Micah L. Sifry, a former Nation associate editor, is co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, editor of its techPresident.com blog and senior adviser to the Sunlight Foundation.
Micah Sifry's August 1, 2001 Nation Online article, "Greens at the Crossroads," sparked a number of letters from many of those active in the Green movement. We've published six of them below along with a reply from Sifry.
New York City
Micah Sifry gets some things right. The Minnesota Greens' decision to run a candidate against Paul Wellstone is wrong; at this moment retaining a Democratic Senate is an important part of progressive strategy. And while Ralph Nader has helped the Green Party grow, the Greens must stop hanging on his celebrity and build on their own candidates and issues. But in contending that the Greens are too far left and should stick to economic populism, Sifry misconstrues the party's nature and purpose.
Unlike most electoral parties, the Greens are a hybrid--a social movement as well as an electoral vehicle. Instead of reflecting the "left wing of the possible," whose boundaries have become so narrow that yesterday's centrists are today's liberals, we have a vision of change that seeks to expand people's idea of what's possible and persuade them to act on hope rather than despair. This vision includes proposals for economic democracy that entail a strong anti-corporate position; the Greens are on the cutting edge of campaign and electoral reform. But our concerns are far broader. Our signature issue, ecological sanity, marks us off from virtually every other formation in American politics. We take the global context seriously: We are the only party to argue that the crisis of global warming requires radical changes in our way of life, especially democratic transnational institutions that confront rampant oligarchic capitalism. And unlike the economic populists who disdain social radicalism because they believe it is "divisive," the party is feminist and opposes the death penalty and the war on drugs. In short, the Green Party aims to become an alternative to the two major parties, not a single-issue organization.
Sifry seems to think the Green Party should exercise centralized political discipline over local organizations. But decentralization is the hallmark of a democratic social movement. The results are inevitably messy and contentious. (Indeed, from my perspective, some Greens are too cautious about distinguishing themselves from politics as usual.) But this does not mean the Greens are fated to remain marginal. Opponents of Green politics may use decisions like Minnesota's as an excuse to discredit the party as such, but most of our potential constituents are capable of understanding that we are not a monolith.
This is a moment of turbulence, when many elements of conventional wisdom are in doubt. It is the Greens' role to deepen those doubts and convert them into action.
(The writer is Green Party candidate for Governor of New York State.)
New Haven, CT
For the record, however Micah Sifry chooses to describe or analyze the relationship between Ralph Nader and the Green Party, he should have included some crucial facts. For example, since the November 2000 elections, Ralph Nader has headlined about thirty-eight fundraisers for the Green Party and its candidates, including seven joint fundraisers for the national and one of the state Green parties. This has helped Greens to raise over $200,000. When the fundraisers have been with the national party, Nader has also allowed the use of his donor list for that state, to assure that the fundraisers have had the best turnout possible. As part of those thirty-eight fundraisers, Nader has headlined fundraisers for the Green Party in conjunction with each of the Democracy Rising super-rallies. Democracy Rising also shares the list of the DR attendees with the state Green Party where the Democracy Rising event is held.
Finance Director, Green Party of the United States (title for identification purposes only)
For the record, the relationship between Ralph Nader and the Green Party is as good as it's ever been. While Micah Sifry would not be incorrect to point to strains in that relationship, it is surely an overstatement to proclaim, as he did in "Greens at the Crossroads," that the relationship is "dysfunctional."
While it's true that Nader has not agreed to many things the party has asked of him, it is also a fact that he has continued to actively support our growth and development. For example, since the November 2000 elections, Ralph Nader has headlined, at last count, thirty-eight fundraisers for the Green Party and its candidates, including seven joint state/national fundraisers, helping Greens to raise over $200,000. Nader also talks up the Green Party in the media and in his many public appearances.
It would be unrealistic to expect a historic and powerful figure such as Ralph Nader and a 250,000-member political party such as the Greens to have a smooth relationship. We are grateful to Nader for everything he has done for our party.
