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Despite our cynicism about electoral politics, the Left needs political parties. The Right’s rising power and momentum throughout the world gives us a stark reminder of the practical effects of our lack of a party of our own in the United States.
Although it might feel like we’re starting from scratch, we can learn from real experiments. One example is Progressive Dane, a political party formed in 1992 in Madison, Wisconsin.
Progressive Dane is named after Dane County, where Madison is located. The party began when Joel Rogers, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Dan Cantor, a longtime political organizer, put forward the idea of a “New Party.”
The New Party hoped to revive fusion voting as tool for building a party. Fusion voting allows a candidate to run on two ballot lines, allowing voters to vote for a third party without feeling that their vote for that party was wasted or a “spoiler” in the election, doing little to build a viable political alternative but helping bring a potentially worse alternative to power — dilemmas that otherwise plague third parties under the American winner-take-all system. This allows the party to work inside and outside the Democratic Party at the same time.
Fusion voting has been legal in some states for decades, most notably New York, but other states have outlawed the practice. The New Party challenged the ban by nominating a candidate, State Representative Andy Dawkins, to run under their ballot line at the same time he was running as a Democrat in St. Paul, Minnesota. Election officials rejected the nominating petition, and the New Party challenged their rejection, with the hopes of taking the case, Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party, to the Supreme Court and getting a ruling that would allow fusion voting in all states.
Timmons did reach the Supreme Court in 1997, but the Rehnquist Court ruled against the New Party, allowing states to continue to ban fusion voting. Importantly, in the years before the court ruling, activists had launched New Party chapters in a dozen states across the country to prepare for the possibility of a Timmons victory.
Progressive Dane (PD) was one of those New Party chapters. After the Timmons loss, the national New Party transformed itself into the Working Families Party in 1998 and retreated at first to one state (New York), even as it has expanded since then into fifteen more. Most of the existing New Party chapters shut down, but Progressive Dane’s members decided to continue as an independent party running its own candidates.
Most races at the local level are officially non-partisan, so candidates could run for City Council or County Board and get the endorsement of Progressive Dane and the Democrats. But for the most part, Progressive Dane built itself as an independent party.
This was in part because when PD was formed, it inherited the nearly defunct Wisconsin Labor-Farm Party infrastructure. Labor-Farm Party activists already were committed to the idea of an independent party. (At one point there were other chapters: Progressive Milwaukee, Progressive Fox Valley, and a statewide party, Progressive Wisconsin, but those did not continue after Timmons.)
PD sees itself as a party driven by members rather than by politicians. According to their website,
Progressive Dane believes that ordinary citizens should control public policies at the community and national levels. We support tax justice, better social services, equality in public education, affordable housing, and public transportation. Progressive Dane helps community members organize around issues that are important to them and also works on the grassroots level to elect progressive political candidates.
Their city and county platforms emphasize social and economic justice issues, democratic governance, and sustainable environmental practices.
PD quickly grew to be the second party in Dane County, and after five years had elected fifteen candidates to the city council, county board, and school board. The party kept growing based on it’s strategy: running candidates at the local level, challenging the Democrats, and engaging in social movements as well as electoral politics.
They kept winning. By 2005, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz — himself a PD member and candidate — remarked, “For all intents and purposes, they are the [city’s] governing party right now.” At various times, it has held the majority of seats on the school board and city council.
Today, however, while PD still exists, it is not nearly as influential as it once was. At times it has worked with the Green Party; at others it has worked with Democrats. (Some of the Democratic legislators who helped lead the fight against Scott Walker in 2011 came out of PD.)
Given its twenty-four-year history and numerous successes, we should review some of the lessons of PD.
Most people don’t want to run for office. There is little reward for much hard work. Much of it is barely paid or totally unpaid, with long hours. PD itself is run mostly by volunteers. The party is funded by dues, and with a membership of several hundred, the budget is quite small. For example, in 2005, it had over four hundred dues-paying members, one part-time paid organizer, and an annual budget of $30,000.
Progressive Dane founders knew electing candidates is hard enough, but holding them accountable to campaign promises is even tougher. Initially, PD required candidates to:
PD was concerned with getting candidates to fulfill campaign promises, but the pledge was also designed to help build the party. The requirements were created to have elected officials identify openly and strongly as Progressive Dane.
