I n the mid-1970s, the founding fathers of the New Right almost walked away from the Republican Party. Sickened by Watergate and angry at what they perceived as the Republican Party's moderation, Richard Viguerie, Howard Phillips, and Paul Weyrich strove to bring together the disparate conservative forces spawned by Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign into a single powerful coalition they hoped would form the base of a new political party. President, movement, and party, they thought, needed to be brought together in a new organization on the right.
Between 1974 and 1977 these three men turned samizdats into publications, discussion groups into think tanks, and businessmen's lunches into political action committees (PACs). William F. Buckley's National Review provided the intellectual underpinnings. Viguerie, the original guru of direct mail, supplied the mailing lists. Phillips and Weyrich, the founders of the Conservative Caucus and the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress (CSFC), did the actual organizing. Together, they recruited numerous single-interest groups—veterans, pro-lifers, tax protesters, family advocates, evangelists, and small businessmen—to their cause. In just three years, these men organized the right wing of the Republican Party into a cohesive coalition with considerable political might. By the 1978 congressional midterm elections, the New Right was ready to slay the doddering Republican Party and strike out on its own.
But just in time, the New Right's founders realized something: the Republican Party was too valuable to be junked. Recognizing that if they could gain control of the Republican Party—with its legal powers, spending capabilities, and media visibility—it could be made into a formidable conservative force, Viguerie, Phillips, and Weyrich began to infiltrate and organize, targeting a slew of congressional races where New Right participation might tip the scales in favor of conservative Republican candidates. Phillips cultivated the grass roots, establishing Conservative Caucus operations that recruited and trained local conservatives for electoral activism. Weyrich's CSFC came in and ran advanced workshops that explained the key elements of a sophisticated campaign. Meanwhile, New Right-affiliated PACs were avoiding Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulations by using "independent campaign expenditures," buying upwards of $5 million worth of ads in some races.
The end result? Voters in the 1978 midterm elections sent 30 new congressmen from the New Right's ranks to Capitol Hill. Carroll Campbell, Newt Gingrich, and other conservative emblems of today's Republican Party were launched on their national political careers as part of the New Right's onslaught. The movement's momentum carried over into the 1980 Republican presidential primaries, delivering Ronald Reagan the nomination over the objections of moderate Republicans who favored George Bush. Reagan's election solidified the New Right's grip on the Republican Party; throughout the 1980s, the New Right was able to fill Republican ranks at the local, state, and national levels. By the early 1990s, the New Right had brought conservatism and the Republican Party into alignment.
T here's a lesson for liberals here. The parallels between the disaffected conservatives of the 1970s and the disaffected liberals of today are obvious. But instead of stealing a page from the New Right's playbook and hitching the progressive movement to grassroots Democratic Party politics, some progressives willing to do electoral dirty work expend their efforts assembling minor parties that have little influence or that break apart, victims of America's entrenched two-party system. The latest of these efforts is the New Party.
The New Party devised a "fusion" strategy. It would run candidates in state elections on a line separate from the Democratic party line. Progressive Democratic candidates would be rewarded with a New Party endorsement and an additional line on the ballot; centrist or conservative Democrats would face a New Party opponent as well as a Republican one. In this way, the New Party hoped to play electoral hardball and force both the Democrats and electoral politics generally to the left. The New Party also believed that it could serve as a vehicle to energize grassroots activity—which has been deadened by the centrism of many Democrats. It was willing to risk playing the role of spoiler.
The approach took its cue from the nineteenth-century strategy for building party-movement coalitions. The great Populist upsurge of the 1890s was the historical model—and not a bad one, because ultimately it reshaped the Democratic Party and laid the basis for progressive economic and monetary regulation.
But the current strategy is flawed in two key respects. There really is no institutional Democratic Party in most states. The party is whoever wins primary elections. Creating a third party, in the face of all the institutional obstacles in the U.S. system, is mostly wasted energy that could be better directed toward taking over the existing Democratic Party—by running progressive candidates and winning primaries. Second, the fusion strategy was dealt a near-fatal legal blow last April when the Supreme Court ruled that states may enact laws known as fusion bans, which prohibit candidates from appearing on more than one party's ballot line.
T he New Party does deserve credit for its seemingly obvious insight that political battles, at their most fundamental level, must be fought in the local electoral arena. It's a point liberals overlook when they focus all their energies on participating in the abstract opinion-leader debates—most frequently with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and its policy shop the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI)—over "agenda," "message," and, that perennial favorite, "the future of the Democratic Party."
To be sure, it is important for liberals to have advocacy groups and think tanks of their own—like the Campaign for America's Future (CAF) and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI)—to give liberals a voice in Washington and perform the big-picture tasks of crafting messages, setting agendas, and telling what EPI President Jeff Faux calls "stories of how the world works." As a supplier of "intellectual products" to take to the voting public, the DLC is an organization worth emulating.