Co-Chair, Green Party of the United States
Micah Sifry quotes me and I feel takes my comments very much out of context. I agree in many respects with his analysis of the challenges facing the Green Party. But in regard to the issue of the Minnesota Greens running Ed McGaa, he seems to have done little more than justify his own fear and outrage, and paint anyone who does not share his apprehensions as hopelessly naive and out of touch with political reality. Of course I know who Senators Orrin Hach and Patrick Leahy are and the importance of the Senate Judiciary committee, but was not prepared to compare and contrast them for Sifry. What Sifry did not say in his analysis of the Green Party speaks volumes. He did not say that Badili Jones, an African-American, and I, a Latina, are part of a grassroots of "Citizen Leaders" who are driving the Green Party to become the mechanism for making real the myth of democracy. In addition to being co-chairs of the national Green Party both Badili, in Atlanta, Georgia, and I, in Toledo, Ohio, undertake the bulk of our activism on the ground and in our communities. We are both involved in numerous projects including efforts to address issues of racism and how it has manifested since September 11, 2001. Sifry didn't say these things because he probably didn't know these things, and he didn't know because he didn't ask, and he didn't ask because he was too busy running around acting like "the sky is falling," and blaming it on the Greens. What I expressed to Sifry when he interviewed me in Philadelphia was that both the Democrats and the Republicans have failed the ordinary people of this country and that the Greens should not be expected to insulate the democrats from their mistakes.
How presumptuous of Sifry to assume that my indifference to his concerns about the Senate race in Minnesota stems from ignorance. As the daughter of migrant farmworkers, as someone who has stood in welfare lines, as someone who has stood in unemployment lines, as someone who has known what it feels like to be hungry in America, I know very well the consequences of continuing with our farce of a democratic political system. And I am far more concerned about the reelection of Cynthia McKinney than I am about Paul Wellstone, and it isn't Greens who are running against her.
Co-Chair of the Green Party of the United States
East Windsor, NJ
Micah Sifry laments that the Greens "risk being hobbled by their own impatience." Just two years after our first major presidential campaign, nine months after being recognized by the Federal Elections Commission as a national party, one week after our first-ever midterm convention, the article holds us to awfully high standards of political maturity. I guess we could take that as a compliment of sorts, but I can't help feeling that Sifry is the one who's showing impatience.
He mentions "promising Green candidates in places like Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Wisconsin, and Texas," but cites a single problematic situation in Minnesota as evidence that "the Green Party is at risk of being fixed in the public's mind by the choices of its most flamboyant branch"--and he devotes more than half the text of his article to oy-vaying about that particular situation!
The movement for Green politics in the United States is clearly in its infancy. Based on reasonable standards of comparison (for instance, relative to initiatives like the Reform Party, New Party, Labor Party, and Citizens Party) the Greens are showing exceptional potential and impressive growth in all measurable areas: number of activists, registrants, votes, candidacies and electoral victories.
Constructive, empathetic criticism is most welcome, but we hope Sifry and all who wish to see a progressive challenge to the only-two-choices system will maintain some perspective. Even better--join up and help us achieve the standards we all agree to be desirable and ultimately attainable. We're on the road toward becoming America's third significant political party.
Green Party of New Jersey
Working with Anita Rios closely, as I do here in Ohio, I am not surprised that she did not profess to an intimate familiarity with Patrick Leahy or Orrin Hatch nor their possibly different approaches to running the Judiciary Committee of the US Senate.
What would surprise me is if Anita had not talked passionately about the need to empower the disenfranchised in this society. Nor provided details of the challenges Greens face in organizing grassroots opposition to corporate power. Opposition such as the rally Anita helped organize near Toledo the weekend after the national convention to urge the final and complete shutdown of the damaged Davis-Besse nuclear power plant on the shores of Lake Erie.
I also am not surprised that Sifry chose a comment by Anita that supported his thesis regarding Greens' supposed lack of strategic vision.
