What are the chances for a broad party of American leftists and progressives?

I think I know what a leftist is, but what’s a progressive, and how does that differ from a leftist? Can anyone do that in 50 words or less?

Not in <50 words, but if you’ll be patient I’ll give it a shot.

We had a GD thread about all this not long ago: “What is the difference between a liberal and a leftist?” – http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=262432&highlight=liberal+leftist)

The way I define it, a “leftist” is, not necessarily a socialist, but somebody who is genuinely concerned with reversing the drastic and increasing wealth inequality in this country (greater than that in any other industrialized nation) and with breaking the disproportionate political power of the rich, the major corporations and the big-business interests. Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich and Jim Hightower meet that description, and I’ve never heard anybody call any of them a socialist. (I’ve heard Michael Moore called a socialist, but that was on Fox News, which is neither here nor there.) Kerry and Dean do not meet that description.

The word “progressive” is generally used, nowadays, as a broader term that implicitly includes “leftists” as defined above, but also labor supporters, environmentalists, feminists, etc. Basically, everybody I listed in the OP, plus the Deaniac wing of the Democratic Party and everybody to its left. Anybody whose views are a bit too lefty to be described as merely “liberal.”

So, in my view (envision a Venn diagram here): Kerry is a liberal but not a progressive or a leftist. Dean is a liberal and a progressive but not a leftist. Kucinich, Nader, and Hightower are progressives and leftists. None of them are socialists; all socialists are leftists, all are progressives, and most (not all) are liberals. That’s how I understand and use these terms, anyway; I’m open to hearing about other views.

But the word “progressive” was not always used that way. In the early 20th Century the capital-P Progressives (so call, I suppose, because they supported a progressive income tax) were a primarily middle-class and upper-class “good government” movement (Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party was a Progressive group). Their conception of “good government” mean a technocratic and professionalized approach that purported to transcend ideology, faction and class interests – a Progressive slogan was, “There is no Democratic or Republican way to pave a street.” The city-manager form of government, and nonpartisan elections for municipal offices, are Progressive legacies. Progressives also had a puritanical disdain for the dealmaking, backscratching and logrolling of conventional legislative politics (which, admittedly, in their time mostly meant highly corrupt urban machine politics). “Direct democracy” reforms such as the ballot initiative, referendum, and recall election are also Progressive legacies. (At this point I can hear some Californian Dopers shouting, "Yeah, thanks, Progressives! Thanks a lot!") Then in 1948 Henry Wallace ran for president as the candidate of a new and more left-leaning Progressive Party, and I guess the word’s been used that way ever since. The old Progressive movement being long defunct, nobody seems to mind left-liberals appropriating the name; and we do support a progressive income tax, just for starters.

From the Encarta:

Mucn more than 50 words, but I hope it clears things up for you, to the extent that is possible when we’re discussing political ideologies.

BTW: Although the old Progressive movement as such is dead, the Progressive (in the old sense of the term) tradition still appears to survive. One reason the Reform Party didn’t survive (apart from Ross Perot’s control-freak megalomania, and his refusal to let the party evolve into anything beyond a vehicle for his own candidacies) was that it was a coalition party of incoherent ideology – a coalition of modern Progressives, like John Anderson, and nativist-populist paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan. The one group’s most important issue was fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget; the other was mainly concerned with immigration. After Reform broke up, Anderson helped found a new and more purely Progressive group, the Independence Party (http://www.mnip.org/), which elected Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota but has as yet built little presence in any other state.

Some of us are trying! See my post above.

A result of our winner-take-all electoral system, as I’ve noted above and in other threads. A left-of-center party, once it gets into government, would fight for electoral reform – but unless that happens first how does it get into government? A chicken-and-egg problem. But I do not despair. Here’s what I think we need to do:

  1. Put together a broad left-progressive party, or alliance of parties, as argued above –
    call it, for purposes of this discussion, the “Progressive Party.”

  2. Make electoral reforms that party’s NUMBER ONE PRIORITY.

  3. Use our clout, such as it is, to influence the Dems’ policies – e.g.,
    in a close race we might offer an acceptably progressive Democrat the
    Progressive Party’s endorsement (and, in states that allow fusion, its
    outright nomination) – but ONLY if the Dem promises, once elected, to fight
    for IRV and PR.

  4. Repeat the process as often as we can, until IRV and PR are at least on
    the agenda in every state. (For this purpose we can form strategic
    alliances with other third parties which also would benefit from such
    reforms, e.g., the Libertarians, the Christian-right Constitution Party, and
    Pat Buchanan’s nativist-paleoconservative America First Party. Strange
    bedfellows, you know?)

  5. Continue until all states use IRV and PR and ballot fusion.

  6. THEN fight for the Progressive Party to establish a significant
    presence, in its own right, under its own name, in Congress and all state
    legistlatures. Which would still be a minority presence in each such
    body – but that would be more than we’ve got now.

If a progressive is someone who is too lefty to be be liberal, then how can Dean be a progressive, but not a leftist? Are there lefties, to the left of liberals, who are not lefyt enough to be progressive?

