from Liberal Street Fighter

There are always transitions in life. Some of them are formal. A ceremony of some sort is performed, or a test completed. Sometimes transitions are forced upon us, by circumstance or by crisis.

This isn’t true just for individuals, but for societies, for organizations and for political parties. We are in a period of deep crisis now, with hard-right reactionaries in full control of most of the major institutions of our society. Institutions that SHOULD be helping to oppose the right, including the Democratic Party leadership and the leaders of the labor movement, too often seem to be trapped in self-defeating patterns and wedded to tradition and existing perks. They hold tight to the small pebble of hope for change, refusing to hold their hand open, refusing to let new leadership, new ideas, to help that pebble to change hands, to form the beginning of a brighter future.

After months of struggle and negotiation, several important unions split from the AFL-CIO to form Unite to Win. Perhaps this move can be a model for a newly energized left on more than just labor issues. If the pebble won’t be offered, perhaps it must be pried loose.  

Perhaps it is time for us to leave.
Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, wrote in an op-ed in the LA Times:

But unions, overall, continue to decline. And the AFL-CIO — the national labor federation for the last half-century — has failed to make the hard decisions and take the necessary steps to make the union movement grow again. For months, a group of major unions has been talking to the AFL-CIO leadership on how to reorder priorities and modernize the federation’s strategy and structure. But to no avail.

That’s why we at the SEIU and three other major unions declared over the weekend that we would not participate in the AFL-CIO national convention in Chicago this week. And on Monday our union — with 1.8 million members — along with the 1.4-million-member Teamsters announced we would withdraw from the federation, effective immediately.

The Teamsters and the SEIU have joined with five other unions — Unite Here, the Food and Commercial Workers, the laborers, the carpenters and the farm workers — to form the Change To Win Coalition, representing nearly 6 million workers. This is a dramatic step that we hope will open up opportunities similar to the surge in worker unity and organization when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was created in the 1930s because the American Federation of Labor (AFL) failed to adapt to the changing economy of that era.

This decision is momentous, and more than a little frightening. Labor has been shrinking, but is still a powerful part of efforts to elect Democrats to office. As is true whenever a major chance is taken, the possibilities of disaster are not insubstantial. The problem is, the possiblities of disaster without major change are assured. A true crossroads has been reached, and not just by labor.

As was made clear in the DLC meeting in Ohio, the leadership of the Democratic Party is not any more open to real change than the labor federation’s leadership is. Top down, toe the line … the self-same problems are evident in both organizations.

Citizens and activists on the left have been left adrift by the Democratic Party for many years. The party relentlessly portrayed by the Republicans and a compliant media as “liberal” has been anything but. Under the leadership of the DLC and allied organizations, as well so-called “centrist” politicians like Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid and others, the party has championed, often alongside the Republicans: a shredding of the social safety net; an expansion of so-called free trade (free for corporations to exploit more markets, and more workers); an expansion of the prison/industrial complex; a disasterous war of choice in Iraq; shrinking availability of free and available women’s health care. Not a proud or remotely “liberal” record.

This recent history has left true liberals, workers, the poor, the GBLT community and peace activists with no voice in the political dialogue. The lack of balance in the debate has left us in our current precarious state, with decades of growing deficits, deteriorating public works, an inefficient and inequitable healthcare system and an educational system that is a pale shadow of the one that used to be among the world’s finest.

It is time for the left to begin the hard work of building an independent bloc of voters within the party. It’s tempting to advocate leaving the party completely, but that is a daunting project, and not really necessary. There IS no Democratic Party. There is the ossified skeleton of the oldest political party in the world, a party that once could claim to be the champion of the poor, of the middle and working class, the party that fought for civil rights and women’s rights.

It’s important to remember, however, that the party had to be FORCED to become those things. It was the activity of writers, activists, voters, students … citizens of principle, confronting hardship or injustice, put pressure on the party to change, to grow, to FIGHT. It’s been done before, and it can be done again.

Strong liberals and progressives within the party must be strongly supported, but support should come through activist groups and directly to the campaigns of elected officials and candidates who support a progressive agenda. NO money or support to the DSCC and DCCC if they insist on pushing candidates that aren’t consistent with progressive political values. If you can, work hard to get local progressives into office in your local party, as delegates at state conventions and then delegates to the next Democratic Convention. If at all possible, a fight has to be led at the convention to insert influence on the party platform.

The first priority has to be to rebuild the party from the bottom up. ONLY progressive candidates in the Presidential primary should get our work, and we should work hard and communicate to find a consensus candidate to head off the DLC/Corporate candidate if possible. If the party “leadership” insists on offering us only weak choices like Sen. Clinton, Sen. Kerry or Sen. Bayh, the left should concentrate its efforts on local races, on taking as many Governors mansions, state legislatures and House and Senate seats as we can. Rebuilding this party and saving this party, may take many years. Much more damage will be done, even if a Republican-in-Dems clothing like Senator Clinton should take the White House.

We’ll be told we have to be “pragmatic.” That battles must be picked, and that the long-term goals must be secondary to the short-term means. That is not the kind of party, or the kind of country, that any of us want to be a part of. We want to live in a solidly humanist country, a modern country, a country not held hostage to greed and superstition. As M. N. Roy put it:

One of the most outstanding characteristics of humanist practice is that its political ideal is not of the kind to be achieved at some particular point of time in an incalculable future. For humanists, means and ends are not so differentiated. The means are also part of the end. We are not setting up a perfectionist ideal to be achieved perhaps two hundred years hence. We say that a good and rational society will be a society which is composed of good and rational human beings. And we say that every human being is potentially good, that is, moral.

Small groups of good and rational men will be the concrete beginning for the creation of good and rational human society, which is the object of all humanist politics. Such a beginning is bound to spread, and the process will accelerate as its results become known.

We can be part of that beginning, and in order to do it we need to follow the example set by the SEIU, the Teamsters and the other unions in their new coalition. We must break free of old, broken structures and find new, 21st Century ways of political activism, a new way of bringing a government of enlightened humanist values to power in the United States. This will be a struggle that will take many years, as the current leadership will fight, scream and sabotage much of what we are trying to do. They will threaten, cajole and demonize, but that is nothing new … they do that already.

Time for us to leave the old ways of doing things, and the current party structure has proved they don’t deserve our support, money or hard work.

Time to leave them behind.

“Kung Fu” screen grabs from fusionanomaly dot net
cartoons of Jonik from mindfully dot org
Crossroads graphic from EXTRA, a newsletter from UPMC

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