The nineteenth-century master of understatement Johannes Brahms once said that writing a symphony is no joke. Neither, it must be said, is starting a new political party in a country where big money talks, elections are bought like the shiny merchandise on a late-night infomercial, and a corrupt, complicit, two-party cartel rules the roost with cackling disdain for the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning, not just to breathe free, but to keep a roof over their heads after paying their student loans, health-care premiums, and mortgage payments.
Yet, there remain those brave, foolhardy, or stubborn souls determined to give progressives a voice in a political system that, for far too long, has kept them locked into an abusive relationship with the Democrats. On Wednesday, March 15th, Draft Bernie founder Nick Brana and filmmaker-and-activist Josh Fox will host a national organizing kickoff call to launch a new party. The stated purpose of the call, to be repeated in weekly follow-ups, is to “share campaign updates and talk about how we can make a people’s party a reality.”
Of course, launching a new organization to oppose the established parties of capital is not a new idea: this is how all progressive/workers’/labor/socialist parties have gotten their start. And one thing I hope the Draft Bernie movement will take very seriously is to study how this has been done before – both domestically and abroad – in order to draw lessons from the past and avoid falling into the same traps that have thrown the left into crisis across the entire Western world.
In fact, we don’t have to go that far to look. I recently sat down with Colin Mooers of Ryerson University in Toronto to discuss what Americans can learn from the Canadian experience of having a working-class party (the New Democratic Party or NDP) challenging the hegemony of the reigning Liberals and Conservatives. The interview, published in Jacobin Magazine, covers a range of issues from embracing new forms of activism to the overarching challenge of transforming state power rather than simply tinkering at the margins. The key question that arose was this: how to create and maintain a vital, movement-based organization that does not perceive itself merely in electoral terms.
Since the election, the focus of third-party proto-organizing has been on fundraising, ballot access, and the attempt to convince Senator Sanders to abandon his one-foot-in, one-foot-out relationship with the Democrats. And while these are hardly unimportant concerns, a deeper dive than that will be needed if something lasting is to grow out of this initial wave of enthusiasm. Aware of this, the Draft Bernie folks have discussed the need for a founding convention, where everything from the party name to the platform will be mooted. Here are four foundational questions that I would submit for the convention’s agenda:
1. What will the party philosophy be?
This is the ineludible question that, if not addressed forthrightly at the outset, will come back to haunt any initiative. If a People’s Party becomes nothing more than a cooler, hipper rebranding of existing parties, then it’s setting itself up to fail. If it’s something else, then what will that “else” be? Although the word socialism may continue to set the older generation off into fits of squirming, the fact that it’s 11 points more popular than capitalism among Millennials should be enough to provoke an ample, inclusive debate about a party philosophy – without preemptive caving or concessions to the crumbling capitalist paradigm. A new party needs to tap into the most advanced of all human faculties – imagination – to provide a positive vision about what a healthier, happier, more just, and ecologically harmonious society would look like. That may take the form of collaborative production and new forms of ownership, a universal basic income, a revolutionary investment in renewable energy, and hundreds more cutting-edge ideas. If people can “see” it, they can build it. And if you build it, they will come. But, like Kevin Costner in his cornfield, that means setting aside ingrained taboos about what can-and-can’t be done.
2. What will its platform be and how will it be decided?
All right, you’ve got me: this is really two questions. Although the Sanders 2016 platform may provide a good starting point for a new party platform, doing a copy-paste of that and calling the job done won’t cut it. First of all, as I pointed out in a previous article, his platform didn’t go far enough in some areas, such as foreign policy. And over and above the issue of content, the new party must be genuinely democratic in its decision-making and candidate selection, ensuring a voice and vote for all members, not just an easily corrupted DNC-like inner sanctum. And that means seeking out and including the poor and marginalized, women’s, minority, indigenous, and ecological groups in the shared vision process, rather than ignoring, pandering, or – worse – using people as window-dressing come convention time. The Podemos Party in Spain, for example, has been groundbreaking in creating democratic mechanisms within the party, including online transparency, voting, and debate sites. (Incidentally, although it was only founded in 2014, Podemos is now the third-largest party in the Spanish Parliament.)
3. What is the party’s mission?
If the party’s sole raison d’être is to win elections – and fast! – it may very well be setting itself up for another disappointment. Quick victories may or may not happen – the American system makes it almost uniquely difficult for new parties to break in – just as Bernie Sanders may or may not decide to sign on as leader. A party must base itself on principles, not personalities. And that means constructing an organization that helps members create a shared vision (see above) while sustaining them through the ups and downs of electoral cycles and the ebbs and flows of activist movements. Progressive parties used to be good at this, with their social clubs and book circles, publishing houses and presses, a radical vision expressed through literature, art, and music which led, in the 1930’s, to a veritable “second American renaissance.” Then World War II and the Cold War intervened, and, under the witch-hunt specter of McCarthyism, politics shriveled up into a desiccated shell of its former self. On the left, Keynesians proclaimed fiscal policy and counter-cyclical spending to be the cure for all ills. On the right, monetarism preached that the solution lay in managing the money supply and massaging interest rates. Politics as a collective, transformative, imaginative enterprise was dead. A new party must revive it.
4. How will it organize?
As Colin Mooers pointed out in the Jacobin interview, a new party has to go to where the energy is. And that means steering clear of the old, co-opted power centers that have long since become fused into the Democratic-Party elite. In the case of trade unions, that means bypassing national chapters – many of whose executive boards backed Hillary Clinton – and going straight to the state and local chapters, whose members often supported Sanders in defiance of their leaders. And from there, the next step is to reach out to workers who are organizing in non-traditional ways, such as fast-food workers in the Fight for 15. A new party must stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, anti-pipeline, and anti-fracking activists, not because it wants their votes, but because their causes are just. Over time, the party will benefit if it stays true to itself, especially by enfranchising more of a nation that, both through disenchantment and deliberate voter suppression, has one of the lowest voter-participation rates in the industrialized world. But it will not do so by repeating old political patterns of manipulation, exploitation, and the binomial if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-with-them guilting process.
Granted, all of this is slower, less glamorous, and more complicated than just tossing a Sanders onto the top of the ticket and hoping a new party will be formed by the swing of his coattails. But it will be both more sustainable and resilient. If the party can contribute to creating a new way of seeing and living in the world, one that breaks us out of outdated sex and gender roles and drags us back from the brink of economic and ecological collapse, its effects will transcend what happens at the polling booth or even what it eventually does in office. It’s not enough to win a Congressional seat, a governorship, or even the presidency. First, you have to win the argument.