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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Progressive strategy for working with - or around - Democrats

Updated: Feb 8

Welcome to SWOT Sunday!


We all know that progressives have to work with mainstream Democrats, at least some of the time, to build power and advance our agenda.  Do they know they have to work with us?  Clearly the answer is No.  What strategy should we employ now, and in the future, to improve our position in this relationship, and/or advance alternative ways to get into office and to govern?


Some things going on that put me on this topic:   According to the Wall Street Journal, some of Biden’s aides fret that he could lose the election because of his support for Israel, but apparently can’t get him to listen.  They note that “they [protesters] are stationing themselves outside nearly all of his public events when he travels around the country,” the “loudest protest movement Biden has faced since taking office.”  But Biden feels certain progressives will come around by November.


Something I find equally disturbing – at least – is that according to the Times, the New York State Board of Elections has filed a complaint against DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) for supposedly breaking campaign finance rules. A court in Albany has been asked to enforce more than $300,000 in penalties, which would cripple DSA.  The amount matches what they  spent on the 2022 elections.  Coincidence?


DSA Strength in New York


According to Jacobin, there are now eight (8) socialists serving in the State Legislature, “more socialist representation than any other state in the country, and more than New York has seen in over a century.” They have “an ambitious legislative agenda focused on working-class issues like childcare, transit, and housing,” and they’ve become too loud to be ignored.  This year, they have a new Tax the Rich plan which would fund things like “social housing modeled partly on Vienna’s system, which is one of the most enduring and successful in history.”  There are also two socialists on the New York City Council and two in New York's Congressional delegation (AOC and Jamaal Bowman).

Now, DSA is not a party, but is running progressive candidates as part of its project to advance socialism. All their NY candidates ran and won on the Democratic Party ballot line.


Corporate Democrats Fight Back – And Fight Dirty


Democratic Party leaders in New York have made no secret of their distaste for DSA.  They, and others around the country, hope to cripple progressives this fall by highlighting their opposition to Israel’s war on Gaza.


In a recent email, NY State Senator from Brooklyn Jabari Brisport said that “A truck parked outside of Jabari’s district office on Broadway, displaying the message: “Black pastors want you to know… Socialist State Senator Jabari Brisport does not condemn terrorism!” Another image attacked Jabari for not giving up his membership in Democratic Socialists of America because DSA “won’t condemn terrorism.”  According to the truck driver, these attack ads were funded by Mobilizing Preachers and Communities (MPAC), a nonprofit whose co-founder and president lives in Harlem, and which has ties to Mayor Eric Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul.”


There’s much more to the anti-progressive campaign, but we’ll leave it there for now. It is clear that at least some of the Democratic power structure in New York has taken aggressive steps to rid the ballot of DSA members.

Ideally, we would have a progressive political party like they do in other countries.  In America, for now, progressives usually have to run on the Democratic Party line.  How can we defend that right?  How can we work with them on common goals? How can we execute a long-term strategy of our own party, and/or a parliamentary system like most other developed countries have?


Improving The Power Balance With Corporate Democrats


We need to both fight for our agenda itself, fight for power within the party, and show Democrats that: 1) our agenda can actually win power for the party, and 2) not embracing our agenda can lose power for the party.  This won’t be quick or easy, but we can’t just walk away from them.

There is, of course, the Working Families Party (WFP). While in their early days they weren't always so progressive, they are more militant and challenge the mainstream Democrats more in recent days. They can sometimes run on their own party line, and sometimes on Democrats'. Currently I believe they're in 15 or 20 states, and can be a strong counterpoint to corporate Democrats where they are.

They could develop into the national progressive party we need. At present, especially because WFP is not in all states, I think we would be best served for building electoral power by running progressives as Democrats with support from various entities, including WFP, DSA, and Our Revolution.

We need to develop a national network to coordinate on the whole progressive project, including our vision and mission, electoral, policy, communications, and organizing strategy.


We have to contest for power within the party structure.  We need to get into or create more progressive local Democratic clubs, get on more state and local committees that choose or endorse candidates and handle ethics complaints, get involved in legislative committees and other bodies that make policy decisions, and help fundraise for candidates. 


There can be a huge number of people in some of these party positions, and real one-to-one organizing will be required.  There are no doubt some Democrats whose heart is in the right place, but have been beaten down by the Establishment’s power.  Identifying them, empathizing, and showing them they’re not alone is probably a longer-term process, but could reap some rewards.


We have to fight for hearts and minds.  Eric Adams, Hakeem Jeffries and their ilk take the position that progressive policies don’t resonate with the public and cost Democrats elections.  We know that their fear is more about losing the vast sums of money from corporations and wealthy people that Democrats get for taking orders from them (and, it must be said, being punished for getting out of line).

That being said, we need to prove that our policy priorities ARE broadly popular (and reconsider the ones that aren’t). Polling matters, especially right now on the question of the war and how it will affect people’s votes.  We have to show that opposition to the war is gaining momentum in general.  We have to demonstrate more powerfully that Biden can’t win without young people and people of color, and make it clear what their priorities are.


Advertising and public relations campaigns with real weight, and organizing on the street, are both needed to get this message out loud and clear.  We need to highlight the people we have elected, and what they’ve accomplished for the people.


This is where having a “progressive brand” would be so helpful. You could think of it like a caucus in the party.


