Progressive Politics in Chicago and Cook County, Part 3

March 16th, 2016 by Phil Leave a reply »

[This is also separately posted to Facebook.]

Part 3. The last sentence from Part 2 was:

This is where a Progressive Party can make a huge difference.

I’m not going to rewrite Part 2. I’ll only note right now that when I talk about a Progressive Party from this point forward, I am specifically talking about Chicago and Cook County, and not necessarily talking about something national in scope. And it doesn’t _need_ to be named “Progressive”. That is simply the best name I could come up with for what I’m describing here, and this is explained in Part 2.

So what could a Progressive Party in Cook County do?

I left off in Part 2 talking about the possible school board races in 2018. I am not suggesting that a Progressive Party would “field” a slate of candidates. But I think it could _faciliate_ such a slate. By that I mean that it could muster resources, define an extensive platform for school board candidates, and strengthen individual candidates by giving them a visible identity as part of a larger movement in support of teachers and students. If the candidates themselves find merit in associating as a citywide slate under the progressive banner, or some other banner, that’s great, but it’s not necessarily essential to what I’m saying.

This Progressive Party could also bolster its credentials by fielding candidates _on its own party line_ *this fall* against well-known pro-charter legislators. If it moved quickly, it could help be a unifying force in pushing John Cullerton to call the elected school board bill in the Senate, something which hasn’t happened yet and which is still up in the air. I am specifically suggesting here that this new formation take the lead in organizing a large-scale rally to be held outside Cullerton’s Chicago office if the bill is not called relatively soon.

Importantly, all of these things can be done without having to be done within Democratic power structures. Also importantly, all of these things could be done _without necessarily having to go after those same structures head on_. Here is where I’m going to make a somewhat controversial argument about how to function outside of Democratic power structures, but without in the process shunning those people within the structures who we simply have to be working with.

Many people who I have seen call for a new party which would be “independent” and/or “working class” and/or “socialist” have expressed views which I would characterize as “oppositionalist”. This is actually one of the things which over time has torn the Green Party apart. The emphasis on “independence” has largely precluded being able to work with good people who happen to be existing officeholders. Would-be supporters who see an organization shun other people who those same supporters are fond of tend to go elsewhere. Sadly, I have too often found that Greens, Socialists, and others on the Left are content with this state of affairs. They’re more interested in “purity” than in actually accomplishing anything.

If a Progressive Party came into existence within Chicago and surrounding areas in 2016, I don’t see it fielding candidates for statewide office in 2018. That will be an all hands on deck year to get rid of Bruce Rauner. But I do anticipate there will be a sharply contested Democratic primary for Governor. And it may well come to pass that one or more candidates who might emerge will come from the progressive-leaning wing of the party, and will wind up running against one or more candidates from the Machine wing of the party. Given that two very plausible candidates for Governor in 2018 are Pat Quinn and Lisa Madigan, I think it behooves progressives to go out in search of someone else. And fast.

I don’t think it necessarily sacrifices “independence” for a Progressive Party to endorse a candidate in the Democratic primary. If you are willing to accept up front that the organization is neither prepared to run, nor especially interested in fielding, a candidate of its own for Governor, then to completely sit out the primary process means accepting irrelevance on a crucial matter. If the legal structures we were dealing with were different – if we had Instant Runoff Voting, if we don’t have hideous ballot access hurdles, etc. – then I would be writing something different. But I have a child whose kindergarten year will coincide with the first year of the next governor’s term. I want a progressive in place, and most everybody reading this should want the same.

I insist that it *is* possible for a Progressive Party (or whatever else it might be called) to simultaneously field occasional candidates for state legislature; to build up a legally recognized (though likely spotty) party structure along the way; to take the lead in organizing a strong slate of public education advocates for the potential 2018 school board elections; and to participate on its own terms in the primary processes for vital offices like Governor.

I think such a nuanced place is where a heaping pile of Bernie Sanders supporters would want to be. They don’t want to give up participation in the high-level elections that matter. But they also don’t want to accept any kind of Machine status quo. They want to have it both ways, and why on earth would intelligent progressives be so antagonistic as to tell such a large number of simpatico people that they’re not allowed to have it both ways?

My immediate concern would not be with developing a formal city-level Progressive structure in Chicago, by which I mean bylaws and formal membership processes and so forth. I think that could start out more informally. I think focused organizing around supporting the elected school board should be of primary concern, and possibly also targeting a couple of pro-charter legislators. I also think one of the things which will need to get figured out early on is how the people who like any such idea and are interested in pursuing it will be able to interact with incumbent officeholders, especially some of the members of the Progressive Caucus. Frankly, I think the discussion at hand needs to have some of them at the table. (I know that’s a point on which some smart and reasonable people might disagree. I only insist that we can’t let a disagreement on a matter like that be the kind of thing which shuts everything down.)

