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.
That, in a nutshell, is what the Minnesota Senate race, where their state party is determined to run a candidate against Democrat Paul Wellstone and potentially tilt the seat into Republican hands, is going to mean for the Greens this year. Not one person I spoke to at the convention could tell me how taking 2-3 percent in that race would help build the party–but that didn’t stop many of them from beating their chests as if it would. “This is what democracy looks like,” Anita Rios, one of the party’s five national co-chairs, told me, insisting that she supported whatever decision the state party took. (After a Sioux Indian, Ed McGaa, won the party’s convention endorsement in May, his pro-war statements and quirky persona prompted a peace activist named Ray Tricomo to come forward, forcing a primary this fall.) Not only is this particular campaign driving a bitter wedge between Democratic and Green progressives in Minnesota and beyond, it is diverting attention away from far more promising Green candidates in places like Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Wisconsin and Texas.
Nevertheless, many Greens, along with Nader, seem willfully resistant to applying any political judgment to the Minnesota race. “You don’t undermine the candidates of a party you want to grow,” Nader told me in an interview during his brief appearance at a rally the party threw at the nearby University of Pennsylvania. He admitted he knew little about the actual candidates seeking the Green line for the Senate seat but insisted that didn’t matter. “Do the Democrats ever concede to a Green?” he asked. “Nowhere, unless you count Vermont, where they leave that seat to Bernie Sanders. Do I urge him [the Minnesotans’ Senate candidate] to drop out? Of course not. If Wellstone loses, he’s beating himself.” Nader was repeating the mantra he used against Gore, as if the differences between Wellstone and Republican Norm Coleman, the White House’s hand-groomed challenger, were as narrow as those between Gore and Bush in 2000.
Some Green Party leaders not only mimicked Nader’s reasoning, they seemed almost proudly ignorant of the stakes. When I asked Rios and Badili Jones, another of the party’s national co-chairs, if they thought there was no difference between a Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Vermont Democrat Pat Leahy or Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, Rios replied, with Jones nodding: “I’m not familiar with the Senate Judiciary or those individuals.” Greens from Minnesota defended their party’s decision in part by arguing that the state’s open ballot left them little choice but to find a candidate they could endorse, rather than risk that the line get taken by someone who didn’t represent them at all. Actually, that problem hasn’t stopped Greens in other states, like New Mexico or California, from avoiding challenging liberal Democratic senators like Jeff Bingaman or Barbara Boxer in the past. In Minnesota the Greens could easily have decided not to put up their own Senate candidate and to distance themselves from any freelancers, in order to focus on races they considered priorities like that of their gubernatorial candidate Ken Pentel, who will have the benefit of some public financing, inclusion in televised debates, Election Day voter registration and the fact that his is a genuine four-way race.
Many Greens used the controversy to argue that it showed the need for reforms to end the problem of vote-splitting. “It’s a double standard,” said Michael Feinstein, the Green mayor of Santa Monica and longtime editor of Green Pages, a party broadsheet, “for people to keep suggesting that the Greens have a responsibility to avoid hurting the Democrats rather than arguing that the Democrats have a responsibility to pass instant-runoff voting (IRV).” True enough. (Readers who want to help this valuable reform spread beyond San Francisco, where Greens played an important role in enacting it, should go to www.AlaskansForVotersRights.com and make a contribution to winning a similar ballot referendum there on August 27.)
But some insisted that these arguments didn’t absolve the party from exercising political judgment. Alan Kobrin, the co-chair of the Miami-Dade Green Party, showed me a letter his chapter had drafted urging the Minnesotans to back off the Senate race, put their energies into other state candidates and fight for IRV. “We risk losing our allies now,” the letter says, calling on Greens to show a broad progressive front against right-wing Republican control of the Senate. “We all make errors, but the worst error is to allow the error to persist.” Other party activists expressed similar views. Steve Schmidt, one of the key drafters of the party’s platform, called Minnesota’s decision “a disaster.” Told of the Miami-Dade Greens’ letter, Feinstein said, “That makes sense. I certainly want to see Wellstone stay in the Senate, compared to the Democrats losing the Senate.”
The problem for the Greens is that as long as they insist on heedlessly challenging Wellstone, they will define themselves as a party whose main purpose seems to be attacking Democrats as opposed to getting things done on behalf of aggrieved Americans tired of being manipulated by both parties. Worse, they lock themselves into an unproductive fight with Democratic progressives just when so many of their other more promising candidates need Democratic votes to succeed. At a moment when millions of Americans are feeling a fresh kind of economic pain brought to them by the stupidity and venality of both parties in Washington, it would seem much wiser to try to speak to those voters in a language they can hear rather than keep waging old battles that interest a fairly narrow band of the political spectrum.
After all, 2002 could turn out to be a banner year for third-party activists in America, on paper at least. Third-party efforts rise in tandem with major-party failure, and what screw-up could be bigger than the deregulatory policies that unleashed the wave of infectious greed that has now produced a $7 trillion stock market implosion? Even the post-9/11 glow of national togetherness has finally faded, with a plurality now telling pollsters that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Bellwethers like these may lead to US Special Forces landing in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit faster than you can say “wag the dog,” but in the current turbulent moment, it seems as good as a time as any to be in the third-party business. An economic populist like Nader with an activist base of similarly focused Greens could do a lot of good right now. It’s not too late for Minnesota’s Greens, and their supporters in other states, to wake up to that reality and shift course. Assuming, that is, that their goal is to speak to tens of millions of voters, rather than just the 2 to 3 percent that they’ve won up until now.