‘Radical to the Root’

‘Radical to the Root’

A talk with David Cobb, the Green Party’s presidential candidate.


September 28

David Cobb, 41, lawyer and community organizer, is the Green Party’s presidential nominee. He lives in Eureka, California, and works for Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County (www.DUHC.org).

Q: The peg for this piece is: What could Democrats learn from the Green Party? I’m not talking about electoral strategy, I’m talking substance.

I understand. I do want to let you know up front that I think the Democratic Party leadership is going to be unable to learn anything from the Green Party–bluntly–because our biggest message is a reaction to and rejection of the corporate takeover of our government, our society, our culture and our governing institutions. Now there are plenty of progressive Democrats who already know that lesson and are in agreement with that.

But I think what’s really driving the extraordinary and untold story of the growth of the Green Party is that ordinary citizens have had it–that we realize unelected, unaccountable CEOs are making the fundamental public policy decisions in this country, that we don’t have a functioning democracy and we’re trying to do something about it.

Q: Were you once a Democrat? Did you call yourself a Democrat?

I was. I will admit that I got my start in electoral politics as a Democrat. Actually I got my start working on apartheid politics while a student at the University of Houston. I’m proud of the fact that myself and so many other Greens understand that politics is not merely about elections. It can be something much deeper, anytime you are trying to have an impact on public policy.

I got my start in electoral politics while a student at the University of Houston as a key organizer for Jesse Jackson’s campaign for President. I worked on Jesse Jackson’s campaign in 1988, then I worked on Jerry Brown’s campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1992.

That is actually the year I became so disgusted by the corporate money and realized the kind of progressive politics I wanted to do and bring forward really couldn’t be done by the Democratic Party because the corporate money was like a cancer that had metastasized within that body. Even though there were great progressive Democrats, ultimately that money ruled the day. It was in 1996 that I got involved in the Green Party.

Q: Tell me about the campaign. Is it fun?

Well, I find it exhilarating, because I have the distinct pleasure of traveling around the country and meeting with other people–ordinary people–trying to do something extraordinary, ordinary people rolling up their sleeves to try to create an actual progressive political party that will put people’s needs before corporate greed. That’s kind of phenomenal to think folks have the audacity to create an alternative political party in a system where we’re excluded from the debates, where the corporate media either completely ignore us or marginalize and ridicule our efforts. And we’re operating in a system where people really have to feel they must vote against what they hate rather than for what they want.

Q: Who are you talking about?

Well, I’m talking about the fact that we have a voting system where people are conditioned to believe they have to cast their vote for the lesser of two evils. You know, this winner-take-all voting system is really the biggest problem. Poll after poll shows that the majority of Americans favor more progressive policies than are put forward by either Democrats or Republicans.

Let’s just be clear. Principled liberals have clearly been sold out and lied to by the Democratic Party leadership, but so too have principled conservatives been lied to and sold out by the Republican leadership. I think that observation is what’s driving the fact that over half of this country does not even bother to vote in presidential elections, and in off-year elections the number drops even more precipitously.

Q: What are you hoping for this year?

Well, my goals in this campaign are to grow and build the Green party. I want to conclude this campaign with more registered Greens, more people who are actively participating in their Green Party locals. I want there to be more elected Green office holders, so they can demonstrate that Greens have not only a philosophy but ideas that can be implemented and make people’s lives better. I want to articulate that the Green Party is a serious, credible political party with a serious, credible platform for deep systemic change.

Q: You’re getting good crowds, respectable at least?

Yeah, respectable.

Q: What tells you you’re making headway?

Everywhere I go, people do register for the Green Party. I make the case: I want you to vote for the Green Party, not only for President but down-ballot. In addition to that, we are urging everyone to register into the Green Party because it’s a way to vote for justice, democracy, environmental protection every single day.

You are really sending a powerful and profound message that says I am affirmatively withdrawing my consent from this corporate takeover of my government. Over half a million people have already done it, and that number is growing.

Q: What you’ve been saying puts me in mind of the Populist party, the Farmers’ Alliance. It’s an interesting turn of American life that you are essentially back at the same task–a self-educating movement with almost no help from the larger institutions of society.

