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The Case for an Independent Left Party in West Virginia
Both major parties are so conservative that many politicians have felt comfortable switching back & forth between the two parties (...) The label “Democrat” in West Virginia is virtually meaningless.
By DYLAN PARSONS, Mountain Party State Executive Committee
& ROBERT SMITH, Mountain Party Communications Director
Recent events in West Virginia have left progressives wondering where their political home is. With an independent ballot line, the Mountain Party is West Virginia’s only progressive party for working people. The Mountain Party runs candidates outside of the major party framework, without taking any money from corporate donors. West Virginia has an opportunity, with the Mountain Party as its vehicle, to build a political alternative here to stay and into the future.
In the 1990s, the West Virginia Democratic Party (WVDP) continued to maintain a supermajority in the State Legislature which it had held consecutively since the 1950s. In 1996, then-State Senator Joe Manchin lost to progressive State Senator Charlotte Pritt in the Democratic primary for Governor. Humiliated, the developing Manchin machine, joined by establishment Democrats reluctant to explicitly support Pritt, threw their support behind the Republican nominee and fueled the formation of Democrats for Underwood clubs all across the state. This effort resulted in a spoiled Republican victory, in a year where Democrats otherwise swept the Mountain State at the polls. Manchin would ultimately become Secretary State, Governor, and presently U.S. Senator for West Virginia, where his pursuit of power encouraged Democrats to concede popular progressive positions and adopt conservative positions.
Foreseeing the train-wreck decline ahead for the conservative Democrats, ordinary citizens decided to create the Mountain Party in 2000. Sure enough in 2014, the Democrats simultaneously lost the State House and State Senate, after being in consecutive control of the majority for over 80 years. In 2016, the Mountain Party set a record for a minor party campaign for Governor, and has since consistently maintained local officeholders and increased electoral performance records for other partisan offices. In 2020, the Democrats had their worst electoral defeat in West Virginia’s history. Meanwhile the Mountain Party, starting in 2018, has conducted a series of internal reforms to rebrand, rebuild, and professionalize the party.
In 2021, following a series of undemocratic and racist actions by the WVDP state executive committee, many former Democrats became disillusioned with the party and sought alternatives. Many voters — including folks such as former Democratic nominee for Congress Sue Thorn — have joined the Mountain Party.
Some progressives, however, are still on the fence, unsure which path they should take: Reform the Democratic Party? Exit and go independent? Join another party? Or abandon electoral politics altogether? The only path forward for progressives in West Virginia is to build a truly independent working class movement, and only one party in the Mountain State is doing just that.
WHY NOT THE DEMOCRATS?
Many progressives, inspired by Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaigns of 2016 and 2020, have advocated for working within the Democratic Party. At an undetermined time in the future, they plan to take the party over from its corporate owners and reform it into a working class party. This reformist, inside-out strategy is nothing new and has never worked.
In the same way you cannot reform capitalism to serve workers, you cannot reform a capitalist party to serve the working class. Operating within a capitalist party means playing by their rules, pledging loyalty to the party. Ultimately, choosing to stay with the Democrats requires accepting its corporate nominees and disavowing all other options. This was observed during both of Bernie Sanders’ campaigns when he lamentably endorsed Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, respectively, and even went so far as to defend them from progressive critiques. Given Sanders’ position, this was not shocking. However, it demonstrates the limitations of progressives— even independent ones— working from within the two-party system. Repeated with predictable certainty, working class candidates attempt to reform the Democrats, but instead the party reforms them.
Many progressive candidates, however, find it increasingly difficult to get elected when they run with the WVDP. The Democrats do not just ignore progressive campaigns, but actively sabotage them. The Democrats are an obstacle to progress — even if it means electing Republicans at the expense of their own left-leaning candidates.
Recently in neighboring Ohio, the Democrat establishment in collusion with corporate and right-wing interests such as Democratic Majority for Israel, flooded the congressional special election with millions in dark money to crush Nina Turner’s campaign.
Political parties are supposed to represent a group's ideals and values. In practice, a voter should be able to deduce where a candidate stands on important issues just by looking at their listed party. When it comes to the Democrats on the ballot, this is increasingly difficult to decipher; it is often unclear whether the candidate is a working class progressive or a right-wing corporatist. This is even more ambiguous with the WVDP being among the most conservative and reactionary Democrat state affiliates in the country.
As mentioned, the state executive committee of the WVDP recently has come under fire over allegations of racism, bullying, and intimidation. WVDP chair Belinda Biafore has overseen the party’s sharpest decline in elected officers and party registration in history. Despite this incredible failure, Biafore has refused to resign over the charges of racism and incompetence, even with calls by several of the party's own county committees.
Both major parties are so conservative that many politicians have felt comfortable switching back and forth between the two parties; this includes Delegates Jason Barrett and Mick Bates, Governor Jim Justice, and former U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins. The label of “Democrat” in West Virginia is virtually meaningless. Even progressives are lumped together in association with Joe Manchin; this directly damages the reputation of the most well intentioned Democrats. In contrast, the label of “Mountain Party” immediately invokes progressive ideals and working class politics.
WHY NOT GO INDEPENDENT?
Registering as a "No Party Affiliation" voter may make sense for those uncommitted to a particular strategy. However, for those who believe in a united strategy for the progressive movement, registering with no party affiliation atomizes the voter (or candidate) and isolates them from the movement. The campaigns of Independent candidates focus on what the candidate can do if they are elected — which is often very little without a party and base to support them. Independent progressive legislative candidates, once elected, are generally forced to caucus with a party. With no progressive party with which to affiliate themselves, these unaffiliated legislators inevitably caucus with the Democrats and lose all independence with which they once had. Even a small Green caucus led by the Mountain Party could have tremendous influence, especially if neither major party has an outright majority.
