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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/18/18

Political Dynamite: Poor People's Campaign and the Movement for a People's Party

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Reading the political tea leaves is a far different task from making political tea.

MLK Poor People's Campaign of 1968--ancestor of the movement we need NOW
MLK Poor People's Campaign of 1968--ancestor of the movement we need NOW
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As a political analyst whose predominant interest is organizing, I'll engage here in a bit of both. That is, I'll indulge in a bit of hopeful political prognostication, while striving, by urging the most relevant current organizers to join forces, to make my optimistic prediction come true.

My prediction is that the forces of political revolt will eventually coalesce, resulting in the real resistance movement an extremist Trump presidency should have awakened; whether they'll do so in time to ward off nuclear or climate catastrophe is anybody's guess. But the elements of real, fruitful revolt (not Democrats' largely symbolic McResistance) are now in place, and my modest task here is simply to raise consciousness about the "dynamite" political potential of fusing those elements.

For convenience, I'll identify two essential "elements"--sufficient components for making political dynamite--as the Poor People's Campaign (PPC) and the Movement for a People's Party (MPP). For readers to grasp the urgent current relevance of those two movements, they need to realize that each movement name stands for much more than the words comprising it immediately suggest.

First of all, grasping the full meaning of "Poor People's Campaign" requires knowing that the name is a conscious reference to the original 1960s Poor People's Campaign spearheaded by Martin Luther King. Crucially for our purposes, King's campaign targeted not just poverty alone, but the deeply interwoven "triple evils" of poverty, racism, and militarism. Updating King's triple evils to include humanity's newest crisis, the present PPC seeks to combat climate and environmental devastation as well. Seeing how today's PPC demands action on four of humanity's most crucial issues-- issues perversely exiled from mainstream political discourse by deliberately distracting (and dangerously warmongering ) blather over Russiagate--it's hard to imagine a timelier movement. Nor one of vaster moral authority and rhetorical clout, since it quite credibly revives the deliberately buried real agenda of Dr. King.

So, as regards the PPC, I'm warmly endorsing the movement itself as by far the best organizing vehicle for the real anti-Trump resistance our nation needs. My words "real anti-Trump resistance" mean not just rejection of Trump and his policies, but revolt against the whole corrupt system-- including both deeply corrupt major political parties--that inflicted us with Trump . When I endorse the Movement for a People's Party, I'm not recommending an existing political party (the words "Movement for" imply that the needed party doesn't yet exist), but a type of strategic thinking--requiring a viable third party--for which the proposed "People's Party" could be the needed third-party vehicle. In recommending the MPP electoral strategy--though not necessarily the proposed People's Party--to PPC supporters, I'm suggesting the resurrected King movement grow a muscular electoral "arm" to enforce its urgent demands.

So, what is the MPP strategy? The MPP strategy is an "inside-outside" electoral approach targeting today's faux-progressive Democratic Party (rightly stigmatized as the Inauthentic Opposition Party ). Since the MPP has explained its strategy with laudable clarity , I'll summarize it by quoting a full paragraph from the MPP link cited earlier:

A people's party is an essential yet missing element of our strategy as a movement today. The Democrats have a virtual monopoly over progressives right now. Like a corporate monopoly with its customers, the Democrats feel no need to serve their constituents because they think we have nowhere else to go. Throughout U.S. history, major parties have refused to change until independent parties have threatened to replace them. For the past 150 years, the progressive cornerstones of our society, from abolition to women's suffrage, from child labor laws to the forty hour work week, from social security to the New Deal, have been achieved by third parties who championed them and forced establishment parties to either adopt them or be replaced.

This paragraph appears on an MPP website page titled "Progressive Democrats for a People's Party." But it's crucial to understand that the intended audience for MPP's appeal is not just progressive Democrats but all progressives--"progressives" defined for our purposes (and MPP's) as supporters of the PPC agenda. My authority for that definition is not just wishful thinking. On the one hand, public intellectual Cornel West , editor of a collection of Dr. King's writings (aimed at preserving his real legacy) titled The Radical King , has supported the MPP almost from its inception . More importantly, MPP supporters have officially voted overwhelmingly to back the PPC.

So, the MPP clearly endorses the aims of the PPC. But why, apart from mere gratitude (not always a reliable guide for choosing political allies), should PPC supporters embrace the MPP political strategy? Quite clearly because, in demanding sweeping progressive policy reforms, the PPC will meet its most formidable obstacle in Democrats. To be sure, today's Republican leadership (like the Republican leadership of King's day) is vehemently opposed to anything resembling King's radical agenda. But, based on numerous polls, Republicans are a hidebound party flatly rejected by younger voters and deeply out of tune with a U.S. electorate favoring economic populism and deeply hostile to plutocratic corruption of government . There's compelling reason to think a Democratic Party much truer to its New Deal heritage could (just as in its FDR years) repeatedly wipe the floor with Republicans.

