The current situation
With the presidential election of Donald Trump, U.S. politics have undergone a qualitative change. For decades the Republican Party implicitly drew on the support of white supremacy (the “Southern strategy”); Trump has now made this explicit, in mobilizing white supremacists as well as many conservative Christians in laying the groundwork for an authoritarian state, if not outright fascism. In spite of (or perhaps because of) his appealing to the worst of American culture, he maintains the enthusiastic support of at least 30% of the electorate, quite enough to ensure that most decent Republican politicians will not challenge him even if he isn’t re-elected president. So the Republican Party has finally been captured by the most malignant forces in America, continuing to serve the interests of the 1%.
The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has been moving farther and farther right all these years. This trend has finally been reversed with the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders, which have mobilized a great many people around progressive issues like universal health care and a living wage. The fact remains, however, that the Democratic Party has always functioned to absorb and water-down progressive struggles in the service of the capitalist class. Various attempts have been made to infiltrate and “capture” this party by progressive organizations and individuals, but all for naught, for the 1% with their essentially unlimited wealth are fully able to maintain control of the Democratic Party.
Naturally, and especially coming out of Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, progressives have been looking to building a third electoral party to challenge the present two-party system. A strong candidate for this role would be the Green Party, with its excellent political platform (https://www.gp.org/platform). In fact, during the past two decades I was highly active in the Green Party at the state, local, and national levels, but I no longer am. The reason for this, as explained in my article https://solidarity-us.org/atc/203/defeat-trump/, is their evident inability to require their current presidential candidate to encourage everyone to defeat Trump by voting for the Democratic Party’s nominee in any state in which the race is at all close, and to help get out the vote in those states. Although getting Trump out of office is imperative in order to have any chance of effecting progressive change, the Greens can’t seem to get around their (justified) antipathy toward the Democratic Party and their inflated sense of self-worth.
Avowed socialists have also been looking to create a new broad socialist party to challenge the two-party system. However, I have found a recent article by Dustin Guastella compelling (“Like It or Not, If We Run Third Party, We Will Lose”, Jacobin 4/17/20: https://jacobinmag.com/2020/04/third-party-bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism-elections.) His thesis is that it is impossible to compete successfully with the Democratic Party because the great majority of people will vote only for a candidate who has a reasonable chance of accomplishing something in their interest. A viable third party is simply not in the offing, and it is necessary to make use of the Democratic Party’s ballot line in partisan elections – a massive progressive exodus from the Democratic Party is just not going to happen.
A “New Progressive Party”
So what can we do, given this situation? Guastella does provide a possible solution. He calls for an organization (a “party surrogate”) “that can serve as a membership-based, dues-funded, independent institution, with a clear platform, talented spokespersons, and inspiring leaders. Such an organization can serve many of the functions of a traditional labor party: it can recruit and train candidates, work with unions in organizing drives, and provide mass political education. And it could be pretty successful at all of this, so long as it competes in the major-party primaries on a major-party ballot line.” So Guastella’s outlook is to use the Democratic Party at its own nefarious game, without succumbing to political co-optation ourselves.
I should like to amplify Guastella’s suggestion, by calling for the creation of a “New Progressive Party”. (This name is only tentative, and there does exist a national organization called the Progressive Party, along with a few state organizations of the same name. To the extent that they actually exist as parties, they have solid liberal politics on domestic issues, but essentially ignore U.S. foreign affairs and activity. Thus, mainly by omission they are objectively full supporters of American imperialism.) It would not be an explicitly socialist party, but rather would attract members on the basis of an unabashedly progressive political platform. Thus it would include both socialists who see the need to transcend capitalism, and social democrats (and others) who seek to qualitatively improve capitalist society. Here are what its main features would include:
1. The usual litany of progressive goals. Included here must be unreserved support for the struggle of the Palestinian people against the Israeli apartheid state (support for the international BDS movement; no economic, military, or diplomatic support of Israel by the U.S. so long as Israel continues its colonization and oppression of the Palestinians; the right of return of the Palestinian people). This unequivocal stand may be unacceptable to some self-styled progressives, but we cannot follow liberals in throwing people of color under the bus.
2. Support for complete democracy. For socialists, this may mean rejection of the Leninist outlook of a one-party state tightly controlled by a “vanguard party” ruling as a “dictatorship of the proletariat” in the name of the working class. There must be the full batch of civil liberties and civil rights constitutionally protected, an independent judiciary, and the opportunity to vote out of office even a socialist party.
3. Recognition that it may be imperative to vote out of office a real threat of authoritarianism and possible fascism such as that presently posed by Trump, by supporting a Disgusting Democrat even though the Democratic Party is firmly in the hands of the 1%. (And I do find Joe Biden to be as repulsive as Hillary Clinton.)
4. Rejection of any strategy of taking over the Democratic Party, while being open to supporting truly progressive Democrats electorally. For example, in Seattle my U.S. House Representative is Pramila Jayapal, who is one of two co-chairs of the House Progressive Caucus. This doesn’t necessarily mean much, but the fact is that she is genuinely progressive. In a recent House vote on a Democratic Party bill to restrict government acquisition of personal information, the Democrats all voted for it while the Republicans all opposed it – except Jayapal, who voted against it because, in her opinion, it didn’t go far enough in maintaining civil liberties.
Such a “New Progressive Party” could, in my opinion, be effective in mitigating the threat posed by the takeover of the Republican Party by the far Right and in helping to transform our society in a progressive direction. However, there are major difficulties concerning such a project, of which we should be cognizant.
It will seem natural for us to work with the Democratic Party, in particular in running in their primary elections, so we may well feel drawn to immerse ourselves in the local organizations of that party and even to desire to bring the New Progressive Party into the Democratic Party in order to make it more progressive (and possibly to take it over). This is the trap that so many progressive organizations and struggles have fallen into, in the past; the result of such absorption has always been watering down of progressive politics in order to meet the realities of working within the Democratic Party. We must be clear that the Democratic Party is the instrument of our enemy, the 1%, and always be on guard against such a development.
On the other hand, the iniquities of the Democratic Party has led many progressives – particularly socialists – to refuse to have anything to do with that organization. The result has often been, for those engaged in electoral work, wasting a lot of time in fruitless efforts to build a progressive third party to challenge the Democratic Party. It does seem like the thing to do, to bring the correct politics to the masses in contrast to those of the two major parties, but, as Guastella has pointed out, it just isn’t going to be effective if it involves directly challenging the Democratic Party. (Running on an unabashedly progressive political platform in a non-partisan election is another matter, of course.) Worse yet, such politically correct refusal to have anything to do with the Democrats can potentially cause great harm by allowing the “greater of evils” to win, as is the case in this year’s presidential election. The way to overcome this attitude (which I myself held inflexibly until the advent of Trump) is to discuss the matter based concretely on what is happening in the real world.