That is a question that exasperated progressive Democrats across the country are increasingly asking themselves and each other.
Last November, when Democrats took control of both houses of Congress—fairly decisively in the House and by a whisker in the Senate—there was widespread relief in progressive circles. Anti-war activists thought there would finally be an end to President Bush’s criminal enterprise in Iraq. Civil libertarians thought that finally the Bush/Cheney administration’s Constitutional depredations would be undone, and that perhaps one or both men would be put in the dock of an impeachment panel in the House.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Instead of that, we have watched in growing anger and frustration as the Democratic Congress approved $120 billion to continue the war, actually funding a 30,000 increase in troops there, and as it has actually legalized the warrantless spying on Americans’ communications by the National Security Agency, a campaign which the president had brazenly conducted in clear violation of the law for over five years. (And now that Democratic Congress looks ready to approve another $200 billion in war funding, enough to keep the Iraq War in high gear right through the end of Bush’s presidency.)
Not one of the three best-funded candidates in the Democratic race for the presidential nomination has been willing to promise that she or he will pull plug on the War in Iraq before the end of her or his first term of office. And not one of those leading candidates (or any of the others who are running, except for former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel) has called for the impeachment of the current president, despite a list of constitutional high crimes and misdemeanors that would make Willie Sutton or Richard Nixon blush.
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For almost half a century, as the Democratic Party has moved away, first gingerly and then almost at a full run, from its New Deal heritage, progressives have labored tirelessly to try and turn it around—to tear the party loose from its suckling grip on the corporate teat and make it responsible instead to a public that wants universal, publicly funded healthcare, better funding for education, cheap public university tuition, regulation of predatory financial institutions, limits on price gouging by utilities, a serious national attack on global warming and environmental pillage, safe workplaces, and end to imperialist military adventures.
The results of this decades-long effort to “work from within” have been pretty dismal.
Labor unions, once a bulwark of the Democratic Party, hardly even merited a mention in the 2004 campaign of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, and the Democratic Congress as a whole is still almost in lock-step support of globalization and trade agreements that undermine millions of jobs here in the US. Democrats supported a war of aggression against Iraq, initial passage and then renewal of the dreadful USA PATRIOT Act, and gutting of bankruptcy protections. Meanwhile, reactionary judges have been approved for seats on the Supreme Court with the significant support of Democrats.
And as for impeaching the president, when protesters went to the office of the new Democratic head of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI)—a man who literally wrote the book on Bush administration impeachable crimes back in 2005— to demand impeachment hearings, this dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, who actually boasts of having hired Rosa Parks to work in his Congressional office, had them arrested and forcibly removed from his office by Capitol Police.
House Speaker Pelosi, whose hometown of San Francisco passed a city-wide resolution last year calling for the impeachment of the president, has a mantra: “Impeachment is off the table.” And while she claims she doesn’t have the power to get House Democrats to vote her way when it comes to war funding, she has managed to enforce discipline on this one issue so successfully that not one member of Congress has dared to file a bill of impeachment against Bush (Rep. Dennis Kucinich did file an impeachment bill last April 24 against Vice President Dick Cheney, but that resolution has been bottled up in a Judiciary subcommittee headed by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, whose home district in Manhattan also overwhelmingly backs impeachment, and who admits that the president has committed impeachable crimes).
Clearly, “working on the inside” to reform the party isn’t working for progressives. This conclusion is supported by an Oct. 12 article in the New York Times headlined “Party’s Liberal Base Proves Trying to Democrats Back in Power,” in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s spokesman Brendan Daly could come up with only three legislative achievements of the new Democratic Congress—a token and belated increase in the federal minimum wage, new lobbying and ethics rules, and an overhaul of student-aid programs. Daly, by way of explantion for such a meager record in a time of serious national and Constitutional crisis, patronizingly said, “One of the things (Pelosi) says is that an activist—that’s their role to be persistent and unsatisfied and try to push the envelope. But when you are in a position of leading in Congress, you have to be realistic at some point.” (In that article, the Times focussed on the disconnect between the party leadership and the base on gay rights, auto mileage standards and the Iraq War, but failed to even mention the impeachment issue.)
So what is to be done?
I believe the answer is for progressives to do what some African Americans have talked about doing, what the Teamsters Union did, at least for a time (and what many groups, like anti-abortion activists and libertarians, have done in the past with respect to the Republican Party when they felt it was going astray from core principles). That is, they should cut their ties to the Democratic Party that is ignoring them and their key issues.
