During the 20 years that he has led the social democratic Working Families Party, Dan Cantor has waited for the left to get serious about building power through local politics. “People, sophisticated people, barely know who their state senator is,” he told me. A significant portion of nonmilitary spending in America is done at the state and local levels, he pointed out, “so it’s not like these are trivial offices. This is where people live.”
The religious right has long understood this. It became a major part of the Republican Party by systematically capturing seats on school boards and city councils. But many on the left either disdained electoral politics altogether – preferring demonstrations like Occupy Wall Street that quickly turned into ends in themselves – or gravitated toward nihilistic spoiler campaigns like those of Ralph Nader and Jill Stein.
Donald Trump’s election has changed that, spurring progressives to search for ways to exert power in the face of terrifying powerlessness. They have flooded into down-ballot races, bringing them unprecedented attention. (When Ashley Bennett defeated an Atlantic County, New Jersey, freeholder who had mocked the 2017 Women’s March, it was a national story.)
So it’s a little bittersweet that Cantor, 62, is about to step aside as director of the WFP just as his vision is being realized. “The aging Jewish radical can take you only so far,” he joked.
Cantor’s successor will be Maurice Mitchell, a 38-year-old organizer with experience in the Black Lives Matter movement. This changing of the guard has important implications for the left. The WFP was born in 1998 as an alliance of labor leaders and community groups like the now-defunct Acorn. Mitchell wants to make it home to a new generation of activists who are part of a historic upsurge in popular protest, fusing Bernie Sanders’ class politics with a focus on racial and gender equality.
According to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 1 in 5 Americans have either protested or attended a political rally since the start of 2016. These activists, many newly minted, are overwhelmingly anti-Trump. Mitchell aims to make sure they turn their revulsion into votes. “There’s all these mass movements, from Occupy all the way down to this most recent student movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement and the #MeToo movement,” he told me. “Could we create an electoral expression of these movements?”
Plenty of people in these movements, of course, aren’t particularly radical and are perfectly at home in the Democratic Party. As Lara Putnam and Theda Skocpol wrote in Democracy Journal in February, much of the anti-Trump resistance is made up of middle-aged suburban women, and most identify as Democrats. But for people on the left who feel alienated from the Democratic Party, the WFP can be an on-ramp to electoral politics.
The WFP is entirely pragmatic about the limitations of a third party in a two-party system. It runs primary challenges against centrist Democrats in places where more progressive candidates look viable, particularly in down-ballot races. But it’s careful not to act as a spoiler in general election fights, where it often works alongside Democrats. Cantor describes the WFP as an “independent faction” of the Democratic Party; its model is more akin to the Tea Party than the Green Party.
“I want to be part of a left, but a left that has a very sober assessment of where we are today, so we can build this visionary future,” Mitchell said.
The WFP’s endorsement is particularly sought after in New York, where the party was born and where it helped make Bill de Blasio mayor of New York City. Cynthia Nixon hopes to get its nod in her primary against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and I suspect she will. Though Cuomo won the WFP endorsement in 2014, many party activists believe he backtracked on his promises and feel betrayed. If the WFP does throw its weight behind Nixon, it will be one of its highest profile challenges to an establishment Democrat and will elevate Nixon’s campaign considerably. “They know how to knock on doors and get out the vote, and they don’t give up,” Nixon told me via email.
Since 2010, the WFP has expanded nationally and now has chapters or organizing committees in 19 states. In 2017, it endorsed more than 1,000 candidates for state and local office and helped elect people like Larry Krasner, the Philadelphia district attorney who is fighting mass incarceration, and Chokwe Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, who aims to make his city “the most radical city on the planet.” Ryan Frankenberry, who founded the WFP’s West Virginia affiliate last year, helped coordinate that state’s victorious teachers’ strike.
Building a party that can simultaneously encompass feminist actresses in Manhattan, black liberationists and white Appalachian strikers is no small thing. All over the world, right-wing populism is ascendant, and so far we have little evidence that multiracial left-wing populism can successfully challenge it. But one thing that Trump’s election taught us is that just because something has never happened doesn’t mean it can’t. “Can we merge these ideals with serious electoral heft?” Mitchell asked. People dreaming of a country that’s egalitarian, cosmopolitan and humane have no choice but to try.