As for surprises, know now that you should not be surprised if we who fight in the trenches on a regular basis ignore the tut-tutting of armchair politicos who profess to offer guidance on the "proper" path. If the Greens eventually gain national power it will not be because we artfully finessed conflict and setbacks. We will have gained national power because we fought the tough conflicts and overcame setbacks and defeated, in an upset of millennial proportions, the entrenched powers that are sucking the lifeblood from this nation.
Convener, Green Party of Ohio
New York City
Since readers can easily find my original article online, I'm not going to reiterate all my arguments here, but just respond to what I see as the key points made by these letters.
1. Steve Welzer says I'm being impatient with the Greens, who are still in their infancy. Maybe yes, maybe no. As I see it, the Greens were in their infancy all through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, when organizers in a few states (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maine and New Mexico in particular) began building the electorally oriented state parties that became the core of the Association of State Green Parties (formed in 1997) that eventually absorbed its rival Greens/Green Party USA and became the Green Party of the United States in 2001. Some state parties are obviously much younger than others, having been spawned by the Nader campaigns of 1996 and 2000.
2. Besides, if the goal is to grow out of one's infancy, the question has to be: By what strategy? Steve is right to point to the Greens' growth and potential--all of which I noted at the beginning of my article. But new/minor political parties are incredibly fragile flowers. Stanley Aronowitz's wise letter suggests that he knows this. However, he misreads me when he says that I favor "centralized political discipline over local organizations." I don't (and in my book I criticize Ross Perot for trying to do exactly that to his Reform Party). The Greens of Minnesota are welcome to make whatever political choices they want: That is, as Anita Rios put it, what democracy looks like. But the rest of us, including Green activists and leaders throughout the country, can also either welcome those choices or criticize and attempt to revise them. That is not "centralized political discipline," but vibrant democratic discussion--another hallmark of a democratic social movement. And even though it is ultimately for Minnesotans to decide the US Senate race, since that race may well tip that body back into Republican hands, it is inevitably a question that Greens everywhere must face: Do you want your party to have that impact this year? Here's how the Miami-Dade Green Party answers that question (for the full text of their letter to the Minnesota Greens, click here): "We are a political party. So 'political fallout' is a perfectly valid factor in making decisions. Political fallout affects both our present and our future. The loss of a progressive voice. The loss of other potential allies to the Greens. And given the close split of the Senate, this could give Bush the full ultra-conservative control he seeks. We say, let Greens run for every state and local office we reasonably can. Let's get our best candidates and run for federal office as well. But let's pick and chose where that would most help us, and not hinder either Green Party image nor growth (they are intimately tied together)--and where it will not permit this nation to slide further down the slippery slope of repression."
3. Stanley makes a second criticism of me, that I believe the Greens have moved too far left and should stick to economic populism. Let me clarify on both points. I think the pressures of post-2000 Democratic whining, 9/11 and the war are impelling the Greens to push certain issues with a left style that may feel good and right to many core party activists, but will hinder the party's potential growth--especially at a moment when the party's anticorporate message couldn't be more in tune with popular sentiment. During the Green Party's convention in Philadelphia, I participated in a workshop on outreach to nonprogressives where Dean Myerson, the party's national coordinator, made a telling point. Greens, he said, need to recognize the difference between being activists, engaged in pushing their own issues, and organizers who seek to draw more people into the party by finding out what issues will move them. It's the difference between choosing to emphasize the plight of Mumia Abu-Jamal and the plight of low-wage immigrant workers, or stopping plutonium-laden rockets from being shot into space versus stopping CEOs from gorging themselves with stock options. I don't think party organizers should drop their social vision (feminism, opposition to the death penalty, war on drugs, antimilitarism, etc) at all, but I question whether they should lead with it. Stanley is doing this with his own campaign for governor of New York: focusing on a "tax and spend" agenda that seeks to rebuild the state's public infrastructure with the help of those most able to pay for it, and telling Greens that he's a meat-eater who thinks war can sometimes be justified. If Greens want to participate in their own marginalization, they can keep using language and picking issues that set them apart from less politically active Americans. My study of the rise and growth of third parties in contemporary politics suggests to me that what matters to most voters is not how a challenger positions him- or herself on some right-to-left checklist, but how well he or she connects to people's desire for a better life and shows how to carry them forward.
