I agree with just about everything Perlstein says. How could any sane progressive think otherwise? It is essential for Democrats to win in ’04, even as we know they will disappoint us in ’05. The operative question for me is this: what are the organizational moves needed for the long-term approach he describes to become real? How do we structurally yank Democrats, Republicans, and the entire political discourse to the left?
My suggestion: revive progressive fusion politics. I am talking here about third-party politics in the populist tradition, familiar today to New Yorkers but largely unknown to everyone else. I know of no more powerful tool for forcing Democrats (and even Republicans) in the direction Perlstein wants them to go than the approach of the Working Families Party (WFP) of New York State.
How it works in theory. Fusion is simple. It refers to the electoral tactic of two parties “fusing” on one candidate, meaning the candidate appears twice on the ballot under two separate party labels.
“Vote Perlstein for State Assembly,” we might say in New York, “but vote for him on the WFP line and send him a message about . . . health care [or taxes, or living wages, or whatever else the WFP chapter in his district thinks important].” Election Day rolls around, and Rick gets 45 percent as a Democrat, his Republican opponent gets 47 percent, and the last 8 percent shows up on the WFP line. The votes are tallied separately but then added together, and Rick wins 53 percent to 47 percent. But he owes us 8 percent of his victory, and if we continue to organize year-round, he will feel obliged to deliver as best he can on our issues in the legislature, which should in turn help us to get still more votes the next time around.
Fundamentally, fusion is the peculiar, American form of proportional representation, in that it allows political minorities—understood arithmetically—to show their strength and to make coalitions with other parties.
How it works in practice. Since the formation of the WFP in 1998, we have backed some 1,400 candidates on our line. Most were Democrats, a few were Republicans, and a few were stand-alone WFP candidates who competed with the two major parties when neither major-party candidate appealed to our membership.
About half of our nominees have won. Results on our line vary from race to race and county to county, but it is fair to say that the party has been on a steady upward trajectory. Last November, some 15 percent of the vote in the New York City Council races came in on our line. And the WFP has been the margin of victory for candidates in Suffolk, Albany, Duchess, Monroe, and Westchester Counties.
The aim of all this electoral work is not just to win elections but to change policy. Indeed, because we are typically not running our own candidates, we have a huge incentive to do precisely what Perlstein recommends—that is, lead with values like fairness and equality, and issues like living-wage jobs, fair taxes, and educational equity—and in so doing change the very terms of debate. “Vote your Values,” says much of our campaign literature, and we believe our values are not only right but popular.
Inside vs. outside. The two contending strategies of the electoral left, in caricature, might be described as the “inside” strategy and the “outside” strategy. The insiders argue for taking over the Democratic Party, which is a fine idea, but they have failed to note that the Democratic Party often takes over you. And the outsiders, most famously the Greens, argue that the whole thing is too rotten and should be avoided. But the outsiders don’t actually wish to wield state power, and thus are not relevant for this discussion.
The fusion strategy is an inside–outside approach and gets you, to my way of thinking, the best of both worlds.
Here are four elements of party life that are worth considering:
1. Relationships with elected officials. Every single candidate and elected official wants all the ballot lines he or she can get. That means they are very, very accessible to us.
2. Internal trust and discipline. It is very common for important affiliates of the WFP—there are 85—to lose a vote on a given endorsement. Happens all the time. But nobody leaves, because we have that ballot line, there is always a next election, and no one wants to give up the chance that they might win the next time. Over the last five years, a culture of trust and discipline has developed, the value of which is more or less impossible to overstate. Electoral coalitions inside the Democratic Party are much easier to form, but they also fall apart more easily. A party is harder to build, but much more durable.
3. A home for activists. The WFP chapter meetings around New York are very different than Democratic Party meetings. They are not full of people who are angling for jobs. They are not full of political staffers. They are full of union members, ACORN members, schoolteachers, retirees, tenants, students, immigrants, and anyone else who shares our values. It is very valuable to have an organizational home for such people that is not the Democratic Party, because it just feels better to them. Our aim is not to end our relationship with the Democratic Party but to change it for the better. And to do that, well, it is good to have a party of one’s own.
4. A home for voters: A party is valuable because it allows regular voters who never want to come to meetings to show their allegiance. Pulling the WFP lever is a way for thousands of New Yorkers to signal their aspirations and values. There are about 150,000 people in the state who have the “habit” of voting WFP, and of course we plan to increase that number. As we do, though, it is worth noting that we do not know specifically who most of these people are. And that’s fine. We are glad that they look to the WFP for information on which candidates are the best, and thrilled that they want to help us keep officials accountable by increasing our share of the vote.
One Not So Minor Problem. Of course, fusion voting is not legal in most parts of America, but that’s not my fault. In the states where it remains legal (Connecticut, Delaware, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, and South Dakota), we are looking for allies who want to start using it. And we have begun an Expansion Project to look into the possibility of changing the laws in some states via ballot measures, legislative campaigns, or even state-based lawsuits.
So this approach is not for the faint of heart. But think back to the story of Goldwater and the rise of the Right that Rick Perlstein told in his wonderful book (Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus). These folks had patience. We need to have some too. (They didn’t have much irony, but maybe cash is the right-wing substitute.)
Who likes us and who doesn’t. The clearest evidence of how the WFP fits in with the world view Perlstein describes is that we are disliked by the center-right of the Democratic Party—people who think the way to win elections is to articulate policy goals about one degree to the left of the Republicans. These folks’ bumper sticker should read, “We’re more or less like the Republicans, just not as mean.”
Who likes us, of course, are the progressive Democrats. They understand that we strengthen the left flank of the Democratic Party by our very existence, just as the Conservative Party in the state has strengthened right-wing Republicans.
A true story, not even a parable, of my own. Five or six years ago, when we first started, we had a phone canvass, which involved calling people at dinnertime and hassling them for money. One of our callers routinely had absurdly long conversations with people and almost never raised any money. Finally I asked someone, what was up with this guy? They said he was terrific, really interested in understanding political change, and needed the job so he could continue work on some hyper-ambitious biography of Barry Goldwater that he claimed to be writing.
It sounded unlikely to me, but anyone who is willing to hit the phones, or hit the doors, gets my respect. The ideology that we need to reverse course and save the country is not so mysterious. What’s needed is the will and the organizational structures to keep us energized and honest. I offer fusion politics as one tool that might help, and urge others to explore it.
Click here to return to the New Democracy Forum “How Can the Democrats Win?”
Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.