Dialogue with Nick Brana on “Our Revolution” and the Fight for Independent Working Class Politics
[Note: Following is a discussion with Nick Brana, national director of the Movement For a People’s Party and past national outreach coordinator of the Bernie Sanders For President campaign in 2016. He is also a founding member of Our Revolution and was its first Electoral Manager. Leading the discussion is Alan Benjamin, member of the Editorial Board of The Organizer newspaper. An abridged version of this interview is published in the May 2018 issue of The Organizer.]
Alan Benjamin: When you launched the Movement for a People’s Party in November 2017, you wrote the following: “These past few weeks have made clear the conclusion that progressives have long fought to avoid — that is, there is no path to power in the Democratic Party.” Since then the Unity Reform Commission of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has met and tried to work things out so that the can feel they are being heard, that there is a reason for them to stick with the Democratic Party. What are your thoughts on the changes that the DNC’s commission has proposed?
Nick Brana: The changes don’t even begin to scratch the surface. They don’t get at the nature of the Democratic Party, which, as one of the two establishment parties, is outside the influence of working people. Like the Republican Party, it is run and controlled by corporations, lobbyists, and big donors.
The DNC’s Unity Reform Commission doesn’t address the issue of money in politics, of buying politicians. The idea that you can change a corporate party without challenging the levers of power held by the oligarchs is ludicrous. Take the DNC itself. It is supposed to keep the party accountable to its own rules. But it violated them in the party’s primaries in 2016. The whole process was entirely rigged.
The DNC and its commission refused to create an ombudsman that would keep them accountable to their own rules. It is quite clear from this rejection and from other rules that were likewise rejected that they intend to rig the primaries again.
Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution recently admitted this is an email sent out to their support base. They wrote that if the DNC did not make any significant changes — such as a substantial reduction of super-delegates, an ombudsman, financial transparency, and more — then there is nothing preventing the party from rigging the process again. And that is exactly what we’re heading to.
The future of the political revolution should not be decided by the DNC or any of its commissions, all of which are run by the very same lobbyists and consultants who participated in rigging the primary in 2016. The progressive movement should not be upholding this illegitimate “reform” process.
A.B.: Linked to this issue of who finances and controls the Democratic Party is the political platform and the policies implemented by the party. The Democrats voted overwhelmingly to support Donald Trump’s record-breaking war budget in 2017; in fact they allocated more funds to the war buildup than Trump was requesting. In Colorado and other states, as you noted in a recent press release, the Democrats are promoting laws to deregulate the banks and financial institutions. In state after state, the Democrats have been complicit in the drive to privatize public education, through their support of for-profit and private charter schools. The list goes on and on. The Democrats are one of the twin parties of the bosses, and that won’t change. Your comments?
N.B.: Something that was better understood in 2016 after the election — something that the Democratic Party and the corporate media are trying furiously to erase — is that Trump is the symptom; Trump is not the root cause of our society’s problems. The Democratic Party tries to obscure this fact by making the resistance against Trump the center of its message. But it was the very conditions created by the Democrats that put Trump in power. There is a causal relationship there.
The Democrats’ failure to represent working people over many decades — in fact, beginning in the 1970s — is the root cause of why we have Trump and the swing to the right.
It’s a paradoxical situation. At the same time that you see Trump coming to power, with the resurgence of the far right, you’re also seeing polls that show that the American people are overwhelmingly and increasingly progressive on the issues: two-thirds support Medicare For All, two-thirds support free public college; nine out ten support getting money out of politics — and you can go down the line on the progressive issues that Bernie ran on in 2016.
But the point is that the donors who fund both establishment parties are only threatened by the progressive wing, and so they are going to block any progressive who tries to come to power inside the Democratic Party. They’re going to do it again in 2020. They have structured the Democratic Party in a way that enables them to do that.
A realization that I came to after working on the Bernie campaign and Our Revolution is that the Democratic Party internally is too undemocratic to be taken over. That is why we in the Movement for a People’s Party are building a movement across the country for a major new party that is genuinely progressive, that is internally democratic – with elected leaders who are accountable and can be recalled – and with a platform that is democratically formulated. This is impossible in either party of the billionaires.
