If we are going to stop the Bush administration's assault on Social Security, the environment and civil rights, the 2002-midterm elections offer Democrats their best hope. With a six-seat pickup in the House of Representatives and a successful defense of the slim majority in the Senate, the Democrats could effectively wrest control of the federal budget from the GOP, allowing us to repeal reckless tax giveaways to the wealthiest individuals and corporations. "Radical" notions such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and funding much needed school repair would be back on the agenda in both houses of Congress. Furthermore, the Senate could protect us from a Bush appointed court stacked with rightwing ideologues anxious to return us to "the good old days". (Which, according to their rhetoric, peaked somewhere during President Hoover's tenure.) Many progressives aren't helping this effort. If we are to succeed in the 2002 elections, we must stop this feud between the Democratic Party and the Green Party.
Before we get to taking on the well-funded Republicans, we have to make sure that progressives are united for the 2002 elections. That won't be easy; at first glance the arguments for supporting the Green Party are compelling. In recent years, the Democratic Party has lost much of its proud progressive heritage. Al Gore would not have appointed John Ashcroft as attorney general, but he is a strong supporter of NAFTA and has similar positions to President Bush on a number of key trade issues that have powerful implications for American workers and the environment. In the 107th Congress, 12 Democratic senators ultimately voted for the Bush tax cut, helping to lend bipartisan legitimacy to this fiscally irresponsible tax cut. Despite a strong fight by House Democrats, Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority is likely to pass Congress this year. Greens and Progressive Democrats agree that many members of the Democratic Party are out of touch, but we strongly disagree about how to fix it.
Greens argue that the only way to make the Democratic Party progressive again is to challenge it from the left until the Democratic Party adopts a truly progressive platform. To support their point, the Greens correctly argue that the Populist movement at the turn of the last century forced the mainstream political parties to adopt their ideas. As a consequence, women's suffrage, the progressive federal income tax that we have today and the direct election of Senators by the citizens all occurred within 20 years of this Populist challenge. But third party challenges aren't the only way to move the Democratic Party. In 1932, Roosevelt launched the New Deal and eventually instituted Social Security, the largest government program and the most successful anti-poverty measure the country has ever had. In the 1960s the Democrats signed key civil rights legislation and launched Medicare, Medicaid and the Peace Corps. In both of these instances the Democratic Party reclaimed the progressive mantle without significant third party challenges.
The ingredients to return the Democratic Party to its progressive ideals are already in place. In the current Congress there are great Democrats fighting for the right priorities. Congressman Jerold Nadler (D-N.Y.) is a forceful advocate for increased high-speed rail as way to reduce pollution and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Cal.) is fighting for a dramatic increase in affordable housing, creating jobs and safe neighborhoods for working families across the country. Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) sits on the Labor, HHS and Education Committee, where he is a passionate advocate of health care for all. We have great Democrats in Congress, but without the majority in the House and a stronger Progressive Caucus, none of these great initiatives will ever see the light of day.
So what should well-organized Greens do in 2002? The Greens could still choose to run their own candidates. As a progressive Democrat, I would agree with that approach if we had proportional representation. But we are stuck with a winner-take-all election system where third party candidates are forced to play the role of spoiler. But Greens still have a choice. Instead of running as populist third-party candidates in Congressional, state legislative and city commission races, why not win as progressive Democrats? My organization, 21st Century Democrats, is a national organization that is dedicated to helping economically progressive federal, state and local candidates get on the ballot, gain a serious profile, reach out to voters and most importantly, win elections. Of course, getting more progressives elected to Congress won't happen overnight; it will happen through a sustained grassroots movement starting at the local and state level. Wouldn't it be more rewarding to have your local candidate win a seat on the City Commission or in the state legislature than to have them help a Republican seize public office with a mere plurality of the vote?
Conservative Democrats keep claiming that progressives have to accept them as the lesser of two evils while many Greens insist that there are no real differences between Republicans and Democrats and insist on running spoiler candidates. Meanwhile, the well-organized GOP steadily gains more and more control over the levers of government. Greens and Democrats don't have the time or the resources to fight amongst themselves. Instead, let's work together to ensure that Democratic nominees are progressive. One of the best ways to do this is for well-informed and well-organized former Green Party members to run in and win Democratic primaries. Doing this will make the Democratic Party more progressive and keep the GOP in the minority in Congress and state government. What progressive can argue with that?
Scott Fairchild is the Communications Director at 21st Century Democrats. Founded by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), US Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.) and former Texas agricultural commissioner Jim Hightower in 1985, 21st Century Democrats helps economically progressive Democrats win elections at the local, state and federal level. Phone: 202.626.5620; e-mail: mail@21stDems.org; web www.21stcenturydems.org