Greens at the Crossroads
The US Green Party held its first-ever midterm convention since becoming a full-fledged national party in Philadelphia a week ago, and the gathering of seventy-nine delegates from thirty-nine states, plus another 150 or so party activists, offered a sometimes exhilarating but often frustrating glimpse at the party's development.
Buoyed by the 2000 Nader campaign for President, the Greens have 155 elected officials nationwide, including a number of mayors and city councilors, and more than double that number are running this year in nearly forty states. Not coincidentally, the best-attended part of the convention was a "campaign school" taught by several of the party's most experienced organizers. A simultaneous series of platform hearings drew a much smaller group of participants. Greens are even starting to get real about fundraising, pulling in more than $40,000 a month in donations to the national party office.
But that doesn't mean they have figured out how to get serious about their politics, especially now that they are aspiring to play on the national stage. For starters, the party has a dysfunctional relationship with its de facto standard-bearer, Ralph Nader. While Nader says "People Have the Power," he doesn't share any power with the party that put him on the ballot in thirty-five states. Instead, he has set up two parallel organizations--Citizen Works, which is trying to mobilize anticorporate activists, and Democracy Rising, which is putting on more Nader super-rallies. Thus, Nader hopes to tap Green energies while keeping his own autonomous campaign structure. In so doing, Nader maintains his cherished independence, but the result, sadly, is another missed opportunity to knit together local activists and progressive voters into a coherent national body.
But the disconnect with Nader is not the Greens' only problem. They also risk being hobbled by their own impatience, intransigence and decentralism. Until recently, the Greens were a loose-knit confederation of state parties that developed more or less on their own, adopting tactics that--if they were smart and lucky--fit local conditions and brought increased success. Against the odds, a few state parties began to thrive using a particular set of strategies:
§ They built a base through electoral work connected to community-based activism on bread-and-butter local issues (like fighting against gentrification and for a living wage, avoiding far-away goals like saving the whales).
§ They raised their public visibility by choosing selected higher-level races to pursue, preferably where the party already had a base.
§ They tried to focus their power to "spoil" races primarily on conservative Democrats, not acting indiscriminately, lest they turn off potential supporters.
§ They did their best to screen potential candidates for their attachment to the party's goals and structures, and when necessary they publicly disavowed freelancers.
§ They pushed for electoral reforms such as fusion and instant-runoff voting to allow people to vote for the best candidate and not the "least worst" contenders.
§ They took care to distinguish themselves from both major parties, and they emphasized their platform and ten key values to demonstrate their seriousness.
In my book, I describe in depth how the organizers of the New Mexico Green Party evolved this model over several years. States like California, Connecticut and Pennsylvania followed similar paths.
In a number of states, this is still the Greens' strategy. But now, just as they go national, patient party-building seems to have been replaced by a zeal to challenge the major parties anywhere and everywhere. In general, Green politics has moved sharply leftward since 2000, partly as a response to all the liberal vitriol the party received in the wake of Al Gore's loss, and probably also as a reaction to the right-wing shift of the country since 9/11. And since the Greens value decentralism so highly, any state party can potentially define the whole national enterprise. Thus, after years of being forced by local political realities to build a real base (or pay the consequences of being "too far out there" by remaining marginal), the Green Party is at risk of being fixed in the public's mind by the choices of its most flamboyant branch, whether or not those choices make sense for the whole project.