Searching for New Politics

The Democratic Party has a history of throwing up barriers to working-class organization that Bernie Sanders will find hard to overcome.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders debates Hillary Clinton during the CNN Democratic Presidential Primary Debate on April 14, 2016, in New York City. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

For the past six months, it’s been hard not to “feel the Bern.” Stepping into the political space opened up by Occupy, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has done what many thought impossible: inject a class discourse into the Democratic nomination race.

But it is a telling bit of historical amnesia that Sanders’s call for a “political revolution” does not bring to mind the last time a self-described “political revolution” was engineered within the Democratic Party: the New Politics movement.

Born amid the Democratic Party’s crisis in 1968 and drawing together activists from antiwar, civil rights, and feminist struggles, as well as the labor-left, New Politics diagnosed the limits and failures of Democratic policies as the product of an insufficiently democratic party. The reformers sought to build an ideologically coherent, disciplined organization that could formulate and implement a popular, social-democratic program — a project they described as “democratizing the Democratic Party.”

The scholarly consensus on the New Politics movement has been overwhelmingly shaped by neoconservative intellectuals, many of whom were active opponents of the reforms as they took hold inside the party. In their eyes, New Politics was symptomatic of the generalized “excess of democracy” afflicting advanced capitalist countries at the end of the postwar Golden Age.

Oddly enough, these critics’ accounts typically emphasize the class character of the New Politics movement. The reforms, they argue, empowered a new class of white-collar elites at the expense of the working-class base of the New Deal coalition, as evidenced in the AFL-CIO’s opposition to the changes.

However, these critiques, and their echoes in liberal commentary, muddle much of the movement’s history. New Politics did trigger intense — though far from universal — opposition from the trade unions’ upper ranks. But this had little to do with any white-versus-blue-collar conflict in the party. Rather, the decision of many labor leaders to oppose party reform was about defending their institutional privileges with the Democratic leadership, dominance within the union movement, and ability to control the democratic insurgency in its own ranks.

While the New Politics project was much more sweeping in its intra-party ambitions than Sanders’s, the experience has much to tell us about the Vermont senator’s campaign and the limits of any project to transform the Democratic Party.

History does show that reform efforts from below can reshape the Democratic Party in certain ways. But, more importantly, it also underscores the shortcomings of a strategy based on nominating certain presidential candidates or passing radical platforms. Actually overhauling the Democratic Party would mean reconfiguring its internal power relations as well as its relations with the state. The Democratic Party lacks not only the interest but also the institutional capacity to act as a class vehicle in American politics and that won’t change.

Ultimately, however, the New Politics effort is more evidence that a transformation of social relations of the kind imagined by most socialists, as well as Sanders, demands a party of a new type, one rooted in the class interests of workers, capable of acting as a democratic force in society.

Democratizing the Party

The New Politics movement originated in the Democratic Party crisis of 1968, when antiwar party insurgents who had tried to work within the system found themselves shut out. While the antiwar primary campaigns of Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy had proven surprisingly successful in the wake of Lyndon Johnson’s abrupt withdrawal, the party still nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had not contested a single primary, on the first ballot.

For left activists, the selection bespoke a party system more responsive to the will of party leaders than to mobilized party activists. The vice president hadn’t cobbled together a grassroots coalition on his way to the nomination process — he’d shielded himself from accountability for his pro-war stance and successfully navigated the closed party caucuses and conventions. The violent bungling of the 1968 convention in Chicago and Humphrey’s narrow loss to Richard Nixon in the general election only heightened the turmoil within the party.

All of this helped transform a party crisis into a crisis of party democracy. Vocal critics both inside and outside the establishment charged that the Democrats were hostile to grassroots participation, unrepresentative of popular policy preferences, and unfair in its internal operating procedures. The official party commission tasked with investigating the problem concluded that the 1968 party crisis revealed “an organization impervious to the will of its rank and file.”

Attempting to unify the party and avoid another Chicago, the Democratic National Committee adopted the recommendations of the reform commission. Never again would a nominee make it to the top of the ticket like Humphrey had.

The subsequent reform process opened the party by installing a universal set of rules and regulations governing the selection of convention delegates at the state and local level. Some were fairly uncontroversial statutes, such as holding local party meetings in publicly disclosed locations and codifying transparent party procedures.

But other measures more fundamentally altered who made decisions in the party, and how. Affirmative action mandates were instated based on race, age, and gender. The presidential nominating system began allocating convention delegates on the basis of a candidate’s proportional degree of support in state caucuses, conventions, and primaries (instead of winner-take-all mechanisms).