A.B.: In the early 1990s, an important section of the labor movement (representing more than 2 million union members) formed Labor Party Advocates. Its mission was to open a discussion in the labor movement about the need for labor to break with the Democratic Party. Many of us in LPA noted that without labor’s funds, phone-banking, and active GOTV door-to-door campaigning, the Democrats couldn’t get a dog-catcher elected, something that is still largely true today. I am sure you understand labor’s pivotal role in this matter having worked as an organizer for the Bernie Sanders campaign.
We came under heavy pressure from the Democrats and from the top trade union officialdom, all of whom explained that if labor were to run its own candidates for public office, we would become “spoilers” — that is, we would take votes away from the Democrats and thereby only help get Republicans elected given the nature of our two-party system. This was inevitable, we were told, given that we don’t have proportional representation, as they have in France, for instance.
Succumbing to this pressure, the Labor Party, which was founded in June 1996, voted at its three national conventions NOT to run its own labor candidates for public office. It became little more than a pressure group on the Democrats. It didn’t break with the Democrats despite its slogan that “the bosses have two parties, we need one of our own.” The clean-break wing of the Labor Party, which was small but not insignificant, argued that it was a contradiction in terms to have formed a Labor Party that could not present its own platform and candidates to challenge the Democrats in the elections.
Many of us drew the conclusion that to get the Labor Party ball rolling once again — after it was put on hold after the 2002 convention — you would have to begin at the local level running independent labor-community candidates, with union locals at the center. The stakes at the local level would be lower, and you could then build up your base and momentum to begin challenging the Democrats and Republicans for higher offices. This would create the momentum for a new party based on the unions and the communities of the oppressed.
I should add here, speaking now as The Organizer newspaper, that we don’t particularly like the concept of a “people’s party” — which denotes a cross-class political formation. Such parties throughout our history have not been rooted in the working class and its organizations. They have seen themselves as representatives of all the people, whatever their social class, in opposition to the top oligarchs — but not in opposition to the capitalist class as a whole.
This, in turn, allowed these populist, or people’s, parties to be more easily coopted by the powers-that-be.
What are your thoughts on these points; what should be the class nature of a major new party? And how do we get there from here; how do we move forward to the creation of a major new political party?
N.B.: First, as you have said, labor’s relationship to the Democratic Party has devastated the unions, which are down from 35% to 11% of unionization in the country.
The folks who began the Labor Party Advocates and then the Labor Party in the 1990s were ahead of the curve. You in this wing of the labor movement had reached the conclusion that the Democrats were not sufficiently different from the Republicans, and it was time to build independent working-class political power.
The difference between then and now is that in the mid-90s you were going against the grain and against the momentum of society; you were ahead of public opinion. Today, however, public opinion has caught up with that conclusion. Over the past 10 years, in particular, millions of people have left the Democratic and Republican parties — a huge sum.
The number of independents is now up to 45% — and there are only 27% of Americans who affiliate with the Democratic and Republican parties. Independents are by far the largest group in the country.
The other thing you are seeing is that the number of people who are calling for a major third party has increased dramatically. It is now at 61%, according to a recent Gallup poll. So today conditions exist in the broader public, in the working class. There’s a real disaffection with the two establishment parties; even half the people who identify with the Democratic and Republican parties, according to the polls, say that they are only with these parties because there is not an alternative party to represent them.
So, conditions exist today to create what so many unions tried to create in 1996 with the Labor Party.
In terms of what is our transition plan, I think that labor-community coalitions and candidates are a very powerful way of getting there, and they are necessary. I agree with that great article in 2012 by Labor Party organizers Mark Dudzic and Katherine Isaac, who wrote that it will take a collaboration between labor unions and social movements to achieve a major working class party at this point. And we in the Movement for a People’s Party are the social component of that effort.
I agree that working on a local level to elect candidates as part of local labor-community coalitions is a good way to begin because, yes, it doesn’t require as many resources at first — and victories on a local scale can help build the momentum for a major working-class party.
