Bernie and the Search for New Politics

Bernie Sanders has called for a “political revolution.” But the New Politics movement shows the challenges of accomplishing that within the Democratic Party.

Bernie Sanders, Vermont senator and presidential hopeful, at a rally this week in Denver. Christian O'Rourke / Flickr

Bernie Sanders’s bid for the Democratic nomination, his socialist self-identification, and his call for a “political revolution” in the United States has stirred up considerable discussion on the Left. That discussion has resurrected the perennial question of whether or not progressive forces should work within the Democratic Party or build an independent third-party alternative.

Since at least the New Deal, trade unions and the Democratic Party have stood at the center of working-class politics in the United States. As a result, both insider and third-party strategies propose to reconfigure the relationship between these two representative bodies: either increasing labor’s voice within the Democrats or breaking away and building a new party geared solely to workers’ interests.

The strategic alternatives boil down to one simple question: how do we build a genuine labor party capable of putting socialism on the agenda?

Both sides of this debate correctly emphasize the importance of building the political capacities of workers. But not enough emphasis has been put on history, with few considering how the working class has been institutionalized in American politics — a crucial task for understanding the challenges facing working-class politics today.

While references to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition are common in this discussion, the far more relevant experience was the New Politics project that unfolded inside the Democratic Party in the decade after 1968. That project — composed of civil rights, antiwar, and feminist activists as well as the labor-left — came together as the party leadership split, the Vietnam War raged, and the New Deal coalition completely unraveled.

Perceiving the limits and failures of Democratic policies to be the result of an insufficiently democratic party, New Politics activists sought to remake the party in the name of participatory democracy. As they put it: “The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”

The disarray that overwhelmed the Democrats in the aftermath of the 1968 Chicago convention opened a window of opportunity for party reform. By restructuring the rules governing the party’s internal machinery, New Politics activists removed institutional barriers to the participation of women, people of color, and young people, who subsequently flooded into the party with the George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.

The convention that year reflected this recomposition and the ideological shift it entailed. As the 1972 Democratic platform read: “We must restructure the social, political and economic relationships throughout the entire society in order to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth and power.”

What’s more, the New Politics movement also invented institutional mechanisms designed to ensure the translation of this party platform into actual policy. By the mid-1970s, they had held the party’s first-ever midterm policy conference, where Democratic officeholders had to appear before assembled delegates and account for their performance in office. It was even proposed that the organization “deny all support, financial or otherwise, to those candidates who have, in effect, abdicated their leadership role in our party by abandoning our basic principles as embodied in our Democratic national party platform.”

Interestingly, the organized labor leadership was divided over whether the party should be restructured. The dominant wing of the AFL-CIO, led by federation president George Meany, pulled out every stop to derail the New Politics project, including withholding endorsement from McGovern (contributing to his landslide defeat). This was understandable, since by the late 1960s the Meany wing had developed considerable influence through elite brokerage in the party’s “smoke-filled backrooms,” which New Politics aimed to dismantle.

The proposed alternative — open conventions and primary contests — provided the more diverse public sector, industrial, and service sector unions with the chance to gain greater influence over the party. Democratic reform would constrain Meany’s role as a power broker, potentially shifting the balance of power within the labor movement itself.

But even aside from issues of access, the New Politics project risked throwing gasoline on the fire already burning among rank-and-file workers. As journalist James Wechsler wrote at the time, there was a “more profound” issue at work in the reformers’ democratic project:

If the Democratic Party can successfully execute this process of democratization, the idea could become infectious. It might even invite emulation by those trade unions whose conventions still resemble Soviet party congresses. Imagine what would happen to the life-style of some ancient labor bodies if they were required to consider adequate representation for the young, and the black, and to admit women to their higher councils.

Joining with anti-reform Democrats inside the party, the Meany wing managed to successfully limit the institutional capacity of the Democratic left to hold officeholders’ feet to the fire and compel the implementation of the party platform.

That the scope of party reform was checked became all the more significant as the crisis decade of the 1970s wore on. In 1974, New Politics activists and the labor-left mobilized around the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment bill, which would have imposed mandatory employment targets on the federal government, requiring the expansion of the public sector to absorb labor market surpluses. This would have included comprehensive planning bodies and regional infrastructure projects, while also enshrining in law the right of workers to find employment — enforceable through federal courts.

Humphrey-Hawkins had the potential to become what the French socialist Andre Gorz once called a “non-reformist reform” — a measure that introduced a new dynamic into public policy by challenging the parameters of capitalism, requiring further reforms to resolve the crises it induces.

By empowering workers’ bargaining position, full employment gives rise to inflation, which requires price controls and planning mechanisms, hence expanding state regulatory capacities, and so on — ultimately shifting the balance of forces within the state and wider society.

The 1976 Democratic convention was awash in endorsements for Humphrey-Hawkins, including from George Meany and presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, who identified the “staggering” unemployment rate as “the greatest problem facing the American people today.” Carter and his advisors, however, had endorsed the Democratic program for full employment for purely electoral reasons. Once inside the state, and in the absence of a strong and persistent labor mobilization, the bill’s likely contribution to inflation virtually guaranteed that it would be dropped or gutted.

Carter’s reneging on his platform commitments promised to result in a public relations disaster at the next midterm party conference, in late 1978. As White House memos reveal, the administration went through considerable trouble to “control all proceedings . . . screen all proposals . . . and screen any resolutions proposed for a vote.” But for all the worry it caused the White House, the midterm conference in fact revealed how deeply integrated the unions were within the system of elite brokerage that New Politics had sought to break.

