By Katrina vanden Heuvel
“In an otherwise desultory fall election, there is one lever New York voters can pull on Election Day that will make a real difference – that of the Working Families Party…”
–The Nation, November 2, 1998
Progressives face a constant dilemma between a transformative politics aimed at a fundamentally different, humane and sustainable society, and the compromises often needed to begin addressing people’s immediate needs. Never is that dilemma more acute than in presidential election years, when the stakes are so high and the choices often so narrow.
We all know it’s critical that Barack Obama win this election. Yet we also know that an Obama win in itself will not build the movement we need to reconstruct our country and address the crises and injustices facing Americans and the world.
That’s why back at the beginning of the primary season we called “for the rise of a broadly based small-d democratic movement, as only such a movement can create the space necessary to realize this moment’s full potential.” We still believe this. But in November, we can only cast our vote for the Congressional Democrats and for Obama, not for the broader democratic movement that is so badly needed.
Except in New York. Here, by voting on the Working Families Party (WFP) ballot line, progressives can vote both for Obama and for the movement needed to push him (and Congress) to the left come January. Ten percent of all House Democrats come from New York, and a solid vote for them on the WFP line only strengthens the labor-community-green coalition that makes up the party.
Thanks to New York’s unique “fusion” voting system, candidates can run on more than one party line. Votes cast on any line help elect the candidate, but votes cast on fusion lines also help build an alternative to the two-party duopoly. Historically, fusion has been used by a variety of small parties, most famously the late-19th century Populists, to barter support for major party candidates or build up a reliable base of voters to eventually run their own candidates.
Founded in 1998, Working Families has used its ballot line as leverage to force passage of common-sense progressive measures: a higher state minimum wage, a higher income tax on New York’s wealthy, reform of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws, county-level living wage rules, public financing of elections, increased aid to education, and much more. Five years ago they fought hard for a transaction tax on stock sales that Wall Street scoffed at, and defeated – too bad for the rest of us, it turns out, as it would have helped re-establish the principle of regulation. Just as important as their issue work, the WFP has won hundreds of thousands of votes from Western New York to Eastern Long Island on an uncompromisingly populist-progressive platform, demonstrating that there is a real base for a politics beyond our downsized politics of excluded alternatives that have led to the crises we currently face.
The Nation was a very early supporter of the Working Families Party, and we’ve watched its growth with pleasure. In fact, the magazine actually played a small but significant role in the birth of the WFP, running an editorial calling on our New York readers to vote for the WFP candidate on the party’s ballot line at the party’s inception. (Based on a sophisticated statistical analysis of our subscribers’ zip codes and the 1998 voter precinct results, I like to claim that the WFP owes its ballot line to The Nation!) Since then, the WFP has become a major player in New York politics without wavering on its core commitments. It has shown that it’s possible to combine a broad progressive vision with concrete political victories in the here and now.
The Nation is “the organ of no party,” as our founders wrote back in 1865. And we’ve demonstrated our independence of the WFP by running critical articles of it. The WFP, in turn, has demonstrated its independence of us by writing letters to the editor taking issue with those articles, and sometimes endorsing candidates that we’ve criticized.
That said, The Nation and the WFP support the same things for our society: jobs that pay a living wage, universal health care, quality public education, a revived role for organized labor and a real voice for ordinary people in the decisions that affect their lives, real campaign finance reform, tolerance for and celebration of our diversity, and an end to the disastrous war in Iraq. (In fact, the great singer and activist Pete Seeger participated in the WFP’s spirited rendition of his Vietnam-era classic, Bring ‘em Home, as part of the party’s Bring them Home Campaign in 2006). And we both believe that the path to a revived progressive politics runs through a reinvigorated labor movement and must be built on a multiracial foundation.
Some of us support Obama with unalloyed enthusiasm, while others regard his victory as essential simply to avoid the catastrophe of another four years of Republican rule. But all of us know that the real work doesn’t end with a new administration in Washington. It will be more urgent than ever to organize locally and build a clear alternative to the neoliberal consensus that has dominated both parties. By supporting Obama and the Congressional Democrats on the Working Families Party line, New Yorkers can begin that work now. We urge our New York readers, and other readers with friends in the state, to spread the word on the value of voting Working Families – Row E – once again this November.