Can the Left Change the Democrats?

Over several decades, as the Right built a powerful political/media infrastructure and effectively took over the Republican Party, the Left squandered its advantage in holding many positions that mesh with popular sentiment by too often insisting on political “purity” and refusing to work within the Democratic Party, writes Jeff Cohen.

By Jeff Cohen

We can’t devise a successful electoral strategy for “The Left” meaning the forces of peace, social/economic justice and sustainability unless we face a simple fact: We’re getting our asses kicked.

For three decades, our country’s politics have moved steadily rightward and become more corporate-dominated. With few exceptions (gay rights, for example), the right wing has been winning on almost every issue. That’s why we have record levels of war spending, with near record levels of poverty and wealth disparities.

The late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minnesota

Labor is weakened and under attack, while corporate power over government and both major parties keeps increasing. Our earth faces environmental disasters while the mindless “Drill, Baby, Drill” slogan gains popularity. Issues we thought we’d won decades ago like reproductive rights and separation of church and state are under constant threat.

There’s an essential reason for this sad state of affairs: Right-wing activists have seized one of the two major parties, the GOP, and used that party to amass power and dominate the terms of debate on most issues since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1981.

Right-wing activists not always with corporate backing have been resolute in taking over local and state Republican organizations and electing movement allies to office at all levels. Unlike many liberal/progressive activists, these conservative activists don’t instinctively make apologies for politicians who sell them out or fail to deliver. Instead of apologizing for the GOP elite, right-wing activists keep electing a new crop ever further right and more closely aligned with their extremist demands and litmus tests.

This determined, strategic electoral activism is the reason that what passes for “mainstream” GOP positions today denying Darwin and global warming while bestowing personhood on fetuses and ExxonMobil are more right-wing than 30 years ago.

And one can argue that the Tea Party-influenced 2012 Republican presidential frontrunners (including Mr. Etch-A-Sketch) were further right than George W. Bush  who was further right than the 1994 Gingrich “revolutionaries” who were further right than Reagan who was further right than the Republican mainstream of previous decades.

A Roadmap for Progressives?

Have right-wing activists given progressives a roadmap for political power? If so, why has there not been a concerted effort by progressive movements and activists to enter and transform the Democratic Party into a vehicle that can move our country in a dramatically progressive direction?

Unfortunately, instead of implementing a “remake-the-Democratic-party” strategy, constituency groups like labor and the liberal “net roots” often function as loyal party operatives, pouring money behind whatever mediocre candidates the Democratic establishment serves up. Some big-spending unions are loath to intervene in primaries which is where their money and activism could prove decisive in replacing business-as-usual Democrats with genuine progressives.

It should be clear by now that electing Democrats even Democratic majorities is not enough. In 2009, Democrats held both Congress and the White House, as they did in 1993-94. How’d that work out for us? We got NAFTA, but no Employee Free Choice Act. It’s more than a trivial matter what kinds of Democrats are nominated.

Among hardened leftists, there’s a different objection to the “transform-the-Democrats” strategy: a purist rejection of dealing with the Democratic Party one of the “twin parties of capitalism.” So, even in this current period of mass disgust with the powers that be, electoral activism consists of running marginalized protest or third-party campaigns that pick up a tiny percentage of votes.

While it’s true that today’s Democratic Party is a corporate-dominated party bolstering elite rule, it’s also the party that most young people, women, people of color and progressive-inclined Americans look to for their choices. The Left needs to offer these groups vastly different choices, and transform the party in the process.

I sure wish right-wingers had spent the last few decades as electoral purists and instead of working to take over the GOP, they’d confined themselves to “protest politics” and self-marginalizing minor parties. Our country would be much better off.

But the right-wing went about seizing a major party, beginning with the failed Goldwater insurgency of 1964. We need to remember that the Republican Party of President Eisenhower was a moderate, status quo party that had acquiesced to the New Deal with 90 percent tax rates on the 1 percenters, federal jobs programs and virtually no union-busting.

Perhaps the main excuse for electoral timidity or abstention from progressives of various stripes is: “Right-wing movements have big corporate money behind them, and we don’t.”

Actually, we do now have the ability to raise big money from small donors online. And corporate money doesn’t always explain right-wing success: the Religious Right, which drove much of our country’s conservative shift in recent decades, was largely a grassroots movement of middle-class whites, often triumphing over the moneyed Republican Old Guard.

In my view, money is not the main advantage right-wing movements have over progressive ones. It’s leadership. And zeal for transformative change. Look at a right-wing leader like the late Paul Weyrich, who coined the term “Moral Majority,” founded grassroots Religious Right organizations and pioneered direct-mail fundraising among small donors. (Yes, he also cofounded corporate fronts like Heritage and ALEC.)

Thirty years ago, Weyrich remarked: “We are different from previous generations of conservatives.   We are no longer working to preserve the status quo. We are radicals, working to overturn the present power structure of this country.”

Those who’ve led right-wing activists to power in recent decades have burned with a passion to radically transform our country. Meanwhile, those who lead large liberal/progressive groups today seem to burn with a passion to have lunch with Democrats in Congress, to hobnob with “our friends on the Hill,” to explain to “the base” why we can’t push too fast or demand too much of the Democrats.

