Are We Witnessing the Birth of a New Progressive Party?

TR 1902 State of the Union

Princeton Professor Cornel West and some former Bernie Sanders campaign staffers are trying to convince Sanders to lead a third party, a progressive “People’s Party.” Sanders has said he intends to work within the Democratic Party to bring about reform, but he has left open the door just a crack if the Democratic Party doesn’t get its act together.

But that just doesn’t seem to be happening: Lately, we have Hillary Clinton going around saying her loss in the November election was essentially everyone’s fault but her own. Former President Barack Obama may be even more tone deaf than Clinton, accepting a $400,000 “honorarium” for a speech to Wall Street bankers. Other Democrats seem content to simply oppose Donald Trump rather than put forth their own positive vision for moving the country forward.

The leadership of the Democratic Party just doesn’t seem to get it: it is time for real change, not more of the same-old, same-old coalition politics that courts the professional class at big donor fundraisers, but refuses to address (or even acknowledge) the concerns of millions of poor and working class Americans struggling to feed their families and make ends meet.

Perhaps Cornel West is right. A third party may be needed to give the Democrats a much needed wake-up call. The downside is that a third party could potentially split the Democratic vote and result in Republican victories in the short-term. Longer term, however, it might prove to be the only way to jolt the Democrats from their politics-as-usual, middle-of-the-road stupor.

Back at the turn of the 20th century, America had a third party – The Progressive Party – led by Teddy Roosevelt. The Progressives fundamentally altered the direction of American politics, simultaneously taking on the corporate “robber barons” and the corrupt, patronage ridden political machines that ruled the big American cities of the Northeast.

The Progressives sought to radically reform government, to professionalize it; to make it more efficient; to make it work for the people. And they largely succeeded.

Maybe the Democrats need to take a lesson from history and broaden their message: Big government is not evil, as Republicans have argued. Rather it is inefficient government captured by modern day corporate robber barons that is part of what has made American democracy so dysfunctional.

We can and must do better. Taking a lesson from Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives of the early 20th century is not a bad place to start.