The Organization Question in US Progressive Politics

Fast food workers fighting for a living wage. The new civil rights movement fighting police brutality and for “black lives matter.” Immigrant workers and their families fighting for citizens rights they have earned but are continually denied. Teachers fighting against union busting charter schools and defending their pensions and the right to bargain from constant right wing attacks. Public workers resisting Koch brothers funded ‘open shop’ initiatives in a dozen States, designed to destroy their unions and collective bargaining rights. Minorities and allies defending against conservative legislators in North Carolina and elsewhere attempting to deny them their right to vote. Environmentalists confronting the escalating poisoning of US water and air from shale fracking. Seniors and retirees opposing efforts to deny social security disability benefits and legislation in Congress to raise Medicare doctor costs. Independent truck drivers fighting federal laws that prohibit them from unionizing.

Contingent, part time faculty everywhere in colleges across the USA organizing to secure a decent wage that finally pays above poverty levels and provides a semblance of job security beyond semester to semester employment. Union workers in manufacturing, locked in a desperate last ditch effort to prevent a new Asia-U.S. free trade agreement that will mean millions more lost jobs. Citizens from all groups and classes working to pass a constitutional amendment to reverse the US Supreme Court’s blank check to billionaires to buy politics. The list goes on, and on… and on. Resistance is everywhere in the U.S. at the grassroots. But the gains are few. It’s like 1932—i.e. after the crash but before the storm. So why so little to show for so much effort?

In 2008 many placed their hope in the faux-progressive presidential candidate named Obama. He certainly talked the talked. His advisers ran one of the slickest PR campaigns in modern US history. After eight years of ‘fist in your face’ corporate rule under George W. Bush, many were desperately ready to believe whatever Obama and his ad-men advisors told them. They listened. They believed. But they did not understand that in the US politicians have made an art form out of telling people whatever they want to hear in election campaigns, and then go and do what their corporate campaign paymasters tell them they must do.

If anyone had bothered to investigate Obama’s financial and business connections before 2008, they would have discovered the big Chicago corporate benefactors who handpicked him out of a south Chicago political ‘no man’s land’ and pushed him to the top on an accelerated fast track. They would have discovered his hedge fund roommates and buddies from his Harvard years. And his close connections to Wall St. interests. But they didn’t. They believed because they wanted to believe that Obama and the Democrats were different and would save them from the Bushes, Cheneys, the Rumsfelds, the bankers, and the rest of the US political elite. They believed because there was no alternative—i.e. because there was no other organization on the US political horizon they could turn to that raised the potential of something different, something real, something outside the two wings of the single corporate party of US America.

Fast forward to 2015 today. Rewind the old 2008 tape and the show is about to begin again. Like a bad TV comedy rerun, only the names of the players have changed. Substitute gender for race, and we have Hillary Clinton instead of African-American Barack Obama. If we only pick the right race—scratch that—the right gender, that will surely ensure a progressive candidate and solution. Identity politics is the name of the game in US politics. And single issue politics the bane of the American liberal left.

Déjà vu All Over Again

So now the cycle has begun again. As the great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said: “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Among union leaders, leaders of various ethnic organizations, church leaders, liberal academics, and all the rest that consider themselves “progressives,” one today hears the same refrain: Elizabeth Warren, Senator from Massachusetts, is our preferred candidate. If Hillary implodes before November 2016 national elections, we have Elizabeth Warren in the wings. Hillary may be the only one who can win against a Republican. But Elizabeth will keep Hillary honest and ensure she, Hillary, adopts appropriate progressive positions during the 18 month campaign that lies ahead. Push the Democratic Party to the left and Hillary will have to follow.

And this year we are especially fortunate, progressives add. Now we have an even more progressive candidate, left of Warren, waiting to step up as well—the Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, who also announced his candidacy for president in recent weeks. If Warren pushes the party left, then Sanders, just outside the party (actually always with one foot in it) can pull her still further left. And who knows, if Hillary falters, Sanders might actually push Warren to finally enter the race, providing her ‘left cover’ for her candidacy, as they say.

And Bernie’s not Ralph Nader, progressives happily further declare. He won’t disrupt either Hillary or Warren from winning, since he’s already publicly made it clear, in announcing his candidacy to run for president on the Democrat party ticket, that he’ll vote for whoever becomes the Democrat party candidate in 2016. Sanders may be an “independent,” but he’s running for the Democrat party nomination and he’ll support the Democrat candidate if he doesn’t win it. As Sanders himself put it in a recent CBS News interview, “If you want to mobilize people it is hard to do it outside the two-party systems.” As if popular mobilization could only occur within the two wings of the single (not two) party system that is U.S. politics.

