Dancing Into the Majority

Once alienated, grassroots activists are finding ways to work with the Democratic Party establishment

Adam Doster May 23, 2007

Demonstrators attend a peace rally held by CodePink on March 8, 2003, in Washington, D.C.

When Michael Heaney served as a spe­cial guest to the Brook­ings Insti­tu­tion’s Gov­er­nance Stud­ies Pro­gram in the fall of 2002, he could­n’t ignore the grow­ing anx­i­ety sur­round­ing the inva­sion of Iraq. After march­ing to the White House with a local Code­Pink chap­ter and attend­ing larg­er ral­lies in D.C. that year, the bud­ding polit­i­cal sci­en­tist – now an assis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da – took an inter­est in the make­up of the anti­war move­ment. I just start­ed notic­ing all of the orga­ni­za­tion­al diver­si­ty of peo­ple there,” he says, and I got very inter­est­ed in under­stand­ing the dif­fer­ences between these orga­ni­za­tions, how they mobi­lize peo­ple, what they want­ed and how they framed their arguments.”

This curios­i­ty led him to team up with Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty soci­ol­o­gist Fabio Rojas, and togeth­er they coined the term Par­ty in the Street” to describe a set of indi­vid­u­als and orga­ni­za­tions that are both part of a grass­roots social move­ment and that iden­ti­fy and work with a polit­i­cal party.”

Their research, to be pub­lished in July in Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics Research, found that many left-lean­ing Amer­i­cans nav­i­gate between social move­ments and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. In sur­veys dis­trib­uted at large ral­lies and con­ven­tions in 2004 and 2005, Heaney and Rojas dis­cov­ered that a plu­ral­i­ty of anti­war activists iden­ti­fied as Democ­rats (40 per­cent) or artic­u­lat­ed some will­ing­ness to work with or vote for the par­ty (39 per­cent). On the oth­er hand, 20 per­cent of par­tic­i­pants iden­ti­fied as mem­bers of a third par­ty, which implies that they think orga­niz­ing under the Demo­c­ra­t­ic tent is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. From this data, Heaney and Rojas con­clude that many social move­ment activists are begin­ning to embrace the oppor­tu­ni­ties the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty pro­vides in order to achieve their lofti­er move­ment goals.

Radio host Lau­ra Flan­ders, who explores grass­roots insur­gen­cies across the coun­try in her new book Blue Grit: True Democ­rats Take Back Pol­i­tics from the Politi­cians (excerpt­ed on page 18), rec­og­nizes this phe­nom­e­non as well. Orga­ni­za­tions that for years would have defined them­selves as move­ment groups that eschewed elec­toral pol­i­tics and nev­er expect­ed to get any­thing from politi­cians are decid­ing to get involved,” she says.

Swelling the ranks

Numer­ous fac­tors con­tribute to the recent surge in grass­roots polit­i­cal orga­niz­ing, but pop­u­lar frus­tra­tion with the Bush admin­is­tra­tion is cen­tral. Heaney points to a deep dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the direc­tion of our coun­try, espe­cial­ly with the way Pres­i­dent Bush respond­ed to 911 and the way that the Iraq war [has gone] and all the mis­takes that were made and lies that were told.” The polit­i­cal momen­tum cre­at­ed by war pro­test­ers also helps acti­vate peo­ple to fight oth­er injus­tices per­pet­u­at­ed by Bush and his Repub­li­can cohorts, as shown by the immi­grant-rights march­es held in cities across the country.

But it’s not only anger with Bush that is caus­ing move­ment-par­ti­san orga­ni­za­tions to expand. Lack­lus­ter lead­er­ship from estab­lish­ment Democ­rats, many of whom remain timid on eco­nom­ic and social issues and hawk­ish on the war, has gal­va­nized dis­il­lu­sioned Democ­rats and out­side activists alike to seek anoth­er polit­i­cal path.

We’ve learned from issue after issue, going back to the Clin­ton era and ear­li­er, that elect­ing Democ­rats is just not enough to move our soci­ety for­ward,” says Jeff Cohen, founder of Fair­ness and Accu­ra­cy In Report­ing and a media advis­er to the Pro­gres­sive Democ­rats of Amer­i­ca (PDA), a pro­gres­sive polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion and a grass­roots PAC oper­at­ing inside the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. You need to elect Democ­rats with back­bone and with principles.”

