What Happened to the Progressive Democrats?

Shaun Joseph tracks the fate of the left wing of the Democratic Party.

I think the usual approach when a left-wing socialist talks about the Democratic Party is to explain that the Party is a critical part of the political defense system of American big business–in Kevin Phillips’s apt phrase, “history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party.” This is proved quite easily through an examination of the typically awful reactionary policies of the Democratic “mainstream” throughout the ages–pro-war, anti-labor, against oppressed people–and by noting the many influential racists and dinosaurs in the Party’s right wing.

Now I completely agree with all that, but that’s not what I’m going to write about here, or not quite. When progressives or activists gravitate toward the Democratic Party, it’s generally not because of the panache of people like Joe Lieberman or Frank Caprio–it’s because of Dennis Kucinich or David Segal. That is, when people pin their hopes on the donkey, they pin it to the left flank. Therefore, an analysis of the progressive Democrats is of particular importance to those of us who want to build a non-sectarian yet independent political left.

So that’s the first thing. Secondly, I think that the course of the progressive Democrats over the last several years is worth discussing in its own right, as part of the general field of US politics. My main thesis is that the progressive Democrats have collapsed politically, in the sense that they no longer present a coherent front for alternative policies.

Furthermore, the defeat of the progressive Democrats is quite unusual: it coincides with a whole series of electoral and parliamentary successes. Paradoxically, the progressive Democrats got weaker politically at the same time they got stronger electorally; indeed, I’ll try to show that they got weaker politically precisely because they got stronger electorally. This ought to prove, or at least suggest, that the current strategy of most rank-and-file progressives–to elect more progressive Democrats–is not a viable way forward, and that the left needs to orient itself in a fundamentally different direction.

Before starting in earnest, a note on terminology: when I use the term “progressive Democrat,” I will generally mean it in the strict sense of a Democrat politician or operative, not in the sense of an ordinary progressive person who supports Democrats. I think these rank-and-file progressives are the hope for the future of the American left, and I don’t think they are subject to the pressures–or enticements–of people linked materially to the Democratic Party.

2004-2006: Victory in Defeat

There have been multiple attempts to capture the Democratic Party for progressive politics throughout US history; some of the more recent efforts include the Democratic Socialists of America of the 1960s-70s, the Rainbow Coalition of the late 1980s, and the Progressive Democrats of America, founded in 2004. (We might note, as an aside, that each of these efforts was actually more conservative than its predecessor, which you can just pick up from the names: from Democratic Socialists to Progressive Democrats–note also that “Democrat” goes from being the adjective to the noun.)

The history of each of these groups is interesting, but in this piece I’ll restrict myself to the history in 2004 and after. (I strongly recommend Lance Selfa’s The Democrats: A Critical History for the full history of the “inside-outside” strategy. Selfa’s columns on current US politics are also indispensable.)

As everyone knows, the 2004 elections were a huge fiasco for the Democrats and their progressive supporters. John “Reporting for Duty!” Kerry ran a center-right campaign that never distinguished itself from Bush on any issue–except perhaps the “issue” of what the candidates did during the Vietnam War, which, incredibly, Kerry managed to lose.

Even worse, virtually the entire leadership of the antiwar movement, organized mostly by United for Peace and Justice, backed Kerry as the “anybody but Bush”–even though Kerry was openly pro-war. The movement was effectively silenced for an entire year, a blow from which it never really recovered. The Democrats also let loose a flood of harassment and fraud against Ralph Nader’s left-wing campaign, keeping Nader off the ballot and draining his already-minuscule funds. (In fact, several leaders of the PA Democratic Party are now in jail for misappropriating public money in order to, among other things, fund the attack on Nader.)

Ironically, it was in this terrible atmosphere that the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) launched and prospered. Founded by political operatives connected to the Democratic Party, the main work of PDA during the elections was to corral discontented progressives into the Kerry swamp. As the PDA’s first press release stated, “[I]t will take former Nader voters to win over real progressives and help defeat Bush. Kerry can’t do it because his position on the war remains out of sync with most progressive voters….” In other words, we need antiwar activists to convince antiwar people to vote for Kerry, who has trouble with that because he’s pro-war.

(We might also point out that pro-Kerry “activism” was David Segal’s first foray into national politics, if you don’t count John McCain’s 2000 campaign. Still a Green in 2004, Segal founded Greens for Impact, which was curiously named since it argued for the Green Party to impact the election as little as possible. In retrospect, this was important preparation for Segal’s current career as a progressive Democrat.)

