What Next After Victory in the Midterms
Can the Working Families Party Emerge as the
Progressive Third Force in American Politics?
For much of my life’s work as a social and political activist, I have been a proponent of independent Black politics and the creation of a progressive, independent, third force in American politics as a vehicle to advance a visionary politics of social transformation; a politics which will not emerge from the dominant, mainstream political Parties. Back in the day, progressive activists hoped that Rev. Jesse Jackson’s historic, electrifying and progressive Presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988 and his Rainbow Coalition would evolve into a third force; a formation which could undertake an inside/outside strategy by supporting acceptable Democratic candidates as well as endorsing or running independent candidates to advance a progressive agenda. But, for reasons too numerous to recount, this was not to be. Indeed, the Ron Daniels Independent Campaign for President in 1992 and subsequent formation of the Campaign for a New Tomorrow (CNT) was in part a response to the fact that the National Rainbow Coalition did not become an independent, mass-based, progressive, third force in American Politics.
For decades various leaders and organizations have issued calls for either the revival of the Rainbow Coalition or a similar formation to establish a viable alternative to the mainstream political Parties; Over the years what has been missing is a vehicle, a structure or mechanism to achieve this objective. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid was arguably the most powerful effort since Rev. Jackson’s presidential campaigns in the 1980’s, but in the end, no permanent structure was created to harness the energy, enthusiasm and talent of the campaign. Now that a new generation of social and political activists have boldly burst onto the stage of history to achieve a major victory in the 2018 mid-term elections, the moment may have arrived for the creation of the long-awaited but elusive third force. And, the vehicle to advance this cause may be the Working Families Party.
Under the dedicated leadership of Dan Cantor, who served as Labor Coordinator for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign for President (where I also served as Deputy Campaign Manager), the Working Families Party has quietly and methodically spread from its original base in New York State and has established chartered chapters in 13 states, and there are plans to develop chapters in a number of additional States. Because of Cantor’s strong relationships with unions, WFP also has solid roots in the labor movement. Equally important, in a major cross-generational transfer of leadership, Maurice Mitchell, a brilliant, courageous and visionary African American activist/organizer, who rose to prominence with the Movement for Black Lives after demonstrating his extraordinary skills in Ferguson, has been selected as the new National Director of the Working Families Party. His acceptance of this position occurs at an opportune moment in this crucial period.
“There is a time for all things in season,” and the season is ripe for a third force in American politics. The emergence of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the broader Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) may well have marked a turning point in the history of social movements in this country, not only because of their uncompromising demand for police reform/accountability/restructuring, but the insistence that “all Black lives matter,” including the voices of LGBTQ persons. This principled stance helped pave the way for an incredible array of leaders with amazing experience, talent, skill and commitment to come out of the shadows to assume their rightful place in the forefront of movements for social justice and transformative change.
The time is ripe because the Women’s March on Washington, with the equitable inclusion and leadership of women of color, unleashed a wave of activism among women unprecedented in recent history. The time is ripe because it has become abundantly clear to the vast majority in the progressive movement that “Trumpism” is a malignant abomination which must be purged from the American body politic as a moral and political imperative in the struggle to advance a politics of social transformation.
These factors and forces generated the energy and enthusiasm that produced major victories for progressives all across the country in the much-anticipated mid-term elections of 2018. Some skeptical pundits proclaimed that candidates like Stacey Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida and Beto O’Rourke in Texas, who ran on unapologetically progressive platforms had failed, but they missed the point: few would have imagined that an African American woman would come within a whisker of becoming Governor of the State of Georgia; that an African American man would do likewise in Florida; or that a White progressive man would come close to unseating Ted Cruz in ruby red Texas. And, though O’Rourke did not take the top prize, progressive Democrats made major gains down ballot in state and local races. Even more amazing, who would have imagined that Lucy McBath, a WFP social-justice activist affiliated with M4BL, would defeat the incumbent Republican Karen Handel to become the Congresswoman from a predominantly White district once held by Newt Gingrich!
A new generation of activists/organizers imagined it and as a result Democrats retook control of the House of Representatives and progressives and liberals captured governorships, state and local offices across the land. In Wisconsin, the dreaded Scott Walker was finally ousted by Tony Evers whose running mate, Mandela Barnes, a member of the WFP, will become the first African American elected to statewide office in that State. Moreover, the popular vote in the Congressional races exceeded Hillary Clinton’s lead over Trump in the 2016 election by millions of votes.