In fact, let’s be candid. It’s not just with no help, it’s with active opposition. As Lawrence Goodwyn describes in The Populist Moment, it’s because we really are challenging cultural assumptions and we’re going through that process. I photocopied the introduction to The Populist Moment–it’s only about ten pages–and I make it a point every couple of weeks to read that. It’s to remind myself of why I do what I do. Goodwyn describes a chronological, four-step process in forming an autonomous movement, educating, et cetera, and I think we’re in the early stages of doing that in the Green Party.

Frankly, it is not the Green Party name that is profound to me. It is the fact that there is a growing awareness in a segment of the American population that says, not just that the policies my government is pursuing I don’t agree with but that we do not have a democracy in this country. Democracy means the people rule. Today unelected, unaccountable CEOs are not just exercising power over us; they are literally ruling us. They are making the public policy decisions for us.

Genetically modified foods were introduced into our food supply not because of our elected representatives but because the CEO of Monsanto corporation and Archer Daniels Midland corporation decided to put it there. That decision was made behind closed doors in so-called private boardrooms. And they said, because it’s a private decision, the public is not even allowed to know about it, much less provide input. When you put genetically mutated organisms into our food supply and don’t even label it, damn it all, that is a public decision. We could go right on down the list of the public decisions made in private day in and day out.

Q: Go back to Goodwyn’s book. Where do you think you are in that process?

Remember that Goodwyn makes very clear his belief that it really is necessary to be absolutely chronological, and I want to say I actually disagree with that, given the new age in which we live. Information moves in different ways than it did during the agrarian revolt. So although I don’t believe the sequential process must take place, I do believe he has accurately described the factors, the four stages for movement building. We are actually sort of in steps one and two simultaneously. Step one is when you actually create autonomous institutions that run counter to what he calls the prevailing authority, what he calls movement forming. The second step he calls movement recruiting–the creation of some sort of tactical means to attract large numbers of people.

That’s why I say we’re in two different stages. Because the Green Party, for better or for worse, does seem to be the place where people are coming together. The third step is what he calls movement educating–taking some sort of analysis that had previously been unsanctioned by what the elites and the dominant power structure allow. Step four is what he calls the movement politicized, as the creation of some sort of institutional structure, where these new ideas have now been completely infused–folks in the movement are steeped in it–and can be expressed in some sort of autonomous political way. That’s the movement politicized.

At one level, the Green Party is trying to do all four at once. At another level, I really want to grapple with your question. Where are we really? We’re trying to do all four at once, but we are probably still doing step one, but also doing step two–heavy-duty movement recruiting.

What I think is the untold story is the Green Party itself. Frankly, this story is not David Cobb. I’m humbled and proud to be the party’s presidential nominee, but really the story is the growth of the Green Party. In 1996, when I first got involved, there were only ten organized state Green parties in the entire country, and only five of those states actually had a ballot line where people could run for public office as Greens. At that time, there were forty elected officeholders.

By 2000, we had slowly, methodically built and grown to the point where we started the 2000 election with twenty-one organized state parties, ten of those states had a guaranteed ballot line and there were eighty-one elected Green officeholders. And of course in 2000 George Bush steals the election. The Democratic Party leadership, rather than fighting to secure the election they won, instead immediately goes on an attack of both Ralph Nader and the Green Party, blaming us and calling us spoilers. And yet in that hostile environment between 2000 and 2004, the Green Party grew from twenty-one to forty-four organized state Green parties. We started this campaign with twenty-eight state ballot lines and right now have 207 elected Green officeholders. We have 500,000 self-identified members through registration or petitions. We’re getting larger.

Q: Professor Goodwyn also taught us that autonomous movements are extremely difficult to start.

Right…. But what does keep me going is the realization that, as difficult as this is, what Larry outlined is really the work. Real movement-building is the work. And I honestly believe that’s what the Green Party is engaged in.

It’s not that I’m trying to quibble, but you know what? The Democratic Party leadership can’t learn anything from the Green Party because they are actively opposed to what we’re trying to do. Now, rank-and-file Democrats are not. Members of the Democratic Party desperately wish their party could provide the space for really a democratic following and could unleash a little-d democratic spirit. But it just can’t because that’s not what they do.

Q: If rank and file had their heads on straight, do you have an idea what they might be able to crib from you?

