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The following articles appeared in Left Business Observer #58, April 1993, and #59, July 1993. They were written by Doug Henwood, editor and publisher. They retain their copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.
Sensible observers have long known that the U.S. is desperately in need of a third political party (and a fourth, and a fifth...). Along with Labor Party Advocates, the New Party (NP) initially seemed an effort to found one that was rich with potential. As two of the NP's charter organizers, Sandy Pope and Joel Rogers, put it in The Nation (July 20, 1992), it would be locally based yet nationally linked, broadly social democratic in philosophy, and a vehicle for a fundamental "rethinking of basic institutions like the family, firm, and state." The article provoked a large, enthusiastic response. But based on its activities in New York City, one of its primary targets, that promise looks to be dissipating quickly.
In an odd maneuver for building an independent force, the Newies decided that cross-endorsements -- endorsing "good" Democrats, besides running their own candidates -- will be one of their favored strategies (in states where such strategies are legal). This is supposed to pull the Dems to the left as well as get the NP's name around. It also reflects the NP's half-in, half-out attitude towards the Democrats; rather than making a clean, hostile break with the established party, they hope to use possible endorsements and refusals to endorse as carrot and stick, respectively.
If you think the Democrats are hopeless or worse, that seems like a questionable strategy on its face. Such suspicions are confirmed by a close look at the New York City operation. Mayor David Dinkins, a clubhouse politician of absolutely no distinction who is up for re-election this November, faces a primary challenge from Andrew Stein, a conservative Democrat of even less distinction. While it's not likely that Stein will win, Dinkins is making plans just in case he does. The NP fits the bill perfectly. Dinkins sees a New Party nomination as a certain way of getting on the November ballot, should he lose the primary. Though they deny that a Dinkins endorsement has been decided upon, the NPers see overnight fame and a permanent ballot line.
Whatever the merits of cross-endorsements, Dinkins could never be considered
a "good" Democrat; in fact, he's an incarnation of precisely what's
wrong with that party. He sustains illusions and disarms opposition while
governing with perfect fealty to establishment convention. Despite bursts
of progressive rhetoric, his administration has been one of budgetary austerity
-- with the exception of a big cops and jails program that was the centerpiece
of his first budget. This militarization of city life caused New York State's
chief fiscal monitor of the city, Allan Proctor, to question (gingerly)
the supposedly liberal administration's spending priorities -- not the kind
of thing that auditors generally point out. And the excellent Marcy Benstock,
leader of the Clean Air Campaign, says that Dinkins' environmental record
is worse than that of his predecessor, the vile neoconservative Ed Koch.
In 1989, during his first mayoral campaign, Dinkins faced questions from his friends on Wall Street, who worried that his core constituency of African-Americans, municipal unions, and liberals of all hues would raise a fuss when he took a cleaver to the budget. "Don't worry," he assured them. "They'll take it from me." He was right.
Dinkins' planning department is now considering a plan to eliminate the few remaining industrial jobs in favor of stroking its beloved FIRE sector (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) and other elite services like law and the consciousness industry. They want to turn over the entire waterfront to office and luxury housing development, and turn the FIRE folks loose among the industrial neighborhoods of Queens and Brooklyn, presumably to build back offices. Never mind that FIRE jobs are disappearing despite record profits on Wall Street as FIRE automates rapidly. His administration is entirely controlled by the Wall Street-real estate axis that has dominated city politics for decades.
Outside its tonier neighborhoods, much of New York City is a social disaster. Despite the presence of some of the richest people in the world, life in many neighborhoods is at Third World levels. Tuberculosis is rampant, thousands live on the sidewalks and in the subway, and gunshots are part of the background noise. The official poverty rate, which probably understates matters by half, is around 25%. Manufacturing wages are 12% below the national average, despite a numbing cost of living. Since Dinkins took office in January 1990, the city has lost 332,000 jobs, almost 10% of the total, at a time when national employment has been flat.
The stagnant national record was enough to unseat a president; locally,
the record of economic collapse is hardly an issue. The city's unemployment
rate has averaged 11.5% over the last seven months, one of the highest of
any city in the country. But here too official counts greatly understate
matters -- again, probably by half -- since only people actively looking
for work are counted as unemployed. If you've given up the search as hopeless,
you're counted as a footnote. If the same share of adult New Yorkers were
employed as prevails in the rest of the U.S., roughly a million more people
would be working.
These statistics should be at the heart of politics in the city, but they aren't. Dinkins and his colleagues in the liberal establishment (LE) choose not to mention them, and local media breathe hardly a word.
