Greens and Populists
In the 1890s the Populist [or People's] Party was briefly a significant electoral force. Based mainly on family farmers and small-town merchants in the South and Midwest they centered their campaigns on the abuses of the banks and railroads. The main planks of their platform called for monetary reform and nationalization of the railroads. Their presidential candidate received over a million votes in 1892 and they elected candidates to congress and state legislatures.
But the Democrats had slick talkers even in those days. One of the slickest was William Jennings Bryan who cynically embraced the Populist calls for ending the Gold Standard in his famous Cross of Gold speech and won the Populist Party's backing for his 1896 presidential campaign. That proved to be the end of the Populist Party with much of its apparatus being incorporated into the Democrats while some of its activists went into what became the Socialist Party or new state organizations.
William Jennings Bryan
The term Populism has had a revival as an oft-applied buzz word in recent years. The only trouble is nobody knows exactly what the designation means. It's been used to describe Pat Buchanan and David Duke as well as Ralph Nader and Jerry Brown. Many categorized Gore's campaign as populist.
But clearly there is a sizeable grouping of well-meaning folk working for good things that are in the interest of the working class majority. Political organizations seeking to give direction to this current include the Alliance for Democracy, Greens/Green Party USA, and the Association of State Green Parties.
I have worked with many in this loosely defined movement around a number of issues and have great respect for most of them in terms of their commitment, honesty and capacity for hard work. But their political strategy and tactics is another matter.
Though there are many differences among this diverse collection of activists there are some common themes we can identify.
Most talk about the need to “take back democracy.”
Their program is more a list of attitudes and principles rather than specific proposals for action
While many are, or have been, participants in issue movements there is a growing preoccupation with electoral politics
There is much emphasis on decentralization and the local venue
Great weight is placed on campaign finance reform, focusing on how the rich buy politicians
The concept of “taking back” democracy is flawed. It assumes there was some past golden age of democracy that has been lost to the present rulers. While we certainly don't have enough democracy the fact is that in terms of civil rights and civil liberties we've never been better off than today. Only in the area of labor law was there once a brief period, lasting little more than a decade, when workers had stronger democratic protection.
The idea of taking back flows from the relative newness of this movement, it's lack of historic continuity with previous generations. People tend to backdate the beginning of problems to the time when they as individuals started perceiving the problem. That's why some will even say they want to take back the Democrat Party, believing the myths that it once was, like the Communist Party's pipe dream, a “people's anti-monopoly coalition.”
Generally rulers much prefer to maintain power through voluntary acceptance by the majority as opposed to police state repression. It's much more efficient. They favor the forms of democracy as long as they control the results. They of course use candidate campaign contributions as one tool for controlling the process. But that's a relatively minor factor.
More crucial is that they control all the major levers of power through their grip on the economy, their domination of the mass media, their influence in the schools, and even their sway over most churches. Limiting campaign contributions would just let them get by a little cheaper. And campaign finance reform could make it even harder for working people to get involved in elections, cutting them off still further from the resources of unions and other mass organizations.
The present day Green/Populists have not fully thought through the objectives of running in elections. They could benefit from a study of working class history in this area. The high point of working class electoral activity was around the Socialist Party during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. In 1912 Gene Debs got six percent of the vote for President.
Debs used his campaign primarily to link up with the struggles of the labor movement of the day and to educate and inspire working people for future battles. He had no illusions that simply electing a good socialist to be President would solve all problems. Being elected would be meaningful only if it registered a real change based on mass movements in the workplace and the community.
Debs once told an audience in New York:
“Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves.”
The Red Special Band pose by Debs campaign train
But the Socialist Party was diverse in those days. There were some who, unlike Debs, believed that society would be transformed very gradually through reforms beginning at the local level. In a few areas they achieved electoral success.
Being elected posed a real challenge. You can't build socialism in one city. To avoid irresponsible collapse of government the Socialists had to make accommodations with the local power structure and the state and federal governments. Most of the Socialists in power soon became indistinguishable from Democrats or Republicans in power. Their main attraction was that they generally proved to be more honest and efficient in providing essential municipal services. They certainly didn't inspire the working class with a vision of social change.
The Socialist Party electoral apparatus controlled Milwaukee for several decades, right through the 1950s. One of their proudest achievements was providing that city with a world class sewer system. The Debs wing of the party referred to them contemptuously as the “Sewer Socialists.”
A more recent, in fact current, example of Sewer Socialism is Bernie Sanders. Sanders, who sometimes describes himself as a socialist, was first elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont and then went on to be elected to congress, where he serves today. At least that was a step in the right direction. Major problems cannot be adequately dealt with on the municipal level. The power and the money is in Washington.
But, absent mass struggles on a national scale, what can a lone socialist in congress do? Essentially there are two options:
Make speeches when they let you, and issue press statements, denouncing the evils of capitalism while voting against everything
Be practical and work with “progressives” from other parties to get the best legislation you can
If you go the first route you will be completely ostracized on Capitol Hill and federal money for your district will start drying up. Those who elected you will start questioning their decision: “This socialist guy has done nothing for us. At least the bosses politicians can get us money for our roads and schools.” Not only would they turn against you; they would be unlikely to seriously consider working class candidates in the future.
Sanders chose option #2. While remaining nominally independent he caucuses with the Democrats—who no longer run against him at election time. In this way he can occasionally make a good speech, and introduce fine-sounding legislation (though it won't go anywhere), while still delivering the goods for his constituents back home.
But there's a price to be paid for this arrangement—he has to support the Democrats when push comes to shove on crucial votes. Debs once declared “while there is a single soul in prison I cannot be free.” But socialist Sanders wound up voting for Clinton's three strikes and out crime bill that has led to more workers incarcerated in America than there are in Russia.
Eighty Greens have been elected to office. Some are mayors of small or medium sized cities, such as Santa Monica, California. Many are city council or school board members. One is a county drain commissioner. There is no way that they can implement the Green program in such limited venues. The fundamental issues have to be resolved on a national, even global scale. How can the Greens govern responsibly without making peace with the Establishment? The record of their cothinkers in Germany and France—where Greens are in coalition national governments—doesn't make us optimistic about the success of their strategy here.
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