Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Ruth Milkman

Committee Members

James Jasper

John Mollenkopf

Leslie McCall

Subject Categories

American Politics | Politics and Social Change


American exceptionalism, Duverger's law, social movements


In 1998, an upstart “third party” called the Working Families Party (WFP) limped onto the political scene in New York State. Ten years later, the WFP was at the center of the electoral effort that wrested control of the New York State Senate from the Republican Party for the first time in many decades, and a torrent of progressive legislation ensued. This dissertation is a history of the WFP from 1998 to 2018, when the Republicans were again—and this time stably—vanquished at the state level and socialists began to enter state and federal office in a new way. To develop the historical account, I conducted twenty-nine interviews with WFP activists and leaders, examined organizational papers provided to me by the founder, Dan Cantor, participated in hundreds of WFP events and meetings, and read thousands of journalistic accounts of political developments between 1998 and 2018.

This study explores five questions. The first involves the party’s form: What is the WFP? Is it truly a political party? Secondly, what is the WFP in substance? Is it a progressive party, a labor party, or something else? The other three questions seek explanations for the existence, efficacy, and endurance of the WFP. In grappling with these five questions, I aim to shed light on the nature of the US party system in the twenty-first century, as well as on strategies and tactics that are most useful to the US left.

Regarding form, I argue that the WFP is indeed a political party, albeit one that typically lacks a system of “primary” elections for selecting nominees, a core dimension of the Democratic and Republican parties. Regarding substance, the study documents the WFP’s recurring dilemma regarding its relationship with organized labor, finding that it starts off as more progressive than labor party, becomes more of a labor party by 2008, and returns to its roots by 2018. I find that the party owes its existence at once to a legal opportunity, the fusion ballot, but also to key strategic decisions and contingent events; its efficacy emerges from the party’s relentless drive to figure out how to win elections, and on that sturdy foundation, it has developed a number of creative tactics that produce policy results time and again; and finally the party endures because it a) was able to rebalance its approach to key dilemmas in response to the changing political terrain, b) was willing to learn even from party enemies, and c) formalized party operations in the face of assaults from the right wing.

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