A Party for the 21st Century

Against the Current, No. 41, November/December 1992

Dianne Feeley

LAST SUMMER, JUST as the nation was recovering from the hoopla of the Republican convention, two progressive conventions challenged the long-held strategy of working inside the Democratic Party in order to provide an electoral arena for soda! change. Although the two conferences were different in constituency and scope, both the Progressive People’s Convention, held in Ypsilanti, Michigan August 21-23, and the founding convention of the 21st Century Party, held in Washington, D.C. August 29-30, were working meetings in which participants hammered out a draft program and initial structure.

Is It A Women’s Party?

Over the last three years the media have portrayed the discussions in the National Organization for Women (NOW) around launching a party with a progressive agenda as a proposal for a women’s party? It is clear that was never NOW’s intention. The 21st Century Party has been given the subtitle, The Nation’s Equality Party, and an updated bill of rights to reflect the concerns of its pmjected constituency.

At the party’s opening plenary Rosemary Dempsey, NOW Action Vice President, spoke to why feminists need a party; Mel King, formerly of the Rainbow Coalition, outlined why people of color need a new party while Dolores Huerta, Vice President of the Farmworkers, spoke about why working people and environmentalists need a party.

Eleanor Smeal, clearly a driving force in the party’s formation, ended the morning session by outlining the principles that underpin the draft program, orienting the body to the work of the afternoon and evening—to read, consider and redraft the platform, constitution and by-laws.

The conveners felt that it was necessary to come out of the founding conference with a leadership structure, constitution and revised draft program. They sought advice from a range of grassroots activists and economists in order to prepare an initial program (nearly forty-pages), which begins with a critique of the Democratic and Republican parties:

The two major parties have become the wings of one party dominated by the economic interests of the few. Both parties have become incumbent-protection clubs which have succeeded in setting the election rules to narrow the competition and to divide the spoils.

“Our nation’s vast diversity is not reflected in its public institutions of power. Most particularly women, and people of racial diversity have been locked out of its decision-making.”

Over the next several hours workshops and ad-hoc meetings discussed the drafts and came up with a series of changes. Conveners chaired various workshops, carefully listened to the discussion and encouraged participation in the redrafting process. Groups of people organized themselves into subcommittees and worked to accomplish the task of rewriting various sections. On Sunday the group as a whole discussed the documents and proposed changes, voting to adopt or reject them. Given the enormity of the task this was handled in a relatively efficient manner.

The political platform attempted to analyze various social problems, project an alternative way of life and offer some practical measures to help move the society from here to there.

Some parts of the document were more carefully thought out than other sections. For instance, the sections on economic justice and ending the violence against women were more successful than the well-intentioned but fuzzy one on foreign policy. That section called for “articulating international norms to guide national behavior,” but had little to say about the North American Free Trade Agreement or the New World Order. While seeking to ground itself in defense of human rights and opposition to militarism, the foreign policy plank lacked an analysis of why U.S. policy is closely linked to corporate profitability.

More important than the inadequacies of the draft program, even as amended, is the ambitious task which the conveners outlined for the conference.

Where Did the Party Come From?

By the end of the 1980s the feminist agenda lay in tatters: the Equal Rights Amendment had been defeated, access to abortion was constricting, existing affirmative action programs lay gutted, and a ghettoized job market in which women are lower paid—often forced to accept part-time work with no benefits—was reinforced under the process of globalization of industry.

Political institutions from state legislatures to Congress and the Supreme Court were still overwhelmingly male dominated. And feminism was being blamed for most of society’s ills. Although the antifeminist campaign was being championed by the right wing of both parties, clearly there was complicity by mainstream politicians.

NOW, through its Political Action Committees (PACs), had supported a number of Democrats and a few Republicans for office Although NOW had energetically worked for the MondaleFerraro ticket in 1984, the Democratic Party blamed the candidates’ defeat on appearing to be beholden to “special interest groupS.” They pledged never to make that “mistake again. NOW members justly felt betrayed by the Democratic Party’s conclusions.

A section of the NOW leadership concluded that they must organize a serious discussion about the failure of the two-party system to enact progressive legislation. At the 1989 NOW convention in Cincinnati then NOW President Molly Yard and former NOW President Eleanor Smeal jointly chaired a workshop where the discussion first surfaced. They brought in an expanded bill of rights as the basis for focusing the discussion.

When the workshop discussion hit the floor of the convention it was like a bolt of lightning. One of the most eloquent speakers, as I recall, was a woman from Florida who described how she’d run for local office as a Democrat After winning the primary she discovered she was considered a pariah by party stalwarts. Even though she’d attempted to “play by the rule? of the party system, she was forced to conclude that the Democratic Party was not open to a feminist perspective.

The 1989 NOW convention voted to initiate a process of exploration: Is it possible to reform the two parties or is it necessary to form an alternative party? The bill of rights was adopted as a kind of mini-program.