Taken in its totality it was a resounding victory, a “blue wave” that in many respects was a women’s wave, spearheaded by women of color in general and African American women in particular. Now the task is to harness this amazing energy and the fruits of the labor. Unlike Rev. Jesse Jackson’s campaigns or Bernie Sanders’ campaign, the progressive movement cannot afford to miss the opportunity of the moment. The season is ripe for the creation of an independent, progressive, third force in American politics. And, an emerging structure is in place to advance this goal, the Working Families Party under the leadership of a young, energetic, African, activist/organizer, Maurice Mitchell.
Over the years I have suggested that Rev. Jesse L. Jackson’s National Rainbow Coalition offered the greatest opportunity for transformative change in the U.S. since the Populist Movement of the late 19th century. In that era, for a brief moment, Black farmer and worker alliances joined White farmer and worker alliances to mount a serious challenge to the new White power structure in the South. The Populist Movement came “dangerously” close to succeeding; so much so that the new rulers played the “race card” to induce the White leaders of this insurgent movement to abandon their erstwhile Black allies. The divide and conquer strategy worked. The alliance was shattered. The leaders in the power structure breathed a sigh of relief and “rewarded” White poor and working-class people by instituting a system of psychological and material benefits called “Jim Crow” to ensure that Blacks and Whites in the South would never again “unite and fight” the ruling class. The Populist Movement was permanently defanged!
I cite this history because it is instructive for how a successful third force must be constructed if it is to attract substantial numbers of people of African descent and other people of color. The National Rainbow Coalition worked because, unlike the Populist Movement, it emerged out of the Black community with the issues of civil rights/human rights for Black people at its core. From this base, Rev. Jackson brilliantly crafted an “economic common ground” message and platform to reach out to and include Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, Arab-Americans, White farmers, workers and predominantly White progressive organizations and constituencies to create a Rainbow Coalition. Unlike the Populist Movement, with this formulation it was highly unlikely that the interests and aspirations of Black people would be abandoned or betrayed.
Putting it bluntly, there is a long and justifiable history of skepticism in the Black Freedom Struggle about joining or building coalitions with predominantly White or White led progressive organizations and movements. Therefore, I believe that the centrality of race, racism and the leadership of people of color must be at the core of any progressive third force that will gain substantial support from people of African descent and other people of color. This is why the cross-generational transfer of leadership to Maurice Mitchell to become the National Director of the Working Families Party is of fundamental significance.
While there are certainly other Parties and formations in the progressive landscape that might take on the task at hand, Maurice Mitchell assumes the mantle of leadership at WFP coming directly out of the M4BL where he has deep roots and is widely respected. This is the decisive difference that can potentially set WFP apart from other progressive Parties and formations. What M4BL can bring to the table is an unquestioned and uncompromising commitment to ensuring that all Black lives matter and that the interests of Black people will always be at the center of any coalitional effort, alliance or Party they support. I believe Maurice Mitchell shares that commitment, and from that vantage point will be able to effectively attract and engage people of African descent in WFP and effectively reach out to other people of color and predominantly White progressive Parties, formations and constituencies. His reputation for collaborative work will be extremely helpful in this regard. And, unlike the Rainbow Coalition, Maurice Mitchell brings the collaborative, facilitative, collective leadership orientation of M4BL to his role as National Director of WFP. These are indispensable starting points for WFP to become the progressive third force in American politics.
The WFP also has other critically important assets. Maurice Mitchell has signaled his intent to deepen the Party’s commitment to civic participation and engagement, community-based political education, organizing around issues, movement and institution-building as a way of touching people’s lives on a day to day, month to month basis in between election cycles. This people and community-centered, multifaceted process is essential to advancing a vision and program of genuine “participatory democracy” and motivating increasing numbers of people to engage in the electoral process to enable progressives to seize the reins of power at all levels of government. Campaigns do not equal democracy; they are an important dimension of democracy. Participation is the essence of democracy, and the election of persons to hold public office should be the outcome of people and community-based participatory processes. WFP is correct to adopt this approach as a centerpiece of its work. It will establish WFP as a “Party of a new type” in American politics.
Fusion is another incredibly important asset which WFP can utilize as a potential third force. Fusion allows for the cross endorsement of candidates which facilitates a third party acquiring the number of votes required to maintain ballot status. A party can also run its own candidates irrespective of whether they are endorsed by another party. For example, in New York, instead of voting for Governor Andrew Cuomo on the Democratic line, I voted for him on the WFP line. WFP already has ballot status in New York, Connecticut, Oregon and South Carolina and is actively working to secure ballot status in scores of states around the country. Fusion is a powerful tool which will enable the Party to institutionalize itself as a force to be reckoned with at all levels of government.
