American Lefties set Sights on Party Politics

Why an increasing number of US-based progressives are trying to mold the Democratic Party into their own image

Final-flag.jpg Photo: Sharon Bialy-Fox ("Bialy-Fox" @ Flickr)

Section: Worldviews

By Julian Nemeth

Progressives all over the planet have beef with the United States. The litany of reasons why this is so is long and familiar: the US government is guilty of spearheading the drive for economic globalization, refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, denying its citizens access to basic health care, engaging in torture, arming Israel, invading Iraq—the list goes on. While leftists are understandably outraged at many American policies, critics of the United States often overlook the country’s large and diverse progressive community.

This is understandable but unfortunate. As the late Edward Said has eloquently argued, millions of progressive Americans loathe the Bush administration and everything that it stands for, a vast reservoir of potential allies for leftists in Canada and around the world. With the Democratic primaries heating up and a population hungry for change, U.S. leftists have their best opportunity in decades to make a lasting impression on national politics—the question is, can it unite to take power?

A number of progressives are beginning to answer this question in the affirmative. Traditionally, American leftists have viewed the two-party system as hopelessly corrupt and instead focused their energies on grassroots activism and social criticism. However, nearly eight-years of Republican misrule have led a number of progressives to try to mold the Democratic Party into their own image. The massive anti-war coalition United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) and the online phenomenon of the netroots are the two most salient examples of activists of this phenomenon.

Unlike the protest movement against the Vietnam War, which took years to mobilize large demonstrations, UFPJ helped lead over 500 000 people in New York City against War in Iraq in February 2003, a month before the bombing had even begun. As opposed to countries in which the Left directs itself into large socialist parties, in the United States activists have generally assembled themselves into thousands of civic organizations. While this makes for strong community groups, it means that creating political change on the national level is difficult.

As a coalition comprising over 1200 local and national organizations, the UFPJ (founded in October 2002) tries to use America’s tradition of civic activism as one of its strengths. A firm believer in grassroots organization, UFPJ goes out of its way to court the support of women, workers, blacks, Muslims, veterans, and ethnic minorities. Along with a number of socialist and communist organizations, some of the coalition’s notable members include Iraq Veterans Against the War (whose very existence proves that arguing against the war is not an attack on the troops, as is routinely suggested in the right-wing press), the National Organization of Women (the country’s largest feminist association), Greenpeace, the American-Anti-Arab Defamation Committee, and the Rainbow Push Coalition (one of the largest organization’s led by African-American Progressives).

Since the first anti-war demonstration in 2003, UFPJ has organized a number of similar protests, including a huge demonstration against the meeting of the Republican National Convention in New York City in 2004. Yet the organization has expanded beyond simply protesting the War in Iraq. Their new initiatives include preventing War with Iran, counter-military recruitment campaigns, bringing justice to the areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, and ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. While UFPJ’s unity statement radically criticizes the connections between U.S. militarism and capitalist globalization, the organization has also devoted considerable energy into securing electoral victories for Democratic politicians who pledge to end the war in Iraq.

Photo by Phillip Retuta.

Another sign that many on the American Left are beginning to believe that a crucial way to affect political change is moving the Democratic Party towards the Left is the phenomenon of the netroots. Enraged by the recklessness of the Bush administration but admiring the conservative movement’s organizational discipline, the netroots (a combination of “internet” and “grassroots”) are online partisans that have become an influential force in the Democratic Party.

The movement originates in the revulsion many progressives felt towards the Democrats and the mainstream media for doing little to challenge Bush’s heavily disputed election victory in 2000. Since then, the netroots have held Democrats accountable for failing to live up to progressive ideals and lambasted the right for its reckless militarism and commitment to moneyed interests. Unlike the mainstream press, which commits itself to principles of fairness, or liberal journals such as the New Republic or the Washington Monthly, which aim for subtlety, the netroots eschew journalistic balance and theoretical intricacy for political brawling.