At the following NOW convention in New York City the process moved forward as delegates approved the establishmentofa Commission for Responsive Democracy. This commission was composed of long-time NOW members and activists from various social movements. It included Molly Yard, Eleanor Smeal (currently the President of the Fund for the Feminist Majority), Rosemary Dempsey, current NOW President Patricia Ireland; Sara Nelson, executive director, Christie Institute and former chair of NOW’s Labor Task Force; John Anderson, former presidential candidate; environmentalist Barry Commoner; Mel King, former mayoral candidate of Boston and a cofounder of the Rainbow Coalition; Joseph Rauh, Jr., a long-time civil rights attorney; and William Winpisinger, former president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

The commission organized a series of public hearings across the country. The hearings were remarkably open and frank Over five hundred people testified. Last fall the commission concluded its work with the call for a new party by a vote of twenty-six in favor, four inopposition, and one abstention. They also recommended that NOW “provide leadership with other constituencies, grassroots activists, and those fundamentally alienated from the current system in the establishment of a new independent political party dedicated to equality, social and economic justice, demilitarization and a healthy environment? They concluded that “this new party will in-dude as part of its basic tenets internal democracy, candidate adherence to the party’s platform, and accountability to its membership.”

However, participation from NOW members in the hearings was uneven. The New York City NOW chapter boycotted the New York hearing, but large portions of the country did not hear any public testimony. Nonetheless, the prxessof the open hearings was an important tool in convincing the National NOW Board that it was necessary to construct an alternative political party—or at least challenge the political establishment by clearly declaring its intent to do so.

On September 21, 1991 the National NOW Board endorsed the commission’s resolution. A group of conveners was elected to organize its conference and draft structure and platform proposals. Those conveners were Dolores Huerta, Patricia Ireland, Mel King, Sara Nelson, Eleanor Smeal and Monica Faith Stewart, a former member of the Illinois House of Representatives and member of the Black Women’s Network. Two days later NOW’s PAC voted to contribute $25,000 to the effort (the maximum allowed). This past June the NOW convention in Chicago voted to endorse the party.

Commenting on NOW’s support, Dolores Huerta wrote in the August National NOW Times, “It took us seventy-two years to get the vote, from 1848 to 1920, and it has taken us another seventy-two years to launch this new movement On the eve of the seventy-second anniversary of women’s suffrage, rights have never been in greater peril. Women are still locked out of positions of power.”

The conveners reiterated the findings of the May 1992 Cordon Black Poll, which revealed that “the political discontent in the United States appears to have reached a level unprecedented in modern times.” The poll also pinpointed that “the performance of the two political parties and the institutions they control have left voters disillusioned, frustrated, dissatisfied and downright angry with both parties.”

Why Was the Convention So Small?

Initially I was surprised that the 21st Century convention was no larger than 250 people—the People’s Progressive Convention the week before had been 350. But it had been clear in the weeks leading up to the founding convention that extensive outreach was not being done. Some have explained the small size of the conference as simply being all that was possible, given the NOW-sponsored Spring marches for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, the NOW state conventions or regional conventions shortly afterwards, and then the NOW convention at the end of June.

(Unlike the Progressive People’s Convention, in which twenty-five percent of the attendees were people of color, primarily African American, the 21st Century convention was only about five percent people of color. Nonetheless, Dolores Huerta, Mel King and Monica Faith Stewart played key roles.)

Despite the existence of the 21st Century Party, many NOW members are still deeply involved in supporting mainstream politicians. Many NOW members are persuaded that they should do everything they can to defeat Bush and his right-wing agenda by voting for Clinton. They know that the Casey decision was a 5-4 decision, that Justice Blackmun is eighty-seven years old, and that Clinton has promised, however reluctantly, to appoint a pro-choice justice to the Supreme Court.

They don’t have huge illusions that Clinton is a feminist, but they are still stuck in the lesser-evil framework.

When the 21st Century Party initially scheduled the founding convention, it looked like Bush would be re-elected and therefore people would be more ready to think about a post-1992 strategy. Now many movement activists—although much more willing to consider independent political action—want to cover their bets by voting for Clinton. They want to do what they can to bring the Reagan-Bush era to a close.

Additionally, the next Congress will have a tremendous number of new membets. Departing from the strategy of only targeting women candidates seen as “viable,” NOW’s PAC called for flooding the political parties with feminist candidates.

NOW’s Elect Women For A Change Campaign posits a dramatic opportunity for a breakthrough at all governmental levels in electing more feminist women to public office. Outlined as a coordinated feminist campaign,” it uses grassroots organizing techniques designed to appeal to, activists who have organized marches and “even those who in the past have shied away from working in formal political campaigns of either party.” (See “NOW Organizes To Elect Women For A Change,” National NOW Times, August 1992,7-8.)