In the past century, the two periods of dramatic progressive reform the 1930s New Deal era and the 1960s Civil Rights/War on Poverty era were times when independent Left movements made increasingly bold demands on the Democrats. Martin Luther King, Jr. was repeatedly asked by the Kennedys and LBJ to slow down, but he never did and he went to his grave as a vocal opponent of the Democrats’ war in Vietnam.

In those eras of social progress, there were progressive movement leaders who acted with independence more attuned to the base than to Democratic elites. They weren’t prone to constant apologizing for party leaders. In other words, they acted like left versions of the right-wing leaders of recent decades.

It’s not glamorous work for activist movements to try to transform a major party. It’s slow and arduous with more defeats than victories. But right-wing movements have shown it can be done.

To do something similar in the Democratic Party will require coordinated efforts across issues and movements to elect progressive activists at every level: from local and state Democratic committees (reforming party platforms along the way) to local public offices to state houses. And ultimately to Congress.

If such a process caught fire, we’d hear a drumbeat from mainstream punditry not just at Fox News about the “extremism” of progressive Democrats (despite their own polls showing that ending war, taxing the rich, protecting entitlements, etc., are majority views).

Currently, we do have a Congressional Progressive Caucus of 75 members, the largest and most multiracial caucus in Congress. But it lacks cohesion and teeth. About 60 members pledged to reject any healthcare bill that lacked a public option and then caved. More powerful than the current caucus might be a cohesive 25-member group ready to vote as a bloc against war and corporate policies, even when it’s a Democratic White House promoting such policies.

Getting to a bloc of 25 genuine, principled progressives in Congress is attainable. What’s needed is a strategy and resources to develop candidates in dozens of solidly progressive congressional districts nationwide: black, Latino, college town, liberal urban, etc.

When an incumbent Democrat sells out or leaves office, activists in such a district should be able to call upon national organizational and net-roots support to get a 100 percent progressive into Congress. Once elected by the grassroots in such districts, it’s hard for corporate or conservative forces to ever get them out. Think Bernie Sanders. Think Barbara Lee.

The Norman Solomon Insurgency

Which brings me to the congressional campaign of lifelong progressive activist/author Norman Solomon (full disclosure: he’s a close friend, with whom I’ve written three books and hundreds of columns).

An acclaimed antiwar leader who led three dramatic trips to Iraq in an effort to avert the U.S. invasion, Norman is running in a new, extremely progressive district on California’s North Coast that stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border. The seat is open due to the retirement of Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a steadfast peace advocate who once co-chaired the Progressive Caucus.

To prepare for this race, Norman paid his dues in local Democratic work. He’s been elected three times to be a delegate from the North Bay to the state Democratic central committee (where he coauthored the party’s “troops-out-of-Afghanistan” position). In 2008, he was elected as an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention but he has never refrained from criticizing Obama policies that bolster Wall Street or the warfare state.

Norman may or may not win, but he’s built one of the strongest, grassroots campaigns for Congress ever with over 1,000 volunteers and more than 5,000 donors. He’s been endorsed by local elected officials in the district (both Democrats and Greens) as he’s campaigned on an uncompromising agenda popular with voters: tax Wall Street to fund federal green jobs programs; major military cuts; no attack on Iran; enhanced “Medicare for All”; end nuclear power.

The primary is June 5, with voting-by-mail to begin this week.

The good news is that the Solomon campaign raised in mostly small, grassroots donations an impressive half-million dollars by the March 31 federal filing deadline. The bad (but expected) news is that two corporate-connected Democrats raised $865,000 and $740,000; both will significantly outspend Norman on TV/radio ads. It’s a classic battle of grassroots vs. big bucks.

Will his volunteer-based ground game beat the air attack of the moneyed candidates, as Paul Wellstone did when he got into the U.S. Senate after being outspent 7 to 1? (Like Norman, Wellstone had never previously held elected office.)

In a 12-candidate race, experts in the district see Norman as now running second. The frontrunner is the Democratic establishment candidate, a well-funded state assemblyman who has received most of the labor and environmental endorsements despite having accepted donations in recent years from companies like Walmart and PG&E that are despised by union and green activists. (The Solomon campaign refuses corporate and lobbyist money.)

These membership groups face a choice in primaries: Do they embrace party regulars and the status quo, or back outsider candidates who want to transform the party and the country. Several unions have endorsed the Solomon campaign, including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). One of the strongest unions in the state, SEIU California, hedged its bets by endorsing Norman, along with the state assemblyman and another elected official in the race. Some progressive unions (like the California Nurses Association) have so far stayed out.

National groups like Progressive Democrats of America and Blue America have backed the campaign from the start. Norman won the endorsement of Democracy for America (founded by Howard Dean) by finishing second out of 200 liberal/progressive candidates in DFA’s nationwide online straw poll.