Indeed, more and more pro­gres­sives who refused to sup­port spine­less Democ­rats and instead backed unsuc­cess­ful third-par­ty can­di­dates have come to under­stand the prag­mat­ic neces­si­ty of work­ing with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

In an elec­toral sys­tem based on win­ning a plu­ral­i­ty of votes, rather than some form of pro­por­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, Democ­rats hold a strik­ing advan­tage over out­side chal­lengers. In a study of the per­cent­age of Social­ist or Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty mem­bers in nation­al leg­is­la­tures across the world, only South Africa had less – zero – than the two who made it to the [U.S.] House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives a few times in the first quar­ter of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry,” G. William Domhoff, a soci­ol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San­ta Cruz, notes on his web­site. More left­ists were elect­ed to Con­gress in the 30s and ear­ly 40s as Democ­rats … than were ever ear­li­er elect­ed as social­ists.” The only way for pro­gres­sives to beat Democ­rats, then, is to join them.

PDA’s inno­v­a­tive approach

That’s the goal of PDA, per­haps the nation­al orga­ni­za­tion that most close­ly reflects the mod­el posit­ed by Heaney and Rojas. Found­ed in Rox­bury, Mass., dur­ing the 2004 Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion – pri­mar­i­ly by del­e­gates and activists from the cam­paigns of Howard Dean and Rep. Den­nis Kucinich (D‑Ohio) – PDA is attempt­ing to carve out a space for pro­gres­sives in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

The mem­bers of this grass­roots asso­ci­a­tion are going about that task using a strat­e­gy they call Inside/​Outside,” mean­ing PDA runs can­di­dates and lob­bies mem­bers inside the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty while ally­ing them­selves out­side the elec­toral are­na with orga­ni­za­tions that work to pro­mote its five stat­ed pri­or­i­ties: end­ing the Iraq war, uni­ver­sal health care, fair and clean elec­tions, eco­nom­ic jus­tice and envi­ron­men­tal sustainability.

I see Inside/​Outside as absolute­ly essen­tial,” says Bill Honig­man, PDA’s Cal­i­for­nia state coor­di­na­tor. There are going to be times when the par­ty needs to be shook up a lit­tle, and the only way to do that is from the out­side. By the same token, you can’t do it all from the out­side. You have to be involved in the par­ty to change things when it’s going the wrong way.”

Dean’s influ­ence on PDA’s struc­ture is hard to ignore. At the local lev­el, PDA hopes to set up indi­vid­ual chap­ters in all 435 con­gres­sion­al dis­tricts. This tac­tic is sim­i­lar to the 50 State Strat­e­gy” Dean has employed as DNC chair­man, which focus­es on orga­niz­ing Democ­rats in every vot­ing precinct at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment. So far, PDA Nation­al Direc­tor Tim Car­pen­ter says that the group has estab­lished chap­ters in 120 dis­tricts, which he describes as at least five folks com­ing togeth­er, pulling papers and meet­ing at least once a month.” As in all sub­stan­tial bot­tom-up orga­niz­ing, their progress is slow, as evi­denced by the dearth of local coun­cils in less pop­u­lat­ed states like Delaware and Wyoming. But res­i­dents else­where are express­ing great inter­est. Flori­da has 13 chap­ters and Cal­i­for­nia now boasts 23 locals along with close allies in the state assem­bly’s Pro­gres­sive Caucus.

PDA also fol­lows the fundrais­ing mod­el of the 2004 Dean cam­paign, rely­ing almost entire­ly on sus­tain­er dona­tions that aver­age $22 a month. These local chap­ters are where the action occurs, allow­ing PDA to orga­nize in sup­port of con­gres­sion­al actions or in response to lack­lus­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion. We’re try­ing to devel­op the grass­roots so that we build up all of our com­mu­ni­ties and not just focus on ones that clas­si­fy as swing dis­tricts,” says Honigman.

In many ways, PDA has assumed the role of a par­ty with­in a par­ty by coor­di­nat­ing col­lec­tive efforts of like-mind­ed activists while at the same time run­ning or endors­ing can­di­dates in cer­tain cir­cum­stances. How­ev­er, unlike the nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, the goal is not nom­i­nal elec­toral majori­ties; PDA aims to trans­form the par­ty into one dom­i­nat­ed by pro­gres­sive politi­cians, not cor­po­rate interests.

