It’s late October in Englewood, New Jersey, and the mood at a meeting of left-of-centre voters is bleak.
‘I worked my heart out for a Democratic Congress,’ says Stefan Neustadter, a middle aged volunteer with the anti-war group MoveOn. ‘I walked blocks, ran phone-banks, I gave money, called people in far-off states. I did everything I could to elect a Democratic majority but now we have one I’m so ashamed, I’ve changed my party affiliation from Democrat to Independent.’
Neustadter’s hardly unique. According to polls, today’s Democratic-controlled Congress is more popular among rank and file Republicans than it is among registered Democrats. The presidential contenders aren’t doing much better, especially among the party’s activist base. ‘I’m having trouble at this point advocating for a Democratic president,’ declares Matt Stoller, a Democratic blogger and consultant.
Issue-driven voters have good reason to be angry. Almost a year after regaining a majority in Congress, the party elected to end the war has increased the number of US troops in Iraq, and all but a handful of Democrats in Congress have voted to extend the conflict by appropriating more money for combat. But Neustadter is part of a cohort whose complaints go deeper. As Connie Baker, a party activist in Illinois put it, at the heart of the matter is what it means to be a party: ‘Do Democrats even want a party or just a small group making decisions as the top?’
Rise of the blue grits
Baker and Neustadter are part of an upsurge of what I’ve called ‘blue grit’ democrats. Over the past few years, blue grit democrats – with a big and little ‘d’ – have involved themselves to an unprecedented degree in the nuts and bolts of electoral politics. Some are formerly passive voters or donors to the party who woke up after three dismal defeats (in 2000, 2002 and 2004) to the realisation that maybe their party’s leaders weren’t so smart. Others are social movement activists who are not big believers in party politics, but whose petition-and-protest tactics were futile where state and federal governments were locked-down by the right.
The Democratic Party, it became clear, was in a mess. To some it came as a shock. Rick Jacobs, former California state chairman of the Howard Dean campaign, started attending state party conventions: ‘There was just nothing there.’ No accurate record keeping, no up-to-date data, no ongoing relationship with volunteers or donors, no practical help for potential candidates. Surveyed late in 2004, the majority of state parties had no functioning website, no full-time communications director, no precinct captains, not even a full-time accountant. All power and money was bottled up in Washington. It was a Penthouse Party: all top floor suites, no presence in the streets.
Propelled by new technology and repelled by the Bush/Cheney status quo, grassroots activists set about filling the vacuum where a truly national people-oriented party needed to be. In 2006, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans at the polls for the first time in a midterm election since 1990. By that time, three and a half million (one in a hundred) Americans were receiving regular action alerts via email from MoveOn. Tens of thousands were contributing to their favorite candidates – even in far-away races – through online giving sites (like ActBlue) or via their favorite political blogs.
Alongside the netroots were the on-the-ground grassroots. Movement groups, like the 40,000 members of Montana Conservation Voters and the 41 member groups of Montana Women Vote, or, in Ohio, the League of Independent Voters (formerly the League of Pissed off Voters), wrote and distributed voter guides, scrutinised voting lists, divvied up district maps, shared information and deployed their members to stir things up. Using every conceivable tool of communication, they talked to poor women, young people, alienated (and pissed-off) people – people the Democratic Party hadn’t inspired in decades, and they talked about issues the national candidates wouldn’t touch: Iraq, torture, trade, poverty, equal rights, alternative fuels, the need to end the boondoggle war on drugs.
On 7 November 2006, Democrats won control over both chambers of Congress, picking up 31 House seats and six in the Senate. Across the country, Democrats gained six new governorships and more than 300 new statehouse seats. As usual, credit was claimed by national party leaders – especially by Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (who once served as finance chair for Bill Clinton’s campaign) and Chuck Schumer, chair of the Senatorial Campaign Committee.
What that analysis overlooks is that Democrats owe their margin of victory in large part to picks-ups by candidates whom the DCCC either outright opposed or lamely supported after they were made viable by the grassroots. The nail biter winner in the Senate, Montana’s Jon Tester, a critic of Clinton/Emanuel on trade, wasn’t the establishment’s pick in the primary. And Emanuel and Schumer made it very clear they were looking for millionaires to run for office, not anti-war moms like Carole Shea-Porter of New Hampshire’s first district. Emanuel famously told Shea-Porter that her district wasn’t competitive, and if it were, she couldn’t win it. (She had once been evicted from a Bush rally for wearing an anti-Bush t-shirt.) She and her kitchen table staff of peacenik grandmothers proved that it was and she could – with a whole lot of up-from-the-bottom blue grit.
Now the 2008 election stretches before them and blues with grit are wondering, as Connie Baker put it to me: ‘Can democratic people take over the Democratic Party?’
It looks like a long shot. In 2004, Baker worked for Christine Cegelis, an anti-North American Free Trade Agreement, pro-non profit healthcare peace activist who took on arch-conservative Henry Hyde in a special election and won 44 per cent of the vote despite being massively outspent. In 2006, instead of helping Cegelis (who had strong grassroots support,) Emanuel went on a candidate-hunt, approaching half a dozen people to run against her in the primary until he found Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran who towed the Emanuel line on every topic.
Led by Emanuel, all the prominent Democrats in the country – John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi – endorsed Duckworth. She outspent Cegelis ten times over, narrowly winning the primary, but she lost in November, one of the few Democratic defeats of the night.
Today, Cegelis and Baker are active in organisations including Turn DuPage (County) Blue and the Greater Chicago Caucus, a grass-roots coalition of minority and peace and justice groups they hope will be able to shift the result of elections and the direction of the party. But Emanuel appears to be on the warpath again, encouraging primary contests against blue grit backed candidates who show, frankly, too much independent support.
As 2008 approaches, blue grit democrats have already had a considerable impact. You can tell by the stops every contender has added to their campaign itineraries (to attend the Campaign for America’s Future-sponsored ‘Take Back America’ conference, for example, or the bloggers’ convention, ‘Yearly Kos’).
It’s hard to find a grass-roots group in the key primary states that hasn’t received a visit. ‘The candidates know who’s going to be out in the streets for them at the end of the day,’ quips Jan Gilbert of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a dynamic blue grit group.
But the party’s as-yet unelected ‘favourite’ Hillary Clinton is running a top-down, sewn-up, disciplined campaign, about as far from a blue grit operation as you can get. Her coffers are bulging with dollars from private health insurers and military contractors for TV ads and focus-groups. Volunteers, meanwhile, say it’s possible to work for weeks before anyone knows your name. Clinton’s erected a firewall, when what she’s going to need is something to fire people up.
Progressive gains are more likely to be felt in Congressional and local races. Every seat is up and disgruntled blue gritters are already proposing to run primary challenges to objectionable incumbents. Grass-roots feminist Donna Edwards’ challenge of incumbent Al Wynn is already having an impact. Wynn, no radical until now, recently came out for impeachment.
But the challenge ahead is great. The former Rainbow Coalition organiser, Bill Fletcher, puts it this way: ‘The Democrats don’t perform the functions of a party. What they are is a voting bloc and we need our own voting bloc.’
Going back to Neustadter, the good news for the left in the New Jersey man’s lament is that a cohort is rising with fresh skills, new resources and a renewed determination to influence US politics. The bad news is: that cohort still does not have a party. And that’s not about to change in 2008.
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself