Opinion

Can this quasi-third party define the future of American leftists?

Their biggest obstacle might be their own name

Bernie Sanders has opened up the conversation on the left.

PHILADELPHIA - Long before there was Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, there was the Working Families Party. Just like Sanders, a longtime Independent contesting the Democratic Party nomination in an effort to push the party left, the WFP is a quasi-third party that works half-in, half-out of the Democratic Party to advance left-wing policy.

At a WFP event at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Tuesday, several party functionaries and elected officials discussed their efforts to capture some of the momentum opened up by Sanders' extraordinary electoral success. It was a fascinating look at one effort to steer American politics to the left.

WFP wants paid sick leave, criminal justice reform (and closing Riker's Island in particular), rent control and tenants' rights, climate policy, campaign finance reform, more worker cooperatives, public options in everything (and not just ObamaCare), city-level racial justice councils, and postal banking. Elite Democrats have expressed tepid support for a couple of these ideas, but taken as a whole, it's an agenda far to the left of where the Democratic Party stands.

The WFP is based mostly in New York, because that state's fusion system allows for parties to run on a separate ballot line while still counting towards another candidate. (Thus allowing Andrew Cuomo, for example, to run for New York governor simultaneously on the WFP line and the Democratic Party line.) But they're attempting to make inroads elsewhere. It's a stiff task without the fusion system (which does not exist outside New York), but there are still a number of resources the party can offer to left-wing candidates.

One is simple political knowledge, said Marcelia Johnson, the county supervisor for the 5th District in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. As a teacher, "I did not know how to be an elected official," she said. The mechanics of American politics are arcane and hellishly complex, so some nuts-and-bolts information from WFP was considerably helpful in her campaign.

Another benefit: providing an electoral vehicle that is affiliated with the Democratic Party but explicitly posed against their existing leadership. Especially in big blue states like New Jersey or New York, elite Democrats are about a whisker's breadth less horrible than their Republican counterparts, thus creating a lot of disillusionment among the left, which correctly sees both parties as snarlingly hostile to their agenda. A Working Families Democrat, by contrast, will be able to convincingly signal true lefty beliefs while remaining politically viable.

WFP National Director Dan Cantor emphasized that WFP did not believe in Green Party-style third parties, which are "somewhat inattentive to the world we live in," he said. The WFP is about contesting the "left wing of the possible...not wasting people's time or money...with noble but doomed efforts."

Thus one major goal of the party is to "primary some bad Democrats," said Hetty Rosenstein, a member of the party's National Advisory Board from New Jersey. She pointed to the election of Ras Baraka as mayor of Newark, a genuine radical who won despite being outspent 10 to 1. In addition to casting out corrupt machine hacks, WFP aims to help revitalize a Democratic Party which is very weak outside big metropolitan centers and blue states — a tough task, but also one that would meet with less internal opposition.

There are many obstacles to pushing the country left, from our rattletrap Constitution to the fact that most Democrats seem content with nominating a relatively conservative presidential candidate. But when it comes to winning over American leftists, WFP's biggest single obstacle may be the simple name of the party. It was founded in 1998 out of a melange of labor unions and other parties, and the name bears the unmistakable signs of dull compromise.

Cantor invoked the success of the Tea Party in his definition of party goals, saying he wanted "Working Families Democrat" to carry a similar but politically inverted meaning to "Tea Party Republican." But it's harder to imagine that becoming an instantly recognizable catchphrase in the way the Tea Party version has done, for a variety of reasons. First is simple meaning. "Working families" brings to mind workers with kids at home, thus leaving out retired people, single people, and those too young to have children — all important constituencies — right out of the gate.

Second, "working families" is already a common Democratic catchphrase — indeed, a markedly anodyne and bland one. It's somewhat akin to "small business owners" or "men and women in uniform," constantly valorized and repeated to the point of cliché. Indeed, even Republicans use it regularly — witness the title of Paul Ryan's pathetic excuse for paid family leave, the "Working Families Flexibility Act."

Finally, it carries little existing ideological connotation. "Tea Party" instantly brings to mind a particular political orientation: hardcore conservatives who have a fetish-worship of the Constitution and a largely imaginary version of the American revolutionary period. It's goofy and more than a little childish, but it is comprehensible — far more so than WFP. (It's perhaps worth noting that the Democratic Socialists of America have experienced an explosion in membership over the last year.)

Still, there are no plans to change the name, WFP National Communications Director Joe Dinkin told The Week, pointing to polling showing high name recognition and approval ratings within New York state. It's certainly true that starting with a new name would mean abandoning a lot of built-up brand equity, and people can develop new connotations with old phrases.

At any rate, there is considerable leftward momentum within the Democratic Party, and the WFP is as well-placed as anyone to seize on and deepen this trend. It may be confusing at first, but chances are good that Americans will be hearing a lot more about Working Families Democrats in the near future.

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