The Alleged Impossibility of Moving the Democrats Left

March 25. 2005
I think Progressive Democrats of America owes a thanks to Lance Selfa for his March 25th article in Socialist Worker predicting that we in PDA will not manage to move the Democratic Party to the left.

The warning of the difficulty, and of where we can easily go wrong, is helpful.

Selfa began his article with these words: “In a recent fundraising appeal on behalf of Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), Global Exchange and Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin urged support for the PDA’s effort to ‘take over and transform the Democratic Party.’ But this is only the latest in a long line of attempts to ‘take over and transform the Democratic Party.’ If history is any guide, the PDA’s attempt will end like all the others–in failure.”

But for every new development in history, history was not “any guide.” New achievements are, by definition, new, and their possibility cannot be ruled out by past failures. Of course, the Democratic Party has never been what we want it to be – though at times it’s been much, much closer to it. We and those who have come before us have tried to reform it and failed again and again. But the organization for which Selfa writes advocates the overthrow of capitalism, and we haven’t managed that yet either. If history is “any guide,” we won’t.

Luckily for progressive Democrats and socialists, and for those of us who sympathize with both, there’s as much wisdom in Ford and Joyce as in Santayana. We don’t want to repeat historical mistakes, but we do want to awaken from history’s nightmares and recognize history, ultimately, as bunk.

The right wing announced that September 11th “changed everything,” and then proceeded to change quite a few things. We can, if we choose, announce that George W. Bush changed everything, or that the pathetic failure of John Kerry changed everything. These are not empirical claims. They’re commitments. We make them true and give them meaning afterwards.

In reforming the Democrats, the trick, as Selfa points out, lies in maintaining a working relationship with the Democratic Party without selling out to it, without being co-opted, without falling victim to the allure of petty power. The same danger lies in working with large funding sources, of course.

I cannot predict with any certainty that PDA will manage to take over the Democratic Party for progressive popular positions, but I am convinced that PDA is going into this with its eyes wide open. PDA’s approach to Democrats, even progressive Democrats, is not one of subservience but of useful pressure. A fair number of elected representatives want to move left on various issues but are reluctant to do so in the absence of public pressure. PDA intends to provide it – when they want it and when they don’t.

PDA’s support in primary elections will be for progressive candidates, whether incumbents or challengers. A progressive challenger sometimes has more strength as a Democrat than as the candidate of another party, because she or he is able to draw on the support of the party even while pulling the party away from its corrupting corporate influence. But Greens and Socialists and other party candidates may also gain PDA support. When their election advances the public good and advances both efforts to reform the Democrats and efforts to build another party, then we need to act, not stop and argue over our long-term visions. PDA will work for instant runoff voting and for fusion, the strategy that the Working Families Party is using to build progressive power.

We in PDA need socialists with us. But we also need with us many for whom “socialism” is a poorly understood and greatly feared word. Part of what is required of us is reshaping our public discourse so that majority opinions are not marginalized. The majority of Americans want single-payer health care, serious investment in education, fair and clean elections, democratic media, an aggressive response to global warming, an end to the war, fair trade policies, and numerous other policies that are not acceptable in the corporate media. When Dennis Kucinich brought up single-payer health care in a presidential candidates debate, Larry King cut him off and told him it was socialism. Well, we either need to make it not be socialism or make socialism be acceptable (or take our airwaves away from the likes of Larry King), but one way or the other we need to recognize our own status and strength as a majority.

Our strength will be greater not just if we all work together, but if we concentrate only on supporting candidates who are fully behind our platform. PDA has no intention of wasting energy on lesser evil candidates. Our work, rather, will go into developing good candidates at the local, state, and national levels, and into holding our elected officials accountable.

We’ll put on coats and ties and meet with them. We’ll flood their mailboxes, fax machines, and telephones. And we’ll protest their actions through nonviolent civil disobedience. We’ll do what it takes to take back our country from robber barons, war profiteers, and gangsters, whatever party they try to call their own. We’ll succeed if you help us.

David Swanson is a board member of Progressive Democrats of America. His website is

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