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Will Ackerman’s Party-Within-A-Party Work?

The Sanders wing of the resistance is debating whether to take over and reform the Democratic Party or lead reform Democrats out and into a new progressive party. Many in this camp advocate a so-called inside-outside strategy of supporting progressive Democrats or independents, depending on the dynamics of the particular race. The Working Families Party has pursued this approach since the 1990s, using the fusion tactic of running Democrats on their own ballot line as well as the Democratic line in the seven states where cross-endorsement is permitted.

Seth Ackerman’s “Blueprint for a New Party,” featured in the postelection issue of the socialist journal Jacobin, advocates a party-within-the-party model where a democratic, mass-membership organization would function as a political party—only without its own ballot line due to the obstacles thrown up by America’s close state regulation of parties, which serves to protect the two-party system. In Ackerman’s blueprint, the new working-class party would run its own candidates on Democratic, independent, or third-party ballot lines, depending on the race.

The inside-outside and party-within-the-party approaches are nothing new. The failures of fusion go back to the political suicide of the People’s Party in 1896, when it cross-endorsed Democrat William Jennings Bryant for president. A succession of parties over eighty years in fusion-friendly New York—the American Labor Party, the Liberal Party, and the Working Families Party—have been co-opted into being adjuncts to the Democratic Party, not alternatives to it. The initially independent Vermont Progressive Party has embraced fusion with Democrats in recent elections and appears to be headed toward the same destination.

The party-within-the-party approach has been tried in a variety of forms since the late 1930s by labor’s PACs (political action committees), waves of reform Democratic club networks, McGovern’s new politics, Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialists of America, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, Howard Dean’s Democracy for America, Dennis Kucinich’s Progressive Democrats of America, Obama’s Organizing for America, and now Sanders’s Our Revolution. Over the course of these many efforts over many decades, the reformers have been defeated and co-opted, with the corporate New Democrats steadily displacing liberal New Deal Democrats.

The political dynamic of all inside-outside approaches leads increasingly inside in the Democratic Party. One must disavow outside options in order to be allowed inside Democratic committees, campaigns, primary ballots, and debates. Instead of changing the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party changes inside-outside activists. Careerism sets in. Many of the veterans of these inside-outside organizations who at one time talked of “realignment” of the parties to create an American Labor Party or Rainbow Party became Democratic operatives and politicians whose careers depend on loyalty to corporate Democrats.

Sanders followed this logic from the start of his 2015/2016 presidential campaign when he conceded—in order to be accepted onto primary ballots and into debates—that he would support the Democratic nominee and not run as an independent. He has continued further down this path since the election with his support for progressive candidates for Democratic Party offices in an effort to “transform the party” as well as for progressive Democratic candidates for public offices.

Ackerman’s blueprint astutely criticizes most of these efforts, including Sanders’s Our Revolution, for being top-down nonprofits without accountability to an organized membership. But his blueprint still falls into the same trap of failing to establish the left’s public identity as an alternative advocating socialist system change that is opposed to and independent of the pro-capitalist Democrats. By failing to act on its own and speak for itself in US elections since the late 1930s, the left has disappeared from public view. It lost its voice and a platform from which to be heard.

Ackerman’s blueprint offers no answers for the inevitable practical pitfalls that his party-within-the-party, like previous inside-outside efforts, would face. When progressives lose Democratic primaries, the inside-outside groups must support the corporate Democrat as the lesser evil to the corporate Republican if they are to remain accepted inside the Democratic Party. When progressive Democrats win, they must caucus with corporate Democrats and muffle their criticisms of them in order to remain acceptable. They end up providing a progressive patina to the thoroughly capitalist Democrats they set out to change.

Howie Hawkins 2020

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