At any rate, what I would see the results of your consolidation of leftists/progressives into a 3rd party to be would be the dramatic weakening of the Democratic party, and the solid entrenchment of the Republicans. “Electoral reform” is a pipe dream in this country. I honestly think it would take a revolution to overturn the status quo.

Are you volunteering?

I’m too old for that sort of thing. :slight_smile:

I don’t see why the left doesn’t steal a page from the religious right’s playbook and colonize the Democratic Party just as the religious right has colonized the Republican Party. The religious right has had ENORMOUS success in getting its policies considered and, in some cases, enacted into law via this tactic.

The problem with all the fringe groups is that their leaders are more interested in being ideologically correct than they are in actually weilding power and putting thier ideologies into practice. I don’t see most of the fringe groups listed here going for any kind of colonization tactic. A bunch of greens, Naderites and Deaniacs with more of a feel for actual governance might manage it, though.

I think the whole effort is essentially hopeless. As Sam Stone says, there just aren’t enough lefties to gain any significant power,

The only chance for a “new” party will be for financial conservative/social libertarians, sort of like Governor Girly-man, and they are likely to join/be co-opted by the Republicans. The Democrats or new parties further to the left might try to get them to join up, but the quest for ideological purity and the fact that FC/SLs don’t really want socialism or its equivalent will probably limit their success.

I suspect the party of the future looks like a lot of Reagan Democrats.

And, while I understand your “Dean and everyone to his left” division, anyone in that camp is going to encounter all the same problems that Nader is causing you now - splitting the Democratic vote into a bloc of center-left who vote for Kerry or his equivalent, and further-left who vote for Nader or his equivalent means that the Republicans will control the federal government until the squabbling on the left dies away. If it ever does.

I think part of the problem is simple bad luck. The candidates who look to have some reasonable chance of forming an alternative party tend to turn out to be nutcases. Ross Perot got a significant chunk of votes, but never went anywhere with them. Jesse Venture got elected, and then spent a lot of his time refereeing professional wrestling and the XFL, for heaven’s sake. And Clinton, who ran as a centrist Democrat, was too busy with other issues to get any sweeping legislation passed. It doesn’t look like Kerry, if he gets elected, is going to be any different. Although in his case, it will likely be legislative ineffectuality rather than scandal that stops him from achieving much.

In a country that is split essentially half and half on two candidates as close to the center as Bush and Kerry, I don’t think a candidate more radical in any direction has much chance. You need a genuinely charismatic set of candidates, with very significant organizational skills and one hell of a lot of patience.


Yeah, well, the left already tried that in the late '60s and early '70s, getting enough influence within the party to get McGovern nominated in 1972 – and we know how that worked out. (Nixon could have won that election in a landslide without any dirty tricks, had he been so inclined.) By 1976, the party had become so disaffected with the left that it nominated Jimmy Carter – a born-again Christian, more liberal than, say, Clinton, but far to the right of McGovern – and even to the right of Ted Kennedy.

Still, that doesn’t mean the tactic is fundamentally unsound. Maybe it was just the circumstances of the time.

You’re right about Kerry, Shodan, but Bush is not “close to the center,” he’s a radical as far to the right as Kucinich is to the left. As for a “charismatic set of candidate” – do you really believe personalities are all that important, as compared to grassroots organizing?


Isn’t this a no-brainer? It seems self-evident to me that people go with their ‘gut’ rather than specific policy concerns a good portion of the time.

Are you sure? Look at the 1960 election – you couldn’t find a wider charisma gap than that between Nixon and Kennedy. Nevertheless, Kennedy won by a razor-thin margin. (And some people still insist Nixon would have won, if the votes in Illinois had been counted honestly, but let’s not get into that.)

At least it won’t be much of a factor this year. Both Bush and Kerry have the charisma of a canned sardine. Their running mates, on the other hand – Edwards is positively charismatic, and Cheney has negative charisma – it’s hard to look at him, let alone listen to him, without feeling your flesh crawl. I daresay even some conservatives react to him that way.

Another part of the problem - if Bush looks like an extremist to you, you really don’t understand the fundamentals of the American electorate, and therefore no amount of grass-roots organizing is going to help you.

But yes to your question. Getting a reasonable candidate instead of a fruitcake is a big, big part of the problem of organizing a new party. And much of the reason why ideological purity is such an issue for third parties on the margin. You won’t compromise on anyone who might actually win, or have any candidates with genuine political experience.

If you want a broad party as the OP states, you aren’t going to win with a candidate that appeals to the extremes. And purists tend to appeal mostly to those. The Left ain’t going far until they can unite behind a kind of left-wing Reagan - personal charm, experience, broad appeal, and a definite but limited agenda. Even if he didn’t hit every point on the agenda, he still had a ton more influence than some fringe element who never gets elected.



Brain, Bush kicked Patrick Buchanan and his ilk out of the Republican Party in an appeal to the mainstream.

If a party embraces Communists, etc, they will never win in this country, because just calling someone a Communist makes the candidate who is so-called to scramble as if he is in a McCarthyesque Inquisition.