The freedom of party leaders or state committees to handpick delegations was also severely curtailed, and the privilege of Democratic officials and officeholders to attend presidential nominating conventions as unelected and unpledged voting delegates was eliminated entirely. Party elites were thus forced to compete for delegate seats on a level playing field against any interested party activist or newcomer. The resulting system of open rank-and-file participation, the reform commission reported, amounted to nothing less than a “political revolution.”

The power shift from party leaders to rank-and-file activists was on display at the 1972 convention. The number of top Democratic officeholders attending as convention delegates dropped precipitously, with many losing their seats to new, antiwar entrants. Meanwhile the number of women, minorities, people under thirty, and rank-and-file workers increased many times over.

The sweeping changes were reflected in that year’s Democratic platform, which 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.” This included reviving the labor-liberal vision for a full-employment economy, which would “guarantee a job for every American that seeks work,” with the federal government acting as employer of last resort and providing “adequate income for those not able to work.”

But if removing barriers to participation at the grassroots level was a vital step toward greater internal party democracy, reformers recognized it was only a partial victory if rank-and-file members couldn’t hold officeholders accountable.

New Politics activists thus demanded that those elected under the Democratic Party’s banner govern in line with the priorities and principles laid out in the party platform. For a party that over the previous 130 years had been nothing more than a loose confederation of independent state parties — a structure that permitted wide divergences of interest and ideology — this constituted a radical departure.

By transforming the platform from a vague “hodgepodge of platitudes” into a binding agreement between Democratic public officials and the party’s activist base, New Politics tried to construct a truly national Democratic Party with the institutional capacity to discipline its state-level affiliates when their “methods and objectives” failed to conform to the national program.

Punitive actions included having the Democratic National Committee “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.”

Central to the attempt to give officeholders a shorter leash was the newly established biennial midterm policy conference, a venue where political differences and policy alternatives could be hashed out without the added pressure of nominating a presidential candidate. Kansas City hosted the inaugural conference in 1974, with delegates ratifying the first-ever party constitution and listening to top Democratic leaders account for their performance in office.

But even before a newly democratized Democratic Party could be consummated, opponents of New Politics had mobilized to limit its influence.

Labor and the New Politics

Because they were pushing such a radical plan, it should come as no surprise that New Politics faced severe opposition within the party. Perhaps more surprising was its principal source: the top officials of the AFL-CIO.

Since the New Deal, the labor movement’s national leadership had been working to realign the party further to the left, mostly by attempting to replace its southern conservative wing in Congress with liberal Democrats supportive of progressive labor legislation.

This had been a strong motivation behind the failed attempt to unionize the South in the early postwar years as well as the leadership’s continued financial support for civil rights organizations (often transmitted without the knowledge of their white rank-and-file members).

But in 1972, most of the trade union leadership reacted in horror as they watched movement activists from the antiwar, civil rights, student, and feminist struggles pour in through the doors of the Democratic Party.

Why the antipathy? While conservative cold warriors like AFL-CIO president George Meany expressed strident opposition to New Politics’ antiwar and egalitarian values, the anti-reform position of most labor leaders sprung from their desire to retain the existing system of elite brokerage. As Lane Kirkland, long-time AFL-CIO secretary treasurer and later president, explained:

There was an arrangement — a tacit, invisible but real arrangement — before the rules were changed [by the New Politics]. . . . We had a bargaining relationship with the leadership of the party. In the old days, the party leaders knew that, in the general election, they needed labor to draw some of the water and hew some of the wood.

In return, the Democrats got a ground game. By the late 1960s, labor was functioning as a surrogate campaign organization, canvassing door-to-door, staffing telephone banks, coordinating registration drives among union and nonunion households, facilitating get-out-the-vote efforts, and distributing literature. As southern conservatives began bucking the party leadership and the famed urban machines of the turn of the century eroded, labor’s role as an organizational pillar of electoral support became all the more important.

However, by 1972 the AFL-CIO’s relationship with the Democratic leadership was in crisis on multiple fronts. First of all, the New Politics movement had removed the presidential nomination from the control of party leaders.

The pathway to party influence no longer ran through the smoke-filled backrooms of the convention hall, but through the more diffuse field of precinct caucuses and primary elections — a terrain requiring the kind of rank-and-file education and mobilization at which the top-heavy American labor movement was particularly disadvantaged.

Second, further democratization of the party threatened to shift the balance of forces within the labor movement itself. While the New Politics reforms had shrunken labor leaders’ role in selecting presidential nominees, the industrial, service, and public sector unions could more easily adapt to this new constraint than their craft union counterparts.

Not only were these unions’ memberships increasing — better equipping them to exert political influence through participatory party organs — but their social bases tended to reflect those of the New Politics movement: youths, women, and people of color. A coalition of these unions — led by the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — saw in the New Politics movement the chance to renew a robust labor-liberalism in American politics.

