Democrats or Alternative Parties? Socialists Debate the Question

author: 
Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's

Work within the Democratic Party or start alternative parties of our own? It’s a debate American progressives have been having since the 1890’s (though until the 1930’s there was the option of working within the Republican Party as well) and the progressive disappointment with the Obama administration was pervasive when San Diego’s Socialist Unity Forum (SUF) met to discuss the question Sept. 19. But so was fear of the “Tea Party” movement — ostensibly independent but supporting and invigorating the Right wing of the Republican Party — and concern that abandoning the Democrats now is unnecessarily divisive and harmful.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Work within the Democratic Party or start alternative Left parties of our own? It seems to be a debate American progressives and Leftists have been having at least since the 1890’s (and until the 1930’s progressives had options to work within the Republican party as well), and it was the topic of the San Diego Socialist Unity Forum’s (SUF) September 19 meeting at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest. Though SUF organizer Martin Eder tried to maintain the appearance of neutrality on the question, the e-mail call to the meeting made the organizers’ position on the topic clear: “To Leftists who look through the lens of a class analysis, the two parties share very similar agendas on the wars, the military budget, corporate bailouts, budget deficits, deregulating business, the diminishing of civil liberties, lax environmental regulations, etc. Want change? How bad does it have to get?”

So did the barbed joke with which Eder began the meeting, about how he, a genuine socialist, feels insulted whenever President Obama’s political opponents call him a “socialist.” As far as he’s concerned, Eder added, “Obama was elected to run the system. He is in charge of the largest military that’s ever existed.” At the same time, Eder conceded, the growing power and influence of the radical-Right Tea Party movement may signal “the rise of a neo-fascist mentality that is winning the working class with attacks on big government that never mention corporations.” He acknowledged that “there are many people in the room who know the Democratic Party has been the only bunker we have against a police-state mentality that would turn this country into a monopoly-run corporation from top to bottom,” but he also framed the question as “how do we get around the two-party monopoly in this country.”

Eder invited the two Left alternative parties currently on the California ballot, the Green and Peace and Freedom Parties, to send representatives to speak at the meeting. He also invited Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), an organization committed to promoting progressive candidates and issues within the Democratic Party, to send someone. The alternative parties both sent speakers — Hugh Moore for the Green Party and Miriam Clark for Peace and Freedom— but PDA didn’t. In the end, Pat Gracian, a PDA member who’d gone to the meeting simply to experience it as an audience member, got drafted to be a spokesperson for the organization.

Clark introduced herself as Peace and Freedom’s 50th District Congressional candidate against Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray (who won a special election after the district’s previous Congressmember, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, was forced out of office when he was convicted of accepting bribes from defense contractors) and Democratic challenger Francine Busby. “Francine Busby is a nice woman, but [if she’s elected] she’s going to have to go along with the war,” Clark said, “This is a bipartisan war.” Clark joked that this is the third consecutive election in which she’s run for the seat — and so little has really changed in American politics in the last four years, despite the Democrats winning the presidency and a Congressional majority, she said that she can still use the issue cards she had printed in 2006.

Stressing the “peace” more than the “freedom” part of her party’s name, Clark cited Seymour Hersh’s article in the 2008 New Yorker that said the U.S. was planning an attack on Iran and said she’d been to Iran in both 2008 and 2009. She said the Iranians she talked to had the same impression of Obama that she did: a leader who talked peace and negotiation but delivered war and confrontation. “My two roommates came up to me and said, ‘Your President Obama spoke to us in Farsi, but he continued the sanctions,’” Clark recalled. “We have done nothing for them. They all know about the 1953 coup against Mohammed Mossadegh, a democratically elected secular Iranian leader who was removed from power by the CIA and British intelligence after he nationalized Iran’s oil industry … because the corporations of both countries didn’t want that as an example.”

Clark pointed out that, unlike the Green Party, Peace and Freedom is openly socialist. “You have to have a socialist government,” she said. “The protections against corporate exploitation are gone and all the federal aid money has gone to the bankers who created the economic mess. British Petroleum so totally controlled the oil ‘cleanup’ in the Gulf of Mexico they didn’t let government scientists in to observe it.”

Hugh Moore, speaking for the Green Party, said the biggest differences between his party and the Republicans or the Democrats are that it’s a worldwide movement and that all Green Parties are organized around 10 “key values” (available on the Web at http://www.gp.org/tenkey.shtml). “Regardless of our personal opinions about the [Democratic] Party, I don’t know what they stand for,” Moore said. “We’re working for a more peaceful world, including protecting the environment … You don’t hear other parties talking about global warming and stopping it so we can have a future. The Kyoto Protocol doesn’t go far enough.”

Other differences between the Greens and America’s two major parties, Moore said, include a commitment to nonviolence; decentralization, meaning “services brought forth from the local community instead of a top-down national government”; and a commitment to facing issues long-term rather than just looking ahead to the next business or electoral cycle. “In Japan they have a committee that studies where they’ll be 1,000 years from now,” Moore said. “Does anyone in our government think past the next election?” Moore also claimed that “the Green Party is the only party that supports Gay marriage in our platform” — which brought forth an irritated response from Clark, who said Peace and Freedom also endorses marriage equality.

“Do we abandon or engage the Democratic Party? Why not the Republican Party?” Moore said. “I don’t think the Democratic Party can be engaged at all. They are exactly the same. They put forth the same policies. Obama is worse than Bush because he claims in the public eye, and the press puts forth, that he made ‘victories’ in health care and in Iraq. I’m in favor of single-payer; that would be real health-care reform. If you want to say you ended the war in Iraq, you can’t leave 50,000 U.S. combat troops and 175.000 contractors there.”

