Thursday, January 7, 2010

Learning From the Liberal Party

A guest post containing some very sage advice from Daniel Soyer, who is both an active member of the Working Families Party, and a leading historian of the Liberal Party.

The Working Families Party (WFP), having displayed considerable muscle in this past year’s elections and legislative session, is now facing scrutiny from sections of the media and federal investigators concerning its rather complex finances. WFP leaders, of course, deny any wrongdoing, and argue that many of the accusations come from those who consider working people and the poor to be “special interests.” And indeed, the party’s legislative agenda from an increase in the state minimum wage to the recent green jobs bill has been a progressive one and its touted candidates largely of high quality (purist leftist quibbles aside).
But the Working Families Party needs to take care that it doesn’t follow the path of its predecessor on the New York left, the Liberal Party. Given its sorry end, it is often forgotten that when it was founded in 1944, and for several decades thereafter, the Liberal Party was a genuinely progressive force for civil rights, labor, affordable housing, fair taxation, universal healthcare, strong public education at all levels, and, yes, even good government. (The Liberals called for the abolition of the state senate more than half a century ago.) Sure the party was always a top-down affair, bossed by union leaders Alex Rose and David Dubinsky. But the bosses were personally honest and made sure the party stayed true to its liberal/social democratic principles. The Liberal Party also had a large social base, with dozens of local clubs and an ability to mobilize thousands of members from Dubinsky’s International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

The ILGWU was also the Liberal Party’s largest source of money. Its party affiliation meant the Liberals had a steady income to work (as the WFP now proudly does) not only as a campaign operation but also as a year-round pressure group and incubator of progressive ideas. The Liberals also attracted many idealistic young people, some of them looking for jobs that would enable them to make a living while fighting for a better world. From the start, the Liberal Party was a clearing house for patronage government and otherwise. Rose used to argue that there was nothing wrong with party activists getting jobs as long as they were principled liberals of high caliber, as they usually were.

But things started to change for the Liberal Party in the late 1960s. After Dubinsky’s retirement as president, the ILGWU disaffiliated from the party, taking its money and members with it. The Liberals were now left without much of a social base and the need to scramble for funds. Then, at the end of 1976, Alex Rose died. Raymond Harding emerged as the party leader, and by the early 1980s, the Liberal Party was shaking down candidates for cash and jobs. Liberal positions on issues became nothing but an afterthought. By the time it lost its ballot line in 2002, the Liberal Party was little more than a shell--- a lobbying firm with a ballot line (for sale).

The lesson for the WFP? It is at least that if they intend for the party to be a lasting force for good, party leaders, veterans of the movement left and the progressive labor movement need to think about the future, when they are gone. As James Madison put it long ago in a message to the people of New York, “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.” Instead, structures need to be put into place now to prevent abuses.

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