Finally, the New Politics project to democratize the party risked throwing gasoline on the fire already burning in labor’s rank-and-file; feminist, black, and countercultural insurgencies were flaring up against the union leadership, even in the more progressive unions like the UAW. As journalist James Wechsler wrote at the time, this was the “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.

Contrary to the neoconservative narrative about New Politics’ purported elitism, the number of union members directly participating in party conventions as elected delegates increased from 4 percent in 1968 to 20 percent in 1972. For trade union leaders, the problem was that they had no control over these new labor delegates. As the AFL-CIO’s own political consultant put it at the time: “Labor had more delegates and less influence than ever before.”

The growing divisions over political vision and strategy within the AFL-CIO (from which the UAW had already withdrawn in 1968) exploded following the 1972 convention, when Meany bent the AFL-CIO executive council to his will and withheld the federation’s endorsement of Democratic nominee Senator George McGovern, a prominent figure in the New Politics movement.

In open defiance of the federation president, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Communication Workers (CWA), and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers formed a Labor for McGovern committee to campaign on his behalf.

The rebellion sent shockwaves through the labor movement. By the end of August, almost a third of the AFL-CIO constituent unions had broken with Meany and endorsed McGovern. Some of the most prominent liberal unions — the Amalgamated Meatcutters, AFSCME, the CWA, and the Machinists — also withdrew their financial contributions to the AFL-CIO’s political organizing committee. But despite the labor-left’s push, the lack of support from labor bigwigs hampered McGovern’s prospects in November.

The Anti-Reform Backlash

The 1972 presidential contest saw the New Politics movement suffer a devastating blow. Nixon won in a landslide. The startling rebuke at the polls didn’t just break the reform movement’s momentum — it provided New Politics’ opponents a compelling reason to restore elite control: a democratized party can’t win elections.

The coalition of anti-reformers, organized under the banner of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM), appropriated the democratic language of the New Politics to make their case, casting the old system of backroom brokerage as “among the most vital of America’s democratic institutions” and the post-1968 reforms as promoting the interests of an unrepresentative liberal elite of “professors and well-heeled students.”

The solution, the CDM argued, was to “forget about fads and narrow causes” and return to “the business of electing a government.” The purpose of the Democratic Party was not to serve as a vehicle for transforming social relations, but winning elections.

The Meany wing of the trade union leadership, crowing that their anti-McGovern stance had been vindicated by the election results, made common cause with the anti-reformers. Their first victory came with the unseating of the Democratic National Committee’s first female chair, whom McGovern had appointed. Next, they successfully weakened party accountability mechanisms, striking from the DNC’s reformed constitution the mandatory obligation to convene midterm policy conferences to formulate the party program and policy agenda.

Ironically, the costs of checking the more ambitious aspects of the New Politics project became most evident in the policy area the labor leadership cared about most deeply: full-employment.

As the postwar Golden Age came to an end, structural unemployment and price instability confounded policymakers as traditional Keynesian macroeconomic prescriptions revealed their limitations. Amid the crisis in confidence, a broad coalition of New Politics activists and the labor-left mobilized behind the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Bill.

The bold legislation called for mandatory employment targets and the expansion of the public sector to absorb labor market surpluses. Enshrining in law the right of workers to find employment — enforceable through federal courts — the measure also contained provisions to establish comprehensive planning bodies and regional infrastructure projects.

While few of its supporters were thinking in socialist terms, Humphrey-Hawkins had the potential to become what Andre Gorz once called a “non-reformist reform.” By enhancing workers’ bargaining position, full-employment gives rise to inflation, which requires price controls and planning mechanisms, hence expanding state regulatory capacities, and so on — potentially shifting the balance of power within the state and wider society toward workers.

At the 1976 Democratic convention, the New Politics forces were weakened but still strong at the grassroots. Figures across the party endorsed Humphrey-Hawkins, including Meany and presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, who called the “staggering” unemployment rate “the greatest problem facing the American people today.” After his election, however, Carter began distancing himself from the legislation, coming under increasing pressure from his advisers and the business community to sacrifice concern with joblessness at the alter of anti-inflationary austerity measures.

Carter’s about-face seemed to invite a public relations disaster at the 1978 midterm party conference, a meeting mandated by the 1976 convention. While the midterm conferences had already been considerably defanged by the anti-reform forces, White House memos reveal that 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 Carter, the conference ended up revealing that even the left-leaning unions were deeply integrated into the system of elite brokerage that New Politics had sought to break. In the weeks before conference delegates assembled, wary of publicly confronting the president, the full-employment coalition began to splinter.

This was no surprise. After all, due to the absence of any formal mechanisms to discipline officeholders, labor policy success depended largely on leaders’ personal relationship with the Democratic president.

