It's time for us to look at parties differently

Progressives in the United States have long sought a resolution to the often disappointing status quo of our current two party system. The Democrats, while being able to claim the role of the mainstream, electorally viable party of the left, have often disappointed our movement. The top level leadership of the party has often surrendered in the face of demands from large corporate interests and the wealthy elite of our country. This history of capitulation has been devastating to our economy, our environment, and our democracy. In addition to this, the party has an inconsistent record in delivering for its most loyal constituencies including African Americans, Latinos, the LGBT community etc. While disappointed, we on the left and members of the party's diverse base have often been willing to stomach many of the party failings because the alternative has been much worse.

While the Democratic Party has often disappointed, it has served as a useful vehicle for a great deal of progress. From increasing access to healthcare, to combating climate change, to advancing LGBT rights, the Democrats have not been all bad. As the mainstream party alternative, Republicans have managed to play an almost completely adversarial role in many of these fights and have openly stood in opposition to progressive reform efforts. The fear of electing Republican officials has managed to keep many within the ranks of the Democratic Party. However, neither of these parties has truly represented the values and aspirations of many Americans. Neither party has advocated for the kinds of robust systemic changes our country and the people of the world need, such as radical shifts away from fossil fuel production, reparations for slavery, and an economy controlled by working class people. Perhaps the fact that neither party can truly claim to represent the interests of much of the population can explain the growing number of registered independents, voter apathy, and increasing interest in third party alternatives.

Third parties such as the Green Party have been in much greater alignment ideologically with most progressives. The Greens have proposed bolder reforms than most Democrats have been willing to commit to and their vision has been able to capture the hearts and minds of many progressives throughout the country. However since 1890 both of the two mainstream parties have enacted laws that have made it all but impossible for a third party to make significant electoral gains. Both Republicans and Democrats have supported ballot signature requirements, unreasonable filing deadlines, and vote performance requirements which have made third parties devote far too many resources to simply maintaining their existence. These laws, created by and for the parties in power, have put progressive third parties at a dramatic disadvantage.

While support for our current two party system seems to be fading, it remains a significant part of our political culture and heritage as party affiliation is passed down within families like genes from parent to child. Many who should make up the base for a new progressive political party are culturally invested in the Democratic Party. In fact the numbers demonstrate this, as the number of registered Democrats far exceeds the total combined registration of any progressive third parties by far. Thus the path to progressive electoral victory and governing power in places where these conditions exist likely does not lie in creating new third parties.

A different lens

However this doesn't mean that we should accept the status quo. Recent developments demonstrate the contrary, and the path to power for progressives lies less with party politics and more with building powerful progressive political formations outside of the context of any political party.

It's time for us to look at parties differently in two principal ways.

First, the two dominant political parties of our day have changed drastically over time. Republicans have transitioned from the party of Abraham Lincoln to the party of Theodore Roosevelt and later Ronald Reagan. The Democrats have evolved from the party of Andrew Jackson, to Franklin Roosevelt, and then Bill and Hillary Clinton. Over time parties have not only changed in terms of their elected leaders, but they have been shown to change ideologically as well. Parties in the United States contain multiple competing factions from Ron Paul Libertarianism in the Republican Party to Elizabeth Warren's populist progressivism. The two dominant parties are not ideologically consistent political organizations, but instead vehicles for organized political factions. Parties are empty vessels that are filled by the dominant actors within them at any given time.

Second, parties are simply a vehicle to obtain advantageous legal access to appear on a ballot. To run as a Democrat or a Republican does not necessarily dictate what ideas and principles you must represent. You can likely guess where someone stands on certain issues based on their party affiliation, but there is no law that guarantees that a candidate of a certain party will vote a particular way or believe in any set of values. Primaries are the process by which the voters in a particular party decide who is most closely aligned with their values. However, party membership in the United States does not require any litmus test on values or beliefs and therefore party voters often vote on factors outside of any coherent set of values in their primaries.

The existing two parties have consolidated their hold on the politics of today by protecting themselves with election law and practices that keeps their potential competition off balance. But that history has also left them hollowed out and without value as vehicles of positive political principles, for good or ill. How can progressives effectively mobilize power, including electoral power, in this political environment? Let's look at a path forward.

A new path for progressives

We need a new path forward to achieve political power as progressives. Parties have been the most commonly understood vehicles for organizing politics in the United States, but they are not our only option, and pursuing party politics alone, whether it's taking over the Democratic Party or starting a third party, severely limits our pursuit of political power, as we have seen. Now is the time to build independent political organizations that exist outside of the realm of any political party, but use the party ballot lines that are most advantageous.