The second piece of the pledge, requiring candidates to run on a slate, also meant that endorsed candidates could not support people from other parties in other races. For example, a PD-endorsed candidate for District 8 could not endorse the Democratic Party candidate in District 12. The intent was to get candidates to build and identify with the party.
While the New Party nationally had an inside/outside strategy for working with Democrats, building pressure on the party from without while engaging it from within, PD founders felt it was necessary to draw a stronger line, requiring endorsed candidates to declare their allegiance to the party and its platform.
This was controversial; a number of candidates objected. According to long-time PD member Nick Berigan, “I saw the expectation, for instance, that our volunteers should carry literature for an unendorsed candidate who was a friend of an endorsed candidate or that we should look the other way on an endorsement that violated the pledge.” Berigan adds, “The goal was to have an organized volunteer-driven policy agenda” rather than “the project of positioning yet one more local ‘power player’ in the game of local kingmaker-type endorsements.”
The pledge was revised after ten years, relaxing the expectations, but still requires candidates to promise to attend membership meetings, introduce PD laws, and generally be active in neighborhoods.
If an elected official broke a promise, PD had to be ready to confront them: first through conversation, then possible rallies or protests, then run a challenger in the next election.
Of course, an elected official makes many decisions and votes in their career, so the party must have a way of deciding which issues are the top priorities. But PD has run challengers against its own.
For example, PD decided that one of its council members, a founding member of PD, Ken Golden, wasn’t upholding his promise to work with PD colleagues and engage regularly with constituents. Accountability for the party wasn’t just about particular policy issues but also being a responsible representative; Golden, they decided, was not being the latter.
In 2004, PD decided to run a candidate against him. The challenger lost, but the party sent a message: elected officials will be required to uphold the pledge or lose the party’s support.
PD held its members’ feet to the fire. But this is often difficult to do in practice. It can earn enemies. Golden remarked, “Why are they going after me of all things? It reminds me very much of the Bolsheviks between 1905 and 1917. … I see this kind [demand for political] purity” at the heart of PD’s actions.
But being tough on accountability could mean you end up with fewer and fewer candidates to endorse, and then having a smaller and smaller presence on the city council or county board. If the party is aiming to gain a certain number of seats, they are less likely to discipline their elected officials.
There appears to be a tension between taking strong positions on issues, resulting in fewer voters and fewer candidates and elected officials, and relaxing accountability to appeal to more voters and have a bigger pool of candidates to endorse. But Berigan suggests the tension might not be as clear of a trade-off as it seems. In his analysis, PD relaxed its accountability requirements but then stalled in its growth. The party has a softer pledge but fewer elected officials.
Most governing is mundane, even boring. The day-to-day work of governance means you are trying to fix big problems with few resources. This is partly because many cities have tight budgets and have been getting tighter over decades as policymakers cut taxes. This is exacerbated by similar trends at the state and federal level, as cities like Madison get 10-15 percent of their budget revenue from state and federal grants.
Many of the best ideas out there for progressive economic development are suited for the federal or state level, like fixes for health care, green transit, or jobs programs. Most states, for instance, don’t allow cities to set their own minimum wage. This means local governance is about trying to fix big problems with a very limited tool kit.
This raises the question of whether leftists should even run for office if they won’t be able to follow through on campaign promises or if they are only able to implement austerity. It also highlights the need for creative thinking about how to expand capacity to do the job.
While there are resources available for progressives who want to run for local office, most are just about how to run a campaign. Far fewer resources are available on how to govern — even less on how to transcend the limits of governance.
Another challenge for local politicians: the job means dealing with your constituents — humans with human problems. You don’t often hear from the constituents who are doing well; instead, you may need to deal with those suffering serious problems.
The challenge is how to help constituents without losing sight of the structural problems and by using your office to build the larger organizing work that is essential to winning progressive change.
PD candidates also learned that running for office motivated by a few key principles is actually the easy part. But once elected, much compromise is required, with everyone from opponents on the council, to the Chamber of Commerce. Long-time PD member and city council member Brenda Konkel said, “It’s easy to sit on the outside and criticize, but it’s harder to govern.” One former county board member, Ashok Kumar, decided not to run for a second term because he felt himself being pulled toward cutting back-room deals and reformist work by the end of his term.