The Communication Workers, for instance, abruptly pulled out of a UAW-organized strategy meeting ahead of the party conference. As the DNC informed the White House, “they [the CWA] 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.”

With the reform coalition fractured, the ability of party institutions to bring the president to heel was limited, and with the conference controlled by the White House, the programmatic commitment to revive full-employment labor-liberalism was diluted to the point of rhetoric. When Carter signed the Humphrey-Hawkins Act on the eve of the party policy conference, he passed into law what its principal House sponsor called a “shell” of its original self.

Valiant efforts to transform the conference into a meaningful, participatory party organ persisted. But the president — aided by much of the trade-union leadership — had outmaneuvered the fragmenting New Politics movement.

The Lessons of New Politics

What can the New Politics episode tell us about Sanders’s insurgency? On the one hand, it reminds us that despite a massive — perhaps unprecedented — groundswell to transform the Democratic Party, the 1970s reformers could only force through limited change.

Some of these, to be sure, were laudable. Young people, women, and people of color forced their way into a party whose hierarchy was in 1968 overwhelmingly white, male, middle-aged, and middle-class; party leaders were stripped of their monopoly over the presidential nomination process (a loss of party power they still have yet to fully recover, despite the gradual reintroduction of unelected “superdelegates”); and public participation to determine presidential nominees increased by the millions.

Party reformers, however, came up short in accomplishing their ultimate goal: building an ideologically coherent and disciplined organization that could democratically formulate and implement a popular program. Doing so meant challenging the institutional privileges of both the party leadership as well as the leaders of highly undemocratic trade unions, who were struggling to suppress their own rank-and-file upsurge.

Traditionally, the radical left has, with good reason, pilloried union bureaucrats for their conservatism. But the New Politics experience demonstrates that we shouldn’t be blind to the ways in which institutional contexts mediate class forces.

Even the most progressive union leaders — often to the left of their own rank-and-file on important issues — are constrained by the undemocratic model of elite brokerage in which labor is embedded, pressuring leaders to limit their demands to what they can win for their dues-paying members.

There is little reason to believe that unions are capable of transforming this structure on their own. Labor leaderships have few incentives to increase the expectations or democratic capacities of their members, which could jeopardize their institutional power. Memberships are often too fragmented, insecure, and resource-poor to launch a sustained challenge inside their unions.

The limited success of the New Politics movement was a product not only of the oppositional forces they faced but their own incapacities, most of which stemmed from the strategic choice of the Democratic Party as a terrain of struggle. While they were able to introduce greater participation in the party by removing procedural barriers to entry, they failed to create the basis for a new kind of political participation.

In other words, it was not enough to throw open the doors to the party without also developing a strategy to pull people in. Such a project would have had to reach past the leadership of even the most progressive unions to build the democratic capacities of workers to engage creatively in organizing their communities and workplaces. In sum, the Democratic Party would have had to be transformed into an agent of democracy in society.

New Politics thus points to the necessity of a party of a different type, one that takes responsibility for cultivating the democratic capacities of its constituents and the organized integration of communities and workplaces.

The Sanders campaign could perform a valuable task in raising consciousness, but it cannot on its own accomplish the indispensable task of building the political capacities of those who would benefit most from egalitarian policies. This is far beyond the scope of any electoral insurgency.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has made interesting moves in this direction by undertaking an initiative to rebuild the constituent parties at the grassroots level. However, any parallel project within the Democrats is inconceivable because the party, unlike even the hollowed out Labour Party, has neither an organizational presence, nor any real meaning at the local level. In the likely event that Sanders does not outcompete Clinton in the primaries, there are few institutional spaces where any forward momentum could be maintained.

Even if trying to transform the Democratic Party is a fool’s errand, Sanders’s candidacy should not be dismissed, let alone ignored. The familiar argument — that left support for a Sanders-like candidate only forestalls independent class action — fails to make the meaningful distinction between supporting a candidate as an end in itself and using the candidate to promote a new political perspective.

Campaigns such as Sanders’s can have an important demonstration effect, pointing out the deficiencies of nominally progressive Democrats. And they can, with some luck, get people talking. But the role of the socialist left should not be to just cheerlead Sanders over Clinton, but to use that campaign to put in perspective the serious challenges we face in building a truly progressive politics within the Democratic Party and the necessity of constructing a political alternative outside of it.

Sanders has reintroduced socialism as a positive identification in the political mainstream for the first time in decades. While many might not define it in the same terms as him, his campaign has created the space for the American left to move the conversation in a radical direction. This entails not only articulating a vision of a different, more egalitarian society but also the political vehicle — one rooted independently in the interests of workers — to get us there.