4. Jack Uhrich and Ben Manski both say that Ralph Nader has done lots of good things for the Green Party since 2000. I don't dispute that at all. But their letters confirm my basic point: The relationship is dysfunctional. It's all on Nader's terms. The party is the subject of his decisions at every turn, never the other way around. Part of this is a reflection of the Greens' problems with formally empowering their own leaders (as a result they have lots of behind-the-scenes jockeying and tension). But most of it is a result of Nader's reluctance to be bound to anything he doesn't control. He says that he isn't a Green because he doesn't want to be drawn into internal party disputes. But, to take a current example, that hasn't stopped his latest comments on the Wellstone race, where he dismissed the Green Party's candidate as unlikely to get even a few thousand votes, from being interpreted as an intervention in the party's affairs. Hidden, unresolved conflicts between the Nader staff and the Green base continue to fester. If you doubt that, take a look at democracywrithing.org, a critique posted by Maine Green Party activists unhappy with the top-down nature of Nader's "Democracy Rising" rallies. One could argue that none of this is any better that the actual relations between any top Democrat and their party, of course. But I don't think Greens want to brag about being as bad as the major parties on this score.
5. Anita Rios is right that I didn't ask her about her local activism; I didn't have time, nor is it clear to me what that has to do with her role as one of the party's five national co-chairs. (I did do a longer interview with Badili Jones, one of her co-chairs, earlier in the weekend). I didn't ask her to "compare and contrast" Orrin Hatch and Patrick Leahy, but to tell me if she thought it would make a difference if the Senate was controlled by Ds or Rs, and then followed up by asking if it made a difference if the Senate Judiciary Committee was controlled by Hatch or Leahy. Her letter makes clear that she doesn't see a meaningful difference. As for Paul Dumouchelle's letter, I read only rhetoric of a peculiarly messianic kind. Parties grow or stagnate because of many things, including the decisions made by their leaders. They have to finesse conflict and articulate a strategy, not just a vision. At this time in our nation's history, we desperately need smart third-party strategies. My intention in writing this article (as well as my book) was to try to ask some hard questions about that problem. Hopefully, the discussion will continue.
MICAH L. SIFRY
In responding to comments on his article "Greens at the Crossroads", Micah Sifry made a major misstatement of fact: "As I see it, the Greens were in their infancy all through the 1980s and into the early 1990s, when organizers in a few states (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maine and New Mexico in particular) began building the electoral oriented state parties that became the core of the Association of State Green Parties (formed in 1997) that eventually absorbed its rival Greens/Green Party USA and became the Green Party of the United States in 2001." Sifry's statement here is generally weak as a piece of historical analysis but that is not my concern. What is my concern, is that his statement that the Green Party USA has been absorbed by the Association of State Green Parties/Green Party of the US is simply untrue, although it is perhaps a wish fantasy in the minds of some of Green Party USA's rivals.
The facts are that the Green Party USA--which was organized in 1991 as a formal reorganization of the original US Green Party (Green Committees of Correspondence formed in 1984) still exists, with annual FEC filings, a national membership, a clearinghouse in Chicago, national officers, a website, two national publications, a Program and Platform and an ongoing political campiagn of radical grassroots organizing (which does not exclude electoral organizing as a strategy/tactic). This is a simple fact which no amount of denial or evasion can change. The Green Party USA is probably one of the very few Green parties in the world that has not succumbed to the reformist deformation of the original Green vision that has overtaken so much of the Green movement. Perhaps this is why statements of its "non-existence" appear in the press. I would appreciate a comment from Sifry.