It’s not a matter of the tactic being fundamentally unsound. It’s that the tactic is the ONLY one that will work given that there are no major changes in the way American politics works in the next decade or three. I can see strong environmentalists, labor protectionists and civil rights advocates setting up a Democratic Left Leadership Committee and working together to get their issues before the candidates.

I do see a rebirth of strength in the Left if Bush’s crew keeps going the way it’s going. Eventually, even the center will catch on enough to get as frightened of the neocons as they are of terrorists, and that’ll be that for the right, for awhile at least.

Not so. The way our two main parties are structured, it is impossible to “kick out” anybody. I believe most political parties in Europe have a core cadre of dues-paying members with membership cards, and there are ways to purge difficult members, but our major parties have no membership dues, membership rolls, or membership cards. You can call yourself a “Republican” if you register to vote Republican, and even that isn’t strictly necessary. I’m sure the Republicans would love to expel David Duke and the Democrats would like to be able to say Lyndon LaRouche is no Democrat, but they can’t; there are no expulsion mechanisms. Buchanan is no longer a Republican because he left the party of his own volition, first for the Reform Party and then to start his own America First Party.

This is not a hijack, it is relevant: I think this is something that needs to be changed. Left, right or center, one thing America needs is more tightly organized political parties – parties in the European sense, where the party’s leadership can exercise some kind of discipline over its officeholders – instead of what we’ve got now, which is a system where every candidate for office is an independent entrepeneur, whose party label might be a matter of temporary convenience, and who is expected to finance and manage his or her campaign independently, with no help from the party.

Another point: Buchanan’s exodus from the GOP illustrates the very important fact that the American political scene is not simply a linear “spectrum” running from far left to far right; we can meaningfully plot all important political positions only if we use a multi-dimensional map. Is Buchanan more “conservative” than Bush? Depends on what axis we look at:

– In terms of social and religious values (abortion, gay marriage, “faith-based initiatives,” etc.), Buchanan is almost exactly as conservative as Bush. (Buchanan is Catholic, Bush is Methodist, but those distinctions matter very little nowadays, compared to the much more important divide between Americans who are deeply and traditionally religious and those who are not.)

– In terms of economics, Buchanan is a Main-Street populist and economic nationalist and protectionist; and Bush is a Wall-Street business-interests elitist and full-speed-ahead globalizer; which by most peoples’ reckoning would make Buchanan more “liberal” than Bush. (This is one reason why Buchanan seems to be finding some common ground with Ralph Nader.)

– In terms of foreign policy, Buchanan is an isolationist (if not exactly a pacifist), and Bush is an aggressive militarist and imperialist, which by most peoples’ reckoning would make Buchanan more “liberal.” (And this is another area where Buchanan agrees with Nader.)

– In terms of immigration policy, Buchanan is an anti-immigration nativist while Bush has conditionally amnestied multitudes of illegals, which by most peoples’ reckoning would make Buchanan more “conservative.”

Did Buchanan’s departure make the GOP more palatable to the “mainstream”? I have my doubts. In economic policy, at least, Buchanan is probably much closer to the “mainstream” than Bush is. Likewise in foreign policy.

The Cold War is over, capacitor. Who is afraid of Communists any more? They’re not seen as dangerous, they’re seen as irrelevant relics – even as something quaint, like Southerners keeping alive the memory of the “Lost Cause.” And the label “socialist” has never had the same power to frighten.

See my post above – in some respects, Bush is much more of an extremist than Buchanan.

Hmmm . . . who could it be? Nader is not a “fruitcake,” what he says makes a whole lot of sense, but he’s obviously too arrogant and egomaniacal (or he wouldn’t even be running this year). Kucinich isn’t arrogant – but he has zero charisma. Great pity, but there it is. Maybe Dean, if he could transform himself into a bit more of a leftist than he is – but I just don’t think an upper-crust patrician like Dean will have the necessary streetcred to lead a left-wing revival. He’d be seen more as a co-optor, like FDR was.

Aw, heck, I’ll do it.

This is quite true, but bodes ill for future third parties. New issues that come up that aren’t already part of one party or the other’s platform can be co-opted by the Dems or Republicans without looking like sell-outs.

I suspect the Tibetans and South Koreans may differ. And I think the term “socialist” is still the kiss of death, not because it is an inaccurate slur but because it expresses a set of ideas that has no traction.

Which repeats my (and Sam Stone’s earlier point - there aren’t enough socialists to make a party much further to the left than the Dems work. Reagan didn’t get Democrats to vote for him by moving left, but by moving them to the right.

And I have no idea who you could recruit to lead such a party. The other problem of ideological purists is not simply that they appeal to the extremes, but they tend to be boring.

I sometimes think you need an actor. Find some Hollywood type with liberal/leftist ideas but genuine intelligence and charisma. Then let them spend ten or fifteen years building a grassroots movement, and see what happens.

Like I said, a left-wing Reagan.


Warren Beatty did float the idea of running for president four years ago . . .

How about Tim Robbins? He’s younger than Beatty, good-looking, talented, and has Bob Roberts to his credit. Draft Tim Robbins! Not for president yet – maybe he could go up against Schwarzenegger for governor of California next election. Does anybody know if Robbins has ever considered running for public office?