Debate: Should Progressives Remain or Leave the Democratic Party?

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Two writers, Salam Morcos and Andre Roberge, debate what progressives must do to win. Should progressives stay with the Democratic Party and seek to move it to the left from within? Or should they leave the Party and help build a viable third party that would compete with, if not replace, the world’s oldest active party?

Salam Morcos: Before we debate on what we disagree about, it’s important to note the areas where we agree. We both agree that the two party system is undemocratic, decreases voter participation, and feeds on people’s fears and not desires. We also agree that the ultimate goal is to enact progressive legislations that would see the United States join the rest of the world in providing healthcare to all of its citizens as a right, as well as increasing the minimum wage, removing the influence of money in politics, aggressively fighting climate change, reforming the criminal justice system, and ending the endless wars that cost the lives of many, in the U.S. and abroad.

Where we disagree, however, is the strategy on how to get there. Andre, why do you think that progressives should pack their bags and leave the Democratic Party?

Andre Roberge: Think of a divorce hearing… Each side in the matter presumably, for the sake of argument, wants to gain the most in the preceding for their own individual gain. Does it not make the most sense to start your argument/ask in the most aggressive position possible?

If we map this analogy onto the Democratic Party it should be readily apparent that they are not, even by their own non-binding platform, the farthest left/progressive we would like. Thus, given their starting positions, the policy they propose will undoubtedly fall short.

That is, unless there was a mass movement of people organizing around specific progressive legislation outside of the party. Alex Press, in her appearance on The Takedown with Nick, outlined moments in history in which politicians were literally dragged to the left, forced to meet the demands of mass movements.

Locally, in Seattle, where I live, I’ve seen the same situation playing out; From the Fight for $15 an hour minimum wage to this past week’s historic “Tax the Rich” income tax. Seattle didn’t become the first major city to implement a $15 minimum wage because Democrats/politicians suddenly thought it was a good idea, instead, as reported by Philip Locker, it was a mass movement supported by a “coalition of labor unions…teach-ins, conferences, posters, and major marches for $15 on Martin Luther King Day in January and on May Day.” Same goes for the movement for $15 in Ontario.

Thus, to sum up, we as a people must come together and force the political body to meet our demands. In this respect, it doesn’t matter whether or not the politicians that eventually pass the legislation are Democrats or Republicans, etc… Instead, it’s about the power of collective action shaping the future.

Morcos: I certainly agree that a “mass movement of people organizing” is key for any hope of real progressive change, and that holds true at every level of government. I also agree that the coalition in these mass movements does not need to be affiliated with any specific party.

But for any legislation to be passed, you must have a majority of politicians willing to vote for it; representatives who would – using your own words – “be literally dragged to the left.” I hope we can agree that not every politician can be “dragged” to the left. Certainly not Republicans. Good luck convincing Jim Inhofe (R-OK) to support measures to tackle climate change. Not to mention that a Republican Speaker of the House will not let progressive legislation get a hearing in the first place.

In every example when a progressive legislation was passed, like the ones you just mentioned, it was predominantly Democrats who cast their “yes” vote in the end after being “dragged” by a mass movement.

My point is that for progressives to win, they need to have a majority of progressives in Congress regardless of party affiliation. If you can show how a progressive third party, or a coalition of third parties, can become viable in the United States, I’ll concede this debate instantaneously.

Roberge: As purported by Nick Nowlin, and echoed by Bruce A. Dixon in his article, “Politicians are elected and selected, but mass movements transform societies.” In other words, politicians are mere placeholders who do the will of the people (when they exert their power). My larger point that I initially tried to make above is that those holding elected office need not be anyone in particular (Republican/Democrat) for change to occur. Dixon, to his credit, says it better and more succinctly than I:

Mass movements exist outside electoral politics, and outside the law, or they don’t exist at all.  Mass movements are never respecters of law and order.  How can they be?  A mass movement is an assertion of popular leadership by the people themselves.  A mass movement aims to persuade courts, politicians and other actors to tail behind it, not the other way around.  Mass movements accomplish this through appeals to shared sets of deep and widely held convictions among the people they aim to mobilize, along with acts or credible threats of sustained and popular civil disobedience.

To further illustrate this point, and show how change occurs without ‘a progressive being elected’ we’ll move away from legislation and examine a significant court decision. I was at the rally before Seattle City Council’s vote on their ‘Tax the Rich’ income tax. It is widely speculated that the ordinance passed by the city council will get challenged in court. Kshama Sawant spoke to that challenge, at the rally, by looking at past pivotal court cases, specifically Roe v. Wade. She emphasized that Roe v. Wade was not decided because a new judge was appointed to the Supreme Court, but because of a mass movement. She makes the same assertion with gay marriage legalization by the courts. She brought these cases up to illustrate the point that if there is a mass movement in Seattle, and we fill the courtrooms we can and will make the court bend to our will. Sawant concluded:

How was it that woman’s abortion rights and marriage equality were won? It didn’t happen because courts led the way, it was because courts had to follow mass movements.