<& "$_basedir/include/icaps.imhtml", style=>$icapstyle, letter=>'"A' &>rguing with intelligence, a massive array of facts and a sly wit, Sifry claims that our two-party system is a 'duopoly' that decisively dictates national politics through control of federal money and does not reflect the views or needs of many Americans." --Publishers Weekly, on Micah L. Sifry's Spoiling For a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America.
The attacks of September 11 have not only exposed the failures of our intelligence apparatus and the "blowback" problem of US foreign policy. They have also stripped bare how one branch of corporate America, the $273 billion airline industry, has successfully captured the government agency supposed to oversee it and bought off the people's watchdogs in Congress. This situation argues for far-reaching changes in how campaigns are financed and how government agencies are staffed.
The vulnerability of our airports can be traced, in part, to the role of the airline industry in lobbying year after year against any federal takeover of airport security and its insistence on contracting the work out to low-bidding companies that often pay little more than the minimum wage to the people who check passengers' luggage and X-ray their handbags. Last year the General Accounting Office found that starting salaries for screeners at all nineteen of the nation's largest airports was $6 per hour or less, with five boasting starting salaries of just $5.15 per hour. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), from May 1998 through April 1999 turnover at those same nineteen airports ranged from 100 percent to more than 400 percent. Argenbright, one of the four big companies that dominate the private airport security business in America, pleaded guilty in 2000 to several charges and agreed to pay $1.2 million in fines for falsifying records, doing inadequate background checks and hiring at least fourteen airport workers in Philadelphia who had criminal convictions for burglary, firearm possession, drug dealing and other crimes. In 1978, reports the New York Times, the FAA "found that screeners failed to detect guns and pipe bombs 13 percent of the time in compliance tests, while in 1987 the agency found that screeners missed 20 percent of the time. Since then, the agency has stopped releasing figures."
Despite these worrisome facts, the airlines and their lobby, the Air Transport Association (ATA), fought against any federal takeover of airport security because they didn't want to have to pay more for it and because they didn't want potential passengers scared off by longer lines or fears of a hijacking. And the FAA dragged its heels, in part because its mandate, written by a Congress addicted to millions in transportation-industry campaign contributions, has been not only to insure air safety but also to promote air travel. The airlines alone have given more than $65 million to federal candidates and parties since 1990, and spent roughly the same amount lobbying the federal government between 1997 and 2000.
Much of that boodle helped to weaken the implementation of new security procedures recommended by a 1996 presidential commission chaired by Vice President Al Gore, set up after the TWA 800 crash. For example, according to a report by Public Citizen, the commission's recommendation that the background of all airport employees be checked for criminal records was opposed by the industry because it would create administrative and financial burdens. Even Gore himself backed down on his commission's insistence that all bags be matched to passengers on all flights. The day after he wrote the ATA about his change of heart, campaign contributions started to pour in from the airlines to various Democratic Party committees at double their previous pace.
Many people in Washington have enriched themselves by maintaining this sordid status quo. Current or recent lobbyists for the airlines and/or the ATA include Linda Hall Daschle (wife of Senate majority leader Tom Daschle), Haley Barbour (former Republican National Committee chair), Harold Ickes (deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House), Ken Duberstein (chief of staff for Ronald Reagan and a crony of Colin Powell), Nick Calio (now President Bush's Congressional liaison) and former Senators Dale Bumpers and Bob Packwood. Three recent FAA administrators, including Linda Hall Daschle, have come from the industry.
So far, nothing has changed in the wake of the September 11 attacks. According to Paul Hudson, director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has "excluded all aviation security proponents, consumer or public representatives, air crash victim groups, former FAA security officials critical of aviation security and the manufacturers of advanced aviation security equipment from his advisory group" on new security measures, relying instead on the industry alone. The airlines finally came out in favor of federalizing airport screening, though by September 12 their lobbyists were already plotting the $15 billion taxpayer bailout. A month later, the thousands of laid-off employees, who lack a similarly well-heeled lobby, are still waiting to find out if they will get emergency unemployment, healthcare and job-training support.