I am proposing that progressives quit the Democratic Party—actually go down to their local voter registrar’s office, and re-register as independents.
But not quietly or privately. This must be a mass movement, with groups of progressives in local communities organizing marches to their county elections board, and with the media notified.
The goal here is to let the Democratic Party, at both the local and national level, know that we and our votes can no longer be taken for granted. We will have to be courted and our votes will have to be earned.
Clearly, the Democratic Party leadership, and most Democratic officeholders, have come to the conclusion over the years that they don’t need to do anything to cater to the progressive vote, because while we may grumble about betrayal, we progressives always loyally show up at the polls and, holding our collective noses, vote Democratic.
By quitting the party, we are saying, “You can’t count on that support any more.”
The beauty of this tactic should be clear. First of all it is very visible. The national parties closely track what is happening to party registrations. Local politicians are even more alert to these trends. They depend upon Democratic voter registration lists, both for the fund-raising mailings they send out, and also for addresses for their get-out-the-vote campaigns. Since local elections are usually off-year and have abysmal turnouts, the candidate who does the best job getting out party stalwarts through mailings and door-to-door contact, generally wins. If progressives start quitting the party in droves, those local officials will begin hounding their Congressional delegations to start doing something to bring them back. (To further call attention to the movement, I have established a petition page on my website, where people can sign up their intention to quit the party. That list has grown to over 1200 names in only a few weeks’ time. When it gets over 10,000 I will be sending it to party leaders, and to the media.)
Secondly, it is a tactic that avoids or puts off the messy debate over whether to vote for a specific Democratic candidate for office, or to vote for a third party candidate. That decision is left to the individual progressive voter on Election Day. What it does tell the party poobahs, the Democratic incumbents in Congress, and the party’s candidates for 2008 is that progressives and progressive votes are no longer in their pocket.
That would be a huge shock to a party that has taken progressives and their votes for granted now for half a century.
And a serious shock is just what this party needs.
Now there are those who say if progressives quit the party, then it will just mean non-progressive candidates will win the primaries and become the party’s candidates next November. But this needn’t be the case. In many states, like California, New Jersey, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Virginia, it isn’t necessary to be registered in a party in order to vote in that party’s primary. In those where that is a requirement, like Connecticut or my home state of Pennsylvania, the answer for those who want to vote for Kucinich or Gravel, or against Hillary, is simply to quit the party, and then rejoin in time to qualify for the primary. Then quit again right after voting. There is no limit to the number of times one can change one’s party affiliation.
The other thing I hear is that if progressives quit the party, it will be demoralizing to all voters, and will lead to a Republican victory in 2008. I would counter that it is the party’s present strategy of doing nothing of consequence in Congress—just posturing and passing bills that have no chance of becoming law, while ducking their real responsibility to end the war and to honor their oaths of office to defend the Constitution—that poses the risk of serious defeat in 2008. Nobody in America likes wimps, and the Democrats are being wimps. Furthermore, it was independents—people with a strong desire to see the Iraq War ended, and gravely concerned about the trampling of the Constitution, many of them cynical about both parties and voting in general—who turned out in large numbers in ’06 and voted for Democrats, often for the first time. If the party doesn’t act, those voters won’t be back in ’08.
I introduced this idea at a speaking event in Santa Barbara sponsored in part by Progressive Democrats of America, a group that has as its MO working inside the Democratic Party to make it more progressive. Admittedly a bit anxious about what the response to a call to quit the party might be in that group, I was surprised when it elicited a thunderous applause. Certainly there were those who opposed the idea, but overwhelmingly, people loved it. The response was similar at a second event I spoke at more recently, hosted by the Progressive Democrats in Chester County, PA. That group had recently convinced their county Democratic Committee to vote for an impeachment resolution, but when they brought that resolution to the Democratic State Committee, it was unceremoniously sidelined by parliamentary maneuver in a clear demonstration of how the party leaders keep progressives and their key issues in check.
Many liberal Democrats, hearing this idea, immediately panic, and unthinkingly equate quitting the party with a vow not to vote for the party’s candidates. That is completely wrong. Progressives can and will continue to vote for good Democratic candidates for offices at all levels. What they are signaling by quitting is that they will no longer automatically vote for the Democratic ticket, or for the candidate with a donkey on her or his nameplate in the voting booth.
They are also signaling, by quitting, that if the Democratic Party doesn’t come around, they are open to the idea of a new party. And if large numbers of progressives cut their ties to the Democratic Party, that is a threat that should really scare party leaders.
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