So when should politicians make compromises and when should they resist? Perhaps Andre Gorz’s notion of “non-reformist reforms” rather than “reformist reforms” is useful here. This would suggest that elected officials base decisions not just on liberal principles of equality and fairness and technocratic principles of the feasibility of a given policy’s implementation, but on revolutionary principles such as self-determination and inclusion, and a given decision’s ability to push forward a more radical politics in the long run. For example, in a minimum-wage fight, a council member might need to compromise on the wage level, but should not accept compromises that undermine a city’s right to set its own wages or one that cuts some workers out of the deal.
Governing means lots of meetings, lots of subcommittees, and sometimes long, drawn-out votes on big issues. In the end, a city council member will end up spending lots of time with others on the council — meaning, a progressive person might be elected to office but then spend most of their time with moderate and conservative coworkers.
As union organizer Peter Landon says, “you are who you eat lunch with.” If you spend every day with conservative coworkers, you are likely to get pulled into personal relationships and sometimes persuaded by some of their ideas. You agree to support their legislation if they support yours.
This isn’t necessarily a problem, as governance is about compromise, which is necessary to form coalitions. However, the Right has far more resources to support their elected officials once in office: think tanks to supply necessary research; access to media, lawyers, legal research, and politicians in other cities and states; connections with wealthy donors. The Left has almost none of this and often fails to provide the kind of daily support our politicians need.
We can’t expect leftists in office to stand firmly on their own willpower to stand firm on a progressive agenda; they need movements and other left infrastructure to both back them up and hold them accountable to resist the conservatizing pressures of elected office.
PD instituted regular Progressive Caucus meetings for the PD-endorsed officials to meet regularly, strategize and support one another. At the county level, the Progressive Caucus was a subgroup within the liberal caucus. It also created committees to involve party members in policy matters that would have a feedback loop with elected officials. But all of this was inconsistent and depended in large part on the particular council member — some of whom were more identified with PD and willing to make time to work with the party.
The Left needs to find more ways to support the people we elect to office. We tend to be better on planning rallies or getting out the vote, but we are not as good on building infrastructure to support candidates and govern. This must be part of the work.
In addition to elected officials, political party leaders also must be held accountable. People are alienated from parties not only because politicians let them down; the parties themselves seem undemocratic and bureaucratic.
The risks are smaller in a local party, but Progressive Dane worked to develop mechanisms to keep the party itself run by members. The party has amended its bylaws over time in order to improve its functioning. The structure of the party is very clearly explained and accessible to anyone who wants to see it. Meetings are open, and decisions are made by a majority vote of the membership.
A coordinating committee of ten people runs PD. Committee members serve a one-year term. Eight of these are elected by the general body, and two are filled by delegates of the Elections Committee and the Policy Committee. In an effort to reach demographic balance, the top three vote-getters from marginalized communities will be automatically seated, and the remaining seats will be filled according to vote total. The committee elects co-chairs, and those rotate every six months.
One way political organizations, from parties to unions, lose touch with their members (and become less accountable) is when they extend the “spin” used on campaigns internally with members. Political elections involve a lot of spin: press representatives put forward the best face of the candidate and try to control the analysis of the issues and campaign.
But too often, parties use that spin on their members, as well. They simplify the hard choices, put a positive take on bad outcomes, and try to present a united front. The result: supporters being to see the party as little different from any other politician, offering them spin instead of honesty.
One of the ways PD tried to maintain its grassroots involvement and democratic participation was to minimize the spin among members and even outsiders. The downside is that this can come across as a lot of internal debate, lots of disagreement, or even just “too much talking” or a marginal place for leftists.
For example, one long-time member remarked on what she felt was a negative tone: “I think calling every centrist Democrat a fascist or just ranting on social media or mansplaining and starting fights or constantly calling people racist — it honestly just turns me off, and I think it detracts from the constituency that could be built for things like creating a sanctuary city or raising a local minimum wage or opposing spending on a stadium.”