So it’s “back to the future” once again. But nothing has changed organizationally from 2008, whether it’s Hillary, or Warren, or even Sanders. Progressives and leftists can maneuver on the ever-shrinking left margins of the Democrat party all they want, to little avail. In fact, corporate interests who today really run the Democrat party like and encourage that. Keeps potential discontented rank and filers oriented to the party during the campaign period, to be called upon to vote again for the ‘lesser evil’, to hold their noses and vote Democrat again, in order to prevent an even worse alternative. Like the Koch brothers “bought boy,” governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Or that remaining “royal,” the preferred choice of the big corporate blue bloods, Jeb Bush. Or that Tea party “enfant terrible,” Rand Paul.

Whoever rides in on the white horse — Hillary, Warren or even Sanders (or perhaps Biden, O’Malley of Maryland, or someone else) — it’s still the horse that chooses the direction it wants to take the rider. And that horse is the Democratic Party’s corporate leadership.

In the late 1980s, led by the corporate faction within it at the time, then called the ‘Democratic Leadership Conference’ (DLC), the influence and role of anything resembling progressive forces within the Democratic party began a long decline. Bill Clinton was the first DLC candidate. Once in office, he delivered on free trade, tax cuts for investors, purged welfare programs, gave a green light to the health insurance lobby to merge and acquire competitors at will, accelerated the destruction of defined benefit pension plans, let big banks like Citigroup run the U.S. Treasury Dept., opened up China imports to the U.S., embarked on military adventures in Europe and Somalia, deregulated financial institutions and commodity trading, and even suggested the partial privatization of social security trust fund investing. When George W. Bush replaced Clinton, he merely drove a bigger hole through the various openings that Clinton provided. The Democratic Party transformed during the Bill Clinton years, to an even more strongly dominated corporate-financed and corporate run party by 1990s end. There was no need for the DLC by the end of the decade; the DLC had become the Party leadership elite.

Formerly a coalition of interests — union, urban activists, ethnic and minorities, unions, progressive intellectuals, and business interests — the Democrat party today is not the Democrat party of one’s fathers. It is not the party of Franklin Roosevelt. It is an entirely different political animal. And those within it, or support it, who think it can be reformed and again become a party of FDR are seriously deluding themselves. Nevertheless, progressives still talk in terms of push this or pull that candidate. (Push too hard, and they get “Kuciniched,” as in the case of party progressive maverick, Dennis Kucinich, who pushed too far left. He then had his U.S. House of Representatives district conveniently restructured out from under him by a committee of Republican and Democrat party leaders, leaving him with no seat in Congress).

“Inside” vs. “Outside” Strategies

Despite the Democratic Party having been transformed in all but name over the course of the last quarter century, the old debates are again being resurrected among trade unionists, liberal intellectuals, and progressives in the U.S. — i.e. debates about whether the best strategy in 2016 is an “inside” or an “outside” strategy in relation to the Democratic Party.

What is meant by “inside-outside” strategy is whether it is best to work “inside” the Democratic party or ‘outside’ it to bring about changes in programs and policies that the party nominee for president will carry into the next presidential election campaign and, by assumption, translate into action after winning the election.

“Inside” means working within the party to convince the Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, to run for the Democrat party presidential nomination and to support her should she do so; “Inside” also means, at minimum, to assist Warren to raise issues in caucuses and local levels to force Hillary Clinton to adopt more progressive positions during the upcoming campaign.

“Outside” strategy means trying to achieve more or less the same by supporting the Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Sanders would raise real issues in the Democratic party debates before and during the primaries, to move the party itself left. That would, according to political logic, force Hillary Clinton to propose ideas during the debates and primaries period that she could not later back away from during the general election after the primaries. Within the party itself, albeit on its left wing, Warren could not be as aggressive with new ideas or as critical of Hillary, as could Sanders located outside the party.

But all this has been tried before, and failed to result in any change. “Inside” strategies have been employed by Democrats, from Jesse Jackson in the 1980s to Dennis Kucinich and now Elizabeth Warren. “Outside” strategies have been undertaken by the most recent experience with a Labor Party, from the 1990s through mid-2000s; the so-called Working Families Party’ launched by the AFL-CIO; and now the Sanders’ candidacy.

What Will It Take?

