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The Working Families Party Has Written Itself Out of History

Make no mistake: the Working Families Party’s opaque presidential endorsement process signaled a rejection of not only Bernie Sanders but the movement emerging around him.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a rally in Washington Square Park on September 16, 2019 in New York City. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The Working Families Party (WFP) bills itself as an organization whose political strategy is bigger, bolder, and better than others. And in many ways, the party has been a remarkable success story in a political environment that yielded few victories for progressive forces.

The WFP was set up in 1998 to be an independent, progressive party that used New York’s fusion voting system (which allows endorsement across ballot lines) to challenge bad Democrats and extract concessions from others without being dismissed by voters as a spoiler. Beyond the favorable voting system, New York, a union stronghold, was a good starting point for the experiment. The party had support from labor unions, like AFSCME DC-37, the United Auto Workers, and the Communication Workers of America. It also had backing from progressive advocacy and organizing groups like Citizen Action and ACORN.

It had, in other words, a social base that most left groups could only aspire to.

From the beginning, there were controversies, rooted in both the party’s financial dependence on a conservative labor bureaucracy and the difficulty of navigating the swamp of New York politics. At worst, the party did things like endorse the odious Andrew Cuomo for governor in 2010 and 2014. But the WFP also helped dismantle the state’s reactionary Rockefeller drug laws, took on entrenched political machines, and mainstreamed demands for regulation and social protections. Life for working people in New York — and the dozen other states the party is now active in — is better because of the WFP’s efforts.

When we were first politicized as teenagers, it wasn’t common to hear unapologetic demands for universal health care, family leave, paid sick days, and a living wage. For all the problems with its strategy, the WFP was a rare beacon in dark times.

But now, the Working Families Party agenda has been mainstreamed by Bernie Sanders and his political revolution. In 2015, Sanders got the party’s endorsement (with a whopping 87 percent support from the membership). The following year, he urged New Yorkers to vote for Hillary Clinton on the party’s ballot line, calling the WFP “the closest thing there is to a political party that believes in my vision of democratic socialism.”

Now, in 2019, Sanders looks like he has every chance of winning the Democratic primary and bringing this vision to the White House. But he’ll be doing so without the WFP’s support.

The party announced its backing of Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president yesterday. Its leadership’s rationale for the endorsement was curious.

“We need a mass movement to make her plans a reality, and we’re going to be a part of that work,” WFP director Maurice Mitchell said. “You don’t defeat the moderate wing of Democrats through thought pieces or pithy tweets, you defeat their politics through organizing.”

Mitchell is correct here — which makes the choice of Warren baffling.

If you read his quote out of context or without its pronouns, you might assume that Mitchell was praising Sanders, not Warren. After all, Sanders has made such organizing central to his campaign.

Sanders’s 2020 slogan is “Not me, us.” He has used his campaign infrastructure to turn thousands of supporters out to union picket lines and immigrant rights protests. Sanders recently stated that once elected, he would be the “organizer-in-chief.” Even in his policy plans, like his recently announced labor law reform plan, he emphasizes that such reforms can’t be achieved without organizing a mass movement from below.

Warren, meanwhile, has staked her campaign on being the candidate who has “a plan for that.” Her proposals (domestically, at least) are, on the whole, solid progressive policies, though never stronger than Sanders’s. But not until the last few weeks has she even made rhetorical nods to building the kind of movement that Sanders argues we need, much less done anything to actually build that movement.

What’s more, recent data suggest that Sanders’s and Warren’s respective supporter bases are distinct: while Sanders’s is strongly multiracial and working-class, Warren’s is white and upper-middle class. And while Sanders has drawn a clear line in the sand rejecting contributions from wealthy donors, Warren has waffled on the question, saying she will reject such money during the primary but accept it during the general if she wins the Democratic nomination. (She also rolled over big-money donations from her 2018 senate run into her presidential campaign.)

If the WFP views bottom-up organizing, of and by a multiracial working class, as a core necessity to win social change, why would the party endorse Warren, whose campaign has catalyzed neither — especially over Sanders, whose campaign has?

Another important question: Did the party’s left-of-center membership, the same one that gave him 87 percent four years ago, really sour on the ever-popular left-of-center Sanders so dramatically? The WFP’s tally for Sanders was down to 36 percent in its announced weighted results.

It’s impossible to know, given the process the party used to choose their candidate, split evenly between the votes of tens of thousands of WFP members and a small board of several dozen people. The party announced that Warren drew just over 60 percent of the ranked-choice vote, but refused to release the exact breakdown of member votes versus board votes, as they did in 2015 when Sanders won.

The leadership’s rationale for not releasing the tally was incoherent. “For there to be one true vote, and to maintain the nature of secret ballot,” Maurice Mitchell said, “all of that went into the back end.” Since when did a secret ballot mean not having to disclose the results?

It seems obvious the party has something to hide: members were likely divided between Warren and Sanders. Perhaps the latter even ended up with a majority of rank-and-file votes. The leadership, several board members tell us, was strongly behind Warren.

We can speculate on why, but there is no doubt that Warren is a more respectable choice in NGO circles and among the Democratic Party politicians that the WFP exerts pressure on to stay relevant — to say nothing of major donors.

The party has been wary, for understandable reasons, of taking political gambles in the past. Its strategy is predicated on having a foot in the halls of power while maintaining the leverage of mobilizational power.

What the WFP leadership has shown, however, is how out of step they are with this political moment. If this was set to be a regular election, then perhaps their decision would make sense. Warren is certainly taking more progressive stances than we’ve traditionally seen from Democratic contenders.

But this isn’t a regular election. The political realignment that Dan Cantor and Joel Rogers were hoping for when they founded the New Party, the WFP’s predecessor, in 1992 may finally be upon us. Or at least, there’s a shot of pursuing it and doing the work of decades in a few short years.

Sanders has tapped into a sentiment that has the potential to capture millions who weren’t previously engaged with politics; Trump has shown that he has the potential to do the same. Things that weren’t on the table in US politics — from the sublime, like Medicare for All, to the odious, like Trump’s border wall — now seem up for the taking.

The Sanders base isn’t going away, whatever the election results next year. The future of progressive politics lies with them. The Working Families Party has waited decades for that future, but the party may have just written itself out of it.