How's a Progressive to Vote?:

A Case for the Working Families Party


Elections always spur debates among progressives. In this one, the Green Party and Nader's presidential campaign seem to get the most attention. Every conversation about Nader eventually prompts the "spoiler" and "vote splitting" issue. Some progressives feel comfortable "voting their conscience" in November, others believe in choosing the lesser of evils and don't want to feel they've put a Republican in office. No matter what side you're on, the decision proves a conundrum.

If you happen to live in New York, it doesn't have to. Sure there are Green Party candidates running there, but there's another alternative to the Democrats and Republicans -- namely, the Working Families Party (WFP). It offers a chance to vote for a progressive vision, a party, and a candidate who won't split votes -- all at once. The reason is something called fusion. In New York state, a candidate can receive cross-endorsements from different political parties. So, if WFP can show citizens voting on their line for candidates (typically Democrats), they can make elected officials listen to their agenda.

Fusion seems like a good idea -- a way to get overlooked voices to the table of American politics. That's why New Party organizers latched onto it in the mid-1990s. In front of the Supreme Court, party organizers argued that Minnesota violated their First Amendment rights by not allowing for fusion. They lost the case. The Supreme Court stated in cold language: "We are unpersuaded by the party's contention that it has a right to use the ballot itself to send a particularized message to its candidate and to the voters about the nature of its support for the candidate. Ballots serve primarily to elect candidates, not as forums for political expression."

The only option for New Party organizers was to find a state where fusion was already law. New York had fusion and a long tradition of progressives using it (for instance, the American Labor Party during the 1930s). WFP appears to be the result of this strategy.

There's reason to be hopeful that it might work. First, WFP has put New Party strategy into practice by organizing a coalition of labor and community groups. Communications Workers, United Auto Workers, Service Employees International Union, and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have all joined together with ACORN, a major alliance of community organizers. Because of labor's buy-in, the party has attracted more than the middle class, white leftists flocking to the Green Party. It has also maintained a focus on important issues for the working poor. For instance, by helping to elect Ken Zebrowski, a Democrat/WFP candidate, to local office, the party has successfully pushed living wage legislation through the Rockland County Legislature. After endorsing Councilman Peter Vallone, the WFP worked with him to pass campaign finance reform legislation. Fusion seems capable of winning progressive legislation.

The WFP provides more than just union members knocking on doors to get the vote out. It has put together a network of political clubs -- another old tradition in New York politics. Here members of the party can formulate vision and strategy democratically. What this means is that WFP is building a serious party structure from the bottom up. All of the candidates they endorse -- which even includes Hillary Clinton -- go through a rigorous questioning and interviewing process. Candidates are therefore accountable to the party's membership, something lost in contemporary politics where most candidates with enough money (Jon Corzine in New Jersey) or name recognition (Hillary Clinton) zoom past the weak remnants of America's political parties. It's refreshing to hear progressives talk seriously about the need for a political party that won't split votes.

With this strategy, the WFP has developed an impressive platform. This includes more funding for public education and child care, a raise in the minimum wage, campaign finance reform, a repeal of corporate welfare, and an equitable housing policy. Some organizers use the expression a "new New Deal coalition" to describe their vision. A populist notion of economic justice clearly prevails. The use of the term "working families" itself conjures up a 1930s sense of a producerist commonwealth -- a faith in the virtuous energies of ordinary citizens as the basis of a healthy republic. With the commitment of ACORN in mind, the party couples a renewal of activist government with the sort of participatory democracy that inspires contemporary community organizing (as it did the New Left). This balance between activist government and citizen participation is the sort of vision that progressives across the country could get behind.

With all this in mind, we need to pay some attention to possible shortcomings of the WFP. First, it is too soon to tell if the whole thing will work. The party's only been around for three years, and November's election results aren't in yet. Secondly, some worry that WFP could simply serve the interests of the labor unions backing it. That's what makes its democratic structure and the participation of ACORN so important. They can hopefully prevent another old tradition in New York politics from taking over -- namely, patronage. Third, it's not clear if the WFP's endorsements can always pull candidates in the party's direction. Take a look at Hillary Clinton, not exactly a populist democrat. If elected, she will not only have the WFP but the centrist Democratic Leadership Council at her heels. Finally, it's not certain how replicable the WFP is. It doesn't look like fusion is spreading throughout the United States, especially since the Supreme Court stepped in.

Still the WFP provides an alternative to a third party strategy. It seems to have thought more about political consequences than the Greens have, and it has drawn the participation of America's working class, including Latinos and African Americans. So when progressives are thinking about how to make their votes count, they should keep their eyes on New York this November.

Kevin Mattson is an historian and author of Creating a Democratic Public: The Struggle for Urban Participatory Democracy during the Progressive Era (1998).

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