“I will never concede defeat,” announced famed antiwar mom Cindy Sheehan after receiving an impressive 29,951 votes – 17 percent – in her insurgent bid for Congress. Sheehan took on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, architect of the Democratic Party’s betrayals following their 2006 takeover of Congress. The campaign faced a media blackout and Pelosi refused repeated calls to debate Sheehan. But supported by dedicated volunteers Sheehan became just the 6th independent candidate in California history to overcome the restrictive ballot access laws, raised over $500,000, and mounted a serious campaign.
Sheehan came to national fame during her August 2005 protest outside Bush’s ranch, after her son Casey was killed in Iraq. Hoping to end the war, Sheehan supported the Democratic Party in 2006, when they won a sweeping victory in the mid-term congressional elections on promises to end the war and reverse Bush’s corporate agenda.
But in the first months of 2007 the Democratic majority voted to expand funding for the Iraq War, and Sheehan made a decisive break from the party. In a speech launching her insurgent, independent campaign against Pelosi, Sheehan explained: “An electorate disgusted with the policies of the Bush regime put the Democrats in the majority in Congress in November ‘06. We voted for change, however Congress, under the Speakership of Ms. Pelosi, has done nothing but protect the status quo of the corporate elite and, in fact, since she has been the Speaker the situation in the Middle East has grown far worse, with Congress’ help... That is not what we elected them to do!”
On a recent trip to San Francisco, I was able to meet up with Cindy Sheehan and her campaign manager, Tiffany Burns, in their downtown office. It was October 13th, three weeks to election day. We discussed their campaign, but I was especially interested in Sheehan’s recent declaration to launch a new party following November 4th.
“Ever since I left the Democratic Party, and even before, I was writing about how there is not much difference in the two-party system,” Sheehan explained to me. “I’ve seen a lot of energy around Ralph Nader’s campaign, around Cynthia McKinney’s campaign and certainly I see it in my campaign everyday. I see that all three of us basically stand for the same things. Even Ron Paul revolutionaries, who are anti-imperialist – some of them don’t really understand [Ron Paul’s] full program… that certainly was a huge movement. Instead of having such disparate people trying for the same thing, why don’t we join our movements together to make an even bigger movement, to maybe have a viable third party.”
In a previous interview, Sheehan had reportedly already decided to name the new formation the “First Party.” My concern, I explained, was that simply declaring a new party, with a name and program already picked out, could alienate other forces who would want to be part of the process. “I never said I would just form a third party,” Cindy responded. “I said I was going to use the energies of the movement to bring it together. My idea is to call it the First Party.” Cindy also explained, “Right now it’s just an idea. I’ve talked to McKinney about it. I’ve talked to people in the Nader campaign about it… After the elections, win or lose, I’m committed to bringing in all the voices.”
Campaign manager Tiffany Burns added that “we want to have a gathering and really create a space for people to come together, and have a sense of what would the party look like, who would it represent, who wants to be a part of this, very soon after the elections, because we have to capitalize on the energy coming off of the elections.”
Is now the time?
There have been many failed attempts to build new left and working class parties, I pointed out. But big business’s two-party system in the U.S. has proven more impervious to political challenges any other system in the modern capitalist world. What is different today?
“The independent movement is the fastest growing category in this country,” Sheehan explained. “Independents are the second most registered group in San Francisco... The abuses of the last eight years have awakened people who thought before that maybe there were two choices, at least an appearance of a choice. But they have seen the Democrats betray the country, the constitution, and their base over and over again. So I think that now is the time to strike with the ’First Party’ movement.”
I began to ask: “With the economic crisis and bailout, which Pelosi played an instrumental role in passing…” Cindy interrupted: “She didn’t just play an instrumental role, she jammed it down everybody’s throat. I mean she was the terminator of politicians at that time. She was like, ‘we are going to pass this mother f-er no matter what happens.’”
“The economic crisis is what is really motivating people, because it’s touching their lives, it’s not far away… [The new party] will of course be a party for the working class, and very pro-worker, pro-labor, pro-democratic structures. Not like the SEIU Andy Stern model. True organizing, true participation… There is not a true choice in the national picture – there is just the appearance of choice. It’s façade over substance. It’s imperialism, it’s capitalism, and it’s crumbling. No matter what they do to save it, it’s still crumbling. And I think people are going to start getting it.”
Our conversation moved to a discussion about party building. Among the central mistakes of the Green Party, I argued, is their narrow focus on running candidates instead of devoting resources to initiating protests and community struggles. While plenty of individual Greens are active in antiwar groups, environmental campaigns, etc., the party itself rarely attempts to become an organizing center for non-electoral struggles, allowing Democratic Party-aligned groups to dominate most social movements unchallenged.