Just a year after its founding, PDA claimed thousands of members and chapters in thirty-six states. In fact, PDA was just one tree in a forest of new progressive Democrat-type formations that sprung up after the 2004 debacle. Democracy for America became prominent in this period, especially with the accession of Howard Dean to chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2005. The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) reorganized itself, hiring a full-time staffer for the first time and producing a programmatic document, the “Progressive Promise.” The activities of the progressive Democrats were (and still are) heavily promoted in the left-liberal press, such as the Nation.

Thus the aftermath of 2004 was a kind “victory in defeat” for the progressive Democrats: a shattering electoral result led to a fairly successful reorganization. But as we’ll see, the electoral success for which the progressive Dems had hoped would bring, surprisingly, a political wipe-out.

After 2006: Defeat in Victory

The elections of 2006 and 2008 gave the Democratic Party dominion over the most important sectors of the federal government: an enormous House majority, a Senate super-majority, and the all-important White House. What’s more, after 2008 the Democrats had a clear mandate for major reforms: Obama’s presidency was pre-emptively declared “transformational,” and the president was even awarded the Nobel Peace Price, in the same way you might give a child a too-big jacket, hoping he’ll grow into it.

Furthermore, the organization of the progressive Democrats consistently advanced, improving on gains begun in 2005. This is a point worth developing, since there’s a myth that the conservative Democrats (Blue Dogs, etc) are actually numerically dominant

In 2005, there were a little over 50 members of the CPC. After the 2006 election, it was 63. Today there are 83 members; it is actually the largest single caucus in the Democratic Party. The Blue Dogs, by way of contrast, have 54 members. It’s a similar story with the Congressional Out of Iraq Caucus: in 2005 there were 41 members; today there are 73.

The back-to-back electoral success also vindicated Howard Dean’s “50-state strategy” as DNC chief; Obama’s primary and then general election triumph was cheered by progressive Dems, who vastly favored Obama over Hillary Clinton (who admittedly ran a disgusting, race-baiting campaign).

However, the gains of the Democrats after November 2006 failed to translate into actual reforms–which was supposed to be, you know, the point. In 2007, the Democrats were unable to impose any changes on Bush’s war policy–in particular, they were unable to stop the so-called “surge”–because they never credibly threatened to withhold funding. After the Democratic Congress extended Bush’s illegal wiretapping program, even the New York Times was moved to complain, “[W]e are tempted to double-check that the Democrats actually won control of Congress last year.”

Still, while Bush was in office, it could be claimed that the Democrats lacked the critical “partner in the White House” to drive through progressive reforms. So I want track in some detail the fate of one of the major issues dealt with by Congress and the executive branch: the annual war supplemental funding bills.

In 2007, 140 House Democrats voted against the war supplemental. In 2008–remember, Bush was still in office–151 House Democrats voted against. The situation was completely changed after Obama became president. In June 2009, only 32 House Democrats voted against the war funding!

The back-story on the 2009 vote is interesting. For opportunist reasons, the Republicans actually voted against the funding, forcing dozens of Democrats to change their votes to ensure the funding would pass. In other words, these so-called “antiwar” Democrats didn’t vote against the funding…because they might have actually stopped the funding.

A few weeks ago, the 2010 war supplemental was passed with only 25 House Democrats voting no–about a third of the size of the alleged Out of Iraq Caucus. Thus in the second year of the Obama administration, the House Democratic vote against war funding has declined by a factor of six.

In a kind of half-assed substitute for the collapse of the vote against war funding, the progressive Dems are now voting for Afghanistan “exit strategy” legislation devised by Rep. Jim McGovern. Instead of forcing the administration’s hand by turning off the money spigot, the McGovern bill makes a rather retarded request for Obama Mission Control to come up with an “exit strategy”–as if the administration was not already flagrantly breaking its own withdrawal deadlines in Iraq. (Do you know that on August 31, “our combat mission in Iraq will end”? Mission accomplished!)

Finally, as a kind of tragicomic coda, we should note that Gen. David Petraeus, the literal author of the Iraq surge strategy that the Democrats mostly opposed in 2007, was confirmed by the Senate 99-0 to lead the war on Afghanistan–after the McChrystal affair exposed that the Afghanistan “surge” was in total crisis.

Now I want to reemphasize what’s going on here: it’s not simply that the Democrats haven’t stopped the war funding–which is bad enough–but even their parliamentary opposition to the war funding has collapsed to behind where it was while Bush was still in office.

There are a number of issues where this pattern has played out. It would test the reader’s patience to go through them all, but just to list some: health care, economic stimulus/jobs programs, financial reform, education, and immigration. In all these cases, even though the Democratic Party–including its specifically progressive wing–is at its strongest point numerically in at least ten years, the articulation of distinct progressive policy is a complete shambles, and the entire mainstream debate is monopolized by the corporatist center or (in the case of immigration) shared out between the center and far-right.

