One of the most common arguments against the Green Party comes from within the Democratic Party, in the form of the plea that activist energy ought to be focused on reforming the Democrats from within, rather than challenging them from without. The Democratic Party is a powerful organization, it’s said, and if progressive reformers could take over the party, they could change it and create a great deal of positive change.
I’m familiar with this argument, because I used to make it myself. During my time on the New York State Democratic Committee, I would write earnestly to Greens, urging them to join the Democratic Party, to reform it from within. Obviously, I’ve given up on that idea since.
The main problem that progressives encounter within the Democratic Party is a tremendous pressure to conform, to promote the Party in general, and not to speak out when its politicians support antiprogressive policies, with the idea that if the Democrats could just gain control over government, the Democrats would shake off their temporary concessions, and a progressive agenda would finally benefit.
In 2009, we finally have a federal government that is solidly Democratic. So, we can fairly evaluate now whether the strategy of working within the Democratic Party to reform it can work. We can ask, how progressive are the progressive Democrats?
I ask this question in the context of a growing crisis of secrecy and dishonesty from the Obama Administration on the issue of torture. Earlier this year, President Obama argued that he has the right to suppress lawsuits by people who have been tortured as a result of the U.S. government’s practice of extraordinary rendition. Then, Obama insisted upon violating the Freedom of Information Act in order to keep photographic evidence of torture by the military a secret. Last week, the Obama Administration informed Congress that it opposed legislation to prevent torture by requiring the videotaping of of military interrogations.
Yesterday, Obama added to his protection of torture secrets by delaying the release of a CIA memo that purportedly demonstrates that the intelligence agency informed the Bush White House that its use of torture was profoundly illegal. The Obama White House promised to release the memo yesterday, and people waited, and waited, but the memo never came. This is the third Obama postponement of the memo’s release. These delays are taking place, the Obama Administration says, so that officials have the chance to keep portions of the memo redacted – blacked out.
Why, if the Obama Administration truly opposes torture, is it so consistently working to keep America in the dark about the extent of government torture? Where, if the Democratic Party has any progressive potential at all, are the progressive Democrats?
There is a group of Democratic politicians in Congress who are willing to call themselves progressives. They’re called the Progressive Caucus. There isn’t a single Democrat in the Senate that’s willing to join the caucus, although independent Senator Bernard Sanders from Vermont is a member of the group. In the House of Representatives, there are 75 members of the Progressive Caucus. The Clerk of the House lists 255 Democrats in the House. That makes just 29 percent of Democrats in the House who are willing to organize in the name of progressive reform.
That number is just a count of House Democrats who are willing to even go by the name of “progressive”. The number who are actually willing to reliably act to promote progressive reform is even smaller.
This brings us back to Barack Obama’s repeated delays of the release the CIA torture memo. Given the President’s refusal to let the public know the truth about the crimes of the Bush Administration, it’s up to Congress act. Early this year, Congressman John Conyers introduced H.R. 104, a bill that would establish a “national commission on presidential war powers and civil liberties”, investigating the unconstitutional activities of the Bush Administration, identifying particular crimes for the purpose of prosecution. This commission would have subpoena powers to demand documents like the CIA torture memo currently being withheld by the Obama White House.
Unfortunately, H.R. 104 has been buried by the House Democratic leadership. It’s been sitting in the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties for months – and the Progressive Caucus hasn’t been much help in getting the legislation out of committee. Only 34 out of the 75 members of the caucus have gone to the relatively small trouble of cosponsoring H.R. 104. That’s just 45 percent of the caucus, which is just 29 percent of the Democratic membership of the House.
With the Presidency and Legislative Branch firmly in hand, 2009 is the time when the promises of progressive reform of the Democratic Party is most likely to be fulfilled. Yet, we can see that the group that’s supposed to contain the most progressive members of Congress can’t get the majority of its members to support an investigation of the crimes against the Constitution that took place under George W. Bush. Even Lynn Woolsey, one of the chairs of the Progressive Caucus, hasn’t added her cosponsorship.
This remarkable inaction is a clear sign that the Democratic Party isn’t going to be reformed from within. There are some progressives within the Democratic Party who mean well, but the overwhelming majority of Democrats are either not progressive, or have been co-opted by the Democratic leadership’s campaign of promises that it never intends to keep.
If you want progressive action from a politician, don’t vote for a Democrat. Vote for the Green Party candidate whenever you can.