch of it. Finally,
I do not see how the existence of a local New Party would hurt determined, community-based,
non-electoral efforts to advance the interests of the inner-city African-Americans;
I do see many ways in which it could help. In America's cities, the New Party
can enjoy the same positive sum relation with such groups as the one Bernard describes
between the NDP and Canadian labor.
Finally, Bob Borosage provides a sharp, informed defense of existing progressive
strategies of reform: stick with the Democrats, run occasional losing progressives
for President, do national media campaigns between elections. And he presents
a thoughtful attack on our activity: too little passion, too much maneuver, against
too long a set of odds, while missing the media boat. We have a political argument:
about the relative costs and returns of rival strategies. Borosage finds ours
a needlessly speculative investment, given the alternative of reinventing the
Democratic Party from within.
The only thing I've got against Borosage's "reform from within, and only
from within" strategy is that it's been tried for 60 years, and failed. The
Democratic Party has not realigned to the left, and what it has done has not been
much affected by the tactics Borosage endorses. Concerning recent experience:
is the Democratic Party in 1992 more progressive as a result of Jesse Jackson's
stunning 1984 and 1988 campaigns? Did Jackson's decision to stay inside the Democratic
Party powerfully consolidate his base? Will the millions that unions have already
spent on Clinton get them a win on trade, or health care reform, or even campaign
finance? I don't think so, and Borosage is too smart to think so either. Losing
presidential campaigns, issue campaigns based literally on thin air, victories
by progressive candidates unaccountable to an organized base, and progressive
drops in an ocean of corporate campaign cash do not a revolution make.
But this discussion, again, is about alternatives. Noting the failure of the strategies
that Borosage endorses does not amount to an argument for the New Party. Failure
inside the Democrats may indeed be the last best hope for progressives. My question
to good people like Borosage is only this: Having tried the "reform from
within and only from within" strategy for so long, with such dismal results,
why not at least consider a different approach? Are you worried about passion?
Ours is the same as yours: a democratic government, controlled by equal citizens.
Are you worried about our not distinguishing ourselves from progressive Democrats?
Why should we, when we share most of their deepest convictions? Are you worried
that if we do our thing it will mess up your thing? Don't. Our strategies, while
distinct, share an identical goal -- a competitive party substantially more democratic
than either that now exists. And in the foreseeable future they are complementary,
not antagonistic. We need some progressive Democrats to fill out our electoral
dance card. You need some Henry Wallace types to make sure Clinton turns into
Borosage thinks that the New Party is a highly speculative investment. I think
it's time the Borosages of this world diversified their political portfolio. We're
both right. Which is why you can, and should, both love that Bob (and Bill, and
Jesse, and Paul) and help build the New Party.
For more information on the New Party, or to join, click
Originally published in the January-February
1993 issue of Boston Review
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American Politics: A Debate on the New Party.