Disappointed progressives are talking about a third party in the 2012 Presidential election and floating the names of people they might run against Obama. I suggest that puts the cart before the horse. First, progressives need a movement organized to promote some unifying principles or ideology that becomes so big and powerful it can't be ignored by the two major parties. From there they have the potential to become much more influential in the Democratic Party—as the Tea Party has been influential in the Republican Party—which ought to be their preferred outcome. A third party would be a second best outcome because once beaten a third party will, according to historical precedents, fade back into obscurity.
Popular movements have had many successes in American history. Remember these? Abolitionists got rid of slavery. The women's suffrage movement got women the vote. The temperance movement got us Prohibition at a national level and keeps it in place in some States and localities. The labor movement made it legal to strike and to engage in collective bargaining—both of which had been criminal conspiracies. The civil rights movement broke the back of Jim Crow, resulted in landmark federal court decisions and legislation, and contributed greatly to a realignment of the two major parties. The anti-Vietnam-War movement brought down at least one President and also helped cause the major party realignment. The women's liberation movement resulted in Roe v. Wade and much else. The environmental movement got us dramatically cleaner air, water, etc. The anti-tax movement was responsible for Prop. 13, its progeny in other States, and Grover Norquist's anti-tax-pledge straight jacket on the GOP. The LGBT movement is having success changing discriminatory laws that affect them. The NRA and anti-gun-control movement have made it nearly impossible to regulate guns in America. The Tea Party (not really a party but a movement), which didn't exist two years ago, now has 53 members of Congress acting in concert to exercise a virtual veto power over GOP policy in the House of Representatives.
Movements are initially subversive and willing to be vilified by the mainstream press and political class. They are organized around moral absolutes and/or emotions with core beliefs that can be expressed on a bumper sticker. They are committed to a relentless struggle over a long haul. They are interested in electoral politics only as a way to achieve their policy goals. Political parties, on the other hand, are organized around candidates coalitions, try to downplay ideological divisions that interfere with coalition building/maintenance, are focused almost entirely on the winning the next election, and are ready to "rise above principle" to win elections. A movement can take over or change a political party, but a political party probably can't take over a movement.
So, I guess what I'm saying is that progressives need some good community organizers long before they'll need another candidate.
Van Jones, a founder of Take Back the American Dream movement has reached similar conclusions but on a more scholarly and robust basis. After resigning as a White House staffer in September 2009, Jones took a part-time teaching position at Princeton and made himself an expert in the Tea Party. He found that the Tea Party is a "meta-brand," in that all of its many single-issue constituent organizations could comfortably add the Tea Party brand to their own brand and concerns without giving up anything. Jones said it was brilliant and set out to do the same thing for progressives. He emphasizes that an effective meta-brand can't be an individual leader like Obama or a heirarchical organization like a political party. To be successful the meta-brand must be an idea that is patriotic, portable to all parts of the nation, and positive. An excerpt from Time's story on this:
[Van Jones created] . . . a 70-slide PowerPoint presentation that he began showing to the leaders of just about every progressive institution on both coasts. Modern social change, he argued, was driven from the ground up through “meta-branded” movements organized online through social media. The key, he said, was to construct an identity that people from different groups could join without abandoning their own priorities. In the 2008 campaign, the only brand liberals rallied around was Barack Obama. But his election gave liberals the wrong theory of the presidency, Jones came to believe. “Lyndon Johnson wasn’t out there leading the civil rights movement,” he says. “Abraham Lincoln was not an abolitionist.” If liberals wanted change, in other words, they would need a grassroots movement of their own. It would have to be organized around a set of ideals, not any particular person. “We don’t want leader-centric movements,” Jones said. “We want leader-full movements.” Deepak Bhargava, the executive director of one of the left’s most active Washington institutions, the Center for Community Change, says Jones’ PowerPoint presentation reminded the liberal establishment that it wasn’t tied to Obama’s struggles. “We were all incredibly taken with the analysis,” he said.
A video of Jones making his pitch (but with only a few of the 70 slides) in the keynote address to the October 2011 Take Back the American Dream Conference is here.
Richard Kirsch, a leader of the fight to enact the Affordable Care Act, writes about the indispensability of organized movements in Organizing Matters: A Lesson from Outside the Beltway. An excerpt:
The final selection from Fighting for Our Health doesn’t need an introduction. The key lesson from our campaign is that change – at least change that benefits the 99% — won’t come from elites or from Washington. When ordinary people get organized they can still do extraordinary things. But the key here is getting organized. The media likes to lift up singular “heroes” who are “making a difference.” But political change is not made by individuals on their own. Change, whether through organized campaigns like Health Care for America Now or movements with broader energy like the Occupations that broke out across America this fall, happen when masses of people come together to take action in a focused, strategic fashion.
If there is one lesson that I’m hoping will be learned from the campaign that HCAN ran, it is that grassroots organizing is essential to overcome the power that big corporations and wealthy elites wield. As people rose up to overthrow dictatorships in the Middle East, we witnessed that power. At home, when tens of thousands of people rallied in Wisconsin in the winter of 2011, and then translated that energy at the ballot box, we witnessed that power. But we don’t have to wait until a breaking point is reached for strategically organized campaigns that harness the aspirations of ordinary Americans to make significant change. That’s the most important decision we made at Health Care for America Now. We focused our strategy outside the Beltway by organizing a grassroots campaign built on the existing infrastructure of organizations that have a mission of winning economic justice.