Eric Davin’s recent book Radicals In Power should be required reading for socialists who want to compete with bourgeois forces at the ballot box. It chronicles the disconnected hodge-podge post-1960s attempts by American leftists to gain implement progressive policies by running in local elections, either as progressive Democrats or under the aegis of locally-rooted left-wing parties. There’s a wealth of information here; both a string of common pitfalls, as well as reasons for hope that a social democratic party could build on the successes of the past.
While Davin’s book is national in scope, the author goes into great detail on the struggle of activists to build a left alternative to the Democratic Party in Vermont with the capacity to win and to govern. This essay will reflect on this particular attempt, using Davin’s material as a springboard. I will put political questions aside for the moment. Line struggle, in the sense of inter-party debate over program and strategy, will be decisive in determining whether or not any third party plays a progressive role in social struggle. There are important discussions to be had around line struggle; but this essay will rather opt to contribute to the recent historical summations of U.S. party-building attempts, in the same spirit as Katherine Isaac & Mark Dudzic’s recent piece on the U.S. Labor Party, or Adam Hefty’s overview of progressive third parties in national elections.
The organization that emerged out of those decades of struggle is known today as the Vermont Progressive Party. This Party stands as the most successful third party attempt in recent U.S. history. Vermont’s Progressives are worthy of serious consideration, since although they have yet to break out of its regional mold, they have met with more electoral success than most national third party formations.
The Progressive Party emerged from the broader leftist milieu of Vermont politics. One of the state’s most famous political exports is U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders: the only self-identified socialist in U.S.Congress, and generally acknowledged to be the most liberal member of that elected body. Sanders, while technically an independent, is regularly identified with the Progressives, and his career and fortunes of the Party are closely linked.
The Progressive Party’s origins mirror many previous third party formation attempts. Sometimes a number of different, even competing, parties are created before one catches on with the vicissitudes of the moment and the movement of the people; the most successful example of such a third party would be the Republican Party. During the nineteenth century, there were several successive formations and collapses of third parties which embraced a radical abolitionist agenda: the Liberty Party, the Free Soil Party, finally coalescing into the Republican Party in the 1850s, which eventually surpassed the then-dominant Whig Party after the latter split over the issue of slavery. This same logic played out in miniature in Vermont, where the Progressives were preceded in the 1970s by the Citizens Party and the Liberty Union before that (the Progressives were an electoral coalition before they became a political party).
The Progressives tout their strategic approach to elections. The Progressive Party has elected more state legislators than all other third parties in the rest of the nation combined. The political realignment of the state has been so thoroughgoing that a recent article asked if the state’s GOP would survive the last election cycle. Progressives elected their first statewide candidate (Auditor) last year, who ran on a combined Democratic-Progressive ticket. With state Democrats, they work to move the public discourse to the left. As one article put it: “Democrats have reached a partial détente with the Vermont Progressive Party, which is shifting its focus toward growing its ranks in the legislature. Rather than dividing the left-leaning vote in statewide races, the two parties this year collaborated on the candidacies of their lieutenant governor and state auditor nominees — and kept a Progressive candidate out of the gubernatorial race.”
Interestingly, the party does reasonably well in traditionally conservative rural areas. As former Burlington Mayor of Burlington Bob Kiss put it, “It was not so long ago the Republicans were the party of Teddy Roosevelt (and more recently that Democrats were the party of Strom Thurmond). When we engage those traditional New England Republicans, many come to understand that the modern Republican party has left them behind. Our message of protecting individuals rights and pushing back against corporate domination of our government resonates with them in a way that the Republican party resonated with their great-grandparents.” Is it possible the Progressive Party model offers a way forward on the question of building a political coalition between working-class rural voters and traditionally “liberal” urban-dwellers? The party’s website notes: “In 2002, Anthony Pollina, the Progressive candidate for Lt. Governor, received 25% of the vote in a statewide race, the largest percentage of any third party candidate for statewide office in the country in recent history. Pollina is an advocate for farmers and his best showings were in rural, traditionally Republican areas. In 2004, we elected three additional legislators, all from rural, traditionally Republican areas of Vermont.”
There are numerous shortcomings to the Progressive Party model. The long-term threat is that the party will be co-opted into the Democrats, as a recent article warned. However, even if such a prospect were to come about, as it did in Minnesota with the merger of the Farmer-Labor Party and the Democrats in 1944, this would still move the state political discourse much further to the left; Minnesota today has a rich populist heritage which has produced a number of left-leaning politicians including Al Franken, and the late Paul Wellstone.
Possibly more serious, the Progressives built up power over decades during a period of relative political quiescence, which is likely to be very different from the years ahead. How closely this model will apply to future realities is an open question.
The most useful sections of Davin’s book detail the many problems posed by winning elections within a larger capitalist framework. These include, but aren’t limited to: difficulties replacing charismatic leadership (e.g. Bernie Sanders) with party loyalty or class consciousness, the perils of geographical isolation, the threat of unity between liberals and conservatives against a leftwing alternative, etc. Without a doubt Socialists will have to face many if not most of these problems ourselves if we are to organize on the national level.
While there are a number of issues and peculiarities with the model, the example of the Progressive Party in Vermont is, at very least, a living, breathing attempt to combat the American political duopoly. Its activists have attempted to apply leftist principles in the concrete, real-world context of Vermont’s specific conditions. If poor and working-class Americans truly wish to build a party of our own over the coming decades, we should diligently study the experiences of Vermont’s Progressives.
Tim Horras is Chair of the Philly Socialists.