IPPN Standing Strong in the Storm

Against the Current, No. 88, September/ October 2000

José Manuel Sentmanat

IF I WERE asked to name the one virtue that best describes the political left in America, I would say “perseverance.” As we know all too well, the long history of the left in our country is a history of frustration, betrayal and defeat, yet also of hope, vigor and determination despite many setbacks and our repeated failure to win any real political power.

How appropriate, then, that the fifth annual Independent Progressive Politics Summit, which took place in Madison, Wisconsin from June 1-4, was in many ways an example of the left’s remarkable ability to overcome adversity.

After months of careful planning, an unexpected turn of events threatened to disrupt the summit. During the Thursday evening opening session, a severe weather system rumbled across south-central Wisconsin, spawning tornadoes and powerful thunderstorms. Flooding occurred in several parts of the city, flights to the local airport were delayed or canceled, and many people who had registered for the conference found themselves unable to attend.

Happily, the events planned for that evening and the weekend went forward. Over 130 organizers and activists representing over 125 organizations from all over the United States and Canada made it to Madison for the gathering. As Matt Jones, a SNCC Freedom Singer, told the delegates, “I’ve marched too long and fought too hard to let a little mud and rain stop me now.”

As I sat in the audience during the opening plenary, I thought to myself how stirring it was to be sitting alongside such great names in left politics in America as David McReynolds and Arthur Kinoy, and among new leaders in progressive politics such as Molly McGrath.

Indeed, through the weekend I felt a strong sense of continuity, a sense that this was not just a coming together of the “old left” and the “new left,” but rather an illustration of the transition between the generation that struggled and bled during Freedom Summer and raised its voice against the war in Vietnam and the generation that is finding itself on the front line of the war against globalization.

The older activists had words of wisdom for their younger counterparts. Muriel Tillinghast during her remarks at the opening plenary reflected publicly on her experiences and sacrifices, and those of her friends and comrades, during Freedom Summer in Mississippi and during the founding of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

She spoke of how during that fateful summer she came to the realization that she was undertaking more than a mere summer project, more than a risky and exciting venture into political activism. She was making a lifelong commitment to social change and the struggle for racial, economic and political equality.

In other words, Tillinghast recalled, she was accepting a life-long vocation. “If you think this is something you’re going to do for a year or two before moving on to something else — making money, becoming part of the establishment, joining the `mainstream’ — then you should leave now,” she said. “You’re wasting your time and ours. We need people who are willing to make a life out of fighting for justice. We need people who are in this for the long haul.”

Tillinghast’s words were a reminder that even in 21st century America, with all its pretensions to humanity, civil liberties and tolerance, to fight for justice is to incur the wrath of the powerful who daily grow richer and richer thanks to the injustices we are fighting to obliterate.

To think these individuals will react with anything other than violence to a serious challenge to their hegemony is idealistic at best and foolish at worst. Furthermore, Tillinghast prompted us to face the question of how we will respond to the system’s violence.

Police brutality in Seattle and Washington, D.C. was merely the opening salvo. In no uncertain terms she reminded the younger activists that if their challenge to global corporate power is anything as successful as her generation’s challenge to Jim Crow and segregation, the reaction they may expect will be no different than the reaction she and her comrades incurred almost forty years ago.

Worse is sure to follow, and soon we may all be facing the same questions those young activists in Mississippi faced in 1963: What is the proper response to political violence? And by “proper” do we mean “morally acceptable” or “politically expedient?” We may need answers sooner than we all think.

Passing the Torch

Meanwhile, the young faces at the summit reminded the veteran leftists that if the victories for which they had hoped had eluded them, there were fresh hands ready to continue the work they had started. During the weekend I heard David McReynolds and Matt Jones both remark that the many young people they had met had made them realize that along with a new generation of injustices, a new generation of activists had arisen to struggle against them.

For all in attendance at the IPPN Summit, the anti-sweatshop campaign on college campuses across the country, including at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, was a source of great inspiration. The wave of student activism directed against globalization and its evils was seen by many as the clearest indication in years that the American left is still fighting and not receding into history.

In addition, the Green Party presidential campaign of Ralph Nader and his running mate Winona LaDuke, and David McReynolds’ and Mary Cal Hollis’ campaign under the banner of the Socialist Party, was on everyone’s lips at the conference.

McReynolds spoke quite clearly and eloquently on why he was running for office. For all its promise, the Nader campaign is not a direct challenge to capitalism, McReynolds reminded the delegates. Only he was running for president on a platform that explicitly called for the abolition of capital.