Through its will­ing­ness to apply more pub­lic forms of pres­sure like press con­fer­ences and teach-ins, PDA has earned nation­al recog­ni­tion. It was one of the first groups to pub­li­cize the infa­mous Down­ing Street Memo, which exposed anoth­er lay­er of White House decep­tion in the run-up to the war, and it ral­lied activists around Ohio’s vot­ing irreg­u­lar­i­ties in 2004. Mem­bers also pushed in ear­ly 2007 for a con­gres­sion­al debate on a ful­ly fund­ed with­draw­al of all troops and mil­i­tary con­trac­tors from Iraq.

On the inside, PDA was active this past elec­tion sea­son in var­i­ous Demo­c­ra­t­ic cam­paigns, includ­ing John Hal­l’s vic­to­ry in New York’s 19th Dis­trict. The local PDA chap­ter raised aware­ness of John Hal­l’s pro­gres­sivism by orga­niz­ing events through­out north­ern Westch­ester Coun­ty. Hal­l’s press sec­re­tary Tom Staudter lat­er cred­it­ed PDA with gen­er­at­ing vital momen­tum. While oth­er PDA-endorsed can­di­dates were not as suc­cess­ful, such as Chris­tine Cege­lis in Illi­nois’ 6th Dis­trict (who lost the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry by four per­cent­age points to Tam­my Duck­worth, the favorite of the par­ty estab­lish­ment), PDA orga­niz­ers think their local elec­toral orga­niz­ing is lay­ing the ground­work for sus­tain­able influ­ence down the road. Chap­ters were orga­nized pri­or to the cam­paign,” says Car­pen­ter, they endorsed that can­di­date and at the end of that race they were stronger and more chap­ters came out of them.”

Oth­er move­ment organizing

PDA is not alone in its efforts. A vari­ety of nation­al orga­ni­za­tions are simul­ta­ne­ous­ly engag­ing in elec­toral work and stan­dard move­ment organizing.

One promi­nent group is Code­Pink, the fem­i­nist anti­war group that was found­ed in 2002. Named with the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty’s col­or-cod­ed alert sys­tem in mind, Code­Pink is known for its non-vio­lent direct action cam­paigns. For exam­ple, in Novem­ber 2002, Code­Pink mem­bers began a four-month vig­il in front of the White House to oppose the Iraq inva­sion and have since repeat­ed­ly protest­ed at high-pro­file polit­i­cal hear­ings and fundraisers.

But a focus on local orga­niz­ing and build­ing insti­tu­tion­al move­ments links Code­Pink with groups like PDA. In four years, Code­Pink has estab­lished more than 250 local chap­ters, each of which runs autonomous cam­paigns and actions in their own com­mu­ni­ties while receiv­ing ideas and assis­tance from the nation­al unit. These cam­paigns include lob­by­ing mem­bers of Con­gress and coor­di­nat­ing diplo­mat­ic vis­its, such as a pro­gram that sent a del­e­ga­tion of 15 women to Iraq to meet with local women and hear their stories.

There is this Belt­way cul­ture,” says Dana Bal­ic­ki, Code­Pink’s media coor­di­na­tor. And we are ham­mer­ing at it to make sure there’s a real ele­ment of pub­lic discourse.”

Anoth­er prime exam­ple is the fledg­ing Auro­ra Project, spear­head­ed by Bill Fletch­er, Jr., founder of the Black Rad­i­cal Con­gress and a Belle Zeller Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor at Brook­lyn Col­lege, City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Fletch­er looks to Jesse Jack­son’s cam­paigns for pres­i­dent in 1984 and 1988 as mod­els. Jack­son and his allies, Fletch­er says, pro­mot­ed a vision of a non-par­ty polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion that could oper­ate inside and out­side the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and had a very broad tent with­in which pro­gres­sive social move­ments could find a place but where peo­ple of col­or did not get lost.” Jack­son’s coali­tion took a less demo­c­ra­t­ic shape than orig­i­nal­ly hoped, but for many of those involved, the poten­tial of the mod­el remains.

Like PDA, Auro­ra Project orga­niz­ers hope to build local elec­toral orga­ni­za­tions that are net­worked nation­al­ly. How­ev­er, unlike many oth­er move­ment orga­ni­za­tions, issues involv­ing race and gen­der fac­tor promi­nent­ly into the Auro­ra Project platform.

Orga­ni­za­tions, giv­en the his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States, do not have the option of tak­ing a pass on race if they want to build a majori­tar­i­an move­ment,” says Fletch­er. Attempt­ing to build a bloc that avoids it invari­ably ends up fail­ing or stum­bling at the min­i­mum.” Last Decem­ber in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., more than 50 expe­ri­enced activists met to dis­cuss strat­e­gy at the Auro­ra Pro­jec­t’s found­ing meet­ing. Orga­niz­ers are cur­rent­ly trav­el­ing around the coun­try talk­ing with local lead­ers about their plans, which, accord­ing to Fletch­er, have been met with enthusiasm.

