Tuesday, July 03, 2007

WFP at TPM Cafe: The Value of Independent Organizations

Here's a crosspost of today's WFP guest post at the Talking Points Memo Cafe:

Fusion: The Value of Independent Organizations (Or, Because the Angel Moroni Won't be Back Anytime Soon)

Yesterday I wrote about how fusion voting works in New York:

By allowing voters to support a major party candidate on a minor-party line, fusion solves the “wasted vote” and “spoiler” dilemmas that otherwise plague third parties. There have been many fusion parties in our nation’s history – the Populists being the most famous – but it can be used by left, right and center. Democracy means everyone gets to play.

For a progressive-minded party like New York’s Working Families, we have almost always cross-endorsed (or “fused”) with Democrats, but occasionally we will endorse a decent Republican, run our own stand-alone WFP candidate against the major parties, or leave our line BLANK when there didn’t seem to be a good reason to endorse anyone.

By delivering 8,000-plus votes for Brian Higgins in his 2004 Congressional race, we were the margin that put another good Democrat (make that, Dem-WFP) in Congress. By delivering 155,000 votes for Eliot Spitzer for Governor, OK, we weren’t close to the margin of victory, but we did signal that a substantial fraction of the New York electorate expects real progress toward universal health care, public election financing, and universal paid family leave and sick days over the next four years.

Great, that’s New York. Why should the rest of the country care? Here’s why.

Nathan Newman, a TPM regular and long time friend of the Working Families Party, has been predicting for some time that the election of a Democratic president will trigger a fracture of left blogistan and progressives generally. Barring a devastating ferret invasion or divine intervention by the angel Moroni, this prediction is very likely to be put to the test in January 2009.

The lines of the split are already visible. On one side are those who see progressives as the loyal foot soldiers of elected Democrats. For them, the inevitable difficulties and disappointments of the coming Democratic era will be testimony to the inherent inertia of American politics and the tenacity of Republican dead-enders. Every setback will be a further argument for tighter discipline and a narrower focus on the achievable.

On the other side are those for whom the program, not the party, is foremost. If, come year three of a Democratic administration, American troops are still in Iraq, millions of Americans still lack health coverage, and K Street is still thriving, it will be a sign to some that the strategy of supporting Democrats has failed. You can go through the exercise yourself of guessing who will fall on which side, but there’s no question there will be a split.

In the classic tradition of practical politicians, I’d argue that both sides are right.

Atrios, who is as likely as anyone to bridge this divide, says “More and better Democrats”. That’s right. At the Federal level especially, the damage done by the Bush crowd is monumental and monumentally depressing, and the first rule is to get control and STOP. Of course, the more we elect “better” Democrats, not just more, the happier we’ll be. That means maintaining our independence, institutionally as well as intellectually, so we can insist in a meaningful way on what it means to be a good Democrat and get actually existing Democrats to come closer to this standard.

It’s not a new problem. It’s the same dilemma that faces any institutional actor whose heart still beats on the left – unions, immigrants, gays and lesbians, health care advocates, students, whoever. As a practical matter, the more Democrats are in office, the more likely we are to get at least some piece of our agenda enacted. At times, electing Democrats can be literally a matter of life or death.

But on the other hand, the more firmly we bind ourselves to the Dems, the less leverage we have over them. The Democratic Party isn’t like Old Labour in the U.K.: unions and other organizations don’t have any direct role in governing it. (Actually, it isn’t really a party at all, but that’s a subject for another time.) Power means voice or exit; if we don’t have a voice we need the option to exit; but where, realistically, are disillusioned progressives to go?

Not to third party candidates, that’s for sure. Under America’s winner-take-all electoral system, third-party politics is a chump’s game. Anything short of a plurality might as well be nothing. So at best you should have stayed home; at worst you accomplish the exact opposite of what you intended. (See Nader, R.)

At the local level there are times and places when third party candidacies do make sense, but building them into a coherent movement is another story. Electing progressives in Democratic primaries is a much more promising approach, but it does nothing to build a lasting organization that can work 365 days a year to advance our issues in real-time. People who go this route become, for better or worse, part of the vague, amorphous milieu of Democratic politics. The Jesse Jackson campaign was the most exciting effort to build progressive power within the Democratic Party in the past generation, and left a positive institutional legacy – but it’s still just a legacy, and not an organization. Michael Harrington used to say that true leftists had to build organizations. He was right.

We need a strategy that allows us to wholeheartedly work for “more and better Democrats” without simply being absorbed in the Democratic Party. And we need a strategy that lets us build our own distinct progressive institutions without losing sight of the need to exercise real power in the here and now. I DON’T claim that fusion is the ONLY approach that resolves this dilemma, but it’s certainly one of the most promising ones.

Fusion allows progressives to actively, wholeheartedly campaign for good Democrats without giving up the idea of a distinct party for working people and their allies. In fact, progressive Democrats in New York – both elected officials and organizational leaders from labor and community and environmental groups – are our strongest allies, because we all want the state and nation to move in a better direction, and this is a uniquely potent tool for making that happen.

Some readers don’t think the left needs its own independent political structure, supportive of but distinct from the Democrats. That’s a legitimate view, and if you’re in that camp, you don’t need fusion or the Working Families Party.

But if you do think there’s a space for a political structure to prod the Democrats in a more progressive direction [think MoveOn], then fusion is the ticket. Our strategy, in fact, might be understood as providing a ballot line that could and hopefully will be the natural and happy home for MoveOn members, union members, ACORN members, Sierra Club members and so on and so forth.

I don’t mean to be a bore, but third parties without fusion (remember – it was once legal in EVERY state) are just writing themselves out of politics. Run in a close election, and you spoil. Run in a safe Dem district, and you might as well run in the Democratic primary instead. And whatever the district, you’ll never recruit candidates to run year in, year out, which is what it takes to develop a reliable vote. Whatever you want to call the political orientation TPM readers share, there are a lot of us, but not a plurality. And 3 percent or 5 percent or even 10 percent just doesn’t allow you to accomplish anything under winner-take-all.

With fusion it’s a different story. The Working Families Party supports Democrats in close races – just ask the five Congressional Ds who owe their election in some measure to the votes they got on the WFP line – that’s the “more Democrats” part. But, unlike other organizations that support Democrats in particular races, every election under fusion is also a chance to enlarge the population of reliable progressive third-party voters. And we don't need to recruit candidates to run in each of the hundreds of districts we're present in each year. Fusion is about the organization, not the individual candidate.

Without fusion, progressives have a stark choice. Support the Dem and forego the chance to develop an alternative political identity. Or run a third-party candidate and help send a Republican to Washington. With fusion, we get to have it both ways. We help elect the Democrat, but we also increase the pool of voters voting on the WFP line, giving us a credible threat to exit if the Dems don’t deliver.

Good deal for progressives? Absolutely. But what’s in it for the Democrats? That’s the subject for my next post.

What do you think? Head on over to TPM Cafe and be part of the debate.


Liberal Arts Dude said...

Excellent post -- it encapsulates and articulates many ideas that have been in my head but I have had a lot of difficulty expressing. I live in Washington DC and third parties don't have fusion as an option there. It's a solidly Democratic territory and for the most part I support the Democrats who are in local politics. But of course I still am a strong supporter of third parties and having an alternative to turn to in cases where you feel taken for granted by the Democrats or they simply are ignoring your concerns. (This is more true in national politics than it is locally for me). Is there any effort to bring the fusion strategy nationwide? Or at least any efforts in states other than New York?

Steve Perez said...

Thanks! Here's a post on fusion expanding into more places.