In the weeks before conference delegates assembled, the full employment coalition began to splinter under the strain of confronting the president, which jeopardized their access to that most powerful of offices. The Communication Workers, for instance, pulled out of a United Auto Workers–organized strategy meeting ahead of the conference.

As the Democratic National Committee informed the White House, “they are not interested in taking on the WH especially since the Telecommunications Act, the one piece of legislation they care deeply about, is coming up in the next Congress.” While valiant efforts to transform the conference into a meaningful, participatory party organ persisted, the president had outmaneuvered the now-fragmented New Politics movement.

Implementing full employment planning would have required a social force with the political capacities to make good on their threat to withdraw support from the party leadership should they succumb to the pressures of resolving economic crises on capitalist class terms.

New Politics was not able to leverage the new democratic channels in the party to compel the Democratic president to enact an aggressive full employment program largely due to its own internal weaknesses. These were rooted in its failure to combine the parallel democratic insurgencies in both the labor movement and the party in a way that could have built the capacities of the working class to articulate a truly new type of politics.

While they were able to open the party to greater participation by removing procedural barriers to entry, activists failed to create the basis for a new kind of participation, one that would have had to reach past the leadership of even the most progressive unions to the rank-and-file, as well as into their communities. New Politics lacked a grassroots base of support, and its attempt to build one from the top down only led it back into the elite brokerage model of the old politics.

Even if the New Politics project to transform the Democratic Party did not succeed on its own terms, the episode draws out valuable insights that any attempt to change the world by taking power in the United States must carefully consider. The barriers facing progressive social forces within the Democratic Party are considerable — as are the institutional barriers to launching a third-party alternative.

Advocates of the third-party option are right to suggest that a working-class alternative would be a party of a different type, and that the betrayal of the activist base that has been so typical of Democrats would be less likely due to its grassroots integration with organized communities and workplaces. However, insofar as “third-partyers” imply that unions, as they currently exist, could be torn away from the Democrats and made into the central animating social force in a labor party, they ignore the limitations of American unions as institutions of the working class.

As the New Politics experience shows us, it is not enough to get candidates nominated and radical platforms passed. The New Politics agenda had aimed at a fundamental reorganization of power relations within the party as well as between the party and the state. Party reformers had sought to build an ideologically coherent and disciplined organization that could democratically formulate and implement a popular program.

Even if we assume the best possible conditions, any third party will become another Democratic Party unless the undemocratic model of elite brokerage in which labor is embedded is broken. This is not a direct democracy dismissal of all representation as inherently undemocratic. It is rather to suggest that the way unions and the Democratic Party represent workers disorganizes and fragments the class, rather than building the capacities of the class as the basis for political engagement.

The structure of the American state reinforces this pluralist political logic. As we have seen time and again, the linkages between the Democratic Party and the labor movement reinforce union conservatism, pressuring union leaders to limit their demands to what they can get for their dues-paying members.

The tough question to be asked about a third-party strategy is, once a mass democratic labor party is built, how do we ensure that our representatives will be able to overcome the pressures imposed by the capitalist state and carry forward a radical program for social transformation? How would we prevent our democratic party from becoming another Democratic Party?

The Sanders campaign could indeed perform a valuable task in raising consciousness, but it cannot on its own accomplish the necessary task of building the political capacities of workers. This is far beyond the scope of any electoral insurgency. Campaigns such as Sanders’s have an important demonstration effect, pointing out the deficiencies of the nominally progressive Democrats, and they can, with some luck, get people talking.

But to speak of a successful left politics, one that can win and implement a left program, requires an organizational infrastructure and political culture that, as Mark Dudzic and Adolph Reed have argued, does not exist right now.

By thinking of the Democratic Party as an institution in the context of the New Politics movement, we gain historical perspective about the obstacles to any project of building working-class power within the party. But we are also able to glean insight into some of the dilemmas that a party of a different type may confront. The latter would involve more than just pulling existing unions away from the Democrats, or even reversing their decline in numerical terms, but actually transforming them.

There is little reason to believe that unions are capable of this transformation on their own. Union leaderships have few incentives to increase the expectations or democratic capacities of their members, which jeopardizes their institutional power in the current system of elite bargaining. Memberships are too fragmented, insecure, and resource-poor to launch a sustained democratic challenge inside their unions, other than the occasional rank-and-file rebellion.

A genuine socialist party could play a role in changing this dynamic. The fundamental task of such a party would be to renew the labor movement and build other types of working-class organizations, including those centered on communities, which together could contribute to rebuilding the class. As this is done, electoral activity, starting at the local or state level, could become viable. This is necessarily a long-term project.

The classic old argument — that efforts to transform the Democratic Party from a bourgeois party into a workers party forestall independent class action — is not wrong, but it fails to make the meaningful distinction between entering the party and working together on a particular campaign.

By thinking institutionally and conceiving the Democratic Party as a terrain of struggle, it is evident that engagement with that party (or actors inside it) will sometimes be a valuable strategic move, depending on the particular political moment.

Casting a vote without illusions for Sanders does not, in other words, forestall working-class politics. However, in circumstances such as these the role of the socialist left should not be to merely cheerlead one candidate over another, but to use that campaign to put in perspective the serious challenges we face in building a truly progressive politics.