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The Twilight of Liberalism: Decline of the Working Families Party

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The Working Families Party – darling of The Nation-reading liberals in New York State – is in trouble. The NY Daily News reported this week that major unions (SEIU 1199, United Federation of Teachers, and the Hotel Trades Council) had quietly dropped financial support of the organization in late 2014.

Those of us who have long fought for an independent, radical left will not mourn what is likely to be the slow decline of the WFP, though if we are lucky it may take the form of a quick implosion.

The party’s stated goal is to use New York’s fusion voting system, which confusingly allows for a candidate to run on multiple party lines, in order to help elect Democrats (and occasionally Republicans) to office. This has always been like a pale echo of the 1930s Popular Fronts where liberal parties used electoral support from reformist Socialist and Communist parties to bind voters that might otherwise radicalize to a more conservative path, because a supposedly left-wing party had vouched for the moderate, pro-capitalist parties. Bind the WFP has, enticing people to vote for Hillary Clinton, Andrew Cuomo, Barack Obama, and a host of state-figures tied, in the end, to the political establishment. Typically they have unashamedly endorsed candidates running against independent leftists such as the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins (who happens to be a socialist, citizen-organizer, working-class Teamster and twice candidate for governor).

The party has run up against what all third-way parties have faced in this era of deepening contradictions within capitalism – there is no longer capacity in the system for the “third way” of moderate neoliberalism and austerity-with-a-human-face to address massive inequality, the climate crisis, endless war, etc. Polarization has meant a rebirth of class struggle at the polls, with voters openly supporting parties that popularize a move beyond the moderate reforms, identity politics and pro-business policies of Democrats and Social Democrats that have been de rigueur since the 1980s. The mirror-image on the right has been the rise of a populism that openly celebrates the anti-immigrant postures and safety-net gutting that had been tacitly coded in the rhetoric of mainstream conservative parties.

Within the Working Families Party the contradictions of the old-model of liberalism have been laid bare: the party’s steering committee has long been dominated by major union donors, who literally purchased a seat at the table alongside party members hailing from Democratic-linked activist groups. Peddling the party line to Democrats and some influential Republicans meant WFP could claim a seat at the table for state budget and contract negotiations, and the activist wing would occasionally get a sop thrown their way especially since they favored a typical liberal half a loaf” strategy. The pro-business Democrat would be able to claim they acted progressively, union leaders that they delivered to their members, and activists that they were fighting the good fight while supporting politicians that somehow also supported free trade agreements, military buildups and foreign wars.

This is a microcosm of modern liberalism since the 1930s, though it has become more visible in the post-Vietnam era as business has increasingly rejected any form of social welfare spending. Pressures from capitalism itself have made this arrangement untenable, and the WFP faced a revolt two years ago as the union leadership wanted to endorse austerity-championing Andrew Cuomo in his re-election campaign and the activist wing pushed the moderate reformist Zephyr Teachout. The unions won, but the rift was clear: in the face of even limited pressure the establishment bureaucrats would tack right and support an establishment candidate. WFP has supported Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016, but now it is clear that they have done so bereft of the funds and voting pushback from most of their major union members; the party will still back Democrats down the line in the fall using the Sanders nod to screen their unswerving loyalty to the Democratic Party.

Perhaps the WFP will be saved by a Democratic party that needs a progressive face to shield it from increasingly dissatisfied and potentially radical voters willing to break with a thoroughly ossified political system. I think it much more likely that the party will fade into a pale half-life before disappearing entirely, leaving the sharpening contradictions to be fought between a resurgent independent left and the Democratic/Republican establishment. I doubt it, or the bankrupt model of transactional liberalism it peddled, will be missed much.

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Peter LaVenia received a PhD in Political Theory from the University at Albany, SUNY. He has been an activist and organizer for over 15 years and has worked for Ralph Nader in that capacity. He is currently the co-chair of the Green Party of New York, and can be reached on Twitter: @votelavenia.

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