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A Prosthetic Spine for the Democratic Party

The Democratic Party is widely recognized to be compromised and corrupted by moneyed interests. The default setting for the Democrats’ backbone is somewhere between “slimy eel” (giving lip service to progressive values while betraying them covertly) and “spineless jellyfish” (caving to the Republicans out of cowardice). The barriers to reform from within are formidable. On the other hand, third-party challenges are almost insuperably difficult. Worse yet, both approaches – the purely “inside” approach of reforming the Democratic Party, and the purely “outside” approach of running third-party candidates – weaken the progressive movement, because of the inevitable differences of opinion as to which approach is best.

This division of effort is unnecessary. We can fashion a prosthetic spine for the Democratic Party, supplying externally the courage and integrity that it lacks. We can thus combine the advantages of  internal reform and external third-party challenge, and enable their advocates, in effect, to work together simultaneously on both approaches. The hitherto marginalized Green Party could, by a certain change of tactics, play a central role in this new, combined approach – and thereby emerge as a major progressive force on the national scene.

We can learn something from the Tea Party and their attitude toward the Republican Party. They treat it strictly as a tool, and do not waste emotional energy (positive or negative) on it. Most (all?) of their candidates are run as Republicans. But they keep money and other resources (such as the effort of volunteers) under their own control, and offer such resources only to Republicans that they believe to support their principles. Thus, they avoid being co-opted by Republican insiders. Their approach is flexible and case-by-case. Sometimes they run primary challenges to Republicans they dislike; other times, they endorse and support favored Republicans. In exceptional cases, they might run their candidates as third-party or as write-ins, although I am not aware of any such cases; but even if this third-party approach is seldom used in practice, the potential is always there, and acts as an unspoken but ever-present threat to establishment Republicans who might be tempted to defy the Tea Party.

In short, the Tea Party acts as a feedback-control servomechanism, or a governor (in the engineering sense), for the Republican Party and its candidates. It has had considerable success in pushing the Republican Party to the far Right. We need to use similar methods to push the Democratic Party to the Left.

The Democratic Party needs a progressive governor party analogous to the reactionary Tea Party. A progressive governor party for the Democrats could neutralize infighting on the Left, allowing people with widely diverging opinions on the ultimate reformability of the Democratic Party to join together in taking immediate steps to amend its behavior in the short term.

Historically, the Green Party has tended to run its candidates exclusively under its own party label. But it could transform itself into a governor party and prosthetic spine for the Democratic Party, by selectively supporting Democratic candidates who meet progressive standards. There may not even be a need for extensive formal changes in its structure or bylaws to accomplish this transformation. There is ample precedent for candidates being endorsed by more than one party. The Green Party could see this strictly as a matter of tactics. In some cases, in order to be able to endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary, the Greens would need to hold caucuses before the date of the Democratic primary. If the Green candidate won the Democratic nomination, that candidate would appear on the general election ballot with both Green and Democratic endorsement.

Dual endorsement by the Green Party would serve as a valuable seal of approval for progressive Democratic candidates. It would say to disillusioned progressive voters: This candidate is for real. In this way, the Green Party could reignite hope for authentic change and progress. It could also set the stage for its own dominance in national progressive politics – the kind of dominance that the Tea Party has (regrettably) achieved on the Right. We’ll know we’re getting somewhere when insider hacks start complaining about “infiltration” of the Democratic Party by the Green Party.

In races where a hopelessly compromised establishment candidate gains the Democratic nomination, the Green candidate could undertake a third-party challenge, appearing on the general election ballot with Green endorsement only. The long history of the Greens as a third party – including Presidential campaigns by Ralph Nader – would lend credibility to the potential for such a post-primary challenge, and force Democratic insiders to take such a scenario into account before the primary.

In some very liberal states or districts, the Green Party might be able to run a credible campaign against establishment candidates of both parties, using its traditional third-party approach in the general election, without a primary challenge. The chances of success in such races would be enhanced, not diminished, by the increased attention and influence that the Green Party would gain through its governor-party work within the Democratic Party elsewhere.

If the Green Party chooses not to step up to the plate in a governor-party role, it may be necessary to form a new and separate governor party, in an even closer analogy to the history of the Tea Party. But splintering and fragmentation have always been a problem for the Left, and are best avoided when possible. Of all existing progressive political forces in this nation, the Greens are best equipped to play the role of a prosthetic spine for the Democratic Party.

This post is based on my commentary on TheMalcontent’s post A line too bright to ignore. I am indebted to him and to others who wrote comments on that post. I am also indebted to my wife for the “prosthetic spine” metaphor. I had originally intended to use the title “A prosthetic conscience for the Democratic Party”; she commented, “They don’t need a conscience, they need a spine!”
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