In some ways this was the radical approach of Senator Bernie Sanders who, while not being a member of the Democratic Party, chose to use the Party's ballot line to boost his Presidential campaign. Pieces of this new path forward were also a part of Donald Trump's bigoted campaign for President as he denied basic tenets of his chosen party's orthodoxy and has identified as both a Democrat and a Republican over a number of years. However, by pursuing this path with an independent political organization that is organized for the long term advancement of progressive values and candidates, determined activists wielding this strategy can achieve even more powerful results.

Caucuses are a potential alternative to traditional party politics for independent political organizations. Caucuses have been a way for elected officials to organize themselves around common values and interests within legislative bodies outside of a party apparatus. Caucuses such as the Freedom Caucus have even been able to hijack the political process and the Republican Party to drive a far-right conservative world view. The New York Independent Democratic Caucus in New York has leveraged its independence in the New York Senate to cede control to conservative and Republican policy positions. In addition to this there are local and national Progressive Caucuses in legislative bodies such as the New York City Council, where its Progressive Caucus has been able to drive a progressive agenda for the city.

In fact, within legislative bodies parties exist merely as caucuses themselves with the actual party being the outside political apparatus. Progressives can replicate this already existing strategy and expand it to create a viable third party option without the obstacles of creating an entirely new party with its own ballot line. This strategy does not need to be limited to legislative officials, but members of executive bodies can join and associate with caucus organizations. We can also expand this concept by using existing electoral campaign infrastructure to create an alternative to the Democratic Party as an electoral organization. Strengthening our caucus presence, in the meantime, allows those already in elected office to pursue more radical policies with less risk of martyrdom. And where there are existing progressive caucus formations we can strengthen them with candidate recruitment and street-level efforts while building in real ideological coherence where it is lacking.

In order to choose who will represent the interests of progressive voters we may also use a caucus voting system that can help our base of voters choose nominees to compete in primaries. This kind of process can be executed outside of the state's electoral system and help to unite progressives around candidates that have the most support from the progressive base while avoiding the division of progressive votes between progressive candidates in party primary races. To achieve this, Progressive Caucus politicians must register new members to join the Caucus and participate in its caucus primary process. The process itself will be governed by rules that ensure that it is democratic, fair, accessible, and transparent.

In order for this idea to succeed and not fall into the same traps as the existing party organizations it cannot be wholly owned and controlled merely by its politicians. The Caucus must provide a means by which the grassroots can engage and make decisions so that the caucus truly becomes a democratic organization driven and empowered by its base. Membership in both mainstream parties is mostly meaningless beyond Election Day. However, membership in the caucus must expand beyond voting for nominees and the participation of elected officials to an active membership role for unelected Progressive Caucus members who will help to create and drive the agenda of the Caucus. Elected officials from the caucus should be held accountable to their base of voters through consistent public and private meetings with grassroots members whom they represent, where they will be held accountable to the Caucuses long term plans and platform.

This changes traditional politics from the realm of one driven by merely individual achievement and personality politics to a collective act by people who share a common point of view. Progressives have often fallen into the trap of waiting for the great progressive messiah when we need to look to ourselves to lead and create the world we want. The Caucus will demand that the grassroots act as more than bystanders to the process and our political system will be stronger as a result. And between elections the Caucus will provide support, nurture and an anchor for issue-oriented progressive organizations and campaigns, constantly refreshing its people-oriented base.


In order to break free from the limitations of two party politics, we must think differently. Perhaps it is time to break away from the concept of parties as the only feasible vehicle for obtaining political power entirely. Through the strategy proposed above, the left may galvanize its wide assortment of progressive organizations and unite around our own political apparatus. The goal is getting to majority status and real power -- as a caucus. If we are successful in electing those who run on our own Caucus slate, in addition to creating a more equitable, sustainable, and just society, we can begin eliminating the legal barriers that prop up our existing two party system.

We may execute this plan both locally and nationally with unique strategies and tactics that fit the context in which the plan is being executed. The key for us will be to set up processes that build independent political power for progressives outside of a party system as well as processes that empower the grassroots to lead the way. There are many details that can be settled through the process of taking action, but we must experiment boldly in order to win the power to change our economic and political system. The future of politics lies beyond the Democratic and Republican parties, and the ground is shifting in order to make that possible. It's up to us to build the viable alternative.

Larry Stafford Jr., a DSA member, is executive director of Progressive Maryland. This originally appeared on Progressive Maryland's PM BlogSpace.

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