Alternative Parties have to be Built Now to Contend in the Future

third-partyNew Orleans    In recent weeks Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor with deep roots on the left dating back to the 1960’s, the student movement, and the Students’ for a Democratic Society (SDS), wrote an interesting survey piece called the “Bernie Sanders Moment” in the New York Times.

He looked at the rise of Bernie Sanders from alternative politics in the sparsely populated conservative communities of the frozen north in Vermont to these days where he is exciting crowds with progressive plain talk on the presidential campaign trail in what many had assumed would be at best a quixotic exercise. He quoted Lee Webb, another former student activist and director of a program on alternative state and local politics from DC decades ago as having advised Sanders that “you’re never gonna get anywhere in politics if you don’t join the Democratic Party.” He astutely underlines a strategy for progressives that he refers to as building “the left wing of the possible,” attributing the line to writer, activist, and socialist Michael Harrington. He then runs through the long shots, near misses, and moon shots sometimes exploding on takeoff from the Citizen Party and Barry Commoner through Jesse Jackson’s two shots within the Democratic ranks and Ralph Nadar’s Green fling, saying “…to put it mildly, third-party politics has not been popular on the left.” For Gitlin it’s enough for Sanders, like so many others before him, to be “a force” and for his brand of progressivism to achieve a longer half-life with “influence” that will “persist.”

As a broad brushed overview all that seems fair enough, but part of his conclusions are based on a weirdly perverse view of organization and party building and a contradictory understanding of his own analysis of Sanders’ success in Vermont as someone who proved he could deliver to voters and constituents. Perhaps the victim or participant in too many sectarian political debates, Gitlin believes working within the Democratic Party is hard, tedious labor and building alternative parties that achieve electoral success as Sanders did, is somehow easier, saying “Because deliverable results are so hard to come by, progressives of various ages have gone for electoral politics of the proudly, defiant independent sort.” Contrary to Gitlin’s argument or assumptions or whatever is driving his viewpoints here, not only is independent politics brutally hard work, as veterans of the New Party, Working Families Party, Richmond Progressive Association, and countless others can attest, but also, like Vermont, with persistent effort and commitment, such work elects people!

So, fifty years of organizing and what do we have to show for it, many days older and deeper in debt? Building an alternative progressive party is long, disciplined work, but it needs to be done. If Gitlin’s point is that it cannot – and should not – be done from the pride and presidential level down, then I heartily agree, but whether it is or not, the work absolutely needs to be done from the ground up now, so that ten, twenty, thirty, or another fifty years from now there is a viable political party formation that may have roots and branches in various other local and statewide manifestations, but can legitimately contend for power at every level from bottom to top. And the work needs to start yesterday, as it has in a number of communities and states around the country, and it needs to be pursued earnestly and aggressively today in the wake of what Gitlin calls the “Sanders Moment,” and build the momentum to carry forward into the future. I even think that Sanders needs to help out in the building.

The existing two-party political structure is not ordained from on high or embedded in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. These were built environments and not part of a natural order. They are political institutions welded together by people and politicians in other circumstances in local soil. These parties have been deeply embedded and privileged for a long, long time, but around the world we see regular evidence of similarly calcified institutions unshaken and unseated. It confounds me to believe that it is impossible to imagine, and then to build, something different and something better.

Or, that it is impossible for quite a long time for us to walk and chew gum simultaneously, as Sanders is doing now. Progressives can make it for a long time into the future by voting as Democrats, if that’s the best choice, every four years, while building an alternative formation from the ground up in the meantime. Candidates walk on their knees to move independents to vote for them every cycle, why should progressive not be wooed with the same ardor, rather than forced to vote by default, hand pinching nose?

That’s just sound tactics, but sound strategy is building now so that we have real options – and real power – in the future.

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Please enjoy Pattie Griffin’s There Isn’t One Way.

Thanks to KABF.

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Nadar is Right on Airlines and Small Claims Courts

N112905_small_claims_courtew Orleans As part of the meetings between ACORN International organizers in Canada, Mexico, Honduras, and elsewhere our up and coming star organizer with Local 100’s program in Dallas was coming.  She had never flown on a plane.  She had to get a passport for the first time.  We were all wildly excited.  She was going to help translate.  At the last minute she had a health crisis and was pulled into surgery the day she was supposed to fly to Tegucigalpa.  A tumor was removed and two months later she was able to come back to work, and hopefully soon this will be simply a bad memory for her.

We assumed with the doctor’s note that we would have no trouble getting the ticket refunded.  Our hard care, tough negotiating union staff pressed forward on the case.  Nada.  Stonewall city!  No refund, simply the promise of a charge to change the ticket and, equally bad, a credit for a future flight, but only usable for this same individual for whom we had purchased through Expedia with Continental Airlines.  We stand to lose about $1000 of union members’ dues money, and we are not happy about this rip-off.

I read with interest a similar rip-and-run reported in The New York Times to Ralph Nadar.  He and an associate were traveling to a speaking gig and appeared snowed into DC, so they rented a car, drove three or four hours, and made some college kids happy.  He sought a refund then from US Airways.  They gave him the same spiel about $150 per head change fee and a future credit with them for the two tickets.  Nadar being Nadar, sent a couple of letters to the company and made some phone calls and still got nothing.  According to David Segal’s “The Hagglar” column, he then threatened to take the matter to small claims court, and they folded like a cheap suit and gave him a full refund on the tickets and his change fees.

I want that, too, and I want it now!!!

The problem might be that we aren’t all lawyers, like our old friend, Ralph.  No matter, he’s right.  None of us are using small claims court sufficiently to seek justice as we advocate for what are becoming daily rip-offs of consumers by the big boys on land and in the air.  Most small claims of course by definition allow non-lawyers to participate fully.  At Advocates and Actions (www.advocatesandactions.org) we had been studying how to utilize these and similar tools to collect on unpaid wages and other obligations, but were missing the obvious in our own situation.

I think a lot of us ought to take a good look at small claims and see if we can finally get some justice in areas where the money means a lot to us, but nothing to them, perhaps this should be the court of first resort.

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