What prevents Democrats' embrace of an updated New Deal (let alone the PPC's still more radical justice-based agenda) is clearly the party's warmongering pro-corporate establishment. Finding that establishment willing to sacrifice elections even to extremist Republicans for sake of serving its Wall Street and "War Street" donors, Naomi Klein insightfully wrote, in the wake of Trump's shocking victory, "The Democratic Party needs to be either decisively wrested from pro-corporate neoliberals, or it needs to be abandoned." The MPP's inside-outside strategy, targeting the warmongering pro-corporate Democrats who impede most social progress (even maliciously abusing their sole, identity-issues virtue ), is the most promising electoral approach available for implementing Klein's sage advice. Stymied chiefly by such establishment Democrats--who refuse even to grant progressives a party forum for challenging Republicans--the PPC has a profound stake in the MPP's inside-outside electoral strategy.

So how exactly does that strategy work? As a policy-enforcing measure, it depends on having many voter-activists--both inside and outside the Democratic Party--willing to fight for progressive policies. Presumably, as activists, those working within the party will seek to gain offices in their state party organizations; they will also attempt to persuade as many party progressives as possible to join them in a disciplined progressive voting bloc. As voters, they will vote in primaries only for candidates who support a predetermined progressive agenda (in our case, the PPC agenda); they may even withhold their votes in general elections from Democrats who fail to support progressive aims. Meanwhile, those working outside the party will attempt to build a party supporting such aims, or to back an established party (say, the Green Party) already backing them.

The threat to Democrats, of course, is that if they fail to support progressives within the party, those progressives do have somewhere to go with their votes and activism: a viable progressive third party . The key element now arguably lacking to make this strategy work--and the MPP does stress its lack in calling for a People's Party--is a viable third party capable of attracting large numbers of progressives. Without threatening its support for such a progressive third party (or the most viable candidates from several third parties), I have a hard time seeing how the PPC expects to win policy concessions from Democrats unwilling even to mention its policies. Vilifying Trump without having even to mention progressive policies is, after all, largely what Democrats' Russiagate obsession is about.

For thoroughness sake, I should mention two points obviously pertinent to the MPP's inside-outside strategy. The first is that those working inside and outside the Democratic Party can be the exact same people. Indeed, as applied to only one office--U.S. president--this was the strategy of the Bernie or Bust movement . The idea was to "draw a line in the sand" in America's most visible electoral race: to warn Democrats that Bernie Sanders was the minimum standard for what progressives would accept in a presidential candidate. If Democrats refused to nominate him, we would either write Sanders in or vote for Jill Stein. Obviously, this "line in the sand" approach can be generalized to many political offices; while Bernie or Bust didn't officially stress it, many movement members undoubtedly did confine their votes to supporters of Sanders and his agenda .

Obviously, the MPP's inside-outside strategy does generalize the Bernie or Bust approach to many offices--with the proviso that those "busting" to progressive third parties aren't necessarily the same people insisting on nominating real progressives in Democratic Party primaries. However, the MPP strategy doesn't rule out their being the same people. In states with open primaries, this is probably even the best approach, since progressives can vote in primaries for real progressive Democrats (likely to be the most electable real progressives), while diverting little of their time and effort from the crucial objective of building a viable progressive third party.

My second pertinent point, as regards the inside-outside strategy, is whether we actually need a new " People's Party" to fulfill the strategy's requirement for a viable progressive third party. Supporters of the Green Party, or of the Working Families Party, will argue that their parties already fill the bill. The whole idea of building a new People's Party is of course based on skepticism about their claim. For now, I'll simply defer treatment of this large, important--and very contentious--issue. Perhaps the MPP's inside-outside strategy is workable without a single viable third party in place. For the PPC to benefit from that strategy, its supporters may simply need to declare their readiness, if predictably snubbed by Democrats, to vote for third-party progressives who will push their policies. But ideally, the PPC would exert policy pressure best by placing its "outside" electoral eggs in the basket of a single, rapidly growing third party.

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Patrick Walker is co-founder of Revolt Against Plutocracy (RAP) and the Bernie or Bust movement it spawned. Before that, he cut his activist teeth with the anti-fracking and Occupy Scranton PA movements. No longer with RAP, he wields his pen (more...)

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