When the facts do surface, they usually take on a hideous form. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Manhattan's gift to the U.S. Senate, recently gave a speech in which he recited a largely accurate catalogue of social and economic failings, but blamed them on alleged moral failings among the poor. If only the descendants of slaves could adopt proper bourgeois morality, all would be well. Moynihan has been singing this deeply racist song for almost 30 years. To the right of Moynihan (though it's amazing how liberals and conservatives share a moral-cultural analysis of poverty and social decay) is Dinkins' likely Republican opponent, the scary former prosecutor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani, nationally famous for prosecuting gangsters and Wall Streeters and locally famous for leading a race-baiting crypto-riot by drunken white cops, is almost certain to bring up the city's wretched economic state, but only to push his privatization-deregulation platform. Giuliani will blame the LE for the city's fulminant ills, and the LE, a Dinkins-endorsing New Party in tow, will stoutly defend the existing order.
A progressive new party would make a local economic development strategy one of the centerpieces of its program, studying the examples of the Greater London Council in the early 1980s and the cities of the Red Belt of Northern Italy, notably Bologna, for hints of what municipal governments can do when surrounded by hostile national regimes. Not, sadly, the New Party. Its organizer responsible for New York, Daniel Cantor, says that the party doesn't want to be freighted down with an old-fashioned left agenda; that would allegedly bore and alienate potential voters. Better to have no agenda at all, overlook social collapse, and ride in the slipstream of the status quo.
That's perhaps too harsh, since the Dinkins endorsement isn't final. But another bit of depressing news is that the NP's board has decided to merge with the Majority Coalition (MC). The MC, a group led by hospital workers union president Dennis Rivera [see box] emerged in 1991 with the aim of developing an independent, progressive voice, one that would be both an electoral vehicle and a mass movement that would last beyond Election Day. Their record in the 1991 city council campaign, during which they got wrapped up in an ugly battle among whites, blacks, and Latinos, was disastrous; they never developed an agenda beyond a banal line lifted from Carl Sandburg, "The People, Yes!"; and they disappeared until it was time to revive for the 1993 election campaign. This pedigree seems less than ideal in a likely marriage partner.
A number of New Party activists have reacted with distress to this merger and the possible Dinkins endorsement. Expressions of distress range from polite questioning of the wisdom of the move to hot accusations of betrayal. At the hot end, a memo drafted by Irving Hall and Carl Arnold, two New Partisans now estranged from the group, reports that a recruitment committee and plan adopted at a December meeting were scrapped by January, and Hall, chosen by those present at the meeting as a membership committee "co-convener" was purged and banned from all leadership meetings. Hall and Arnold argue that neither the possible Dinkins endorsement nor the engagement to the MC was ever discussed with the membership.
Party insiders furiously deny the Hall-Arnold charges and say that practical politics drives them to what purists see as distasteful compromises. Rogers said that the memo's claims "border on the libelous," and Cantor denounces them as "lies." They argue that the process of organizing a political party has to begin with a core group, and that consultation with a membership is nearly impossible if there is no membership to speak of.
Internal procedure aside, one must scrutinize intensely the wisdom of the NP's New York strategy. Rogers, pointing to the tragic history of independent political organizing in this country, argues that it's necessary to deal with established forces like Rivera and the MC, whatever their flaws, since they bring financial resources and an institutional presence to the cause of delivering left politics in from the margins.
But Rivera's history should give pause to anyone contemplating strategic
compromise. Despite plenty of fine rhetoric about the awfulness of the Democratic
Party, Rivera remains on its state executive board, and his subordinates
brag about their friendly relations with the Clinton administration. He
is also the chair of the Rainbow Coalition, another organization that suffers
from a fatal attraction to the Democratic Party. Rivera and the Rainbow
speak of their national role as keeping Clinton "honest," which
presumably means keeping him from following his announced conservative agenda
and persuading him to renounce his history as a founder of the Democratic
Leadership Council, a group whose goal was to purge the party of its New
Deal/civil rights heritage.
Rivera's defenders point to the terrible pressures he is under; the AFL-CIO, for example, regards him as a dangerous left-winger, and could, at any time, authorize other unions to raid his membership base, neutralizing if not destroying him. That may be, but does it make sense to merge with an organization whose leader is under such constraints? Wouldn't it be more sensible to recruit members and raise an independent fuss?
As with the likely MC merger, NPers defend the possible Dinkins' endorsement as clear-eyed Realpolitik. If Dinkins is re-elected, he will owe the NP something -- political concessions, they hope, but patronage seems a more likely reward. And, they argue, the prospect of Giuliani as Mayor is terrifying, so you have to go with Dinkins as the lesser of two evils.
But who needs a New Party to play lesser-of-two-evilism? That's what Democrats are for. When asked to name a single way in which Dinkins has been an improvement on Koch, Cantor was stumped. Other Dinkins apologists say there are ways in which the Mayor is an improvement on Koch: he's not a hatemonger, and that he's of great symbolic value. Yes, it's nice that Dinkins isn't a hatemonger, but is that alone a qualification for office? William Weld and Jack Kemp aren't hatemongers either, but they're still pretty right-wing. And the symbolism cuts both ways, as the "they'll take it from me" remark shows.
