Labor Advocate Online

Yet Another ‘Progressive’ Attempt To ‘Take Back’ the Democrats
by Bill Onasch

More than 400 self-styled "progressives" met during the final days of the Democrat convention in Boston. Howard Dean was there and apparently had a good time. So were three members of congress: John Conyers, Dennis Kucinich, and Barbara Lee. Frank Llewellyn, National Director, Democratic Socialists of America, played a role. Other well knowns included Tom Hayden, Medea Benjamin, and Granny D. They launched a new organization, Progressive Democrats of America.

They adopted a "vision" with some lofty goals:

•… justice and democracy at all levels, and …the preservation and restoration of natural ecosystems in America and worldwide.

• …new models for achieving local, national and global security that redirect the current wasteful and obscene levels of military spending toward the uncompromising and effective funding of: health and education programs; an end to discrimination; the provision of full and meaningful employment; and an end to poverty for all people.

There certainly were no lefty reversions to their youth with references to Marx, Trotsky, Mao, or Che. Among the names they cite as responsible for their vision were Thomas Jefferson, Dwight Eisenhower, and Robert Kennedy.

In their "strategy" they say,

Mindful of the continuing important differences between Republican and Democratic political values, yet fully aware of how much better Democratic candidates and elected officials must be to save our people and our planet from destruction, we dedicate ourselves to beginning the long, patriotic, nonviolent, and ultimately unstoppable process of transforming the Democratic Party.

They aim to "…first to take back the Democratic Party and then our great country from the global corporate interests that currently dominate our lives."

Actually this is hardly the beginning of a movement for transforming the Democrats. In fact, most of those present in Boston have been working, in the tradition of many generations before them, at this Sisyphean task for most of their political lives. Some new young mariners as well are attracted to their siren call of take back. The new ship wrecks will replenish the population of this liberal Gilligan’s Island.

To "take back" means to recover something once yours. Just when was the Democrat Party "ours?"

The Democrats began as a party of compromise, vainly seeking some kind of peaceful coexistence between chattel slavery and capitalism.

The Republicans gained success as a "third party" when they campaigned against a "house divided." Under Lincoln’s leadership they did not flinch from even a bloody civil war. We probably wouldn’t want to "take back" the Democrats of Stephen Douglass.

What about the Democrats of Sam Tilden? Tilden, like Al Gore, was cheated out of the presidency by the Republicans in 1876. Unlike Gore, Tilden and his party demanded some big concessions in payment for not pursuing a dangerous constitutional crisis.

What they got was an agreement to end Reconstruction in the south. The troops protecting the civil rights of former slaves were withdrawn. A new white power structure, organized through the Democrats, disenfranchised Blacks through new restrictive laws and terror, going on to create a Jim Crow south. The Dixiecrats would be a force to be reckoned with for many decades to come.

The Democrats became a coalition, not primarily of progressive forces, but combining corrupt big city machines, who controlled ethnic voting blocs such as the Irish, and Italians—along with the Dixiecrats.

Until the 1930s most northern Blacks—the only ones who could vote—supported the Republicans, the party of Lincoln.

Progressive farmers in the upper Midwest sought to take over not the Democrats but the Republicans.

The big Progressive Party movement, that won an impressive vote total in the 1924 election, emerged from the Republicans.

When our contemporary "progressives" speak of taking back they undoubtedly have in mind the New Deal Democrats under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

FDR did transform the character of the Democrats. He did so in the face of the most serious challenge to social stability since the Civil War.

During the depths of the Great Depression many workers looked to radical solutions. The Farmer-Labor Party became the governing party in Minnesota, the Democrats being relegated to third party status in that state. Across the country the Communist Party grew in numbers and influence, including in the Black communities. Union battles often challenged property rights, such as in the sit-down strikes, and sometimes supplanted the cops in controlling the streets as happened in Minneapolis, Toledo, San Francisco, among other places.

FDR sought to co-opt those struggles, to tame them, and make them subordinate components of the Democrat coalition. With the support of the "progressive left" in the Communist and Socialist parties, as well as "responsible," that is class collaborationist, union leaders, the Democrats were able to sell themselves as the party of workers and farmers—at least in the northern and western states.

In the south the Dixiecrats remained supreme, enforcing Jim Crow and successfully fighting unions. They also pressured FDR to deny Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler access to America, condemning most of them to the holocaust.

It was the FDR administration that used the notorious Smith Act—the Patriot Act of the day, later declared unconstitutional—to jail first union leaders and Trotskyists, later the Communist Party as well.

Only two significant reforms from the New Deal survive today—Social Security and the Fair Labor Standards Act. Both are currently under bipartisan attack.

Not much to take back there.

Our new progressives not only want to take back the Democrats; they also want to take back "our great country from the global corporate interests that currently dominate our lives."

It is true that global corporate interests have not always dominated the lives of American working people. In the early days fledgling capitalism and chattel slavery jockeyed for dominance. Later we had the domination of the big trusts. After a couple of world wars American Big Business became Global Big Business. Which one of these phases do we want to take back?

American workers have always been dominated by corporate interests who control the government as well as the economy. For much of our history voting was limited almost exclusively to white male property owners. White women were not guaranteed the vote until 1920. Blacks were not guaranteed the vote until the 1960s. And, of course, immigrants, and those convicted of drug busts, are still denied the vote.

The majority of workers today don’t feel they are stakeholders in the political system. Generally only a third, or less, of the total population participates in an election. If you can win seventeen percent of the population’s vote you got yourself a mandate.

The whole point of all of this take back nonsense is to perpetuate myths about the Democrats being a force for progress, that electing the right liberal politicians will bring us peace, prosperity, and progress. It’s designed to keep us in the endless loop of supporting the lesser evil who may give us half-a-loaf.

The only take back that should concern us is to take back the value of our labor—that is largely stolen by our employers and their politicians.

No, we have nothing to take back. We need a brand new party. We need a brand new perspective for our unions. We have to build a brand new society that can really serve the interests of all of the American working class—and reach out to the rest of our class throughout the world as well.

August 10, 2004