When will the organized Bernie Sanders base lose patience with the Democrats and strike out on its own? That question has captivated the independent left in the US since the 2016 election. Now, in the wake of Bernie Sanders’s second presidential primary loss, and as hopes of progressives taking over a largely impervious Democratic Party have dimmed accordingly, the long awaited moment may finally be approaching. In recent months, three chapters of Our Revolution (OR) and one local pro-Bernie group—based in Los Angeles, Oregon, central Connecticut, and Worcester, Massachusetts, respectively—have effectively broken with the Democrats. They all have affiliated with the Movement for a People’s Party (MPP), a national organization (est. in 2017) that aims to create a new, true progressive party. As a result, other OR chapters and separate Bernie-inspired groups may contemplate following suit. Hopefully before making that pivotal choice, they will get to know the MPP well and fully consider if it is the best vehicle for building a viable new party on the left.
Joining the MPP has distinct advantages. To its credit, the group offers what many progressives may want to hear—a passionate left-populist critique of corporate duopoly (especially of the Democrats) and a sharp call for a competitive new “People’s Party.” Moreover, the MPP has demonstrated a real knack for gaining significant endorsements, including those from a variety of notable progressive activists, left-leaning celebrities, and now even OR chapters. These qualities give the MPP a natural appeal to frustrated Bernie supporters looking for a new and exciting electoral focus outside of the increasingly discredited Democratic Party.
On the other hand, there are reasons to think carefully before signing on with the MPP. First and most obviously, some of the group’s claims about what its proposed party can accomplish sound strikingly grandiose. Leader Nick Brana states the following in a recent press release: “The People’s Party will unite working people into the largest party in America in the next four years…We will get ballot access nationwide, send representatives to Congress in the midterms, win the presidency in 2024, and revolutionize this country.” However, unless and until a truly epochal rift appears in one of the major parties, it is blatantly unrealistic if not misleading to proclaim that a progressive third party with no elected officials, few resources, and only the beginnings of a national organization will achieve such aims so quickly. And something the independent left needs most of all right now is a feasible set of bold objectives.
Second and also worrisome, there are indications that the MPP may not be a sufficiently grassroots and democratic outfit, despite calling itself a “movement” and highlighting its formal “decentralized and horizontal organizational structure.” Brana seems to be the main spokesperson, in addition to being the group’s sole official founder and national coordinator (until recently called the “director”). The MPP’s news postings and press releases regularly spotlight him and refer comparatively little to other members. This raises important questions about how much power Brana really shares with the rest of the MPP. Arguably, what the independent left needs least of all today is a rising proto-party dominated by one person. That would contradict fundamental progressive values, and it also could result in dubious decisions (unconstrained by enough critical feedback from the collective).
Given the gravity of the preceding two concerns, it is at least questionable whether the MPP has what it takes to lead its party-building effort successfully. Certainly, affiliates along with members could try to address apparent problems in the organization. But that could be difficult if it involves challenging ingrained norms.
A Promising Alternative
However, there is a different, perhaps less fraught and more promising way that left electoral groups (or breakaway factions within them) could Dem-exit and build a competitive new party. Generally they could proceed in a bottom-up, relatively autonomous fashion, and prioritize acquiring an image and actual record of electoral viability as third parties. In other words, they would focus first on the initially more attainable and necessary objective of constructing winning local parties; they would collaborate with parallel efforts elsewhere only when useful for that task. And they would wait to concentrate on creating viable parties on a statewide and national level until enough local success had made that seem achievable. That would make it possible to attract the broader public support and participation needed for a larger party to grow and flourish later. In the meantime, alignments with national organizations would only be pursued if compatible with the above strategy. Concrete, locally driven and locally oriented party-building would predominate for the foreseeable future.
Specifically, previously pro-Democratic left groups (or offshoots composed of more independent members) in different areas could begin by changing their name to reflect their new third party status. A good name for each could be “_____ (area) Progressive Party.” “Progressive” roughly describes the political orientation of the broad Sanders base. It also is a very popular left label among the general public, much more so than “liberal” or “socialist.” However, similar yet more populist sounding labels—such as “People’s” or “99%”—might also work in practice. And more radical names might actually fit certain localities. In any case, there needn’t be a uniform party name at this early stage. But for the sake of simplicity I will use “Progressive” below as a generic new left party designation.
Next, freshly branded community Progressive parties would recruit and run their own non-duopoly candidates for races in 2021 and beyond. These candidates would obtain and use a Progressive ballot line where possible and practical. But otherwise, they would run as technically independent or nonpartisan, yet still strongly identify publicly as Progressive. Again, they would start at the local level, where it is much more possible to win. They would only jump to the next level if and when they seemed capable of winning there too, or at least making a good showing.
Crucially, Progressive parties would carefully choose their campaigns so as to maximize the chances for catalyzing victories. Ordinarily, Progressive candidates would have to be willing and able to run competitively, unlike the common Green and Libertarian candidates who lose by huge margins and tarnish their party’s public image. A good local candidate would normally need to have a clear, simple populist message; strong community or movement connections; a commitment to work long and hard to reach voters; and in many cases, an adequately resourced campaign operation with a substantial crew of helpers. Location would also matter. Some of the best settings for a Progressive breakthrough could be smaller or less populated districts where it is easier to interact with most voters; communities where one major party dominates (thereby reducing the chance of splitting the left-leaning vote); or places where the political establishment has become entrenched, overconfident, and unresponsive to organized popular demands. And a national independent Progressive PAC (such as this new group) could channel additional resources to only the most capable Progressive campaigns in the country.
While a more dramatic, top-down vision of party-building may viscerally appeal to some left activists, the methodical, bottom-up approach described here could be surprisingly effective. Just a handful of key local election breakthroughs by Progressives could become a galvanizing critical mass of success—enough to inspire and accelerate the development of compelling new Progressive parties in particular municipalities, and later in states. Initial lower level wins could build the voter bases and candidate reputations essential for spring-boarding to subsequent higher level victories. This roughly is the course that Bernie Sanders and his allies took in Vermont, sparking the formation of a competitive state left third party (the Vermont Progressive Party) from the 1980s onward. If similar developments occurred elsewhere over several election cycles, they could create the basis for a movement of significant Progressive parties and the inspirational nucleus of a potentially viable national Progressive Party. Within this time frame, each of the new parties would not necessarily have to win multiple high-profile races, as has happened in Vermont. Even a series of more modest Progressive advances in different places could dispel doubts that a third party can win, and thereby draw formerly latent sympathizers to a national Progressive party-building project.
The beauty of the foregoing strategy is that it seeks a viable new party through a graduated series of accomplishable, grassroots-based electoral successes. It does not require hype from a national leader, nor does it depend on the rare coming of some great political rupture that triggers a sudden, seismic shift of support. Importantly, many Americans could be ready to back a national Progressive Party, but only once it seems electorally serious and credible. Polls already show majority support for a wide range of progressive policies and the emergence of a third major party. In the current period of crisis, such sentiment could intensify and make it more likely that a potent new left-populist party would germinate sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, “the people,” on whom any such party would rely, first need to see—concretely, in microcosm, and then one step at a time—that the party’s candidates can prevail. Regardless of exactly how left electoral groups (or parts thereof) Dem-exit, it is vital that they enter their new, independent course with a strong commitment to creating and demonstrating the power to win elections.