Morcos: I couldn’t agree more that mass movements are the antidote to the problem. I explained in an op-ed the need for a political revolution, and how pundits don’t understand it. But I disagree with you when you say that “those holding elected office need not be anyone in particular (Republican/Democrat) for change to occur.” Republicans can never be agents of progressive change (at least not in my lifetime). Noam Chomsky explained to me why that is the case:

The gridlock in Congress results from the fact that the Republicans over the years have ceased to be a normal parliamentary party.  The highly respected conservative political commentator Norman Ornstein describes them as a “radical insurgency” that has abandoned parliamentary politics.  That’s the result of their shift to the far right since the Reagan years, with total dedication to extreme wealth and corporate power.  They can’t get votes that way, so have had to mobilize a base of evangelical Christians, ultranationalists, terrified little men who think they’d better carry an assault rifle into Starbucks to protect themselves, etc.

That Republican base, who I call “single-issue” voters, will vote Republican even when they agree with progressives on many issues, and even when they join the mass movements you speak about. I know many who support Medicare for All but still voted for every Republican down the ballot, knowing quite well that the GOP intends to repeal Obamacare! So no, Republicans on Capitol Hill couldn’t care less if millions marched outside calling for Medicare for All. Rand Paul is not going to vote for it. Period. The only way is to win back the House and the Senate. There’s no other option.

As the United States has a First-Past-The-Post system, coupled with a strong Republican base, the U.S. is doomed to have a two-party system unless the electoral system is changed. In political science, this is called the “Duverger’s law.” The only way third parties can compete in an FPTP system is if the Right-wing was splintered among multiple parties. That’s why I think that progressives must make changing the electoral system through ballot initiative a top priority.

The last election was a perfect example. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump held record-breaking unfavorability ratings. There couldn’t have been a better time for the Green Party and other third parties to challenge the two parties. Yet in the end, I saw to my shock that Jill Stein, who I supported, received just 1% of the popular vote. This is despite the fact that over 35 states are considered safe states, and voting for a third party wouldn’t have risked a Trump or a Clinton election. Even in the safest of safe states (California, Texas, New York, D.C., etc.), Jill Stein did extremely poorly. None of this is to fault Jill Stein. Her platform was more powerful than that of Bernie Sanders. But in the end, people chose to vote out of fear, and not out of choice.

I also think that the Democratic establishment cannot wait for progressives to exit the party. You’d be doing them a huge favor. Tom Perez and Debbie Wasserman Schultz will send you a thank you card. Sure, they might not win the House and the Senate, but as Bernie Sanders described the establishment:

There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo. They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.

So my recommendation is to put all efforts to conquer the Democratic Party. Not passively, by just casting votes for them, but by actively fighting to make sure progressive candidates win primary after a primary. That’s why I applaud the work of Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, and Brand New Congress.

And I’ll conclude by saying that I don’t see this as a dichotomy. One can remain within the Democratic Party and work hard to nominate progressive candidates across the board, while at the same time supporting, donating, and volunteering for third parties.

Roberge: Voting for politicians is just part of the process. I’m not attempting to say it holds no utility. The day after an election there is still work to do. Making elections the “centerpiece” of a winning strategy is problematic in my eyes because people will get the wrong idea about how change occurs and possibly develop a savior complex, meaning to me, if we just get the right person in office then everything will be okay.

Beyond dragging politicians to the left, as I’ve argued can be done via mass movements, the ballot itself is another avenue that doesn’t require a “Democratic” majority. For example, in my state of Washington, you can gather signatures to put proposed legislation on the ballot. We currently have a Republican-controlled state senate but passed an initiative to raise our state’s minimum wage.

Another option yet to be discussed, bipartisanship. Earlier this month, Washington State passed bipartisan legislation for paid family leave to take care of a baby or elderly family member. Not only that, the initiative is disbursed at a progressive rate:

The benefit amount will be determined on a progressive scale, a first in the United States, with low-wage workers receiving up to 90 percent of their salary or wages while on leave. Once a worker qualifies for the program, the worker can change jobs without losing coverage. The statewide program’s portability better accommodates a modern workforce in which workers change jobs with increasing frequency.

You must be thinking, bipartisanship, what, did they get a couple of Republicans to vote on this? The bill passed the Senate on a 37-12 vote (24 Democrats) and the House of Representatives on a 65-29 (50 Democrats) vote.

It’s not enough to elect Democrats or progressives and, as such, it shouldn’t be the centerpiece toward enacting progressive policy. If you want the policy, then that’s what you should focus on. For example, if you want “rent control” start building around it by accomplishing easier, more tangible goals, like a tenant’s bill of rights and slowly build on it. Pass legislation that limits the amount landlords can charge in fees. Pass legislation that makes landlords pay the relocation fees associated with displacing a tenant if they raise the rent and so on…

There is a lot of work to be done; electing politicians alone won’t get us there. Be creative, be active, and be encouraged. When we fight, we win.