In 2007, Alderman Brian Solomon said that he chose not to seek a PD endorsement when he ran for City Council in 2007 because he felt the party had an image as being too strident. That same year one of the PD co-chairs, Lisa Subeck, resigned from leadership and the party. Subeck stated, “My decision is . . . in part out of frustration with Progressive Dane and the direction (or lack of direction) in which the party is going. We spend more and more time talking and less and less time following through.”
She added that it is difficult to be a leader of a member-driven organization, particularly when your ideas as a leader don’t fall into line with those of the membership. At times, elected officials felt the membership was unrealistic about the policy issues and trade-offs involved in governance.
These examples suggest that the party has not been clear on its mission. For some, PD was a space to elect better candidates and have better governance of local politics. Others built the party in hopes of creating a left vehicle for more radical change.
These two objectives might be compatible, but PD members never explicitly discussed these varying goals and had no explicit strategy for how a path of local reform and party building might lead to greater structural change. Of course, left activists and left organizations working within the party had these discussions on their own but not within PD as a whole, leaving a lack of clarity about mission.
One way to increase the resources available for elected officials and to maintain the ground troops for holding those candidates accountable is to build a party that does more than run candidates. Politics is not just what happens every two years in the voting booth; it should take place every day.
Progressive Dane was committed to forming a party that was run by members, and this meant creating a lot of space for activist projects and cultural activities: student organizing, labor solidarity work, political education, and more.
For example, PD used local living-wage campaigns to develop relationships with new organizations and neighborhoods. It was a way to bring new members into the party and to work on political issues throughout the year, not just during election season.
For many years, PD ran a neighborhood tutoring project. Volunteers worked with elementary and middle-school students on basic skills and helped students launch their own newspaper. The project created a place for PD members to be involved in party activities outside of elections and also strengthened ties between the neighborhood and the party.
PD hosted a “People Versus the State” softball game, where members played against elected officials, and bowling nights and parties. According to one article:
PD has thrived in liberal Madison partly because local Democrats concentrate on state and national electoral politics. Democrats don’t do grassroots work on leftist social justice causes or issues like low-cost housing, tenant rights and good land use, members said.
The party appeals to “those who are really hungry to do more,” said its elections committee chairman Michael Jacob. At the party’s anti-inaugural event last month, rappers, activists and musicians — even a guitarist with a weird hat and a kazoo chanting, “I hate war” — took the stage at hip Cafe Montmartre off Capitol Square.
This allowed members to feel connected to the party and have a sense of ownership. But beyond that, such activities can help create spaces for deeper political discussion and social engagement that is normally had in a campaign. Sometimes more mainstream voters feel leftists are too strident, too fringe, too angry, or righteous. Creating spaces of dialogue can help create common ground that can overcome such suspicion and distrust.
PD has also seen its mission as engaging in larger politics beyond the local level. It endorsed Ralph Nader for president in 2000. It pushed a controversial proposal to have Madison adopt a sister city in Palestine. In 2010, it endorsed Green Party candidate Ben Manski for State Assembly. For some, this is a potentially divisive distraction, but others believe the party must take positions on key social justice issues.
Leftists who want to engage more seriously in electoral politics should study political systems whose features are better designed for independent parties and grassroots involvement. For example, Madison’s population is about 245,000, and the Common Council has twenty members, or about one council member per 12,500 people. Compare that to Milwaukee, which has 600,000 people and fifteen council members (1 per 40,000 people). Having fewer constituents in a district makes it easier for council members to represent them.
Also, Madison’s council is divided up regionally into districts. In some cities, city council members run at-large, meaning they represent the entire city. By dividing up by district, a candidate has fewer doors to knock and a much better chance of meeting more voters face to face. Madison also has neighborhoods where the most progressive voters are concentrated, increasing the likelihood that some districts will elect a committed progressive. The people power of Progressive Dane has a better chance in a place like Madison.
Wisconsin has same-day voter registration and open primaries, both of which are helpful for independent and non-traditional voters. Up until recently, Wisconsin was one of the better states for voter access, but Gov. Scott Walker has brought in one of the strictest voter identification laws in the country.
The Right is constantly looking for ways to gerrymander and restrict voter access. The Left, too, must pay close attention to such technicalities.
Can we change the face of politics in one city, let alone a state or country, by starting at the local level?