But here's where liberals should heed the lesson of the New Right. The DLC's biggest strategic flaw is that it concentrates on shaping elite opinion—at the expense of tending to the grass roots. The DLC may be hailed in Washington as the Democratic Party's most significant reformist force, but it has been given the cold shoulder outside the Beltway. Its ambitious plan in the early 1990s to organize state chapters has been unsuccessful, with only about ten currently in existence. While the organization claims as members 600 elected officials from all levels of government across the country, it still lacks a committed cadre of hardcore supporters and activists beyond those in the pundit class. Its bloodless centrism does not rouse the party's grass roots.
Furthermore, the ideological victories the DLC has won at the national level in Washington are most likely ephemeral. The 1996 party platform, which bore the centrist fingerprints of its authors, former DLCers Elaine Kamarck and Bruce Reed, is better viewed as a product of Bill Clinton's triangulated, party-of-one campaign than as any sort of enduring statement of party values.
An effective left-of-center DLC would have to do more than simply engage its competitors in a contest of dueling manifestos. Today, the only people really capable of giving an ideological identity to a diffuse and decentralized party are the millions who vote in its primaries. While the CAF's 501 (c) (4) status prohibits it from actual electioneering, it can work closely with these organizations in crafting a progressive agenda on which their candidates can run. "We'd like to connect liberal intellectuals with liberal grassroots organizers," says CAF Codirector Roger Hickey.
Fortunately for liberals, this task is eminently doable. In states where liberals have worked to pool their resources and build permanent progressive electoral coalitions that specialize in running well-organized grassroots campaigns, they often fare quite well in Democratic primaries. "Our main challenge hasn't been winning the Democratic nomination," explains Nick Nyhart, former co-director of the Legislative Electoral Action Program (LEAP), a Connecticut progressive coalition. "It's been winning the general election against conservative Republicans."
Established in 1980 to counter both the New Right's electoral organizing and the conservative leanings of the Connecticut Democratic Party, LEAP is a statewide coalition of 24 organizations—mainly left-leaning labor unions and consumer, environmental, and women's groups—that has proved that, through intensive organizing and sophisticated campaign techniques, liberals can prevail in the electoral arena. Groups like LEAP are the practical progressive alternative to the New Party.
Rather than offer its support in the form of money, as most PACs do, LEAP gives progressives something that can be equally important: electoral know-how. It provides training to candidates and their staff members, schooling them in mundane but essential campaign tasks like running phone banks, coordinating literature drops, and sending direct mail. LEAP also supplies volunteers from its 24 member organizations, strategically distributing them to worthy candidates who need the help. In races LEAP targets for a big push, it will often send a volunteer to every door in the district.
LEAP's strategy has worked. It has recruited and elected dozens of liberals to the state government, many of whom have risen to positions of power. In the Connecticut legislature, a number of the 28 current LEAP-affiliated members chair committees or hold leadership posts. Two LEAP affiliates, Miles Rapoport and Nancy Wyman, currently serve in the statewide elected offices of secretary of state and comptroller, respectively, and Rapoport is now running for Congress. In 1994, LEAP almost put a progressive in the governor's mansion, propelling Bill Curry to an upset win in the Democratic primary over his favored conservative opponent before he was narrowly defeated in the general election by Republican John Rowland.
Rather than engage in outdated institutional brokering or high-minded appeals to party leaders, LEAP has taken its case directly to the voters, recruiting progressives to run in Democratic primaries—even if that means going up against incumbents. While this sort of independence has not necessarily won LEAP the love of state party leaders—who prefer the blind allegiance that lets incumbents run in uncontested primaries—it has won LEAP the Democratic Party's respect and, when it comes to general elections, its support. LEAP has realized that the surest way to bring the party back to the left is to elect liberals to office under the party's banner. This is the Democratic corollary of what the New Right did to the Republicans.
Progressives in other states are finally coming to this same realization and forming LEAP-style coalitions of their own. New England alone boasts four states in which progressives have started coalitions modeled on LEAP; and progressives in far-flung states like Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, and New Mexico, among others, have established coalitions as well. "In large part, the candidates who win are the ones who are deciding what the party stands for," Marc Caplan, LEAP's first director, explains. "This idea of organizing progressives and getting them involved in electoral politics at the state level is eventually going to manifest itself on the national level."
Of course, the Democratic Party's openness to progressives is largely contingent upon progressives remaining a relatively small and ineffective minority within the party—which is precisely what the LEAP-style coalition approach seeks to change by aligning the Democratic Party more tightly with progressive interests. But the lesson to be learned from the New Right's success is that in an era when the major parties are, in Viguerie's metaphor, "like big battleships without rudders or ammunition," seizing control of one is a very democratic affair. There are no party bosses to impress or backroom deals to cut. It's the voters who will ultimately define the party. Conservatives recognized this fact, organized accordingly, and made their concerns the Republican Party's. If party and movement are to be brought together on the left, liberals must take comparable steps. "I've been to so many meetings where we've gathered like-minded people, we've talked a lot of high rhetoric, and we've tried to come to grips with how we can get a say in the party and in the government," gripes one Midwestern liberal state representative. "And while we're meeting, everybody else is out there taking power. It's really pretty simple. We ought to just get . . . elected."