What’s your opinion? Share your comments with us.

Written by Salam Morcos

Salam Morcos is a Managing Editor of Progressive Army and a member of its Editorial Board.

Political activist for democracy, social justice, racial justice, women's right and human rights.

Written by Andre Roberge

Father, Husband. Went to school for philosophy (university of WA) and now I work for a train company -- Interests include Labor Law, TILA, Unions, Paid Family Leave, Healthcare, Philosophy of Science, Fantasy Football and Open Government-- Fanboy of The Take Down with Nick Nowlin and The Way with Anoa. Follow Andre on Twitter @SubvertingPower.

Andre Roberge is a Researcher and Writer for Progressive Army.


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  1. Only way the corporate $$$ corrupted party will ever get my support or vote again is when they ban any and all corporate bribes and begin again committing their purpose to working for the citizen people masses.

  2. Why oh why do the reformers think they can reform the Party? We learned of the past 50 years that reform will not happen.
    The Democratic Party is owned by a large group of millionaires and billionaires; they bought and paid for the Party and its apparatus. The Party is run for these 1%ers by a group of Insiders who love their power and privilege; they are extremely experienced in controlling the Party, by any means necessary. The Insiders have a ton of money at their disposal, which they dole out in the form of jobs and other patronage; millions of people support and are bound to the Party because of this. Tens of millions of other registered Democrats support the Insiders; they believe in the leadership and they believe that the Party does not need to change its course.

    Why do the “re-formers” (and let’s face it, “take-over” is just a more exciting, but ultimately false, way of saying “re-from”) think it would be easier to reform the Party than to start a new one (or expand an existing one)? As if the 1%ers are just going to turn over that costly apparatus that they paid for, as if the Insiders are just going to roll over and die, as if the patronage is meaningless, as if the millions are going to stop believing. A new party has none of these problems. It just needs lots of people to leave the Democratic Party (and other Parties) and start building something new.

    Yes, there are obstacles to building new, but the obstacles are far easier to overcome than a “take-over” of the Democratic Party. Reform has been tried- for 50 years- with no success. What has not been tried is wholesale leaving the Party. Just imagine what would happen if nearly half of the registered democrats Demexited (that being the approximate proportion of Bernie supporters registered as democrats) – taking the Party to somewhere between 12% and 15% of registered voters (depending on who is doing the estimates)- and making the Democratic Party a “third party”. That would make headlines the world over! It would also change the face of American politics.

    You want change? Then #demexit and start building an alternative!

  3. Progressives DO NOT have numbers to win ANYTHING in Democratic Party after 14M #DemExited ! That’s reality- MUCH sweeter fruit is bankrupting party for progressive concessions If NO concessions we go 3rd party NEOLIBERALISM is Republican = DEAD!

  4. The idea of an actual debate is valid and would be one to propose as a formal beginning to the 2018 mid terms. However, this format feels like it was orchestrated by the Democratic Party elites as a substitute for such a formal public gathering. The truth is that there is no progressive leadership in the Democratic Party at this time. Additionally, there are no behavioral standards for elected officials and when these elected Democrats vote against the Party on major policy positions, there is no recourse to them because leadership has no firm philosophical commitment to real change. We have seen that demonstrated in the decisions relating to Schumer, Pelosi, Manchin to name a few! So to treat this subject as though it had and actual potential outcome is somewhat like believing what the current President says about almost everything.

    The point is that Democratic control of policy and voting was demonstrated in the Presidential Primary and then restated in the voting for the chair of the DNC. These are facts and they have been supported by statements in the courts and in Congress. I would suggest that at this moment in time, it is folly or worse for anyone to assume that the Democratic leadership and those already elected to Congress are going to agree to support the progressive agenda. Even to suggest that as has been stated above, is nonsense or worse. We already know that the majority of Americans will support the progressive agenda and that that agenda crosses political party lines! But, to succeed we need to change the narrative and do so quickly.

    Unless there is a ceding by the current leaders to progressives starting before the 2018 mid terms, there should definitely be a move to form a Progress Party! Before that happens therefore, we need to have viable candidates for all Congressional seats in place with a financial commitment to support them. This will not be an easy job. It will take leadership and the backing of a large donor base. The voters, when these candidates are announced, will pour plenty of individual money into the till. But, I feel that those running for office must maintain the narrative that this is not a leftest movement (as the media and republicans will try to define it) but is a Progressive movement that has as its foundation our agenda which is for American families. That line must be held to and never deviated from! As Bernie Sanders demonstrated, as long as the narrative is held and there are no deviations from the agenda, the media will have a hard time labeling positions as leftist or socialist. More importantly, when the Democratic opponents try to oppose the agenda, they will be hard pressed to not sound like the neo liberals that they truly are.

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Political Tribalism: Voting by Brand

Debate: Should Progressives Remain or Leave the Democratic Party?