Even MoveOn, an orga­ni­za­tion whose lead­er­ship focus­es more on nation­al issue advo­ca­cy than orga­niz­ing the grass­roots, has spawned 200 active local chap­ters through its elec­toral field­work and Inter­net tech­nol­o­gy. Sim­i­lar to PDA, these autonomous groups hold pub­lic edu­ca­tion­al events and par­tic­i­pate in nation­al advo­ca­cy cam­paigns while fos­ter­ing rela­tion­ships with their con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives, bridg­ing their out­side activ­i­ty with elec­toral organizing.

A num­ber of mem­bers of Con­gress have met with our [local coun­cils] because it’s clear that these are some of the peo­ple who are influ­en­tial in the dis­trict,” says Eli Paris­er, exec­u­tive direc­tor of MoveOn. It’s very excit­ing to start to see influ­ences in engaged cit­i­zens rather than the local crew of lobbyists.”

The path ahead

The Par­ty in the Street is music to the ears of lefty law­mak­ers, many of whom now hold key com­mit­tee and sub­com­mit­tee chair­man­ships but have not had an orga­nized, nation­al grass­roots arm back­ing their con­gres­sion­al bat­tles for quite some time.

Rela­tion­ships between mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus (CPC) and move­ment-par­ti­san activists are quick­ly devel­op­ing and pro­vide mutu­al ben­e­fits. For exam­ple, when a leg­is­la­tor pro­pos­es a favor­able new bill, orga­niz­ers imme­di­ate­ly con­tact their local rep­re­sen­ta­tives to seek out co-spon­sors. And the broad net­work­ing abil­i­ty of these groups rais­es aware­ness about issues for which pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tors are fight­ing. I think that when they get their mem­ber­ship to start send­ing emails, it puts on the radar screen issues that many mem­bers might oth­er­wise not be think­ing of,” says Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.), who found­ed the CPC while a mem­ber of the House.

But as Sanders’ insis­tence on run­ning as an inde­pen­dent sug­gests, the Par­ty in the Street mod­el presents seri­ous trade-offs for its mem­bers. Their ties to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty are both their great­est strength and their great­est weak­ness,” says Heaney. While align­ing close­ly with Democ­rats allows for eas­i­er recruit­ment of polit­i­cal­ly social­ized mem­bers and access to Wash­ing­ton lead­er­ship, groups can grow dis­con­nect­ed from their mem­ber­ship or expe­ri­ence co-optation.

Nav­i­gat­ing that lim­i­nal space could be the largest obsta­cle for the Par­ty in the Street’s suc­cess. Mem­bers of social move­ments often advo­cate moral­ly prin­ci­pled but leg­isla­tive­ly imprac­ti­cal caus­es while Democ­rats seek sound polit­i­cal vic­to­ries, some­times under­min­ing jus­tice in the name of com­pro­mise. As Heaney notes, peo­ple bal­anc­ing between the move­ment and the par­ty – which don’t always see eye to eye – are in a pre­car­i­ous posi­tion. There is that force in the par­ty which is try­ing to pull peo­ple out of the social move­ment and there is a force in the social move­ment that’s try­ing to pull peo­ple out of the par­ty,” says Heaney. In a sense, they are not two insti­tu­tions that go togeth­er real easily.”

This fear was dra­ma­tized in March when some in the anti-war move­ment lam­bast­ed MoveOn for its actions on the Iraq Account­abil­i­ty Act. Polling its mem­bers, MoveOn asked if the orga­ni­za­tion should back Pelosi’s phased troop with­draw­al plan, which was up for a con­gres­sion­al vote. In doing so, they ignored a bill spon­sored by Rep. Bar­bara Lee (D‑Calif.), which was nev­er brought to the floor for a vote, but that called for imme­di­ate troop with­draw­al. Oth­er anti-war groups, such as Unit­ed for Peace and Jus­tice, and Code-Pink, saw this sole focus on Pelosi’s bill as a com­pro­mised one – one that was more in sync with the will of the new­ly acces­si­ble Con­gres­sion­al lead­er­ship rather than the coun­try at large.

There is a dan­ger that you can be so sup­port­ive [of Democ­rats] that you no longer have a bal­anced view of what’s real­ly hap­pen­ing,” Bal­ic­ki says. If you get too far inside the Belt­way, you can be sucked right in.”

