The last major effort to form a national vehicle for working-class politics was the Labor Party (LP), founded twenty years ago. Under the leadership of Tony Mazzocchi, president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union, the party's organizers gathered support from other major unions and grassroots trade-unionists and held its founding convention in 1996.
The Labor Party's history is not well-known in the broader progressive world. But as the most recent major effort by organized labor to form an independent party, it is a story that should interest anyone who hopes to see a revival of left politics, because on the Left only unions have the scale, experience, resources, and connections with millions of workers needed to mount a permanent, nationwide electoral project.
By all accounts it was an inspiring effort that seemed, for a moment, to portend a renaissance for the labor-left. But the party lost momentum just a few years after its founding. By 2007 it had effectively ceased to exist.
They never ran a candidate for fear of splitting the vote and ending up with a Republican, so it's no surprise if you didn't know about their existence.
The dilemma stands out clearly in the recollections of Labor Party veterans. "The Labor Party had to start with the assurance that it wouldn't play spoiler politics and that it would [first] focus on building the critical mass necessary for serious electoral intervention," former LP national organizer Mark Dudzic recalled in a recent interview. Yet, as Les Leopold of the Labor Institute told Brown, that path ultimately led to irrelevance: "It's not easy for Americans to understand a party that's not electoral. I think that that was just a difficult sell."
I recommend reading the entire article. It goes on to talk about the problems of trying to make changes from within the Democratic party, which sort of seems like the only other option if there's no chance of a viable third party.
It's true that a number of sincere, committed leftists, or at least progressives, run for office on the Democratic ballot line at all levels of American politics. Sometimes they even win. And all else equal, we're better off with such politicians in office than without them. So in that limited sense, the answer might be "yes."
But electing individual progressives does little to change the broad dynamics of American politics or American capitalism. In fact, it can create a kind of placebo effect: sustaining the illusion of forward motion while obscuring the fact that neither party is structurally built to reflect working-class interests.
In this "party-less" model of politics, it's the Democratic politician who goes about trying to recruit a base, rather than the other way around. The politician's platform and message are devised by her and her alone. They can be changed on a whim. And there is no mechanism by which the politician can be held accountable to the (fairly nebulous) progressive constituency she has recruited to her cause.
The following is a proposal for such a model: a national political organization that would have chapters at the state and local levels, a binding program, a leadership accountable to its members, and electoral candidates nominated at all levels throughout the country.
As a nationwide organization, it would have a national educational apparatus, recognized leaders and spokespeople at the national level, and its candidates and other activities would come under a single, nationally recognized label. And, of course, all candidates would be required to adhere to the national platform.
But it would avoid the ballot-line trap. Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization's own ballot line.
The ballot line would thus be regarded as a secondary issue. The organization would base its legal right to exist not on the repressive ballot laws, but on the fundamental rights of freedom of association.
I'm not sure i understand exactly how this would work. It sounds like a union or a really really big club. And i'm not sure that the national leadership would be as beholden to the members as imagined. In theory, the American Federation of Teachers union leadership is beholden to its members, but they have and can make unilateral decision to publically endorse candidates without consulting the membership with very little consequence to themselves.
And if they're going to run candidates in the primaries, why not just do that within the Democratic party as opposed to nominally being independent?