Saturday, November 01, 2008

Progressives in New York have an opportunity to make a statement by voting for Obama on the Working Families Party line (line E)


I've been promising for some time to write about David Sirota's remarkable book The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington. What makes it so hard to write about is that the many strands of that populist revolt David's referring to have basically nothing in common except that they have arrived at a point of open revolt against the current distribution, or rather concentration, of economic and political power in the U.S.

What makes the book so remarkable is David's ability as a reporter to get "inside" each of these movements, to enable us to understand and even feel the source of each one's discontent and how this has led to the form that has developed. And as a New Yorker, I'm embarrassed to say that a lot of what he has to say about New York State's Working Families Party was new to me.


The Working Families Party is fighting for a more just world.

One where the economy works for everyone. One where politicians are held accountable to working people, instead of big-money backers. One where all of us, no matter where we come from, can find a good job, get healthcare when we need it, afford a home, send our kids to good schools, and have a secure retirement.

We’re fighting to bring back the American Dream, and we want you to join us.

One of the strongest threads in David Sirota's writing has been his belief that a revival of populism can provide momentum for a true progressive surge in this country. Populism, you'll recall, isn't specifically a left- or right-wing philosophy, and in fact has more often been associated in American politics with snake-oil-selling right-wing demagogues.

populism (n). A political philosophy directed to the needs of the common people and advocating a more equitable distribution of wealth and power.
-- The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition

During the 2008 presidential primary season, David pointed out that Mike Huckabee was downplaying his customary hard-line Christian Right rhetoric in favor of some barn-burning populism, and was attracting interest from a lot of voters -- Republicans, remember -- who weren't getting this message anywhere else. He kept wondering why the Democratic candidates were so afraid to take up the cause.

Barring some cataclysmic development beyond my imagining, we're stuck with our two-party system. The rise of any kind of serious third party is a virtual impossibility, and the chance of progressives having much influence over Republicans isn't much brighter. The practical question, then, is how progressives can pull the Democratic Party closer to what we believe, and this is where the Working Families Party has serious potential, at least in the handful of states that allow what's known as "fusion" voting.

New York is one of those states. Non-New Yorkers never know what to make of our cluster of "third parties," which now include not just the ghost of a Liberal Party (about which the standard witticism used to be that it was neither liberal nor a party; it was mostly a patronage machine for the friends, relations, and cronies of its proprietors), the remnants of a Conservative Party that came to wield often scary power over the state Republican Party before the latter began more or less imploding, and a bunch of others. Hey, this isn't a term paper -- I don't gotta do, you know, research.

How those third parties work

What you need to understand is that we have all these parties for the simple reason that New York State election law allows votes cast for the same candidate on different ballot lines to be counted together.

Minor parties thus can:

* cross-endorse the candidates of ideologically kindred major parties, in the ideal case showing their clout by providing the margin of victory;

* or they can flex their muscles by withholding their endorsement and putting up candidates of their own (or threatening to do so), a tool the Conservatives wielded freely to put the fear of their God in Republicans;

* or even cast their lot with the Other Side, a favorite tactic of the old Liberals, to the benefit of Republicans as various -- and as variously deserving from a small-"l" liberal standpoint -- as Senator Jacob Javits and Mayors John Lindsay and Rudy Giuliani (it has been much rarer for the Conservatives to endorse a Democrat, but when it happens, you know you've got a really "special" Dem).

It became a ritual for statewide Dem and Repug candidates to have an extra ballot line, inventing one if necessary, as a way to register votes from voters who for whatever reason mightn't vote for them on their regular line. Every now and then, one of the minor parties even elects a candidate of its own.

The Working Families Party has done some of all of the above, but it has also been different from any of the other minor parties in that it has both a strong, coherent political philosophy and a membership and professional staff that are committed to the nitty-gritty of political field work. This has made it a more-than-usually attractive partner for major-party candidates (mostly Democrats, not surprisingly) who can make common ground with it. Of course what has really put the WFP on the state political map is electing some of its own.

For background on the WFP, you can't do better than David Sirota's chapter in The Uprising. But in yesterday's New York Times, reporter David M. Halbfinger did a solid job: "A Small Party Pushes to Be a Statewide Force."

So here's the deal. On Tuesday, at least here in New York State, voters can do more than gnash our teeth at being offered nothing more than the usual D and R choices. We can vote D, but on the WFP's line E. As the WFP website puts it:

"Votes on the WFP ballot line count the same, but they send a powerful message about the world we want to see."

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At 8:36 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you very much for the endorsement Ken. You support is greatly appreciated.

People can learn more WFP's endorsement of Obama on

At 9:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fusion power. An effort must be made on a state by state basis to allow this type of vote consolidation.

At 6:15 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Agreed, Steelhead. Of course one reason it's not happening is that the major parties hate the idea, for the very reason that it empowers parties not under their control to attempt to hold them accountable.

It's an important fight, and I plan to come back to it one of these days when there's time for reflection on matters beyond the immediate election.



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