I do, actually. What rank-and-file members of the Democratic Party could crib from us is that they have a helluva lot more power than they realize. If only they would exercise it. Exercising power as a member of any political party is not merely voting in the primary. It is to actively engage to pressure, day in and day out, your own organization and institution. And to begin to grapple with the fact that we don’t have real democracy where the people rule. Because, remember, you don’t get real democracy merely by voting. We’re going to have to change a legal system where property rights are more sacred than the human rights of individuals. We have to challenge a corporatized media where the truth is not told. Rank-and-file Democrats could learn that, when you unleash the democratic spirit for members and encourage them to act autonomously and individually, it is nothing short of staggering.

Actually, you, know, a perfect example of that is Howard Dean–Howard Dean tapping into and using the Internet phenomenon and meet-ups and really encouraging people to get out there and campaign. We’re not telling you exactly what to do. We’re going to make tools available to you, but people weren’t rallying around Howard Dean as a personality or even specific proposals. They were rallying around somebody who was really railing against George Bush as a model for all that was wrong. The tools of his Internet campaign were not going from Dean to others. What Howard Dean’s phenomenon demonstrated was that if you actually create a system where ordinary folks feel like they can do something and get actively involved and engaged, they have a lot of power.

And I tell you, there’s no doubt in my mind that Howard Dean was destroyed by a combination of the Democratic Party leadership and corporate media. You know, two and a half weeks before the Iowa caucuses he was really all but the Democratic Party’s nominee. Dean goes on one of the Fox News programs, Bill O’Reilly, maybe Chris Matthews, whatever, and he says, another thing a Dean administration is going to do is really dismantle this consolidation of the media empire. We’ve got to repeal the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and really open it up so the people can use the airwaves. The next day, the corporate media began the incessant, repetitive chant of “Howard Dean is not electable.” The electability thing–all the stations began doing it, just this constant refrain of “Howard Dean can’t beat George Bush.” Why are the Democrats going to nominate somebody who’s not electable? Knowing full well that was what was really motivating most Democratic people. It became a drumbeat, so by the time Dean came in second in Iowa, then they used the scream.

Q: Two possibilities you see for the future. One is that rank-and-file Dems, people within the party who are not going to identify with the Greens anytime soon, actually figure out they’ve got to build some kind of rump group or counterforce, whatever you call it, within the Democratic Party. The other alternative is that the Green Party chugs along as it has. Of those two, which do you think? Is the first likely or possible at all?

I mean it’s possible but I don’t think likely because, even though I see really great and encouraging signs of attempts to form rump groups and caucuses within the Democratic Party, they are not really grappling with the fact that the party leadership is so thoroughly dependent and addicted to the corporate money.

Another metaphor for the Democratic leadership is that it’s like a huge statue but it’s completely hollow and only the corporate cash is keeping it upright. Rank-and-file folks are not actively participating in the Democratic Party leadership. Howard Dean is trying to create a rump group, Kucinich is trying to create one and those are promising signs. Unless they really grapple with what Larry Goodwyn identifies as a necessary step. It has to be autonomous in order to really challenge the cultural myth.

Q: So how do you envision the Greens actually getting power?

Here’s how I actually envision us getting power. There are those of us in the early stages and true leadership who understand Goodwyn’s advice–a warning really–so we are committed to staying truly autonomous. As we do our work and we’re continuing to educate people, we continue to infuse that kind of radical analysis. And I mean by that, radical to the root. We are in that sense radicals so that we continue to grow and are able to resist attempts to co-opt us.

How? Well, right now, let’s acknowledge that John Kerry and the Democratic Party are not pre-empting any of our policy positions: Universal health. The living wage. Repealing NAFTA and the WTO. Those core positions are not being co-opted. But if we continue to grow, there will be attempts to co-opt those positions. That’s the biggest worry, frankly. Let’s say the living wage is raised to ten bucks an hour. That would have such a profound impact on the living poor in this country, right? But it would not actually get us to a real democracy, would it? Even universal healthcare–if we took the Medicare system and made it available to everyone, the quality of life for working people would be profoundly improved. Yet it wouldn’t get us one step closer to real democracy.

So what is the danger to navigate? To be able to build enough pressure and not to allow us to be bought off by issue statements. By saying: We want those issues addressed, but at the end of the day we are demanding real democracy, where the people rule.

The best and most hopeful way that I can envision that actually being accomplished is if the Green Party forces genuine electoral reform. Instant-runoff voting is the first step, but the real prize for reform is proportional representation. Moving toward a genuine multiparty democracy, where every voice is not only heard but everyone feels like they have genuine representation in the political system. So the real goal here is electoral reform and multiparty democracy.