I should also mention that the progressive Dems have been completely ineffective in halting the extraordinary attacks on Black people and their organizations, in spite of (or because of) Black loyalty to the Democratic Party. It should be a huge scandal that the Congressional Black Caucus and major Black organizations have done basically nothing while ACORN was destroyed by a two-bit fraudster, or when the Obama administration fired Van Jones and Shirley Sherrod virtually on the say-so of Republican bloggers. (The White House has apologized to Sherrod, but only because she personally refused to be silenced–even the NAACP initially jumped on the anti-Sherrod bandwagon.)

Local Edition

The problems I’m describing are not just national, in my view, but exist at all levels of the Democratic Party. So let’s make a brief tour of progressive Democratism in Rhode Island.

There are 113 seats in both chambers of the General Assembly; ten of them are occupied by Republicans, one by an independent, and the other 102 are Democrats. The newly-installed Speaker of the House is Gordon Fox, generally regarded a progressive Democrat. In his first run as Speaker, Fox presided over one of the worst sessions of the House in recent memory, with reactionary, barely-debated legislation dribbling out of severely disorganized sittings in the wee hours of the morning.

Perhaps the worst long-term piece of legislation is the income tax restructuring, which cuts the top income bracket from 9.9% to 6%–in a state with serial budget crises. (Not to mention the $100M hole in the current budget.) These tax cuts, mainly for the rich, were passed unanimously in both chambers–not a single legislator voted against them.

I asked David Segal what happened, and he was kind enough to share his rationale. He told me, essentially, that the new income tax (top rate 6%) was a lesser evil than the fully phased-in flat tax (basically top rate 5.5%)–which is probably true. But apparently no one, not even in the Progressive Caucus that Segal purports to organize, thought of the obvious policy: get rid of the flat tax and vote against the tax cuts. The point here isn’t whether or not that could pass, but that the progressives didn’t even say it.

I should probably say something about Segal’s campaign for Congress, since it seems to be a rallying point for many rank-and-file progressives. I like David personally, and he’s done several good things in his political career for which he deserves credit (including supporting the Westin workers). But it seems to me that his campaign actually reproduces the political vacuation of the progressive Democrats generally.

If you go to the “Issues” page on Segal’s campaign website, there’s an article from Huffington Post that’s basically a campaign announcement…and that’s it. (Amusingly, David Cicilline’s “Issues” page is exactly the same way. Maybe they hired the same consultant.)

After a Democratic debate where the candidates came out sounding rather similar, Segal’s campaign issued a statement entitled, “The Differences Were Clear.” Yet the statement didn’t list any concrete policy differences; just the kind of “they’re for politics-as-usual, I’m for change” pablum that everybody says about everybody else. (My own favorite line from the debate was Segal’s impressive assertion that “my views now are almost non-ideological,” which is sort of like saying, “my ideas now are almost not ideas.”)

Conclusion

Let me try to sum up. The recent history of the progressive Democrats can be broken up into two major periods: first, from 2004 through 2006, when they were quite successful in organizing and projecting themselves as a political pole of attraction; second, from 2007 until today, a period of growing political disorientation, even or especially under conditions of unprecedented organizational and electoral strength.

How can we explain this seeming inconsistency?

In the first period, the main task of the progressive Democrats was to direct all progressives toward the Democratic Party so that the Democrats could take power. For this task, they needed both organization and a basic political program on key issues like the war, health care, social spending, etc. These were duly created.

In the second (current) period, on the other hand, the main task of the progressive Democrats is to keep the Democratic Party in power; they are now the left wing of the party in charge of American imperialist capitalism. Because the progressive Democrats’ whole theory of social change revolves around working through the system, they need to stay in the system; but for them to stay in the system, the Democratic Party has to stay in power; but for the Democrats to stay in power, they have to stay within the bounds set by the capitalist elite that really runs the country.

The progressive Democrats are caught between what they’ve promised and what the ruling class will permit–which these days is very little indeed. Faced with a contradiction insoluble within the bounds of their basic theory of social change, the progressive Dems have mostly responded with silent capitulation and the quiet trimming of sails.

But this is no time for the left to be silent–actually it’s a dangerous time for the left to be silent. The left outside the Democratic Party is small–no doubt about that–but it seems common-sensically better to be small and trying to do the right thing than big and usually doing the wrong thing.

It’s time to build the unapologetically radical, independent organizations that can explain to working people that we make the world run, and we ought to remake it so it runs right.

´╗┐This article was adapted from a lecture for the International Socialist Organization. It first appeared at RIFuture.org.

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  1. Pingback: Mourning Becomes Elections: Rhode Island’s Progressive Democrats in the Midterms « RISocialism.org

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