“We strive to change the Democratic Party both from the outside and the inside,” said Gracian, PDA’s reluctant spokesperson. “We organize people to vote in the local caucuses, and when these caucuses push on the Democratic Party for progressive platforms, we get results. We try to raise money for progressive candidates and try to get people elected.”

Gracian said working within the Democratic Party to push for progressive candidates and issue positions is the only practical way “to counter the hard Right, who I think are just fascists who want to impose their own morality on us all. I’m very scared of people abandoning the Democratic Party because it may be the only bulwark against these fascists. They do not have any thought-out ideas to bring the nation where it should be. All they say is don’t grow the government. Bush created the Nazi concept of ‘homeland security’ in the U.S. and decimated the Constitution while the Tea Party movement said not a peep. As soon as a Black man came into the Presidency they went after him with a racist hate campaign. … We need to keep the Democrats in office. I’m too scared to let go of the Democratic Party. We need to push the Democratic Party to be more progressive.”

After the three speakers, Eder opened the meeting to a freewheeling discussion which began with Herb Shore, local organizer for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), making many of the same points as Gracian. “There’s a famous event in Germany in 1932, where the German Communist Party said there was no difference between Hitler and the Social Democrats. We know the consequences of that. When things are tight and the ‘greater evil’ is really evil, you have to look at the lesser evil. DSA supports Barbara Boxer over Carly Fiorina for U.S. Senate and Jerry Brown over Meg Whitman for Governor. We do support independents and Greens, but we believe the Left first needs to create a social movement, and then electoral politics will come later.

Eugenia Cutler said that progressives and Leftists need to focus on what unites them rather than what divides them. She said she’d been inspired by the previous SUF meeting that reported back from the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, but the policy ideas discussed at that nationwide event can only be advanced by a unified Left. “You need to stress what the Green Party, Peace and Freedom, DSA and others agree on,” she said. “We need to put pressure on the Democratic Party to stop ignoring their base and get together on one candidate. Right now we’re just voting for the least bad, and this [economic crisis] is a good opportunity to start uniting.”

Local activist Fred Lonidier mentioned another type of organization he’s been involved in: the Labor Party. Noting that the U.S. doesn’t have a parliamentary system, which has allowed Green Parties in other countries to claim a share of power in government, he said the Labor Party was a project of the late union leader Tony Mazzochi “to win the labor movement over to a labor party” and “to resolve the structural impediments to [alternative] parties in the U.S.” Arguing that electing Democrats is crucial to the labor movement because Republicans have become so aggressively opposed to workers’ rights to organize that they fill the labor boards with appointees that routinely rule against unions, Lonidier said, “The Labor Party decided only to contest elections where there was a good chance of winning.” He also complained that the Peace and Freedom Party had kept local progressive Democrat Dan Kripke from winning a Congressional election by splitting the progressive vote and thereby allowing his incumbent Republican opponent to stay in office.

Elizabeth Fatah made a dramatic presentation urging the Left to abandon participation in electoral politics altogether. She called for “a strong boycott of elections, not just sitting at home but going to polling places with leaflets and telling people, ‘Stop voting! What do you accomplish?’ To use all your money and time to push for a candidate on the national level is a waste. My point is to boycott elections in a very meaningful way and explain to people why you’re not voting.” She said that the Democrats had shown their true colors by using the courts to keep Ralph Nader off the ballot in several states when he ran for President as the Green Party nominee, and also got Green Party candidates in several Pennsylvania Congressional districts kicked off the ballot.

“I don’t believe there’s a two-party monopoly in this country,” said local marriage equality activist and self-proclaimed “commie fag” Michael Anderson. “There’s a one-party monopoly, the Corporate Party, and everything else. When I think of the Democrats I think of slavery, the Dixiecrats [the Right-wing Southern Democrats who prevented any serious civil rights legislation from being enacted for the first two-thirds of the 20th century], more bombs dropped on Iraq under Clinton than under Bush I, the first cuts in Social Security an the repeal of Glass-Steagall [the New Deal-era act that separated investment and commercial banking, whose 1999 repeal encouraged financial speculation and arguably set the stage for the current economic collapse].” Anderson said it would take “multiple strategies” for the Left to turn the country around, but he made clear that working within the Democratic Party was not one of the strategies he had in mind.

“I’m not a political activist per se, but typically I’ll vote for a Green, Peace and Freedom or Democratic candidate depending on who’s on the ballot,” said John Micheneau. “I’m with the San Diego Nonviolent Communication Group [http://www.sdnvc.org] and I want to talk about a conversation to shift people to the values we’re espousing. I was raised in a really Right-wing home, and my parents made me read John Birch Society literature. It was in college that I was exposed to other views. One question I have is how to talk to your parents and friends. One idea [researcher] George Lakoff had is to use a language of values and reach common ground through a cognitive approach. Our organization is working on an emotional approach to common ground. When I see a newspaper I feel really sad, but how do I work through my emotions before I talk to a Republican at the bus stop?

“I think we can all agree this election is one of the most important we’ve faced,” said PDA member John Malamud. “PDA works inside and outside the Democratic Party, and we have six core principles, all of which are on the Green Party’s list as well. I think that’s what we’re all fighting for here, but in this year’s election if we boycott or vote Peace and Freedom or Green, we’re helping elect Republicans. We need to walk the streets for the Democratic Party, and also look for more candidates who believe in what we believe in.”

Local activist and senior citizen John Falchi said that he’s recently been working with students and has been struck at how radicalized they’ve become by the way state budget cuts threaten their ability to complete their educations. “These are the people that will be working your issues,” he said. “The things we want won’t be accomplished when we’re as divided on the Left as we are now. We can keep our identities [as separate organizations] but we need to come together to work for the people.”

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Miriam Clark