Nevertheless, many of the delegates, while voicing a great deal of respect for McReynolds’ candidacy, were extremely excited by the Nader campaign. Green Party members from across the United States spoke of how they hoped to use Nader’s run for office as a vehicle for party-building, and of their hopes to win enough votes to qualify for federal matching funds for future races.

Still, there were reasons for concern. While IPPN has brought together an impressive array of leftists and progressives, one could not help but wonder how the left will ever unite in this country into one movement with one voice, a common platform and policy agenda, and a single set of candidates agreeable to all.

As heartening as it may be to have a progressive populist running for president and a growing anti-globalization student movement afoot, one still must ask the question: Given that the left has had momentum in the past around issues of social justice (the Civil Rights movement, the movement against the war in Vietnam), how are we going to translate present energy and organization into future political success — let alone make it all the way to the summit of political power?

The Struggle on the Ground

As a progressive elected official on the Madison Common Council I have learned first hand not only how hard it is to build a successful progressive third party and get progressives elected, but also how difficult it is to win real power.

Progressive Dane, the local chapter of the New Party here in Madison, has succeeded in winning eight of the twenty seats on the Common Council. While this gives us a strong voice and a solid basis for advancing policy recommendations, it is a far cry from an outright majority. Such a majority, while tantalizingly close, is nevertheless still beyond our grasp, and for several reasons.

For one, the local Democratic Party chapter has redoubled its efforts to defeat Progressive Dane candidates. Fueled partly by ego clashes and partly by ideological arrogance — specifically, the feeling that only the Democrats have a right to the “progressive” label — the Democrats have begun to make it a point to run their candidates against ours in local races. This forces Progressive Dane to expend valuable resources fighting off liberal challengers when we could be using those same resources to unseat conservatives.

Furthermore, the growth of affluent suburban neighborhoods in Madison’s east and west sides has led to a gentrification of many of the outlying districts. We have a hard time winning elections in such areas, especially when running against so-called “moderates” and “liberals” who appear less threatening to the socio-economic interests of white, upper-middle-class homeowners.

Finally, Progressive Dane’s tireless campaign for fair and affordable housing has made our candidates targets for the landlords, realtors and developers and their political action committees. These groups have spent large amounts of money on campaign contributions for conservative and Democratic Party candidates eager to take us on.

Even more disheartening is the realization that even if Progressive Dane could overcome these obstacles and win an outright majority on the Common Council, there would still be no guarantee that a progressive agenda would be enacted.

As with all progressive and left groups there are divisions within the ranks of progressive elected officials in Madison. When a blatantly racist anti-loitering ordinance was up for renewal last August, two Progressive Dane alders voted for it, citing constituent pressure for “renewal.”

Furthermore, there are progressive alders who are as business-friendly as the most rabidly free-enterprise conservatives could be. Some progressives, when elected, quickly <169>de-radicalize<170> when they realize they want to guarantee themselves re-election and a stable political future, while others insist on fighting for their leftist ideals regardless of the consequences, unwilling to compromise with either the Democrats or the conservatives.

Far from disappearing, I believe these differences would become even more pronounced if Progressive Dane ever won a majority on the council.

Madison is very different than the rest of the country, and I certainly do not mean to imply that our experience here can serve as an exact guide for what they may expect elsewhere, especially on the national level. But I do think some of the lessons we have learned here can be of use to our sisters and brothers fighting to create a progressive national movement.

One of those lessons is to realize that even forming a third progressive party with an agenda, a set of common goals and candidates who win elections still may not be enough to win real political power. With each success comes new problems and issues with which we must deal, and new obstacles to ultimate victory arise even as we celebrate the intermediate successes.

I don’t have a solution to these problems and neither, it seems, did anyone else at the summit. The delegates passed resolutions calling for multicultural, multiracial and multiethnic coalitions, and the future of independent politics holds promise, given all the activity we see happening around Nader’s presidential race and campus progressive activism.

But the question of how to forge a movement that is not only critical of the prevailing power structure, but also ready to seriously (and successfully) challenge that structure, never arose. Given the difficulties of building third parties, the conference would have been strengthened with more focused discussion and training on these party-building issues.

Granted, there is only so much you can do in a weekend. The workshops, on topics ranging from organizing living wage campaigns to planning protests for the Republican and Democratic Presidential Conventions in August, were informative. Former Iowa City council member Karen Kubby’s half-day training for prospective candidates for political office was an enlightening, insightful and highly informative session.

The democratic discussions at the plenaries were messy, (at times) confusing, rousing and productive, as democratic discussions are at their best. And everyone with whom I spoke expressed hope that maybe, just maybe, better times are ahead for the left.

ATC 88, September-October 2000