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Building a Progressive Democratic Party

The acceptance by Barack Obama of the FISA bill, which both grants telecoms immunity for lawbreaking and effectively strips Americans of their 4th Amendment rights makes for a good time to reflect on the Democratic party. We all know, but in the heat of partisan warfare, tend to forget, that the Democratic party is not a liberal or progressive party. It has members who are progressive or liberal, but it is controlled by "centrist" Democrats.

"Centrist" isn’t a very useful word, however, since where the center is changes a lot. In the US Congress today there are three ideologies:Reactionary, Conservative and Liberal. A Reactionary is someone who wants to go back to a better age. Republicans are mostly reactionaries. They want to undo FDR’s New Deal, and indeed, over the last 30 years they’ve repealed most of it, till little remains besides the great spars of Medicare and Social Security, still too dangerous for them to destroy, though they keep trying. Indeed, even the reforms of Teddy Roosevelt need to go for the modern Republican party. Their ideal era is probably somewhere in the 1890s, the era of the Robber Barons.

A Conservative is someone who wants to keep the best of the past and to make any changes, if at all, very slowly. That describes many Democrats. Democrats have been engaging in a long battle to try and save the remains of the New Deal. Now despite the word "new", the New Deal is, in fact, over 70 years old. This isn’t modern legislation. It is old, old, old. Most people alive have never lived in a world without the New Deal, though youngsters see less and less of it. Democrats as a group are not leading great charges for, say, Universal Health Care or a Tobin Tax or anything that might be considered forward thinking—they’re just trying to hang on to some of the old world. Because they have no positive vision for the future they tend to compromise towards Reactionary ideals and as a result, more and more of the old liberal legacy has been repealed.

Liberals and Progressives believe that there are new ways of doing things that can be better than how things were done in the past. Since the majority of legislation over the past 30 years has not been liberal legislation, but rather large scale repeal of the New Deal, combined with laissez-faire ideology recognizable a hundred years ago, it’s fairly clear that Liberals have no real power. Conservatives, rather than forming coalitions with Liberals have tended to do so with Reactionaries. You can see this today, where the House is essentially controlled by Blue Dogs (Conservatives and a few Reactionaries) who vote with the Republican party. It’s even clearer in the Senate, where there are more conservatives and fewer liberals.

So the US has spent the past thirty years in an essentially reactionary mode, with conservatives occasionally teaming up with liberals to slow down the pace with which New Deal legislation and government has been destroyed.

For those who believe in essentially liberal government this has been a trying time. Heck, for someone of my age: a trying life, in political terms. And what Barack Obama has just told us is that he’s an essentially conservative democrat who will compromise with reactionaries and totalitarians (the impulse to be free to spy on anyone, with only the executive deciding who, is a fundamentally totalitarian one and has no place in a republic). Whatever sympathies Obama may have for liberalism, or even for the Constitution, he cannot be trusted to fight for either if he feels it is not politically in his interest.

The calculation is simple enough: liberal and progressive voters will hold their noses and vote for him anyway. Moving right increases the range of people he can appeal to and costs him very few votes. Three supreme court justices, after all, are held hostage.

This is the raw calculus of power which has held progressives hostage for over a generation now. The cost has been severe, both to the country and to the Democratic party, because in fact, a lot of people have refused to be held hostage. Oh, they don’t vote Republican, but they do sit out. Non-voters poll more liberal, more progressive, than voters. Why? There are a number of reasons, but one of them is that they feel they have no one to vote for. As Democrats have slid further and further right, voters have repeatedly chose to vote for the real Republicans, rather than the fake ones. Democrats have generally won elections, not on their own merits, but when Republicans have exhausted the national patience. In no years is this truer than this year and 2006. It’s not that Democrats have been wonderful, polls show the public despises Democrats in Congress. It’s just that they aren’t Republicans, and Republicans have just reigned over perhaps the most incompetent Presidency and Congress in American history. Which is certainly saying something.

The right wing faced this same battle some 40 years ago. They won it. They took a moderate Republican party and remade it in their image. Pretty awful image, but there are things to learn from their success, including strategy and tactics.

But the most important thing to understand is that politicians respect only two things.

Money & Votes

If you want influence, if you want power, real power, you have to be able to deliver those two things. You need to be able to win elections for your champions. You dances with the one that brought you: the ability to elect and defeat politicians is the only thing that will make them fear, love or respect you.

What this means is not just donations, nor volunteering. It means building up an infrastructure and a cadre. It means being able to put a machine on the ground which can do registering, canvassing and GOTV. It means having a message machine, from think tanks to ad agencies to reporters and columnists who actually believe in liberalism. It means being able to funnel money to those who need it and can use it. It means having a media machine which can reliably communicate with both the base and the population in general.

With that you remake the party. You do it one incumbent at a time. When they retire you make sure that the person who replaces them is as liberal as possible. When they don’t retire, you pick your fights and primary the most egregious ones. Even if you fail (and the right fails more often than they win) the near-death experience is a warning shot across the bows that changes behaviour. (Notice how quiet Specter has been since his near-death experience.) You can do that because you can put a machine on the ground, you can provide policy through your think tanks, you can spread messages through your media and you can pump money where it needs to be when it needs to be.

But this all requires not just specific campaigns like the one against telecom immunity, or specific campaigns to help candidates, although those are necessary, it requires long term infrastructure spending and building.

Even in the short run, this sort of infrastructure is the only chance we have to hold people like Obama and Hoyer and Pelosi and Reid and all their enablers responsible. Day in, day out, relentlessly.

Because no single person is going to save the Democratic party, or the US. Obama, as he just proved, won’t. But, to be fair, neither will anyone else. No one person can do it, not even someone who really wanted to. As FDR once said "now make me do it." To get the government and the politicians you deserve you’ll have to deserve them. And you’ll deserve them by making them do the right thing, not expecting them to.

So, to those Obama donors who are disgusted by the FISA capitulation, I say this: vote for Obama. But give to build liberal infrastructure or elect reliably liberal Reps or Senators. You can find some that have been vetted on this Blue America list, or you can do your own research, but please, consider this seriously.

Polls consistently show that Americans are more liberal than their politicians. The electorate is ready for a liberal party. So the job is to give them the chance to vote for one.

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Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh was the Managing Editor of FireDogLake and the Agonist. His work has also appeared at Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout, as well as the now defunct Blogging of the President (BOPNews). In Canada his work has appeared in and BlogsCanada. He is also a social media strategy consultant and currently lives in Toronto.

His homeblog is at