PD made an impact on Madison and Dane County. It helped pass living-wage ordinances, zoning that requires developers to build affordable housing, a smoking ban, a schools referendum, and a city affordable housing trust. PD leaders have improved public access to campaign finance reports, improved funding for county health programs, and passed regulations on landlords and lobbyists — all while getting many new people involved in politics, including young people who might be alienated from political parties elsewhere.
While PD had impressive success winning races, passing legislation, and running successful labor-community campaigns, it now has a smaller presence in city politics and has been unable to go beyond local races. In its early years, the statewide party attempted to run candidates for state legislature, as well as for statewide office in order to maintain a ballot line. PD activists saw that their core strength of grassroots engagement at the local level was harder to maintain at higher levels where opponents could vastly outspend them and where candidates had to run on a party line. This was in the 1990s, long before campaign finance degenerated into its current state. The barriers to running for state office today would be even more daunting.
The party constantly faces complaints from opponents that they are anti-business and creating a deeply regulatory climate. Some of what they have won has been overturned at the state level, such as a citywide minimum wage. When the party was at its most successful, it drew the wrath of the Democratic Party. PD Alderman José Manuel Sentmanat wrote in 2005 that the Democrats began to make it a point to run their candidates against PD, forcing PD “to expend valuable resources fighting off liberal challengers when we could be using those same resources to unseat conservatives.”
A major challenge remains: how do you hold the politicians you elect accountable to your platform? This is of course not a unique problem to PD or even to the United States. Even countries with parliamentary systems, and countries with strong left or labor parties, face the same dilemma. Leftists are elected to office, then face pressure from conservative donors, business groups, banks, creditors, right-wing voters, and even mainstream voters to abandon their campaign promises.
Progressive Dane seemed to do best on electing candidates and holding them accountable when a number of factors were in place: when movement organizing was on the upswing, there was a vibrant membership constantly engaged in party activity, and candidates were required to run as a slate as a condition for endorsement. PD founders wanted to build an independent political party that was centered around members rather than electing politicians. The latter is essential, but without an active base, candidates will be on their own and can easily abandon promises.
PD has been successful in building that base to drive the party, at least at times. The elected officials would have had a much harder time passing some of the controversial legislation without member organizing. Former county board member Ashok Kumar insists that PD’s greatest policy victories at the county level — ending Section 8 housing discrimination, passing a county living wage, and establishing a $5 million County Conservation Fund — were only possible due to grassroots organizing.
Kumar also argues that building the party with clear lines between the Democrats was useful. He says,
When I joined the board, PD was at a particularly weak point, and there were elements that were pushing for greater collaboration with the Democrats and more ‘dual endorsements.’ This resulted in the watering down of campaigns and policy. It also made it harder for us to distinguish ourselves from progressive Democrats; this would result in organizational weakness around national elections.
A successful progressive party must find balance between constructing a broad tent that appeals to a wide range of voters and holding firm to principles. Although PD did well by making the party and membership fun, Berigan asserts that a party must be willing to engage in “uncomfortable moments,” risking short-term tension for a long-term gain. That might mean addressing difficult topics like race or immigration, or challenging a popular politician who votes the wrong way. It means demanding elected officials vote the right way even if it could hurt them in the next election.
Progressive Dane has had a real impact on local politics. They have managed to maintain an independent, member-driven party that adheres to a progressive platform while still engaging in the day-to-day work of governance. The party shows that there are untapped opportunities to pursue left electoral politics at the local level.
In many places, local races are non-partisan, which means progressives and leftists around the country interested in forming local parties like PD wouldn’t have to solve the question of how to relate to the Democrats yet. They have not found a way to influence politics at the state level, but their model may offer important lessons for others on the Left hoping to build alternatives.
The Democratic Party appears incapable of stopping the Trump agenda; indeed, it has been central to laying the groundwork for its rise. Even when it has been in power, the Democrats have never had a progressive agenda, let alone space for radical movements. The Left needs parties of its own. Perhaps by coordinating local independent political action across cities, we will improve our chances of doing so.
Stephanie Luce is a professor of labor studies at the City University of New York's Murphy Institute and the author of Labor Movements: Global Perspectives.