Though there are a number of other ballot access, voter registration and election reforms that WFP and progressives should push to enact, there is no more important reform than Instant Run-off Voting or Ranked Voting to open space for a progressive third force to thrive. Instant Run-Off Voting (IRV), which has been adopted in Maine, allows voters to select their first choice for a political office and a second choice for the same office if they so desire. In practical terms, IRV removes the dilemma some progressives face of choosing between a candidate they truly believe in and another candidate who may be less desirable. However, that less desirable candidate may have a better chance of defeating a candidate from another Party who is perceived as a much worse alternative.
The most recent example of how IRV may have made a difference under these circumstances was in the battleground States of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania in the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton loss to Trump by narrow margins in each of these States. The Green Party Candidate Dr. Jill Stein amassed more than enough votes to overcome Trump’s margin of victory. If IRV had been in effect, a large enough number of Dr. Stein’s supporters may have chosen Hillary Clinton as their second choice thereby blocking Trump’s path to the presidency via the Electoral College map.
Dr. Stein and the Green Party should not be blamed for electing Donald Trump President. The blame lies with a system which does allow people to vote for who they believe in if the person is a third-Party candidate without being labeled a “spoiler.” The adoption of IRV across the country will go a long way towards alleviating this issue. Therefore, it should be at the forefront of WFP’s electoral reform agenda.
Ultimately, these efforts will be for naught if WFP does not have a platform and messaging that motivates its core constituencies to engage in protests, demonstrations, policy advocacy, institution-building and elections. I am confident that WFP will be at the cutting edge in this regard. However, I would offer this cautionary note. Blacks have been the most reliable supporters, the backbone of the Democratic Party for decades, and yet we have seldom been rewarded in proportion to our support or concerns/issues/needs. Even President Obama was unwilling to explicitly advance policy proposals that addressed the deep crises in America’s “dark ghettoes.” This reluctance to affirmatively respond to a Black Agenda is grounded in the fear of alienating White voters, particularly White poor and working- class constituencies because of the use of “identity politics.”
WFP must resist this tendency and boldly articulate a platform which addresses issues of vital concern, particularly to marginalized Black communities. A Domestic Marshall Plan aimed at healing Black communities from the ravishes of the “War on Drugs” and decades of blatant neglect, disinvestment and deindustrialization is a long-proposed idea worth fighting for. Advocating for reparatory justice policies will also have resonance. However, there is no contradiction between addressing the needs of marginalized Black communities and marginalized White communities.
This is precisely what Rev. Jesse Jackson was able to accomplish with the principles and strategy of his economic common ground platform during the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns and via the Rainbow Coalition. He effectively connected White farmers facing foreclosures and workers affected by plant closings with Black constituencies from marginalized communities in urban areas. WFP and progressives in general should revisit Rev. Jackson’s successes in this regard.
Though I have re-emphasized the urgent need for WFP to address issues of concern to people of African descent, I also reaffirm my confidence that to the degree that the Party is deeply engaged with M4BL and other progressive forces in the Black community, the Party will avoid the past errors of the Democratic Party and other progressive movements. Indeed, in the end, WFP must clearly identify with and incorporate the issues and concerns of all of its core constituencies into the platform and messaging of the Party. And, this can best be done by the equitable inclusion of representatives of the core constituencies into the leadership of WFP.
Moving forward, it would be awesome if Tracey Abrams, Andrew Gillum and Beto O’Rouke would openly identify with the WFP, but far more important is the reality that the Party has its own homegrown “stars” in the persons of leaders like Congresswoman Lucy McBath and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes to bolster its stature. And, its greatest strength will be the hundreds, if not thousands of grassroots activists and organizers who agree to join and work to build WFP. The structure and the process are far more important than personalities.
The victories for progressives in the 2018 mid-term elections have created an enormous opening to build a third force in American politics. I cannot emphasize enough that what is urgently needed is a vehicle, a structure to seize the moment, to harness the incredible energy of the “Rainbow wave” from this election to achieve this objective. I believe that WFP has the potential to be that vehicle. It will take massive resources to build the necessary infrastructure and capacity to seize the moment. Labor unions and Progressive funders would be wise to invest heavily in WFP until the Party can build a base of millions of small donors to sustain itself long term. This will genuinely make WFP the “people’s Party.”
We cannot afford to miss this moment. “There is a tide” in the affairs of men and women, which “if taken at the flood,” will lead to victory. “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” The time to establish an independent, progressive, third force in American politics is now!
Also listen to the related broadcast:
November 19th Edition of Vantage Point Radio: Can the Working Families Party Emerge as the Progressive Third Force in American Politics?
Topics: Protecting the Financial Health of New York Consumers • “The Adultrification of Black Youth in the Criminal Justice System” • Can the Working Families Party Become the Third Force in American Politics. Guests: Lorelei Salas (New York Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, New York, NY) and Jeree Thomas (Policy Director, The Campaign for Youth Justice, Washington, D.C.) — Click here to listen