& GREENER VOTERS
From a talk to the Green Party
of Montgomery County, MD, May 14, 2005
Ten years ago next month a small
group of us staged a conference of third party activists that
led to several other meetings culminating in this country's first
Green presidential campaign in 1996 and, in suitably confused
order, a few weeks later in the formation of a national association
of Green parties.
Thus we can soon celebrate with
a peculiar mixture of pride and disappointment the first decade
of the American Green Party. The pride includes being part of
a diaspora of the first great political idea since social democracy
to spread across our globe without force of arms or even supranational
organization. Upon meeting with a Green from, say, Tasmania or
Africa, I am quickly reminded of how little borders interfere
with our conversation for the only geography that limits us is
the endangered atmosphere above our heads rather than some imaginary
line drawn on a map.
The pride also comes from something
that is still unappreciated by many Greens and certainly ignored
by the media - namely that based on public opinion polls, Greens
- despite their meager electoral showing - are the party that
best reflects the view of a majority of Americans on such issues
as the Iraq war, the environment, health care, campaign financing,
population growth, genetically modified foods, and marijuana
In short, while the public may not
elect us, they agree with us far more than they do with the so
called major parties on a number of major issues. That they don't
know this is a reflection of media bias, the successful agitprop
of the GOP and the Democrats, the Greens' lack of the legalized
bribery that funds the major parties, but also, sadly, it reflects
a willingness of Greens to accept the marginal role assigned
to them by America's establishment.
There is another poll that I can
not prove we have won, but evidence is pointing increasingly
in its direction - and that is the poll of history. History is
always the last precinct to be heard from.
As with every great cause in American
history from abolition to civil rights and women's liberation,
the final result is often on a time delay fuse. Ideas that are
ridiculed today become the accepted wisdom of tomorrow. It is
often better, if forced to chose, to win tomorrow's poll rather
than today's for today's winner often is demonstrating nothing
but the will and power to delay justice. Phil Hart once said
of the Senate that it was a place that did things 20 years after
it ought to. This sadly also applies to politics in general.
Finally, Greens have, on average,
less polluting, less violent, less authoritarian, and less myopic
than those of other parties. And, as I sometimes explain to folks,
I dropped out of the Democratic Party out of fear that I might
become liable under the RICO anti-racketeering statutes.
But a tendency towards virtue and
prescience is not always appreciated - it actually annoys many.
It is true, as the Mongolians say, that those who wish to speak
the truth had better keep one foot in the stirrup. Nonetheless,
it is useful to occasionally remember that whatever our failings
we have tried to do right and this, in and of itself, is one
of the great protections against doing wrong. Not a perfect one
to be sure, but infinitely better than its alternative which
is setting out to do we should know is wrong.
Now to a few disappointments and
problems, which I offer not in the name of ideology, certainty,
or righteousness, but more in the manner of fans discussing the
tactics of the last game over a beer. Too often, among the committed,
the choice of pass or run is regarded as an article of faith
rather than what it really is: alternative mechanical solutions
towards the same end.
For example, a shocking amount of
nonrenewable energy has been expended on arguing whether supporting
David Cobb or Ralph Nader was the right choice. Yet together
these candidates received less than one half of one percent of
the vote. Looked at another way, the candidates together received
2.3 million fewer votes than Nader had in 2000.
Before the election campaign I found
myself a somewhat lonely voice trying to suggest that while it
was necessary for the Greens to run a presidential campaign it
was not really where their future lay.
I had come to this conclusion by
a close look at the history of third parties over the past one
hundred years. One thing I found was that if you want to affect
national politics with a third party presidential run, getting
over 5% - preferably closer to 10% - is a good way to start.
Otherwise, you can probably expect a far less direct impact for
your efforts, coming perhaps decades in the future. And, in any
case, you can expect your swing at presidential politics to be
It is also worth noting that with
the except of Eugene Debs, all the most successful third party
presidential candidates drew primarily from disgruntled mainstream
factions. Further each of the third parties had only one opportunity
to make their point in a big way in a presidential race.
That does not mean, however, that
third parties - like certain insects - are merely born, have
sex, and then die. In fact, some of the third parties have had
long, remarkably healthy lives, but in large part because they
were as concerned with local as with national results. The Socialist
Party is the most dramatic example, with a history dating back
over 100 years. By World War I it had elected 70 mayors, two
members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials.
Milwaukee alone had three Socialist mayors in the last century,
including Frank Zeidler who held office for 12 years ending as
late as 1960. And let us not forget Bernie Sanders who stands
an excellent chance of being our first socialist senator, a fact,
come to think of it, the right will never let us forget. They're
already treating it as a shocking expose.
Some highly successful third parties
never ran anyone for president (except in fusion with one of
the major parties). An example was the Liberal Party of New York,
the longest lived third party next the to the Socialists.
My feeling is that the Greens should
follow the path of the Socialists and the Populists and infuse
themselves into every possible pore and precinct of this country
and in every possible way. This can be called viral politics
although, in truth, it predates such postmodern terminology with
deep roots in traditional political behavior.