The Elect Women For A Change resolution passed at the 1992 NOW convention even resolved that in districts where both major parties’ candidates are opponents of women’s rights and where the filing deadline for independent candidates has not passed, NOW should recruit independent feminist women candidates to challenge the major parties’ nominees.” As of the middle of August, the national NOW PAC had endorsed ten Republican candidates, twelve candidates with no stated affiliation, one independent and 170 Democrats.

Of all the women candidates running this fall undoubtedly Carol Moseley Braun is the one who most feminists and “movement” people are excited about She is an African-American woman who beat incumbent Alan Dixon in the Democratic primary and is poised to break into the all-white and overwhelmingly old-boys’ club known as the U.S. Senate. (What is lesser known is that she is a close collaborator of Clinton’s running mate, Albert Gore. Once elected, she isn’t going to be much of a maverick.)

This then accounts, to a large extent, for why the founding conference was relatively small. The national NOW leadership, while committing itself to the development of an alternative party, still sees that new party as a last resort, to be used when the individual Democrat and Republican candidates are clearly “dogs.”

For all the discussion about the failure of the two parties, many in the NOW leadership still feel under pressure to try to go with mainstream candidates who appear to be “feminist,” narrowly defined by their position on legal abortion and support for the ERA.

The Need for Strategic Discussions

Of course, the 21st Century Party can endorse candidates other than those who run on the 21st Century ticket But the constitution attempts to chose candidates who meet a programmatic criterion—support for the party’s progressive agenda. That criterion, which was amended to make it stronger, is a good first step.

The 21st Century Party, therefore, seems to have a different purpose than the “fusion strategy” articulated by the New Party (see Sandy Pope and Joel Rogers’ article in The Nation, July 20-27, 1992). And certainly it is open to change, as it builds itself, runs candidates and confronts a range of problems including unfair election laws.

While it may endorse Democrats, the 21st Century Party is designed to project an alternative vision. The fact that longtime NOW national board member Lois Galgay Reckitt is running as an independent for the Maine state legislature from Augusta (and is expected to win) is an indication of the seriousness with which the NOW leadership has embarked on the idea of an alternative party. Indeed, Reckitt is the independent the national NOW/PAC has endorsed.

The fledgling 21st Century Party does represent an acquisition for the social change movements. However, there was never a place at the convention to discuss what to do to build the party, to make it more visible, to recruit new members, to outline some campaigns. Informally I raised with others possible report-back meetings, where conference attendees can share our experiences and excitement about the possibilities of this party, and begin to shape a local committee. Hearings around the draft program might also be an excellent way of drawing in more people and refining the party platform and demands. Other conference attendees wanted to get back to their local area and begin to think about how to run 21st Century candidates for local office.

But the failure to discuss collectively how to move off square one illustrates how much remains to be done in order to effectively launch the party.

Of course, readers of ATC know that the 21st Century Party is not the only initiative around independent political action out there. Labor Party Advocates, the New Party, the Greens, and many state formations–including California Peace & Freedom Party, Wisconsin Labor Farm Party, the Philadelphia based Consumer Party, the growing number of independents on the Vermont ballot, where Bernie Sanders is running for re-election to the U.S. House of Representatives while others are running for the state legislature—also exist.

They are not going to fold up tomorrow, even if the 21st Century Party grows by leaps and bounds. It will be a challenge to the 21st Century Party to be able to develop working relations with a wide range of independent parties.

NOW leaders have been criticized in the past for not being sensitive enough to building genuine coalitions, in which each group has a piece of the action.” That is a potential problem with the array of formations in place. If the various groupings can find creative ways to network—and in some cases, carry out joint electoral and movement work—the possibilities for independent political action will multiply.

For that reason, the People’s Progressive Convention—spearheaded by Ron Daniels—presented a modest proposal to the entire movement: Let’s build a common network That seems to be a very logical next step. These different independent formations have similar goals and platforms. But their different constituencies and separate experiences, if they are able to dialogue and network, can be a source of strength to the movement Write to the 21st Century Party at 1600 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 707, Arlington, VA 22209 or call 703-243-7890.

Expanded Bill of Rights For the 21St Century

• The right to freedom from sex discrimination.

• The right to freedom from racial and ethnic discrimination.

• The right of all women to freedom from government interference in abortion, birth control and reproduction, and the right of women to public funding of abortion, birth control, prenatal and pregnancy services.

• The right to freedom from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

• The right to freedom from discrimination based on religion, age, size, economic status, health condition, parenthood, marital status or a person’s disability.

• The right to a decent standard of living, including adequate food, housing, health care, education and jobs.

• The right to clear air, clean water, safe waste disposal and environmental Protection.

• The right to be free from violence, including the threat of war between nations and the threat of violence at home, especially by men against women, by the rich against the poor, by adults against children, by majorities against minorities, by straights against lesbians and gays and among races and ethnic groups.

• The right of working people to join together in unions, bargain collectively and use economic sanctions, such as strikes and boycotts.

• The right of all to participate in and have representation in our government.

November-December 1992, ATC 41