Unlike their hard left counterparts in the anti-globalization movement, the netroots tend to represent the left wing of the centrist Democratic Party. Bloggers on websites such as, which receives around 600 000 daily visits care much more about electing Democrats (and titling the party to the Left) than constructing an in-depth analyses of global politics. Daily Kos’s founder, Markos Moulitsas, cites the conservative political strategist Grover Norquist as a bigger influence on his politics than former Green Party leader Ralph Nader.

This is because Moulitsas believes in order for progressives to take power it must learn from the tactics of its conservative opponents. He is a believer in Trotsky’s dictum that “a party not concerned about gaining power is worthless” and hopes to eliminate the popular stereotype of a liberal as “one who refuses to take his own side in a fight.”

Instead of the hundreds of single-issue and politically obscure leftist organizations that work in isolation from one another, Moulitsas envisions a disciplined, pragmatic, left-wing-movement along the lines of American conservatism. Daily Kos has grown to the point where many Democrats attend its national convention and figures such as President Jimmy Carter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have contributed diaries to the site.

The netroots are progressive activists but also realists. While generally opposing the centrism of the Clinton years and bashing Right Wing Democrats like Joe Lieberman (and nearly unseating him as State Senator of Connecticut largely through online activism), netroots activists often support socially conservative Democrats running outside of the coastal “Blue States”. In this way, the netroots hope to regain white-working class support from conservatives who have appealed to this group’s frequently conservative views on abortion and gay marriage.

If progressives in the United States continue to devote their attention to national politics, they stand a good chance of benefiting from several trends that suggest the country is moving in their direction. During the past two decades, Republicans have effectively used what are known as “value issues” (as if economic justice and war were not “value” issues as well) such as abortion and gay marriage as a wedge issues to attract socially conservative working-class voters, yet polling data shows that young people are much more culturally liberal than their parents.

Moreover, polling also confirms that a majority of Americans support an expanded role for the welfare state, including national health care, even if this means paying more taxes. Due to President Bush’s ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, Republicans have also lost their reputation as effective stewards of foreign affairs. Studies recently undertaken by the Center for American Progress shows substantial majorities of Americans reject neo-conservative bellicosity and embrace consensus building through international institutions.

Finally, advocacy on behalf of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, mostly from Mexico, living in the United States, is growing. In March of 2006, massive demonstrations opposing laws that would make it much more difficult for undocumented workers to live in the United States swept the country—the first time illegal immigrants demonstrated in large numbers.

Over 750 000 demonstrated in Los Angeles alone. Reversing its traditionally anti-illegal immigration polices (because immigration was thought to drive down wages), the AFL-CIO, America’s largest federation of unions, has supported the naturalization of undocumented workers. If the AFL-CIO succeeds in organizing these workers, they could help swell the ranks of organized labor, which has been losing numbers for years because of the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to the developing world, especially China. (Organized labor has tried unsuccessfully for years to have Wal-Mart, the nation’s biggest employer, unionized).

The Democrats seem to be taking heed. All the major candidates running to represent the Party in the 2008 presidential elections have campaigned as progressive democrats, promising to work for universal health care, better funding for education, and an end to the war in Iraq.

This does not mean that the United States is about to make a major shift to the left. The term “liberal” (let alone socialist) is still anathema to most American politicians, who avoid embracing the term for fear of electoral losses. Even with the population’s apparent shift leftward, the United States is still the Western world’s most conservative country, both culturally and economically.

Historically, the United States has no socialist tradition comparable with Europe’s and there is no reason to expect one to emerge any time soon. However, if the progressives in organizations such as United for Peace and Justice and the netroots continue to unite and push hard for their common goals on a national level, they may actually see some of their vision realized, instead of only protesting for it in the streets.

Julian Nemeth is a native Montrealer who is currently working on a PHD in American intellectual history at Brandeis University.

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