As we continue to build autonomous institutions and our analysis deepens about who really controls and who’s making the policy decisions, we need to continue to find ways to say all this in a very popularized language. Look, we’re just heirs to the revolution, we come out of the Jeffersonian tradition, the abolitionists and others. It’s like the work my colleague Tom Lindsey is doing [in Pennsylvania] to find ways to convince local communities to exercise real power that runs counter to what they’re told they are allowed to do. It’s also the work we do in the group I am with–Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County. We need to help locate specific locations where the people are willing to exercise real political power and nullify [the government’s power]. The nullification movement is all over. Green Party member Dave Meserve, who’s elected to the city council in Arcata, California, successfully passed the first-ever anti-Patriot Act city ordinance. Now we know there are 350 anti-Patriot Act resolutions and, of course, resolutions are important as a sense of the body. But Dave Meserve has taken it a step further in the city of Arcata–a binding city ordinance that says we don’t care what the federal government says, we are instructing our police department, librarians, our city clerk never to comply with any requests from federal or state governments to attempt a sneak-and-peek or other provisions.

Basically, we are nullifying several provisions of the Patriot Act because we find that those provisions are an unconstitutional violation of the civil rights of the citizens of Arcata. Come after us if you want. In fact, we understand, those of us who are radical democrats, they are going to come after us. We will have either a genuine movement or not.

Q: How do you get even the first steps to electoral reform? What’s the hook that gets either major party to go for you?

Fair enough. We have seen examples where winner-take-all election systems have been successfully challenged throughout the world. This is one of the things that gets me jazzed up. Every single time successful electoral reform happens it was because there was an alternative political party that refused to go away.

They said, look, what you call spoiling we call participating. We’re going to exercise our democratic rights to participate. If you think our participation is spoiling, then the solution to the problem cannot be to restrict our voice or prevent voters’ choice. The solution is to change the voting system. Everywhere there has been change in the voting system, it’s because there was a tenacious political party–actually on the left and the right–that refused to go away.

The Libertarian Party is there and has demonstrated that. The Green Party, really for the first time in 2000, is at the level where we’re being noticed. The Libertarians have been around for two and a half decades in a fairly visible way. Enter us. So I’m actually seeing the ingredients for the recipe for the first time. Now, putting them together means we have to run candidates for office.

Every time a progressive Democrat laments to me or wails or screams at me, I very calmly say, “I appreciate where you’re coming from but, you know what, we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and we’re growing.” We are getting larger and stronger and better organized with every election cycle. If you really think our growing strength is a problem, then the solution is to work together to change the voting system. Every rank-and-file Democrat that I’ve explained instant-runoff voting to was excited about it. What we have to do is demonstrate that there’s a problem, and the solution is instant-runoff voting. I look forward to San Francisco, where they are actually using instant-runoff voting in this election cycle.

Q: The solidarity with labor and emphasis in your platform on working people’s concrete, immediate stuff–are those issues a recent change or coming from you?

Well, I’m one of them, Bill, I’m proud to say. I’m the only presidential candidate in this election who grew up in a house without a flush toilet. I don’t say that to get a pat on the head but to underscore that I grew up in poverty–real poverty–and my running mate [Pat LaMarche] grew up in a public housing project in Providence, Rhode Island. So when I rail against the corporate capitalist system that oppresses workers, I’m speaking from my own experience. I’ve seen it up close and personal. I’ve been a dishwasher, a construction worker, a deckhand on shrimp boats, a waiter in restaurants. I know what Barbara Ehrenreich writes about in Nickel and Dimed.

You know, the Green Party is really composed mostly of working-class people. The constant refrain is that Greens are nothing more than upper-middle-class environmentalists, but you know what, that’s the Sierra Club, not the Green Party. The Green Party is actually composed of working-class people. And I’m personally proud of the fact that early in my Green Party days I helped to bring together radical environmentalists from the Earth First! movement with the steel workers who were both fighting a mutual enemy, Charles Hurwirtz of the Maxxam Corporation. I don’t think I did it, but I was one small part of helping to bring those folks together and create what now is known as the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment.