The most common justification for voters to register without a party is that they are permitted to participate in any party’s primary. For those wanting to build an independent progressive movement, however, this still distances them from that movement and provides a pathway back into mainstream Democratic Party politics. By registering with the Mountain Party, the voter dedicates themself to progressive ideals and rejects the conservatism of the other three recognized parties. The greater participation there is in the Mountain Party, the more competitive and fruitful the elections become.
WHY NOT JOIN ANOTHER THIRD PARTY?
While there are other organizations who endorse candidates or who may attempt to obtain ballot access, the Mountain Party is the only ballot-qualified progressive party in West Virginia, and has elected people to office. The strategies it utilizes are also different from other organizations. For instance, the Working Families Party — despite calling itself a party — does not have ballot access and does not run its own candidates. Rather, Working Families endorses other parties’ candidates, typically Democrats. By contrast, the Mountain Party is completely independent of the two major parties.
In states where Working Families has had ballot access in the past, they utilize fusion voting by co-nominating the Democratic nominee rather than run their own candidates, and typically do not support nominees from other progressive parties. Despite ostensibly existing to pressure the Democrat Party to adopt progressive positions, in 2018 the New York Working Families Party had opted to support incumbent congressman Joe Crowley, an establishment centrist, over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Currently, there is an attempt to form the “People’s Party,” a nonprofit organization better known as Movement for a People’s Party (MPP). Their ultimate goal allegedly is to become a recognized political party in West Virginia. Its unelected state director claims the purpose of forming this new party is to give the voters of West Virginia a progressive choice on the ballot. While this is an honorable goal in principle, the effect this unfortunately has is to mislead voters into believing that there is not already a progressive party on the ballot. This is counterproductive, unless it is the strategy of the MPP to splinter the already small movement that they claim to be building. Rather than starting from scratch and attempting to reinvent the wheel by forming another electoral party, it is best for progressives to work together to build a united progressive party, one that already has ballot access.
Furthermore, unlike MPP, the Mountain Party — and it’s national affiliate the Green Party — elects its party officers and organizers from the grassroots level. The MPP, by contrast, is run nationally as a 501(c)(4) non-profit by an unelected “Advisory Council” composed mostly of celebrities and controversial influencers such as Jimmy Dore, with a tendency to attack other progressives. In order to be a unified and successful movement, progressives must utilize bottom-up democracy rather than top-down bureaucracy. Movements must originate from —and be led by — the working class, not celebrities and social media personalities. The Mountain Party is the only progressive party utilizing this model in West Virginia.
WHY NOT JOIN A NON-PARTY ORGANIZATION?
There are other progressive organizations in West Virginia — such as DSA, WV Can’t Wait, the IWW, and more. While these organizations subscribe to different tactics, such as expediently settling to run with the Democrats or eschewing electoralism altogether, there are many Mountain Party members who find a shared value in these organizations and are therefore active dual members. The Mountain Party welcomes all progressive efforts genuinely striving to build real alternative political power for the working class, but stresses that such power must come from outside of the two-party system.
WHY NOT ABANDON ELECTORAL POLITICS ALTOGETHER?
It is absolutely understandable that some progressives have given up all hope in the electoral process, opting instead to directly support other worthy endeavors like mutual aid and union organizing. The Mountain Party commends these undertakings as they are an indispensable part of the progressive movement.
To be clear, the Mountain Party endorses a variety of strategies to achieve working class power. While electoralism is not a strategy in which everyone agrees is the best use of their time, it is a critical path for a core contingent of progressives to pursue in order to grow and sustain a real working class movement.
SO WHY THE MOUNTAIN PARTY?
The Mountain Party was founded 20 years ago by ordinary citizens as an alternative to the conservative WVDP. While the party has been successful in maintaining ballot access, electing local officeholders, and raising key issues (especially those of labor and the environment), it had serious imperfections; the unfortunate shortcomings of an inexperienced group of folks trying to challenge a seasoned political establishment was never going to work without a well-oiled political machine.
So the party took a hard look at itself in the mirror, and in 2020, it conducted a series of internal reforms to rebrand, rebuild, and professionalize itself. This is consistent with the growing pains found all throughout the Green Party, where state parties are formally parting ways with the center-left politics of Jill Stein and welcoming left, ecosocialist politics such as those laid out in the Mountain Party’s new platform. The differences could not be delineated further, away from the capitalist Democrat Party. The Mountain Party is building a grassroots movement, aiming to unite West Virginia’s working people against the capitalist controlled duopoly.
The Mountain Party offers the best electoral path forward for progressives in the Mountain State, if we coalesce with the full might of our resources to take on the two-party system from the ground up. Do not get it wrong; building alternative political power is difficult — especially when it relies on the resources of everyday working people, in contrast to the major parties fueled by corporate money and professional politicians.
We will start at the local level, securing city council seats, mayorships, and other local offices. We will build a foundation of support from these local offices in order to be competitive to take on the two-party system in races for county government, the state legislature, and state executive positions — including Governor. It will be an uphill battle, but it’s a battle that progressives can win if we stand united under one viable, independent party banner and dedicate ourselves to advancing the agenda of the working class.
Dylan Parsons is a State Executive Committee member of the Mountain Party. Robert Smith is the Mountain Party Communications Director. This written piece is the opinion of the authors only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mountain Party.
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