By Terry Bouricius
This is Chapter 8 of Building Progressive Politics: The Vermont Story, a 1993 pamphlet by Marxist Terry Bouricius that chronicles how the only successful left third party in the U.S. today was built over the course of three decades. The remaining chapters will be published on this blog in the coming days.
The Vermont experience is a case study – not a model. Here are the lessons I think it teaches, and some conclusions I have drawn.
- Persistence counts for a lot.
- Voters, and even the establishment, can be persuaded to see the political landscape in a new way.
- The truism that nothing succeeds like success is the key. Find a race that is winnable! We shouldn’t wait until desired election law reforms are passed.
- One-on-one elections can be found and they allow alternative parties to escape the “spoiler” accusation.
- The most likely place to find winnable races is at the local level.
It is also important to build and maintain connections with issues and grassroots organizations. A defining issue that is the focus of a new party makes sense, but it is also important to avoid the single-issue trap. Single-issue parties don’t generally last. The success of the Progressive movement in Vermont reflects multi-issue work. Sanders’ success is grounded in multi-issue class-based politics, rather than the usual liberal/conservative paradigm.
The base for a Progressive Party is the disenchanted and uninvolved, not Democratic converts. However, links with traditional Democratic support groups such as the unions, are essential. We will win some Democratic Party converts, but this can be filled with as much danger as promise. Success can draw opportunists.
Technical campaign skills are essential. Michael Krasner authored a booklet, Going For It,1 which summarizes what we have learned about winning election campaigns. In addition, an alternative party must deal with voter expectations that campaigns are about a candidate’s character. Having a strong, charismatic candidate is very helpful.
An alternative party must also build candidate accountability into its structure so that a successful candidate has an incentive to remain accountable. It is not sufficient to rely on the good intentions of good people. A dynamic tension has always existed between Sanders and his movement. Sanders dreads being held accountable to a handful of “activists” who are out of touch with the people. But Sanders would have no problem being held accountable to a platform that he and many others were involved in hammering out.
Clearly the system of open primary elections inhibits such accountability. Encouraging organizations like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters to advocate for election law reforms is critical. An alternative party should consider launching a “pro-democracy” movement that champions voting by easing registration procedures, absentee balloting requirements, and even introducing electronic balloting by phone.
No reform is more important than campaign finance reform. Removing private money (“bribes”) from the election process should be an element of a pro-democracy movement. We also need reforms that allow, if not promote, multiple parties. The problem is not the individual politicians, but the two-party system which so limits political choice.
It is possible that publicizing the gains of the Progressive movement in Vermont can create significant psychological breakthrough in other states. In the realm of politics, “the of the possible,” Vermont is expanding the definition of possible.
- Michael A. Krasner, Going for It: How to Run a Grassroots Election Campaign and Win. Center for a New Democracy, Madison, 1992.