The Solomon campaign earns free media coverage each time a notable like Phil Donahue, Daniel Ellsberg or Sean Penn comes into the district to campaign. Other progressive leaders have endorsed, including Barbara Ehrenreich, Dolores Huerta, Rep. John Conyers and Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Raul Grijalva.

Musician Tom Morello tweeted his support of the “antiwar, pro-Occupy candidate” to his 200,000 twitter fans. Blogger Glenn Greenwald, known for criticizing both Republican and Democratic politicians, was effusive: “When it comes to Congressional candidates, it just doesn’t get any better than Norman Solomon.”

The Solomon movement is up against tough odds and big money. But, win or lose, it offers a model a campaign that inspires activists and challenges power and the Democratic establishment, a campaign promoting the full progressive agenda without settling for a puny number of protest votes.

It’s the kind of campaign we need to see in communities across the country in the coming years.

Jeff Cohen is the author of Cable News Confidential. He and Norman Solomon cofounded the online activism group, and he founded the media watch group FAIR (with Solomon and others). He has served on the advisory board of Progressive Democrats of America. The views expressed here are his alone not those of any organization or campaign. This article is part of a symposium on the elections organized by New Politics.

5 comments for “Can the Left Change the Democrats?

  1. Bill from Saginaw
    May 11, 2012 at 19:33

    As a progressive strategy for the “left to change the Democratic Party”, I suggest a very small, concise issue-oriented variation on the Repugs’ old Contract for America: (1) end the wars abroad and dramatically scale back the Pentagon budget and military presence overseas, with the tax money saved from guns redirected into a real domestic jobs program; (2) a return to progressive income taxation of wealthy individuals and corporations, a return to Glass/Steagall regulation of the financial industry and too-big-to-fail banks coupled with a financial transaction tax to pay for the regulatory oversight; and (3) a Medicare-for-All public option added to create a genuine national health care system not tied to the private insurance industry.

    This is a quick suggested list, but you get the picture: reassert civilian control over the soldiers and spies, clean up the most egregious excesses of the corporate plutocracy, and meaningful heal care reform as a public option. Maybe add one or at most two more (clean energy? revitalized union rights?). That’s the general picture. Five big, core issues at the most.

    Step two is then to focus on the US Senate, and fairly solid Democratic-leaning District seats in the House of Representatives. Identify, recruit and financially back a sane, sensible, potentially electable candidate (like a Norman Solmon) who makes an unequivocal public pledge to support the core progressive Issues platform. The candidate then calls on the incumbent Democrat (or DLC Party-backed preferred nominee in an open seat race) to make an equally unequivocal public promise to support the Issues platform, no waffling or tap dancing allowed. If the status quo Dem refuses, they face first a contested primary, followed by a second, independent campaign run in the general election by the progressive Dem, if the incumbent Democrat office holder or DLC-backed candidate successfully beats back the primary challenge.

    There is a huge surge of despair right now over the dismal dynamics of the existing two major party system and the establishment Democrats’ complicity
    in it. The Occupy movement openly voices that disillusionment and popular anger for very good reason. I respect the position of many progressives who have vowed to never vote for a Democrat or a Republican again. If that’s your position, so be it.

    But if (like Jeff Cohen and others) you still want to take a shot at the American “left changing the Democratic Party”, I think a narrow, issue-oriented strategy like this has the best chance of forcing change upon the Democratic Party establishment in the real world.

    Bill from Saginaw

  2. May 11, 2012 at 00:01

    Thank you Jeff–I agree with that we need to change the Democratic Party, particularly by voting for the rare Dem candidates like Norman who refuse corporate money. Today Norman Solomon came out clearly and strongly for ending the insane war on marijuana, which I feel is the most destructive violation of the civil rights of Americans of our day.
    I urge my fellow Northern Californians to support him during the June 5 primary election. He has refused to take corporate money, is an outstanding pro-peace campaigner, and now will stand up for our rights as citizens of California against the unprecedented assault on medicinal dispensaries

  3. Michael
    May 10, 2012 at 19:08

    Can the left change the Democrats? You must be kidding. I live in the new Illinois 16th District, a newly created (gerrymandered) District. The GOP Primary pitted long time Congressman Don Manzullo, the present holder of the seat, against Adam Kinzinger from the old Illinois 11th District. With the help of Eric Kantor, Kinzinger beat Manzullo. Kinzinger’s Democratic foe? This new District is so conservative it will take a major depression for a Democrat to ever win the seat. Kinzinger is running uncontested. As a result, many people will simply not vote at all.

  4. Mike Nolan
    May 8, 2012 at 20:49

    The author seems to think that progressives have never challenged non-progressives in primaries. What nonsense! Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose, but liberals and progressives have often challenged the establishment candidates.

    The author is also apparently unaware of the Occupy movement which has challenged the very idea of electoral politics.

    Such poorly written material doesn’t deserve a place on

  5. Jay
    May 8, 2012 at 11:19

    The Democratic Party insisted on “purity”, really, then explain away the Blue Dogs if you will or frankly Bill Clinton.

    Opening with such a silly claim about “purity” kinda makes me ignore anything else Jeff Cohen may have to say.

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