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The Debate: Independence or Partisanship

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Posted on Mar 30, 2014

Photo by ssoosay (CC BY 2.0)

By Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers, Truthout

This piece first appeared at Truthout.

Finally there is a much needed debate about the relationship that people who are working for progressive change should have with the Democratic Party. This is a debate that has existed at the edges, in email discussions and private conversations, but is now moving to center stage.

The current debate began with an article in Harper’s, “Nothing Left,” by Adolph Reed, criticizing how the Democratic Party has limited the agenda of the left. It was followed by articles by historian Mike Konczal writing in The New Republic and Harold Meyerson writing in the Democratic Party-leaning American Prospect who took the view that the “left” needs to work within the Democratic Party. Richard Eskow of Campaign for America’s Future, also a Democratic Party-leaning group, published two articles. The first said this debate was long overdue and concluded the left must not limit itself to the Democratic Party agenda. The second seemed to put aside differences on partisanship and urged us to get to the work of building a movement. In this article he also provided excellent responses to Konczal and Meyerson.

With Senator Bernie Sanders considering a presidential run and asking people to share their thoughts on whether he should run as an independent or a Democrat, the debate over partisanship is going to grow. We view this as an important opportunity to help many Americans realize that we need to escape from the two-party trap, as we try to do through our daily movement news and resource website, PopularResistance.org.

Movements Broaden the Agenda by Taking an Uncompromising Stand

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Popular Resistance sees its job as not adapting to political limitations but building a movement that puts our issues on the political agenda. We must build a mass movement that is independent of the two parties, especially the Democratic Party, because their agenda is too corrupted by the ‘rule of money.’  We recognize that what is considered to be politically acceptable does not challenge the current system and therefore fails to actually solve the problems we face.

We adopt the view of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who did not ally with either party. King said “I feel someone must remain in the position of non-alignment, so that he can look objectively at both parties and be the conscience of both—not the servant or master of either.” Just as King faced two parties dominated by segregationists when he was fighting Jim Crow segregation, we face two parties dominated by mega-corporate power when we are fighting the domination of government by big business interests. Just as King made the immorality of racism unacceptable, we must take a moral stand against putting the interests of money before the necessities of the people.

The obscenity of tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations—which has occurred at every level of government—while cutting necessary public services is not just misplaced priorities, these are immoral decisions. A child going hungry while the already wealthy hoard more wealth is one of the many immoral outcomes of these decisions. We need to explain these choices and be the conscience of a political system that is off track and of elected officials who put increasing the wealth of their campaign donors ahead of the necessities of their constituents.

The rule of money has become so deep in U.S. government that the menu at the political table is very limited. The real solutions to the multiple economic and environmental crises we face are supported by the majority of the public but are not allowed in the political discussion. It is not our job as activists to limit ourselves to the choices allowed by this corrupt system but to expand the choices. Occupy’s greatest impact was to put issues on the political agenda that were not on it.

Where Is Our Power In The Electoral System?

U.S. democracy has developed into a rigged electoral system – a ‘managed democracy.’ People who want real change will not get it by selecting between two pre-approved candidates who are both supported by the money of transnational corporations, Wall Street banks and other big business interests. The most important aspects of political participation are outside of this managed democracy, but this does not mean we cannot impact the electoral system and use it to build a mass movement.

The mistake made after the 2000 election was the knee jerk reaction of the liberal intelligencia, which is aligned with the Democratic Party, to blame Ralph Nader for Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush. They did not want to look in the mirror and see the faults of their party under the Clinton-Gore leadership that moved it further into the grasp of Wall Street, the insurance industry and other big business interests. Gore lost primarily because he was a terrible candidate who could not win his home state or Clinton’s and who put forward a corporate agenda rather than a populist, progressive agenda. He was the classic Republican-lite that turned off voters who wanted someone who took their concerns seriously.

If there had been an honest appraisal, more on the left would have realized that we need to embrace an alternative to the Democratic Party and should not fear undermining corporate Democrats. U.S. history has demonstrated that people can influence the direction of the country by standing for what they believe in—whether or not you win the election. Third parties have changed the political direction of the country even without winning elections by putting new issues on the political agenda. This history is missed in the debate on electoral strategy. There is power in putting forward new issues that gain electoral support and thereby force issues onto the agenda.

This history is long. We can go back to the most divisive issue in US history, slavery, to see the impact non-winning candidates played in changing the political discourse. From the nation’s founding the issue of abolition was off the political agenda in Congress and slavery became the most valuable business in the nation. Neither party would discuss abolition until the westward expansion began, and then the debate was about expanding slavery, not ending it.


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