We must bear in mind that most politics
today is largely based on acceptance of the tyranny of television
and other forms of mass media. This is, among other things, extremely
costly and a game Greens can't afford to play even if they wished
to. It is also inevitably top down politics. You can't have a
decentralized democratic movement run by TV.
But viral politics - whether done
through traditional local organizing or through more modern tools
such as the Internet - has not been eliminated by the media but
merely obscured. It is widely used, for example, by the Christian
right. And Howard Dean didn't do badly with it, either.
It could be used far more by the
Greens as well. Consider that in recent years as many as 95 congressional
races and 40% of all state legislative races have been uncontested.
What if Greens all over the country had been as diligent as Maine's
John Eder who not only won a seat in the legislature but won
it again after being redistricted?
And while the San Francisco mayoralty
may not seem as important as a Green presidential run, a few
days after election it suddenly dawned on me that Gonzalez' race
was not just local; for me it meant that there somewhere in America
there was a city roughly the size of my own in which 47% of the
voters agreed with me. That was a remarkably cheering revelation.
If we had Matt Gonzalezes and John
Eders all over America people would start talking and thinking
about Greens in a different way. Whatever our results in a presidential
race they would know that Greens really do matter in the 'hood.
How do we get to this point? A good
place to start is to stop thinking of the Greens so much as an
ideological grouping with a literal agenda and more as a community
of common spirits. Listen to how the Socialists' own history
describes their roots: "From the beginning the Socialist
Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals.
Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian
socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language
speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety
of American radical."
It can happen without even planning.
At one point the majority of the steering committee of the DC
Statehood Green Party consisted of three young staffers of local
labor unions. This is certainly not the image the Green Party
projects. I believe they had come in part seeking a community
that expressed their ideals better than their jobs did. In fact,
in almost every once great progressive movement one finds a restlessness
among the young. Many of these groups - civil rights, women's,
environmental - have become more bureaucratic, less imaginative,
and less brave with time. The Green Party - if it thought of
itself as a safe house for the idealistic, the rebellious and
the active - might be surprised at how many would like to drop
The problem is one of style and
tone as much as policy and pronouncements. Are the Greens fun
to be around? Do they make my work more useful? Am I strengthened
by the affirmation I feel even if we may disagree on some issues?
If, on the other hand, we take a
formalistic and bureaucratic approach to our efforts we will
be rewarded with formalistic and bureaucratic results. One of
these results will be to signal some that they won't feel all
that comfortable amongst us.
But if the feeling is that of a
community or a home, our work can be more productive, more pleasing
and more inviting.
John McKnight put it well when he
said that "The structure of institutions is a design established
to create control of people. On the other hand, the structure
of associations is the result of people acting through consent.
. . You will know that you are in a community if you often hear
laughter and singing. You will know you are in an institution,
corporation, or bureaucracy if you hear the silence of long halls
and reasoned meetings." He added:
- Community is built around a recognition
of fallibility rather than the ideal.
- Community groups are better at
finding a place for everyone.
If this seems naïve, come with
me for a moment to a time of when politics was so much a part
of New York City that Tammany Hall had to rent Madison Square
Gardens for its meetings of committeemen - all 32,000 of them.
In contrast, when the Democratic National Committee decided to
send a mailing to its workers some years back, it found that
no one had kept a list. The party had come to care only about
One 19th century Tammany politician,
George Washington Plunkitt, claimed to know every person in his
district, their likes and their dislikes:
"A young feller gains a reputation
as a baseball player in a vacant lot. I bring him into our baseball
club. That fixes him. You'll find him workin' for my ticket at
the polls next election day. . . I rope them all in by givin'
them opportunities to show themselves off. I don't trouble them
with political arguments. I just study human nature and act accordin'."
In the world of Plunkitt, politics
was not something handed down to the people through distant intermediaries.
What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience,
memory and gratitude.
So the first non-logical but necessary
thing we must do to reclaim politics is to bring it back into
our communities, into our hearts . . . to bring it back home.
We must not only make politics a
part of our culture but make our culture a part of our politics.
The first political campaign in which I took part - at the age
of 12 in Philadelphia - featured a candidate who made ten to
twelve appearances every evening on different street corners,
preceded by a string band that attracted the crowd. By the time,
he was finished he had held an outdoor rally for 12,000 in front
of city hall and defeated 69 years of Republican rule. How often
have you seen that?
I remember something else from that
period - a record my father brought home of labor songs. I do
not remember anything anyone said about politics from that time,
but I do recall bits and pieces of those songs. As Joe Hill said,
'A pamphlet, no matter how well-written, is read once and then
thrown away - but a song lasts forever."
Reaching out beyond our community
involves some changes. For example, liberals have increasingly
become openly angry at those with the very votes they need. Disparaging
huge sections of the country as hopeless "red states"
becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is indeed a frustrating
time, but there are a few ways Greens can avoid this liberal
It is useful to remember that bad politics gets people thinking
about the wrong things while good politics gets them thinking
about the right things. Segregation, for example, was in no small
part a successful effort of the southern white elite to keep
poor whites and poor blacks from discovering what they had in
common. When Lyndon Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell got what
was perhaps the greatest amount of good legislation passed in
the least amount of time in American history, it was not just
about civil rights - it was also about poverty and education.