There’s also a dan­ger of alien­at­ing poten­tial allies, espe­cial­ly mem­bers of third par­ties who are skep­ti­cal of Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ti­san motives. The prob­lem with PDA and MoveOn and oth­ers,” says Scott McLar­ty, media coor­di­na­tor for the Green Par­ty of the Unit­ed States, is that by focus­ing on the reha­bil­i­ta­tion of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, which I think is a hope­less prospect, they don’t allow for the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a new kind of politics.”

But if mem­bers of orga­ni­za­tions like PDA can mas­ter that bal­anc­ing act, the mod­el could suc­ceed in build­ing a pro­gres­sive major­i­ty in the Unit­ed States. One unlike­ly inspi­ra­tion could be the activists who occu­py a sim­i­lar, albeit more estab­lished, orga­ni­za­tion­al space on the right. Groups like the Chris­t­ian Coali­tion have cul­ti­vat­ed a reg­i­ment­ed mass orga­ni­za­tion focused on local orga­niz­ing that has suc­cess­ful­ly pushed their prin­ci­pal issues to the fore­front of the GOP agen­da while remain­ing inde­pen­dent of the par­ty. To emu­late that suc­cess, pro­gres­sives must remem­ber that Demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­toral vic­to­ries are not ends unto them­selves; only through a focus on sus­tained, local mobi­liza­tion and lead­er­ship devel­op­ment can pro­gres­sives begin to shift away from issues-based pres­sure groups that have dom­i­nat­ed left pol­i­tics since the 70’s.

Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­maries could pro­vide a nat­ur­al are­na for the Par­ty in the Street to assert its influ­ence. By putting your max­i­mum pro­gram out there and chal­leng­ing in pri­maries,” says Domhoff, you have a chance to reach the gen­er­al public.”

But as Flan­ders notes, orga­ni­za­tions like PDA must also work out­side of its com­fort zone.” It’s a sen­ti­ment shared by Fletch­er, who notes a recur­ring prob­lem in pro­gres­sive cir­cles, where they come to be dom­i­nat­ed by what can best be described as white eco­nom­ic pop­ulists. But when it comes to issues of race and gen­der, there’s a soft ped­dling in the way of bring­ing us all together.”

Con­struct­ing a broad­er and stronger pro­gres­sive tent includes estab­lish­ing vibrant chap­ters in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and in his­tor­i­cal­ly Repub­li­can dis­tricts, two con­stituen­cies often tak­en for grant­ed or ignored by nation­al Democ­rats. Car­pen­ter was enthu­si­as­tic about inroads PDA has made in red dis­tricts,” but expressed pes­simism about progress in heav­i­ly black or Lati­no locales, some­thing he says PDA is active­ly address­ing through its Diver­si­ty Cau­cus and by assem­bling a racial­ly diverse exec­u­tive board.

The kids can’t be ignored, either. As Heaney and Rojas doc­u­ment, the Par­ty in the Street is com­posed main­ly of the young (18 to 27) and the old (46 to 67), with rel­a­tive­ly few­er par­tic­i­pants out­side these ranges.” Ener­getic young folks are play­ing a cru­cial role orga­ni­za­tion­al­ly and at the polls, mean­ing that spe­cial atten­tion should be paid to youth recruit­ment and lead­er­ship training.

Per­haps most impor­tant, move­ment-par­ti­sans must sup­port and run can­di­dates with bold pol­i­cy ini­tia­tives that will excite an elec­torate that’s increas­ing­ly cyn­i­cal about gov­ern­ment. And intra-par­ty debate should be encour­aged. As MoveOn’s Paris­er puts it, A diver­si­ty of opin­ions is a strength.” But only by for­mu­lat­ing a strong pro­gres­sive plat­form that address­es the con­cerns of mid­dle- and work­ing-class Amer­i­cans can move­ment-par­ti­sans avoid polit­i­cal obscu­ri­ty and shift the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to the left.

Groups like PDA can­not yet con­tend with the influ­ence of more estab­lished, cor­po­rate-friend­ly bod­ies like the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil. But if orga­niz­ers fol­low the mod­el they have devised and remain open to self-crit­i­cism, the Par­ty in the Street might give a lot of pro­gres­sives rea­son to dance. Every great social move­ment begins in the street,” says Car­pen­ter. But it ulti­mate­ly ends in the halls of Congress.”

Adam Doster, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times, is a Chica­go-based free­lance writer and for­mer reporter-blog­ger for Progress Illinois.
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