This entry builds on what Something the Dog Said and rossl wrote in their own entries. Before I get to the meat of my own text, I just want to summarize what each of the previous entries state. Starting any political party, or building an existing one, is going to be a lot of hard work and progressives are going to face an uphill battle regardless of what we do. If we’re going to break away from the Democrats, however, it’s worth the effort; there are parties such as the Progressives (currently in Vermont and Washington) and the Greens, among others, that have made substantial progress at local and state levels.
That’s the short version of what Something’s and rossl’s entries have to say. I highly recommend reading them both in full. Now, on to my own contribution to this subject. Because I want to provide a real-world context to the topic at hand, I’m going to pick an existing political party (The Progressives), though feel free to substitute your own. I’m going to lay out some first steps that can be taken to get the ball rolling.
One more thing before I begin: know WHY you are forming a new political party, know what your goals are, and have realistic expectations about what you hope to accomplish. Don’t hold any illusions. Unless either the Democrats or the Republicans implode, chances are you’re not going to replace one of them on the national stage. At most, and if you do things right, you’ll force the Democrats to shift back to the left. That’s it. If a new political party does rise to prominence, great, but that is only icing on the proverbial cake. All you’ll want to do is force one of the major parties to experience an ideological shift to the political left. Expect at least a generation to pass before you get this result. It was twenty years between the 1912 election, when Theodore Roosevelt led the Progressive Party and split the presidential election three ways (thus handing it to Democrat Woodrow Wilson) and that of 1932 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt led the New Dealers to power. It was another generation before the Republicans built their party back up to the point where they could begin taking back political power in government. Finally, don’t let the progressive movement become subservient to your party – make the party subservient to the progressive movement. David Sirota explains why far better than I can, so I’ll let his words do it.
And now, without further adieu…
STEP ONE – FINDING PEOPLE
If you’re a disaffected progressive feeling burned by too many Democratic Party betrayals and capitulations, chances are you’re not alone. Talk to progressives you know who are sick of the Democrats to the point they’re ready to walk away. They’re more likely to be receptive to forming or joining a new organization than those unwilling to give up the familiar and semi-comfortable. Once you’ve located and identified such people, talk to them. Don’t be afraid to mention that there are other organizations out there that have gotten results. Refer them to the Vermont Progressive Party‘s web site so they can get more information, if they have questions about it you can’t answer. Schedule a time when you’re all able to meet up to discuss forming a local chapter, or if you’ve managed to get in touch with the folk in Vermont, find out if there’s an existing chapter in your area that you can all join. Either way, you’ll want to meet in numbers first to decide if this is something you’re all set on doing. If it is, you’re on your way.
STEP TWO – CREATING A PLATFORM
Assuming you’ve all agreed to form Progressive Party chapter in your area*, it’s time to come up with a platform. No political party with any intention of running candidates for public office is organized without one. Since you’re all progressives, you all have a good idea what you stand for, so it’s more a matter of getting it all down on paper. I’ve made my own effort to come up with a starter platform. It’s not complete, nor is it necessarily perfect, but it’s a start – something upon which you can build a foundation. Most of us know why this is important, but for those who don’t, it’s like this: if you plan on running for any public office, no matter how great or small, voters want to know what you stand for. They want your unequivocal answers to questions about issues that matter to them, and you must be able to define yourself. If you don’t, someone else is going to define you, and if that happens, you’re toast (politically speaking). Never allow yourself or your organization to go undefined by you.
*: If you join an existing one, this step may or may not be necessary. For the sake of discussion, we’ll assume you’re starting from scratch.
STEP THREE – RULES AND BYLAWS
These you’ll need to come up with sooner or later, preferably sooner, but at the very beginning and with so few members, they aren’t as necessary or vital as they will be once you begin growing your political party beyond a handful of members. You’ll want to obtain a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order, so you can get in the habit of using them once you begin writing up party bylaws. Always be ready for projects well before actually beginning them. It’ll make things much easier.
STEP FOUR – RUNNING A CANDIDATE FOR OFFICE
Now that you’ve gotten off to a good start forming your new political party, it’s time to start thinking about running candidates for public office. Obviously not just anyone can do this. Not everyone capable of running is inclined, and not everyone inclined is capable. If you think any of the previous steps are difficult (and don’t kid yourselves – they’re a lot tougher to put into action than you probably realize), you are about to learn just how hard things are. It’s not enough to run someone for public office. You have to run the right kind of person for public office. It takes a progressive of excellent moral character, integrity, and commitment to do so. If you don’t vet your candidates, that is, if you don’t ensure that they represent you instead of someone else and that they remain on your side, you’re in trouble. Here are a few guidelines for picking a candidate:
1.) He or she can’t want to run for public office. This may seem silly, but think about it: why would you vote for someone who wants to be whatever he or she is running to become? No one who wants power is to be trusted. This is a fundamental truth of politics, one I’ve witnessed every time some candidate has come to my ward club meeting looking for an endorsement. Listen to the reasons people give for running. Most of them are simply looking to advance their careers, which means their minds are on themselves and their own aspirations of power, not on your interests. So anyone you put up for election must be someone you trust to have your interests at heart – first and foremost. Candidates must run because they see it as their duty, because a need is unmet and no one else who is capable is filling it.
2.) He or she has got to be clean, politically speaking. I guarantee you that anyone you put up for public office is going to be put through the sifter by his or her political rivals, simply because they want any excuse they can dig up to discredit your candidate. So if your guy or gal has a subscription to Hustler.com or if there’s a loan default or some other skeleton hidden away, chances are it’s going to be made public before long. That being the case, it usually helps to have answers ready for any questions about a personal issue that might come up. If it’s bad credit, explain that times have been tough for your candidate and that if nothing else it helps him or her relate to thousands of constituents in similar situations. If it’s a visit or three to the local strip club, explain that it’s no one else’s business and move on. Whatever it is, just make sure your candidate’s past is vetted.
3.) Raise money, and a lot of it. This does not mean take money from whoever offers it. This means going door to door asking for campaign contributions, setting up an office and telephone number, having a PAC or other committee to elect your candidate, and so on. It means bake sales, garage sales, fundraisers at the local party center or other venue, maybe even a loan or two. Votes may determine electoral outcomes, but it takes money to get your candidate’s face and name known. Be mindful, however, of where your money is coming from. Vet your donors if they come from businesses, always. You don’t want to run on a progressive platform only to be caught taking campaign contributions from the CEO of Exxon Mobile.
4.) Make sure your candidate’s record matches his or her rhetoric. No one likes a hypocrite, and everyone despises a liar. If your candidate supports single-payer health insurance but always votes against it, or refuses to help it move forward “because it’s not politically feasible,” tell the clown to take a hike and go with someone else. You want people willing to do exactly what they say they’re going to do. Otherwise, what’s the point? For that, you could just run a Democrat.
4.) Be prepared to lose the first time out, maybe even the first dozen times out, before you get someone elected to public office. Therefore, it’s a good idea to start out small: city council, precinct committee member, school board, even dog catcher if it’s an elected position. If you find a small open office to run a candidate in, that’s a good beginning. It’ll gain your candidate experience in office if he or she wins.
That’s all I can think of right now. I’ll probably think of other things later, but for now, this is a good start. It’ll help you get the ball rolling. My next entry will provide some basic campaign tips.