The past 35 years in U.S. politics shows conclusively that neither ‘inside’ nor ‘outside’ strategies targeting the Democratic Party have any effect on the leadership elite of that party, a strongly pro-corporate interests elite, or have any effect on the policy directions that leadership elite wants to take. So are Warren and Sanders wasting their time?

No. They introduce ideas into the public discussion. But that’s basically all. Their discussion of ideas won’t lead to any fundamental change. And change is what is needed. Workers, students, immigrants, minorities, union members, don’t need to be informed about income inequality, or anything else. They know. What’s needed is organization. And by organization is meant a new, grassroots, bottoms-up movement that is united in new ways organizationally as well as in terms of strategy and objectives. A movement that is unified across single issues and is oriented toward a struggle for institutional power, and not just improving the rights of this or that identity group.

Does that mean a Labor Party? Not if the strategy for creating such a party depends on getting the endorsement or support of top level union presidents in the AFL-CIO or Change to Win labor federations. They will never break from the Democratic Party. As the organized union movement grows weaker, it will depend even more on the Democratic Party. Union leaders pulled the plug after 2000 on the 1990s initiative and movement to form a labor party, fearful of a repeat of the Nader-Green party experience of 2000 where the Greens and Nader were blamed for George W. Bush’s victory in Florida and thus the presidency. But it was Democrat candidate, Al Gore, who refused to have the ballots in Florida properly re-counted, not the Greens. And it was the U.S. Supreme Court that gave Bush the election, based on the weakest of legal arguments — not the Greens or Nader.

The tragic collapse of the U.S. labor movement since 1980 can be traced in large part to its growing adherence and dependency on the Democratic Party. Even as union membership has fallen in the private sector to less than 6.7 percent of the workforce today, and as public sector workers are under increasing attack, national union leaders will never break from the Democrats and support a new independent party. In fact, they will exert all necessary pressure on local unions to prevent them from doing so as well.

What about the Occupy movement of 2011? Will it resurrect and move toward some form of party organization? The answer is not likely on either account. Occupy was a movement that mistook a tactic (occupy government or public spaces) for a strategy. And because tactics flow from strategy and there was no strategy, it was unable to adjust tactics quickly when attacked by a nationally organized and coordinated police offensive. And organization was of even less concern to the movement than was strategy.

How about left intellectuals? Can they call a conference for the purpose of forming an independent progressive party in the U.S.? Actually they have. Repeatedly. But like all such efforts in the past, no ‘top down’ party creation called by intellectuals has ever taken root and grew. They fundamentally lack any base on which to build a movement and organization.

That leads to the only possible solution. An alternative, progressive, independent party is desperately needed in the U.S. But progressive politics cannot continue down the dead end path of single issue politics. Party must come ‘from below’, from real social movements, led by real leaders of those social movements—i.e. leaders of immigrant rights groups, of local trade unions unafraid of national union opposition or pressure, of leaders of the new civil rights movements now in formation, of leaders of movements to protect and defend democratic rights, of leaders of environmental movements with a broader vision of strategic alliances, leaders of movements to fight for a living wage, and so on. These are the only real forces upon which independent political action can be built.

The first step toward forming such a unified movement is for leaders and representatives of grassroots movements to realize they cannot succeed long term pursuing their single issues on their own any longer. They must come together to create unified regional and national movements. Appropriate, pre-party forms of organization will be required, as may some kind of fundamental founding principles and a shared, basic strategic view. Creating a movement of movements is the first requisite, in other words. Perhaps a founding convention might be called as a preliminary first step, attended by a critical mass of grassroots leaders and activists by invitation—i.e. a founding convention followed by further subsequent follow up regional conventions. A united movement first, composed of real grassroots movements, leaders, and activists. Perhaps a party later, only after a unified front of movements is first firmly established.

Can such an approach work? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But its chances of success would be no less likely than trying to reform the Democratic Party by means of either an ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ strategy. Or by running around the country talking about things the majority of the American people already know by now, in this the 7th year of the fake recovery from the crisis of 2008.

Jack Rasmus is the author of the forthcoming book, ‘Systemic Fragility in the Global Economy’, by Clarity Press, 2015. He blogs at His website is and twitter handle, @drjackrasmus.

This content was originally published by teleSUR.

Jack Rasmus is author of  ’The Scourge of Neoliberalism: US Economic Policy from Reagan to Trump, Clarity Press, January 2020. He blogs at and hosts the weekly radio show, Alternative Visions on the Progressive Radio Network on Fridays at 2pm est. His twitter handle is @drjackrasmus.