Also, by the way, the name People’s Party is not the final name that we’ve decided upon. It’s a description. It says that the new party must belong to the people, as opposed to the Democrats or Republicans, which belong to the corporations.
To move toward the formation of a mass working-class party, moreover, will require replacing one of the two establishment parties. This should be our objective. Because of the way electoral politics are structured in the U.S., three parties are not able to exist for any protracted period of time. It always tends toward two parties.
But when you get to the point where so few people belong to those two parties, the system becomes unstable and there’s an opening for a political realignment. And that’s what we have today.
One other powerful way to get to where we want to go is building a network of independent, progressive candidates across the country. That is one of our goals as the Movement for a People’s Party. We are supporting Gayle McLaughlin, who is running as an independent for Lieutenant Governor of California, and we are also supporting Tim Canova, who is running as an independent for Congress in Florida.
Our local Movement for a People’s Party organizers encouraged Tim to leave the Democratic Party for months. He talks openly about his disgust with each of the two major parties. This is a very significant development.
I think that pulling resources out of the Democratic Party is important; approaching candidates such as Tim Canova is important. This brings resources from the existing corporate parties to the new party.
A.B.: On this issue of independent, progressive candidates, we have a concern. Gayle McLaughlin is running as an independent, but she has also endorsed Democrats who are running against independents and Greens who have a base in their communities. This is done in the name of “moving the needle.” The question is, therefore, what is the definition of “independent”?
We in The Organizer newspaper believe that “independent” must mean a clean break with the Democrats and Republicans. It must mean rejecting the “inside-outside” strategy promoted by all too many forces on the U.S. left, often in the name of a “fusion” strategy. In our view, this approach has always derailed efforts to build independent working-class political parties in our country.
Some today, such as Jacobin magazine, which is linked to the Democratic Socialists of America, are promoting what they call a “dirty break” — which, in our opinion, is no break at all. So how do we ensure that the candidates we are supporting are consistently independent?
N.B.: That’s a great question. Our mission as Movement for a People’s Party is a clean break. We have no interest in trying to rehabilitate the Democratic Party. We have no confidence in the party’s ability to do that. The sooner we can get away from the Democratic Party, the sooner we can create a realignment in the country and create a new and different party for working people.
Having said that, we also need to find people in the Democratic Party we can pull out of it. A successful replacement of an existing major party takes pulling out people and resources from that party. In this case it takes splitting the Democratic Party base.
In the 1850s, the Republican Party was able to replace the Whig Party. They succeeded because they were able to pull experienced people, staff, and resources out of the Whigs. That is what we need to do.
Some of these people will have a different vision from us. But it still represents progress to pull these people out; it will inspire others to do the same. So while the objective is not to reform the Democratic Party, you do need to have some kind of steps toward exiting the party. We can’t leap from where we are to a nationally viable working-class party. We don’t have the necessary numbers and resources; we need to acquire them.
A.B.: One thing is taking steps forward, another is continuing one’s attachment to a party of the bosses, an attachment that can quickly pull you back into the morass. We need a frank and open discussion about what it will take to build a working class party, including the potential pitfalls along the way.
Yes, we can’t be ultimatistic in relation to folks who are leaving the Democratic Party and are not yet for a clean break — but we who are promoting this effort need to be crystal clear about the need for a clean break and the need for a truly independent working-class party. We need a frank and open discussion about what it will take to build a mass working class party, including the potential pitfalls along the way.
This dialogue with you, we believe, is an important step in this direction. Our goal as The Organizer is to promote this discussion more widely in the labor movement, but also among activists in the Black Liberation struggle and in other communities of the oppressed. We are re-launching our Unity & Independence section toward this end.
Before we conclude, is there anything else you would like to add?
N.B.: I would like to say that we’re in the midst of a sea-shift in consciousness toward independent politics. Polls have shown that two-thirds of the people are not planning to vote in the mid-term elections. The reason they cite is that the Democrats and Republicans are hopelessly corrupt.
The Political Revolution is where we declare our independence from the corporate parties, not just their candidates, but the parties as such. I encourage people to join us in the Movement for a People’s Party. We have organizers in almost every state, with chapters in many states. Our website is www.forapeoplesparty.org.