We need to call out the corruption that’s often behind corporate Democrats’ timidity and half-measures, or no measures, on policy.  This takes research and cojones, and should be used carefully, but it can cost people their seats and put the fear of God into them.


First and last, we just have to elect more progressives to change the balance of power.


Alternatives To The Democratic Party


As someone who spent fourteen years in the Green Party, I can tell you for a fact that a “viable third party” couldn’t be built here without a lot of money, AND a lot of change to our electoral systems, AND a long-term communications effort to make people believe it can work.  There is no world in which this wouldn't be decades into the future.


Before considering a “third party,” I would consider making the electoral reforms that would both make it easier to elect progressives, and lay the groundwork for an alternative to our two-party system.   States and localities have a lot of control over how they conduct their own elections; very little over Federal elections.  They can and do conduct “experiments” into different electoral arrangements, which can and have spread across the country, and could build support for Federal changes.


Changing the Federal system for Congressional or Presidential elections would probably require Constitutional amendments.  27 amendments have been ratified to date, most recently in 1971 (lowering the voting age to 18) and 1992 (saying that if Congress votes itself a pay raise, it doesn’t take effect until after the next election).  Changing from the two-party system would be a much more fundamental change.  


An amendment may be proposed by a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress, or, if two-thirds of the States request one, by a convention called for that purpose. The amendment must then be ratified by three-fourths of the State legislatures, or three-fourths of conventions called in each State for ratification.


There is a “National Popular Vote” campaign underway which is an end-run around the Constitution.  It is gathering states to pledge that they would cast all their Electoral College votes for the candidate who won the popular vote for President nationwide.  If all the states signed on, this would eliminate the scenario where a candidate loses the national vote, but because of the way the votes fell by state and the winner-take-all, wins the Electoral College.


Interim Electoral Reforms


Independent Redistricting Commissions


We should be working on a plan now for the 2030 redistricting cycle.


Some key reforms are actively being pursued, and there is energy there.  We need to unite behind them, and strategize about how to prioritize and enact them across the country.


Gerrymandering, the practice of having legislators and parties in power draw their own districts for their own benefit, has everything to do with polarization, the lack of competitive races and the extreme difficulty of unseating incumbents.   Replacing gerrymandering with non-partisan commissions is difficult, but necessary.


The GOP, as usual, had a long term plan which they brought to fruition in the 2010 election cycle. They took over the majority of state legislatures, where election policy is decided, and set about changing the rules and drawing extreme districts to their own benefit.  Democrats do the same where they have power. Both parties leave the people out of the picture.  These battles right now are extremely hard fought because they are SO IMPORTANT. 


 Ballot Access


In other countries, the bar is low for all parties to get on the ballot.   Here, for an “independent” party, it varies a lot from state to state.  It ranges from not too onerous, to difficult and expensive, to impossible.   If the bar were lowered significantly, and Ranked Choice Voting were enacted more broadly, it would be considerably easier for a “third party” to meaningfully contest elections, though the other factors mentioned here would still make it relatively difficult. 

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV)


RCV is growing around the country, but is still in a minority of political districts.  Progressives should start by prioritizing states and localities where RCV is more likely to grow the Democratic and progressive share, and set goals for expanding to more competitive areas later.


It can help insurgent progressive candidates, because people can vote for them without fear of taking votes from moderate Dems and handing elections to the GOP.  In a primary with a lot of candidates, progressive candidates can band together in a coalition, and encourage their voters to rank candidates in the coalition higher.  It can help reduce polarization, because candidates need to gain support beyond their own base.  No one can get elected without majority support.



Open Primaries


See my recent post on this.


Public Campaign Finance and Finance Reform


New York’s relatively generous public campaign financing has definitely played a role in progressive growth.  These systems need to be carefully designed and enforced, but they demonstrably help empower local residents of a district and working-class candidates with less financial support than wealthy or corporate-funded candidates.


Alternatives to Two-Party System: Multi-Party System, Parliamentary System, Proportional Representation


I’d love to see it, but it’s hard for me to imagine how we could achieve this level of political change in our country. We can't even decide to make DC a state.


Systems can be both multi-party and parliamentary.


A multi-party system is a system where multiple political parties take part in national elections. Each party has its own views. A lot of countries that use this system have a coalition government, meaning a number of relatively like-minded parties join together to form a majority, and they all work together to make laws.


Good examples of countries that have this system include Brazil, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, South Africa, and South Korea.


A parliamentary system is a democratic form of government in which the party with the greatest representation in the parliament (legislature), forms the government (adding coalition partners if necessary), its leader becoming prime minister or chancellor.  


Proportional representation is more difficult to explain.  It can only be used with multi-member districts, and is often done (in other countries) by “party list.”  For example, in New York, there are 26 congressional districts, and each district elects one representative. 

Let’s say instead of 26 districts, we had 2:  one for upstate and one for downstate (the two regions have a similar population size).  Each district would elect 13 representatives.  Let’s say there were three parties:  Democrats, Republicans, and Progressives.  It could be that based on the proportion of votes for each party’s candidates, each district would elect 5 Democrats, 3 Progressives, and 5 Republicans.

Some areas have a combination of single-member districts by standard geography, and "at large" seats where the whole entity (say the state) would elect a certain number of people based on total votes.


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