There are no good-paying jobs on a dead planet. Finding the kind of solidarity around issues of mutual concern is the key to real movement building. I did learn that working on Jesse Jackson’s campaign, by the way. As a white person, I learned how to put myself under the leadership of persons of color. As a man, I learned to put myself under the leadership of women. Jesse in that campaign demonstrated to me the profound power of true partnership coalition, when constituencies come together and are willing to give a little to win a lot.

So I’m proud that the Green Party’s platform really fuses the concerns for working people–tangible benefits right now–with the sense of ecology that the Greens have always had.

Q: A lot of the Green Party platform reads to me like it was a minority plank in the Democratic platform of, say, 1948 or 1952.

You know why it feels like that? Because it is. I mean, seriously! Henry Wallace is infused throughout that document. Fannie Lou Hamer–her fingerprints are all over it, even though she never touched it. It’s because every one of those movements, though I don’t know if they did so consciously, were also attempts and gestation moments for the kind of movement building that Larry Goodwyn describes in his book.

What I think makes the Green Party stunning in its potential is there are those of us in the leadership of the Green Party who understand Goodwyn’s message and are working our asses off trying to make sure we do all four of those things. And, as Larry Goodwyn said, nothing is more difficult–nothing–and yet nothing is more important to success if we’re actually going to create a real democracy.

Q: Compared with the 1880s, one of the big differences is obviously the media and communications; that is much more fluid and easy, compared what those folks were up against. How do you think through that? You don’t have the big megaphones, and the big megaphones are not going to be offered to you.

No, they’re not and, in fact, they’re going to be turned against us as soon as folks realize what’s going on. Gandhi said systemic social change is a four-step thought process. First, they ignore you. Second, they laugh at you and ridicule you. Third, they fight you. Fourth, you win. There was a fifth step actually which is everybody else looks back and says, oh, that was inevitable. Of course, slavery had to end. Of course, child labor had to end. Of course, women had to get the right to vote and be able to enter into contracts in their own name.

Now media. I’m saying not only that they have bigger megaphones than I do but they’re going to be turned against us, and I understand that. On the one hand, I am depressed when I think back to the agrarian revolt and the vibrant, rich number of newspapers and editors that were out there muckraking in the same spirit and tradition. But I’m heartened when I realize the same basic phenomenon is going on in the digital age around independent media. The most exciting thing I’m seeing is the media democratization movement that’s being led by folks like Bob McChesney and John Stauber and John Nichols and others. Think of the growth–really the explosion–of ordinary people involved now. I think it was the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Thank you, Bill Clinton!

I just want to say that there’s no doubt in mind that Bill Clinton created the conditions for the growth of the Green Party. It really is true that Clinton and his capitulations to the neoliberals and the elites–really selling out organized labor and the environmental movement–did create conditions where more of us than ever before said: “Stop it. We’ve had enough. It’s over, we’re done.”

I think it’s important to comprehend that the real firebrands of political organizers are not in the Democratic Party any more. Now some of them are in the Green Party. Others of them have turned their backs on electoral politics completely and, frankly, that’s OK with me because they’re doing movement work as well–ecological stuff and antiglobalization. If we do our job right, then we will coalesce.

Q: What about labor?

The Green Party has already formed a true labor caucus, open only to those rank-and-file members who are trade unionists and being led by folks who are shop stewards and actually presidents of locals. The break is already happening at the rank-and-file level, because the president of a local is a whale of a lot more important.

What does that tell us? It tells us that the psychic break is happening among rank-and-file leadership. The shop steward or the president of a local is so much more influential in organized labor than John Sweeney is. There are these seizures within organized labor, and they aren’t done yet.

Also, let’s look at the big environmental groups, Sierra Club or any of these other groups. They have been mainstreamed and therefore have basically already accepted co-optation and are working at the margins. Look at the number of people who consider themselves environmentalists or ecologists and are not participating in those big mainstream groups, but instead are trying to find ways to do local issue work on the ground. Unleashing that potential is what’s critical….

Q: Is Ralph Nader overshadowing you guys this year?

Well, let’s put it this way. He’s a celebrity, isn’t he? And I don’t mean that like being a basketball player or performer. He’s spent a lifetime doing good and noble work. So he’s getting a lot more attention, as you can tell if you flip into the corporate media. They’re paying attention to Ralph. But I don’t understand what Ralph’s goal is in this campaign. I really don’t. In 2000 his stated goal was building the Green Party as a challenge to the two-party system. What is he doing now? I don’t know.

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