Column No. 85 By Steven Jonas, MD, MPH - November 17, 2005
For the better part of the past two months I have been running a series of columns on what I and many other progressive Democrats see as the major issues facing our Party, and also see as issues that our Party should be facing but for the most part has not yet faced. (In recent weeks, this situation has begun to change for the better, it should be noted.) There are several reasons why these issues must be dealt with. First, there is the matter of the role of government in promoting an ensuring a positive present and future life for all Americans. Second, is the matter of the role of the US government in affecting the lives of people all around the world. Third, there is the matter of being able to win elections here, so as to be able to achieve positive outcomes both for the people of our nation and of the world at large. Fourth, related to all of the above, is what the posture of the Democratic Party should be in relation to this range of issues.
In a column published on October 17, 2005 entitled “Get It Together, Democrats” Bob Herbert of The New York Times said:
“What the Democrats have to do is get off their schadenfreude cloud and start the hard work of crafting a message of hope that they can deliver convincingly to the electorate - not just in the Congressional elections next year, but in local elections all over the country and the presidential election of 2008. That is not happening at the moment. While Americans are turning increasingly against the war in Iraq, for example, the support for the war among major Democratic leaders seems nearly as staunch and as mindless as among Republicans. On that and other issues, Democrats are still agonizing over whether to say what they truly believe or try to present themselves as a somewhat lighter version of the G.O.P. I wonder what Harry Truman would think about today's Democratic Party?”
Harry Truman, a Democrat who at least up until the time of Joe McCarthy knew that a) there were real differences between Republicans and Democrats, b) knew what they were, and c) knew how to fight for what Democrats who know the difference believe in, indeed.
I think that it is clear from our writings in TPJ that Steve Gheen, our Editor/Publisher, Michael Carmichael our European Editor and I know the differences. We know that these differences are not of degree, but of kind. We also know that the leadership of the Democratic Leadership Council, the principal group representing the right-wing of the Democratic Party, believes that what differences there are, are for the most part of degree, not kind. Therefore, although the DLC professes that they would like to have the party win elections, they think that the way to do this is just to say to the electorate: “if we get in, we’ll just do ‘it’ differently, but really our ‘it’ doesn’t really differ from their ‘it’ that much at all.”
There are numerous Democratic Party organizations that agree with the positions taken in TPJ, perhaps not in every detail, but certainly on the principles. Among them are for example in a non-exclusive, incomplete list: Progressive Democrats of America (http://www.pdamerica.org/), Democracy for America (formerly Dean for America, http://www.democracyforamerica.com/), The Campaign for America’s Future (http://www.ourfuture.org/), 21st Century Democrats (http://www.21stcenturydems.org/), Moveon.org (www.moveon.org), and Democrats.com (http://democrats.com/).
These groups have in common a number of important features. They develop and articulate policies. To a greater or lesser extent they engage in both on-the-ground and internet-based organizing work and small-donation fund-raising. They may become involved in particular election campaigns. They generally oppose the direction followed by the DLC. They believe that a Democratic Party re-oriented in the progressive direction can: a) win elections and b) equally as important, once in power, lead the nation away from the disasters in which the Georgites and the Republican Religious Right have already plunged us and worse disasters to come, and towards a bright, Constitutionally-based future that will benefit all Americans. (See III and last week’s column in this series, and especially next week’s column for more detail on what in my view the “progressive direction” is.)
This column is devoted to organizational issues for achieving these ends. Within our Party there is this impressive list of organizations, and others not named as well, that are pointed in what we consider to be the right direction. Could not one or more of them by itself simply do the job? I think not. I think not because the Party has been lead rightward over the last 30 years by an organization, the DLC, which does not look anything like any of the above-named organizations. Organizationally, the DLC has three defining features: it focuses on policy-development and making, not on organizing at the grass-roots level and not, directly, on elections (although it indirectly supports its candidates at the national level and for important state posts). Second, it has the adherence of a number of major elected officials at the top levels of government who generally agree to follow its policy and program recommendations. Third, it is a major behind-the-scenes fund-raiser for the Party from major donors that support its policies.
I believe that if the Democratic Party is to be lead back towards its progressive roots of the first two-thirds of the 20th century, what is needed is a counter-weight to the DLC that happens to look very like it in terms of its organization, role, and function. I propose as a working name the “Council of Progressive Democrats (CPD).” To establish it and get it up and running would require a good deal of money. If this were to happen, it is obvious that one or more wealthy progressive democrats (and there are more than one of them out there) would have to provide a significant amount of seed money. But the key point here is that what is to be formed is not simply another organization like those already in the field, but rather a DLC-type organization, with a radically different agenda.
I propose organizing that agenda around a phrase borrowed from Rabbi Michael Lerner of the Jewish national organization Tikkun: the Ten Commitments. I will be detailing my list (you have seen its major elements already) in next week’s column. All of the existing progressive Democratic organizations would be asked to affiliate, of course. Key would be the adherence to the agenda of as many elected officials as possible, from the national (like the DLC) down to the local level (differing from the DLC in this regard). Once the Council of Progressive Democrats were to be formed (and the sooner the better) I would propose the convening of a national convention, not of the Democratic Party as a whole yet, but of those organizations and elected officials ready to make the commitment to progressive change for the party. I have in mind something along the lines of a very exciting convention that I attended in 1967 as the representative of the New York Medical Committee to End the War in Vietnam, the National Conference for New Politics. That particular effort was not well-organized and nothing much came of it directly, although it did give a major boost to both the anti-war and the civil rights movements.
To be successful in this endeavor, egos will have to be checked at the door. It will have to be clear that the new organization will deal with policy development and proposals for implementation only, leaving the direct action area to the many fine progressive Democratic organizations already on the field of play. However, it would not be simply a think tank. It would as well focus on the policy of politics and politics itself: how to win with progressive thought; and why the DLC must be opposed within the Party and eventually replaced in the leadership position by the CPD, for the good of the Party, our nation, and the world.
Next week, I will begin dealing in more detail with what a “progressive” Democratic Party would look like, based on my own past work as well as that of the many progressive organizations and individuals concerned with the same issues.