In other words, they got the south and the rest of the country
thinking about better things.
We are taught today to think of
our opponents as intrinsically evil, but consider this: Of 21
currently safely GOP states, 11 have above average poverty, 12
have below average income and 8 have severe drought problems.
If you didn't know they were sacred Republican turf, you might
think they were excellent organizing ground for progressives.
Further, 15 of these untouchable states, allegedly impenetrable
behind their walls of faith-based family values, have above average
divorce rates - all of them at least 90% greater than despicable,
What if we got these places thinking
about health care, pensions, good water, and job security instead
of gay marriage and abortion? Remember that Christian fundamentalists
have been with us a long time; but there was a time when we called
them New Deal or Great Society Democrats. These matters are not
as fixed as we are told to believe.
One way to change the atmosphere
is to do it like AA - one day at a time, one step at a time.
Build your coalitions issue by issue. You may be amazed at what
you can create this way. I remember when we were fighting freeways
in Washington and I went to a rally whose two main speakers were
Grovesnor Chapman of the all-white Georgetown Citizens Association
and Reginald Booker, head of group called Niggers Incorporated.
I looked up at the stage and thought, we've won. And we had.
I tell folks that if an anti-abortion,
gun-toting nun wants to help you save a forest put her on the
committee. You will both learning something from the experience
and you will scare the opposition because what the elite hates
most is to find people who shouldn't like each other being on
the same side.
Loosening up on party organization
can help, too. For example, issue committees that function with
considerable autonomy often develop energy far more easily. Further,
if you're looking for better diversity, such committees can provide
an attraction for those who might feel uncomfortable in the larger
group. Latinos, who might not have much natural affinity for
hooking up with the Greens, might find a quite independent Maryland
Green Immigration Task Force much to their liking.
Another way to reach out to various
communities is through creative followship. If you want to make
friends one of the best ways is not to try to get them to do
something for you but for you to help them do what they want.
In the end, there will be plenty
who stand their ground far from yours. But even here there are
ways of ameliorating the situation. If someone says, for example,
they don't approve of gay marriages, I say then don't marry a
gay. I follow up by pointing out that one of the key virtues
of America is your right to do what you believe is right. But
in order to have that right, you have to give it to everyone
else as well. This is what is called reciprocal liberty. I can't
be free unless you are and vice versa.
This doesn't mean approval but tolerance.
As my father used to say to us: you don't have to like your relatives
you just have to be nice to them. (And I always thought he was
reminding himself as well)
I think this distinction has gotten
lost in today's political debate. I suspect that many Christian
conservatives feel that liberals are trying to get them to approve
of rather than just accept things that violate their beliefs.
My response is no, you don't have to like what other Americans
do, you just have to be nice to them. And that includes not banning
them from relationships and choices they have made, not disparaging
them or segregating them in any way. Remember, if you can make
gays do what you want, someday someone may decide to do the same
to Christian fundamentalists. Your freedom is not just a right,
it is a bargain you have struck with other Americans.
This, I obviously would hope, would
just be a first step. But it is an important one and it is through
making such distinctions that Greens can become not only the
wave of the future but the mediator of past troubles.
Finally, one external factor has
dramatically altered things for the Greens as well as everyone
else: the end of the First American Republic following September
11. Besides all its other horrors, the developments make it even
more difficult for a third party. But the war on terror is in
many ways a war to protect a tiny percentage of the American
elite and their capitals of politics and business. When the White
House went on red alert the other day, the mayor of Washington
- just a few blocks away - wasn't even notified.
Our situation is not unlike Orwell's
1984, in which only ten percent of the population were actually
members of the party; the rest lived in a countryside with relatively
Oddly, however, this presents an
unusual opportunity for the Greens. What if the Green Party declared
itself the party of the countryside, of free America, and set
its sights on organizing not just the survival, resistance, and
rebellion of the unoccupied homeland, but its revival, its discovery
of self-reliance, and its energetic practice of democracy and
decency? There is a logic to the Greens becoming the party of
free America. After all Greens are the party most in the American
tradition of decentralization, democracy, and cooperative communities.
And they have ample precedent in the grassroots Populist Party
which took on robber barons of startling similarity to those
now served by the Bush regime.
The important thing, however, in
discussing all these matters is for Greens to remember that they
are members of the same team, selecting the next play not to
prove their virtue but to improve their mutual position. The
virtue they can take for granted; the position will be determined
by each day's practical choices. If there is any virtue to be
consciously observed during these difficult decisions it is that
of kindness towards each other.
As for the rest of America let us
proceed on a course both radical and gentle, determined and patient,
critical of those in power yet kind to those they have misled,
and, most of all, serious in our intent, yet joyous in our manifestations
of that intent, spreading the message that a green world is not
only a better one, but a happier one as well.