Strategies for a New Politics: New Party or New Democratic Coalition?

Strategies for a New Politics: New Party or New Democratic Coalition?

Two strategies for radical change compete for the favor of those on the Left who are not willing to abandon electoral activity as the principal focus of their political efforts. Some favor building a new party. Others believe the main attempt must be made within the Democratic party. Both groups think of electoral politics as the key part—but only a part—of a more general strategy that includes community action and political education. For example, efforts to mobilize support for the grape boycott, to develop informed opposition to the continuation of the arms race, to build grassroots organizations that serve the needs of poor people—all are generally accepted by both groups.

I favor working within the Democratic party by helping to build the New Democratic Coalition. In this essay I have two aims: to defend this preference, and to describe a larger design by means of which those who share this preference can, over time, transform The System by working within it. I direct my argument toward those now involved in the New party led by Marcus Raskin, but of course the argument applies to other such efforts as well.

Modest optimism about the prospects for transforming the Democratic party into an instrument of radical change seems justified. But that is not what I have to show. It will be enough to establish that, however difficult traveling the Democratic party route may be, it is more likely to succeed than building a new party. In political life, when support for a lesser evil is based on reason and morality, it is also support for the best available alternative.

Those who want a New party seem to suppose that they need only to show that enormous obstacles must be surmounted by others who favor reconstituting the Democratic party. But their answer as to why they think the New-party road has fewer pitfalls is left clouded in mystery. Their faith seems often based on the following syllogism:

Those who work within a corrupt Democratic party, the Party of Daley, Johnson, and Eastland, are themselves bound to be or become corrupt. But corrupt people cannot effect morally urgent radical change.

Therefore, only those committed to building a New party have any prospect of achieving success.

The syllogism is, alas, unsound. Those of us committed to working in the Democratic party find the major premise understandably self-righteous. But we also find it difficult to understand how working within a new party will immunize one against such mortal political sins as co-optation and opportunism. For even if people who originally join the New party possess a moral fervor making them impregnably virtuous, the first glimpse of success will bring many others, less endowed with iron moral constitutions, flocking to the new center of power. After all, the gloriously new Labor party of Keir Hardie and Beatrice Webb soon became the party of Ramsay McDonald a...