Lessons From the Progressive People's Party

Surrounded by young people--"middle-class, long-haired, restless, searching"--the candidate is the progressive candidate for President of the United States. Alienated by the Democratic establishment, angry about poverty and income inequality, he insists that the industrialists who pay for the election of public officials must go. "We can't do what has to be done, as long as the old parties dominate the system...."

He is not Bernie Sanders running for the Democratic nomination in 2016. He is Dr. Benjamin Spock running on the People's Party platform against Richard Nixon and George McGovern in 1972. Spock was not a spoiler responsible for the defeat of McGovern--he only won about 72,000 votes. But he was the voice of a more radical anti-war movement than George McGovern, and he never pretended to be a Democrat, running instead as a third party candidate to build a movement. Continuing Spock's campaign, in 1973 Spock and radical attorney Arthur Kinoy set out to build a larger, more universal People's Party.

In the days before Twitter and the celebrity-focused media, Arthur Kinoy wrote a complex and intricate position paper that proposed a grassroots party of the people, a party that at its core would be an understanding of the "unique quality of the struggle for Black freedom in this country." Kinoy believed that only by understanding the role of slavery in the origins of American capitalism could the enslavement of Blacks be finally eradicated and the inequality engendered by capitalism overcome.

In 1973 it would have been very hard for a Progressive to have ignored the vibrant and largely successful Civil Rights Movement which ushered the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) into being. Kinoy was brought up short, however, when he did ignore another struggle for equal rights--the women's movement.

Anti-war, Civil Rights activist Barbara Deming had worked with Arthur Kinoy and Dave Dellinger and A.J. Muste, all stalwarts of the anti-war movements following World War II. And she had been on combined anti-war and civil rights walks through the south, ending one such demonstration in prison in Albany, Georgia, for the crime of walking next to a Black man (Prison Notes, 1966).

But by 1973 Deming was newly involved in the struggle for women's rights, and she was offended that Kinoy's analysis of the origin and oppression of U.S. capitalism did not mention the struggle of women. Deming maintained that any analysis a People's Party put forward must not slight the struggle of women or it would be "fatally weakened."

Kinoy listened. He read Deming's long letter and insisted that it be published in Liberation, a progressive movement magazine, as an article, "You are forgetting women" in 1974.

Kinoy wrote back to Deming that it had taken him a while to respond to her challenge because of "a recognition of an ignorance deeply rooted in years of blindness to the dimensions of the question" of women's oppression, women's rights. Kinoy found reading the feminist theorists that Deming had suggested--Rowbotham, Firestone--"mind-blowing."

Even as a well-intentioned and intelligent person, Kinoy was a creation of his culture and the role of women in society was something that he took for granted as "fixed" in her biology as a child-bearer. The unpaid labor that women did, the labor that shored up capitalism, was invisible to him. The consequences, Kinoy believed, were enormous:

From this failure in analysis flow many serious problems which if unrecognized and uncorrected can result in the derailing and destruction of any efforts, no matter how well-meaning or otherwise thoughtful, to build a social movement powerful enough to destroy the last stronghold of world imperialism....This failure...consciously aids and perpetuates the domination of the present system not only upon women themselves, but upon all humanity.

Fast forward. It is no longer 1973. We have had more than four decades to understand what Kinoy was suggesting--that no one can be "liberated" until we can see the exploitation and oppression of everyone, no matter how ingrained in social norms that may be.

Why is that so hard?

I confess. I want a vibrant progressive movement that will change the trajectory of politics as usual. I want to be part of the excitement and sense of possibility that I felt in the 1970s. Those years were hard.

The Vietnam War was winding down with excruciating slowness, nonetheless swamping Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and ushering Richard Nixon into the presidency for just over two years before he was forced to resign for malfeasance.

In 1973 it seemed as though there might be room for a People's Party that short-circuited the "business as usual" attitude of the two party system. And then there wasn't room.

In-fighting, bitter rivalries, and a government that targeted protesters from every group--anti-war activists, Black Panthers, feminists, gay activists. The energy dissipated as progressives turned on one another--you aren't progressive enough, you aren't a true radical.

The 2016 presidential campaign is also difficult time. A candidate who has lowered the level of dialogue to epithets on Twitter. Media that distorts positions and incidents to pander to the most extreme interests. And vicious sexist attacks on a woman candidate who could rightly be criticized for her positions on issues, policy choices that were mistakes, but is instead criticized for her looks, her voice, her husband's behavior.

And 40 years after Arthur Kinoy's epiphany, why do we still have a progressive candidate running for president who sees only income inequality, the corporate structures of capitalism?

He has to be reminded that, yes, Black lives matter. That, yes, women deserve equal rights, equal pay, reproductive freedom. That the hidden labor of women is part of the structure that depresses economic mobility and oppresses millions of us.

I don't call that progressive. I call it a failure of analysis. And once again progressives are turning on one another with vicious insults and a promise to "never vote" for the candidate who isn't their candidate. Once again, we are right on track to derail any progressive movement at a time when we need all of the momentum we can create in order to start the pendulum swinging in a progressive direction.

Judith McDaniel is the literary executor of the Barbara Deming estate. She teaches Law and Social Change at the University of Arizona and is a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.