I also think, along the way, other parallel support entities need to come into existence. One thing I am specifically thinking about is what I see as the glaring need for a strong progressive political web and social media presence which focuses on Chicago issues and brings together prominent voices from across the city (and maybe across a broader region). I am not talking about some sort of unwieldly collective, but rather a core group of 4 or 5 writers who want to get a small blog site together. I would really like to see some of the news aggregation entities citing pieces from such a group. I know Aldertrack would do so if it was done well enough, and I’m pretty sure Politico would do so as well. Progressives right now do not have a significant media voice. The best we have as far as the daily and weekly news cycles go would probably be the Reader, and the Reader is fine and all, but it can’t be what I’m talking about here.

Another thing I would explicitly like to see is a formal network of progressive LSC members from across the city. There are a couple of things out there sort of like this, but I’d like to see this go to the next level, with more formal networks of communication. I really dislike the idea that everything that LSCs hear ultimately comes from CPS or is otherwise mediated through other entities. I’d especially like to see strong LSC connections within continguous areas of the city.

Now, I’m writing this in plain text, and I’m not going to go draw a picture of a Venn diagram. But I’ll try to describe how I see this Progressive Party, whatever it means structurally, insomuch as it overlaps or doesn’t overlap with other groups.

Consider the following groups of people: Democrats, Machine Democrats, Progressive Democrats, Independent Democrats, Progressives, Independents, Greens, Socialists. I’m here trying to identify self-selected groups, by which I mean, I’m trying to describe people the way that they describe themselves. The only group which might not be like that is Machine Democrats, because people don’t usually come right out and cop to that. But we all know hardcore Machine Democrats when we see them.

The “Progressive Party” bubble, as I see it, overlaps with those Democrats who identify as Progressives; overlaps with some Independent Democrats, but not all of them; overlaps with a lot of Independents but certainly not all of them; and overlaps with most people who self-identify as Green or Socialist. This means that, yes, existing Democratic officeholders might realistically and fairly be seen as Progressives who interact with the Progressive Party. I’m not, at this time, going to suggest what any kinds of formal walls might be. I don’t want to get caught up in defining a positive movement in the negative.

I very much understand how problematic it is to put this out there without being explicit, but one person shouldn’t be trying to set all the rules of discourse here. I’m trying to advance a really broad and interesting idea without getting caught up in all of the details. That’s something people should talk about, and by “people”, I mean more than the people who I personally know. It’s got to go a lot broader than that.

To use one example of how this interaction might work: Instead of a Regular Democratic Organization, the org which exists there now is the 45th Ward Independent Democrats. In that name the word “Independent” is meant to signify that it’s not a Machine organization. It’s led by the Alderman, John Arena, who’s one of the more prominent members of the Progressive Caucus.

I would expect that some of the people who associated with that organization would be very happy to see a Progressive Party organization. Others would not see the need, since they’ve already got the kind of organization which they think they should have. Others might even be hostile. There’s a range there, and I see no inherent problem with the idea that some of them will want to be involved in a Progressive Party and be plugged in to that, while other might not. That means that there would be an overlap, but not a complete overlap, between the two groups, as involves people who live in that ward.

If there were a 45th Ward Progressives group, my guess is that they would be on the same page as the 45th Ward Independent Democrats the vast majority of the time, but might favor different candidates from time to time. There’s nothing wrong with that, and organizations like that shouldn’t have to see each other in an adversarial light. If you look at the recent 40th State Rep primary, some aldermen supported Jaime Andrade and some supported Harish Patel. It’s not like those who were on opposite sides of that aren’t going to talk to each other now.

One of the problems that the Green Party always had is that it largely refused to be on decent terms with any self-identifying Democratic entity, unless it was one which was itself mostly fringe, like a Progressive Democrats of America chapter. Greens wound up so isolated as a result that over the long haul, it caused a lot of damage and helped contribute to the party operating more like a club or, in some places, even like a cult.

I reject the dichotomy that you either have to sell out to the dominant political paradigm to participate, or you have to go off into isolation and just hope for the best. I think there’s a principled place inbetween.

Within that principled place, there are two issues which I see as especially critical, otherwise the whole thing is a non-starter. First, any kind of Progressive Party which comes into existence simply cannot be a party overwhelmingly composed of white men. It must, at the outset, be broadly representative of the city, to the best extent possible. I am acutely aware how hard it might be for this idea to take off equally well everywhere in Chicago. But one of the things which has become so thoroughly unacceptable in the Green Party is how unwelcome new people are – especially youth, and certainly also minorities. It just can’t be that way.

The second thing which I think is critical is that there must be a principle in opposition to corporate financing. This is an entity which has to talk the talk and walk the walk on campaign finance. I know this might itself be a big problem when it comes to interacting with some officeholders, because even people who have really done a good job can be weak on this issue. But this, to me, has to be a bedrock principle.

Beyond that… I’ve written enough. I think there’s tremendous potential out there, and the results of the primary election convince me that progressives simply have got to come together in a separate way, and establish a political space that will do more than push the Democrats from within the limitations of their structure. Some of my ideas may not be that interesting to people, but the general discussion has got to start somewhere, so hopefully this can all be part of that.

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