Happy Birthday, Party! What


Geoff Kurtz

Amid the ups and downs of politics in 1997, an anniversary passed with little notice: the New Party turned five years old. It's worth paying attention to what the New Party has been doing, because the struggles it faces are those faced by everyone who wants to build a social democratic politics in this country. In its first five years the New Party has grown to somewhere around 12,000 members, with 20 chapters in 10 states, electing scores of progressives to school boards, city and county councils, and state legislatures in several states. But the organization now sits at a strategic crossroads.

Founded in 1992 by labor and community activists, the New Party set out to shake up U.S. politics with a new electoral strategy and a program which, its founders argue, could pull together an anti-corporate majority in the U.S. Strategically, the New Party would remain independent of the Democratic Party -- but without undermining the Democrats. The New Party's program for a new majority would, as Todd Gutlin puts it, center around an "old fashioned" concern for issues like living wages.

[image: election map contest] Strategy: Inside / Outside

Instead of arguing about whether its elecoral work should happen inside or outside of the Democratic Party, the New Party's founders suggest, the left needs an organization that straddles the inside-outside fence. If the U.S. left is ever to make a meaningful decision on the third-party-vs.-Dems question, they propose, it must first take on the task of grassroots power-building.

Thus, most of the New Party's work has been in local politics, where its candidates need no party label -- just the activist energy it takes to win office. The party's strategy has been to build political organizations in a few targeted cities, working closely with labor and community organizations. Chapters run candidates only where they have a real chance of winning, combine campaign work with organizing and education, and refuse to spoil elections by stealing votes from the better of two major party candidates.

But to grow past the local level, something more is needed. The New Party hoped that a Supreme Court decision this spring in Timmons vs. New Party would establish a First Amendment right to fusion. Once common but illegal in most states since the turn of the century, fusion is the practice of a minor party nominating a major party candidate on its own ballot line. By "fusing" with the major party but keeping its own ballot line, a minor party gives it supporters to a chance to "vote their values" without wasting their votes. The candidate, in turn, knows that a certain percentage of his or her votes came from supporters of the third party. Fusion would have allowed the New Party to make a jump from local elections to higher-ticket races.

Not So Fast: Reaching A Crossroads

But it was not to be. The Supreme Court's decision left intact the many state laws banning fusion, and for the first time officially enshrined the two-party system.

On the one hand, this ruling has virtually no ieffect on the sort of activism the New Party has actually engaged in. Only one of the New Party's 226 races so far has used fusion. The New Party hasn't needed fusion to grow to its present size, or to maintain its two-in-three victory record. But on the other hand, the fusion ruling puts the New Party in a quandary. Supreme Court support for fusion would have knocked a hole in the legal barricade against multi-party democracy in the U.S. But without such a momentous change in the rules of the game, the New Party has to re-think its strategy. Can it catapult itself into state-wide and national races, or does it have to stick with local politics?

If the New Party gets serious about higher level races, it will need to make a choice: does it run candidates inside Democratic primaries, or does it compete with Republicans and Democrats alike? Acting like a third party is a sure recipe for failure. Third party candidates in the U.S. almost never win. And the New Party's insistence on running to win and govern -- not just to make a point -- has been admirable. Until major changes in the legal structure of the U.S. politics happen, we're stuck with a two-party system, and progressives -- if they want to win many elections -- will have to run, and vote, Democrat.

But without fusion, the New Party is not likely to have the capacity to swing higher level elections any time soon, inside or outside the Democratic Party. For now the New Party is nothing more -- and nothing less -- than a network of local labor-community political organizations. These organizations can, from time to time, move their political muscle and know-how into Democratic primaries to back progressive candidates for state legislature and even Congress, but do not have the size or clout to field their own candidates for the Senate, the Governor's office, or the White House.

Staying grounded in non-partisan local politics, with occasional side-steps into Democratic primaries, might keep the New Party out of the national limelight. It's not glamorous, but it's more likely to matter in the long run. And doing political work that matters is exactly what the New Party has always claimed to be about.

[image: new party banner] Program: Whose Majority?

Strategy aside, the hardest task for the organization may be to expand its program and broaden its base. The New Party has produced lofty rhetoric about being the political arm of all the progressive social movements. In reality, the New Party's organizational ties are almost exclusively to the low-income community group ACORN and to a few ACORN-allied SEIU locals. The New Party's chapters usually serve as the electoral arm of one or two local groups, not of broad coalitions. Nowhere does the New Part have strong ties to feminist or gay and lesbian organizations, and while many of its members are people of color, it has few links to groups which organize specifically around racial justice.

Not surprisingly, this imbalance shows up in its program. No rainbow coalitions here: with rare exceptions, the New Party has worked to unify its "new majority" around class concerns alone. Lesbian and gay rights, reproductive rights, and defense of affirmative action have been conspicuously absent from the New Party's list of priorities. The New Party says it wants to build a progressive majority. But it risks excluding many who, for both moral and strategic reasons, belong with the broad democratic left, but whose concerns touch on gender, sexuality, or race as well as on class. The New Party's friends would be remiss not to challenge it to do better.

What Next?

As the New Party enters its second five years, its optimism about building a national organization is chastened. It still faces knotty questions about what strategy can win and what program can unite a progressive majority. But these are the same questions everyone on the democratic left is faced with. If we are going to work them out, we'd best do it together. The New Party may not have national prominence anytime soon; it hasn't built coalitions as broad as some of us might like to see and it has focused on a disappointingly narrow range of issues. But it has attacked those few issues with tremendous energy, having a real impact on a few localities. With some luck -- and a little help from friends -- the New Party's next five years may see even greater success than its first five.

For more information on the New Party, contact them directly by phone at 800.200.1294 or via email at newparty@newparty.org. Additional information can be found on their website, www.newparty.org.