What Jimmy Taught Us

BY Joel Bleifuss

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This issue honors James Weinstein, the founding editor and publisher of In These Times. With testimonies from 28 family members, friendsand colleagues we remember the man who through his books and this magazine sought to point progressive Americans to political strategies that work.

I first met Jimmy at an annual convention of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the late ’70s. He was one of the leaders of a group of us, mostly from the Midwest, who thought DSA should be more electorally focused and challenge the Democratic establishment by running openly democratic socialist candidates in party primaries. On the other side were those, mostly from New York and Washington and led by Michael Harrington, who, wary of alienating liberal Democrats and labor leaders, sought to gain political influence through coalitions.

History has vindicated Jimmy. Lacking pressure from an organized populist left, the Democratic Party gradually began to morph into Republican lite.

Jimmy understood three things that too often have eluded others.

  1. If American progressives want to make fundamental change rather than noise, they must overcome their ghettoization into single-issue enclaves and unite around inclusive goals, such as universal health care. Jimmy put it this way in The Long Detour, “How to unite people across lines of parochial interest and in favor of the general interest is what we will have to teach ourselves.”
  2. Political agitation that is not connected to a broader electoral strategy becomes nothing more than glorified legislative lobbying–and lobbying unsupported by tangible political power is as effective as herding cats.
  3. Because of institutional barriers, third party political efforts in the United States have never succeeded, which means the Democratic Party is the only viable vehicle for electoral action.

He elaborates on all of this in The Long Detour, the last lines of which are: “Of course, it’s easy to put this on paper, but not so easy to test the theory in action. That next step is up to you.”

Three articles in this issue explore efforts to take “that next step.” In the “House Call” column, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (R-Calif.), the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, discusses the plans of the largest Democratic caucus in the House. Matt Singer reports how Montana Democrats who effectively organized around a populist platform are ascendant in a state that gave a 20-point margin of victory to George W. Bush. Singer also writes about the newly formed Progressive Legislators Action Network, whose mission is to “change the political landscape in the United States by focusing on attainable and progressive state level actions.” Finally, Christopher Hayes and Rick Perlstein, two young writers whose work Jimmy championed, discuss how Democrats could improve their electoral fortunes by once again standing for something. (Webmaster note: These articles will be available online next week. 4/6/05)

Over the years, Jimmy taught me many things. One lesson I am still trying to learn is how to be an effective “beggar”–that is, how to best ask In These Times readers for the donations that the magazine relies on to publish. Many of you know that all journals of opinion, both left and right, depend on outside financial support to make up the deficit between operating costs and subscription income, and that In These Times’ ability to publish depends on contributions from readers who give above and beyond the cost of their subscription. Your support is absolutely crucial as we enter a new era. Please read our appeal.

Jimmy founded In These Times to help build a society that elevates human needs over corporate profit. The staff here believe that In These Times has never been more relevant to the struggle to build authentic democracy. We hear from readers that they believe so too. We are damn proud of the magazine we put out; proud to continue Jimmy’s legacy and take “that next step.”

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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