The new progressive agenda
A conversation about the Working Families Party with Ari Kamen
Ari Kamen doesn’t talk about the new progressive agenda like it’s new. To him and his colleagues in the Working Families Party, it’s not. At a time of few comforts, I found that comforting. He describes his tools in terms of their power and utility, because he’s used them before and knows what they can do. Not in terms of their gleam and hand-feel, the way many of us do who are now just opening our progressive toolbox.
Ari is the party’s former New York State Political Director and a veteran of the ground game. “I started on the canvas eight years ago and worked my way up,” he says. Since then Working Families has achieved major presence in eleven states and Washington, DC. “Party,” though, is something of a misnomer, in the conventional sense. “We’re not a third party and we’re not trying to run third party candidates,” he clarifies. “We’re trying to change America.”
Historically that has looked like intensive campaign support and strategic endorsements in states with fusion voting, which allows a candidate to be nominated by more than one party. In such states it’s possible to vote for a major party candidate on the Working Families line, which, given the fearless liberal brand they’ve worked hard to establish, is seen as a strong statement of one’s politics.
By not running third party candidates - by generally supporting the most progressive person they can in major party races - they’ve deftly avoided becoming associated with cults of personality and encumbered by “electability” as a foremost concern. They’ve served more as a validator of liberal bonafides. A badge of honor awarded to whoever speaks their values best. This has allowed them to trade with remarkable purity and consistency in their values alone, not in static positions defended post hoc, as becomes the case with parties that age.
Those values are poetically simple and boil down to economic opportunity for all. Period. “After the election we had a number of mainstream Democrats coming to us and saying we were right,” Ari tells me. It’s an elemental concept that becomes radical and lofty only when you think about it in practice, about the path from here to there. But Ari believes we’re ready. “The folks who marched on Washington last month weren’t saying, ‘We want moderation’. You don’t defeat fascism with moderation, but with a robust populist progressivism.”
It’s a curious time to be a populist. By semantic war of attrition the word, like “fact,” has come to mean its opposite, because it’s been associated with its opposite often enough and loudly enough. Donald Trump won by calling the system rigged, but his is a qualified populism that counts only his base as people, outside of which are takers who divert away its God-given resources by pipeline emblazoned every thirty yards with the Obama “O.” Working Families, like all who take America’s future seriously, don’t see it as quite so zero-sum.
“But it has divided working people,” Ari says, along social and often racial lines. It’s a bad rap, and it’s as old as time. This isn’t the only narrative, though, and here’s where Ari’s experience, for me, distinguishes him from the dreamers we’ve all become since November. We imagine a place he has seen.
He tells me a story. A Working Families veteran and unionizer in New York’s Hudson Valley decided recently to see if the wedge between economic and social issues could be dislodged in his area. He brought local labor leaders and members of marginalized community groups together for a dialogue that, at first, didn’t go well. But he kept at it. The most incandescent anger, it seemed, had only to burn off, and subsequent conversations took a more mutually empathic tone, the longest bottled feelings having finally been aired.
“The next time labor went on strike in that town,” Ari said, “the community came out for it. And here you had these union guys showing up for Black Lives Matter protests. It’s possible. If you believe every Trump voter is a racist and misogynist, you’re wrong.” But precisely because racism and misogyny exist with or without these depictions, rooting out structural bias where it’s most entrenched is a core Working Families value. “We need to return to a model that talks about helping all working people.” In all the ways they need help. “This is part of it.”
Make no mistake, he warns, “we’re going to be playing defense in every single way, for at least two years if not more. But if we only respond and react and don’t push a progressive policy agenda, we’ll have nothing to run on in 2018 and 2020.”
When it comes to the Democratic party, he’s not as saturnine as some. “Democrats are resisting more than I thought they would in DC. They’re actually putting up a fight to the extent that they can. And not because they suddenly discovered a new progressivism in their outlook. They’re responding to their base, which IS progressive. And vocal now. And nervous. It wants to see the party have a backbone.”
Before we were all stashing blank poster board at home in case of spontaneous protest, Working Families was out ossifying that backbone in fusion voting states, forcing campaigns off-script with the unified voice of everyday people and the promise of an additional ballot line that - even their opponents knew - stood for something. To them, it’s not “get fired up.” It’s “keep going.”
For Ari this means directing a special project at Working Families to help grassroots organizations build power through primary elections. Let’s deeply invest in our local races, he suggests. Build coalitions between labor and community groups. Stop taking corporate money. Start reaching voters on core economic issues. Understand how and why states will be leading the way.
Barack Obama, I contend, was perhaps the last Clinton Democrat who could wear that mantle persuasively, compassionately, and so skillfully that he kept it alive well past its prime. The future is the new progressive agenda. Which, to Ari Kamen and Working Families, was never new.
As a child, while his friends traded baseball cards and played video games, Joe Pinto watched the speeches of US presidents and marveled at the genius of representative democracy. A lifelong progressive, he believes the social contract exists to drive the ongoing redesign of self-government until inequity is wrung out and prosperity in reach of all. He grew up in the suburbs of New York City and attended Brown University. A career educator, he has been a designer and builder of new Title I public high schools in New York's historically least served districts. He does not accept a politics of exclusion or blame but feels there are important unheard stories across America and values beyond his own that are legitimate and powerful. Donald Trump is not his president.