By David Swanson
The most useful tool progressive political activists have in the United States, at the local, state, and national levels, was created from scratch five years ago, and has been developed and sharpened while proving itself time and again in each and every week since. Progressive Democrats of America has stood strongly behind truly progressive, majority positions more consistently than any other activist group with national weight that I’m aware of. And at the same time, PDA has maintained good working relationships with more members of Congress than probably anyone outside of corporate lobbyists. How can this be and what should it teach us?
PDA puts progressive first and Democrat (with a capital D for the political party) a distant second. Groups that do the reverse are a dime a dozen. Organizations like MoveOn.org, True Majority, Democracy for America, Campaign for America’s Future, Center for American Progress, and others can be counted on at least 75 percent of the time to compromise progressive positions in order to follow the wishes of the Democratic Party’s national leadership. This approach leads to cynicism among grassroots activists, and further compromise and defeat of progressive goals. PDA opposes wars, not when they are Republican wars, but when they are illegal and aggressive wars. PDA supports single-payer healthcare, not when Rahm Emanuel says it’s appropriate, but when the public wants it, the evidence supports it as the best solution, and its advocacy appears likely to lead to the best outcome even if that outcome is a compromise. PDA favors impeachment and prosecution of high officials, not when an opposing party agrees, but when crimes and abuses have been committed.
But standing by such positions must mean exile from the inner halls of power, right? And once you’re on the outside, you can’t get anything done, right? Wrong. PDA is on better terms with more Congress members than are most organizations that sell out for access. One reason for this is the degree to which PDA’s positions actually are supported by many members of Congress, even though opposed by both parties. Single-payer healthcare has a bill to establish it that has been backed by a sponsor and 85 co-sponsors. No other healthcare plan has that much support or comes anywhere close to deserving it. And while many of those 86 Congress members who have put their names down for a real solution are prepared to sell out, they also know that their best hope of looking good to their constituents and justifying themselves to their donors and the corporate media, while selling out as little as possible or not at all, is if there exists a major public push for what people really want.
A great many activists and activist groups around the country take a different approach. They want nothing to do with the Democratic Party, seek to destroy it or at least ignore it, and hope to build a new party independent of it. Many of them oppose not just parties but Congress or government as a whole. They seek to change the culture and organize massive protest and resistance, but without targeting such action at any particular weak link in the chain of corporatist power. The problem with this is that, given the grotesque and corrupting power of the two parties to dominate our electoral system and our legislature, there is no way for independent activism to have an impact until it becomes absolutely immense and overwhelming. And it’s hard to build it to that point in the absence of any small victories along the way. PDA works inside as well as outside the system, organizing rallies and protests as well as meetings and briefings. I think activism independent of any party influence is absolutely essential. I want more of it, not less. But to do without an inside strategy is to tie one hand behind our backs. To run candidates only in general elections and not primaries is a further unnecessary handicap. You can believe as I do that the influence of parties should be drastically reduced or removed. Or you can believe that salvation lies through a particular third party. Or you can dedicate yourself to the reform and strengthening of the Democratic Party. In any of these situations, however, if you place progressive change at the top of your agenda, you’ll find that joining and supporting Progressive Democrats of America is one of the smartest things you can do.
But here’s the deal. Being skilled at an inside-outside approach, standing up for the public while sitting down with the Congress is difficult and valuable, but it does not translate into an ability to please the upper echelon of power, to satisfy those at the very top, to ingratiate with funders and string pullers, to attract corporate backing or corporate media hype. And so, while other organizations do less in every way, some of them bring in many times over the amount of money PDA raises from its grassroots supporters. And activists have been known to say that they prefer PDA but will donate to a larger group because it is larger, just as people say they’ll back their second-choice candidate in an election because their television told them it would be silly not to. The analogy is awful though, because backing one organization instead of another does not eliminate, but merely reduces, that other group. In choosing organizations, there is no spoiler factor. If you support PDA, it cannot mean that the Free Republic gets to take over MoveOn.org. On the contrary it can mean that Democratic progressive groups are forced to move to where the progressive Democratic groups are. Please think about it.
Happy fifth birthday, PDA! Many happy returns!