Sheehan seemed to agree. “A new party has to be diverse and it has to be a movement. It can’t just be people with registration cards walking around saying sign up for our party. It has to be something that the people will feel will actually help them. I think the Green Party is a wonderful conception, but it’s not about movement building – it’s about getting people elected. It’s not going to be a viable third party until it becomes and movement. And if people who are disaffected want to come and help us…”
“You know, we’ve had several people leave our campaign because they were only focused on getting elected, and that’s not what our campaign is about,” Sheehan finished. Burnsalso explained how they are taking “a completely different approach to a political campaign. But we’ve been really successful, which is frustrating to people who are in electoral politics, who have a cookie cutter method to getting elected, to running a campaign. We’re not just a campaign who shows up with leaflets to antiwar rallies, we’re organizing and leading them as part of our campaign tactics.”
“Our antiwar base left us”
After gaining national fame for her camp outside Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch in 2005, Sheehan became a darling of mainstream antiwar groups and within liberal Democratic Party circles. She accepted a position on the Progressive Democrats of America advisory board. And as Burns explained, “Cindy has been approached many, many times about running. From the second she became a household name everybody thought, ‘Oh, she’d be a great Democratic candidate.’”
However, once she broke from the Democrats, “Everybody that supported Cindy before she decided to run totally turned their back on her. Our antiwar base left us when the groups that should have supported Cindy, and supported her before when she was fundraising for their groups or speaking the antiwar message without calling out the Democrats… every one of those groups totally abandoned her. There were lots of groups who just flat out said: ‘We wish you were running as a Democrat.’”
Imagine what would be possible if the social movement organizations – the unions, antiwar groups, civil rights and community organizations, the environmental movement, etc. – broke from the Democrats and dedicated their resources building a new party for working people. Tiffany made a similar observation: “And so we have been able to raise $500,000 in spite of not having access to the membership of those [antiwar] groups. We probably would have been able to raise exponentially more if we’d been able to reach those members.”
Both Sheehan and Burns had a lot to say about pressures to water down their campaign from fair-weather friends on the liberal left, most of whom abandoned Sheehan after she broke with the Democrats. “At every single event we’ve gone to since Cindy became the candidate, whether an antiwar protest or a community event, they all say, ‘Oh this can’t be a political event,’” Burns explained. “They want her because she is the peace mom, they want a name draw, but they won’t identify her as a candidate, they don’t want her to speak about why she’s running, who she’s running against, and that all has to do with not wanting to challenge Pelosi and the Democrats… You know, this is an intentional campaign that is about bringing down the two-party system and about bringing down the most powerful Democrat in Congress… If you don’t want us to say that, then we’re not going to be there.”
“The most political decision we have,” Burns said, is walking “this fine line of not alienating everyone who will vote for Obama but also support Cindy… Not in any way, shape, or form have we ever said anything supportive of either mainstream presidential candidate. Cynthia McKinney is the co-chair of our campaign, and we’ve done lots of work with Ralph Nader too… The first article [Cindy] wrote against Obama, we got so much criticism from people who thought they had a lot of political insight, who thought she was committing voter suicide. That was a year ago. But we said that Obama is just going to move to the political center, everybody knows that. The voters you think we’re alienating are smart too. They’re going to see that. And that’s exactly what’s happened. So a lot of those people who a year ago just thought Cindy was an asshole have come to agree with her.”
I asked Tiffany about how the campaign itself was going: “We started with a very small concentrated volunteer base. Now at times we’ll have like 40 people, but those 40 people are doing the work of 400 people. At times we’ll have 100 people come in over a weekend and do things. So it ebbs and flows… We have 60 dedicated phone bankers from across the country. We have a campaign staff of four people, and seven paid interns, and half a dozen volunteers who might as well be staff. And a normal weekend we’ll have 20-25 volunteers to help us table, do neighborhood walking. These people are much more dedicated than the average volunteer.”
“We just crossed the $500,000 mark last week. That’s phenomenal! That was from a list of 8,000 people that we started with. You know,” Tiffany said proudly, “I think there were expectations that we would only raise $50,000. We didn’t have any infrastructure or party backing.”
The Cindy Sheehan campaign signed another year’s lease for their downtown San Francisco office. They have already announced plans to challenge Pelosi again in 2010, but Sheehan hopes that by then a new party will be up and running, with candidates across the country running for Congress and other offices. Whether Sheehan’s project succeeds or not remains to be seen. There are many potential pit-falls. But the coming years will no doubt provide more opportunities than ever for the American working class to develop its own political voice.