Apologies to readers outside New York if this seems excessively local. But it's an important index of how the New Party, with its great national ambitions, is performing in one of its chosen battlegrounds. They're contemplating an alliance with a terrible administration before reaching puberty. Principles aside, it seems a lousy political strategy. The Party's actual functioning in New York is a world away from Pope and Rogers' July peroration: "We don't just want more power in the existing Democratic Party. We want a different sort of party -- more internally democratic, more tied to its voting base, more committed to doing nonelectoral work as well as campaigning. And building a party of that sort we judge to be best done outside the shell of the old." In New York, however, the NP is knocking hard on the shell of the old.
Though there may be some good Democrats here and there, the party itself is an institutional obstacle to, not a potential ally for, progressive politics in the U.S. Even a critical distance is too close a relationship for a potential New Party to assume.
Dennis Rivera, leader of Local 1199, the New York City hospital workers union and founder of the Majority Coalition [see neighboring article] is deliberately refusing to endorse a single-payer, Canadian-style health care reform, despite substantial pressure from his membership and executive board members. His strategy, a union source says, is to wait for the Clintons to release their plan and then push it in a "progressive" direction. Until then -- silence; he doesn't want to alienate the First Couple.
After a meeting with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rivera offered this gushing observation to New York Newsday: "She makes you feel we're really in this together, that it's a very inclusive thing." Of course, stoking those feelings without conceding on policy is precisely what the administration wants to do.
As David Himmelstein of Physicians for a National Health Plan observes, it's important for the left to criticize the Clintons' evolving scheme (managed competition), since its failings will probably be blamed on us, not the established interests it aims to protect. Rivera, sadly, is hardly alone in his accommodating stance; many other progressive unionists have also lost their voice on this issue.
We'd hoped to have a response to last issue's article on the New Party's activities in New York, particularly their tailing behind the candidacy of our pathetic Democratic mayor, David Dinkins. They went so far as to write and mail one. However, when the Party heard that there would be a response to their response, they decided to pull it, ostensibly to avoid getting into a "pissing match." Too bad. New Partisans Joel Rogers and Sandy Pope wrote in The Nation a year ago that the organization was meant to be no mere electoral vehicle, but a mechanism for rethinking basic social institutions like "family, firm, and state." Dismissing debate as a urinary duel is a funny way to run a fundamental rethink.
Instead of that exchange, LBO offers these follow-up snippets.
* The local New Party (NP) celebrated its marriage to the Majority Coalition, a heretofore ineffectual group led by hospital union president Dennis Rivera, by throwing a $100-a-head nightclub bash. Now there's nothing wrong with clubs, but it's a strange venue for launching a mass movement. The local party is now the New Coalition Party (NCP). The speakers' roster was heavy with Democratic officials.
* Dinkins has apparently spurned the NCP's embrace. Readers familiar with the NP know that endorsing "good" Democrats is one of its principal electoral strategies -- balanced with the threat of running "progressive" candidates against bad ones. (Lacking is a sense that the Democratic Party is an institutional obstacle to progress.) It once seemed likely that Dinkins would face a primary challenge from a dim neoconservative, Andrew Stein, but Stein withdrew when he realized he'd lose badly. Back when his challenge seemed credible, the NP offered Dinkins their nomination -- without consulting Party members. This would have guaranteed him a place in November, and the N(C)P a permanent ballot spot. When Stein evaporated, an N(C)P endorsement lost its charm. For Dinkins to accept it might fuel an unpredictable new force, and expose the mayor to liberal-baiting. Now the NCP may have to develop a program and recruit members, instead of cutting deals.
* The national NP's spring newsletter carries a report by Lisa Daugaard on a visit to Canada to study one of the NP's models, the New Democratic Party (NDP), which controls three Canadian provinces. Such a trip could be instructive to a party undertaking a rethink of basic institutions. Two years ago, when the NDP took control of Ontario's provincial government, it promised a recession-busting investment strategy. Now it's become a party of austerity. It has proposed spending cuts, layoffs, and the suspension of collective bargaining rights. Did this prompt the NP delegation to wonder how a social democratic party has become the party of the knife? Sort of. Here's an excerpt from Daugaard's report: "How can a progressive party transform itself from a permanent opposition movement into the party of government, in an economic context where few decisions about the control of resources and capital are made at the local or state (or provincial) level? How does a party respond when its own foot soldiers...come to demonstrate against the party's policies? Such questions will surely confront us down the road...." A party already planning how to manage the betrayal of its "foot soldiers" -- is this a movement or an army? -- can't be accused of not thinking ahead.
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