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Synthesis/Regeneration 14   (Fall 1997)

Uniting Greens Around Four Big Ideas

Finding a Focus, Staying On Message

by Patrick Mazza, National Co-Chair, Association of State Green Parties

When US Greens talk about creating a united national organization, it is vital to point out which Greens and what exactly it is they're trying to do. Take all of the self-identified Greens involved in the alphabet soup of Association of State Green Parties and the Greens/Green Party USA, plus unaffiliated groups-all together these are but a small sliver of activists and citizens whose work and sympathies resonate with Green values.

That is a situation that holds great promise and one which motivates Green political activists to fill their unique, often difficult and turbulent niche in this vast social-political ecosystem. That niche, at least in aspiration, is a political party that does what political parties are meant to do:

Many environmental, social justice, and other progressive advocates are doing fine work on pieces of the puzzle. Greens hope to show how the pieces fit together. To that end Greens have spent a lot of time crafting broad-reaching programs, working in coalitions, and attempting to create organizations that reflect diverse interests. But when you're trying to build a vehicle carrying so much, it is easy to drive into any number of pitfalls, and Greens in the US seem to have found them all.

Efforts to gather large numbers of people with varying proclivities and priorities have generated centrifugal forces spraying splinter groups across the landscape. Groups have bogged in their own complexity, submerging under details of process and structure and seeming never to break surface. Sometimes arguments go on for so long people forget what started them in the first place. The big picture shatters into a fragmented mosaic, is splattered with distractions, or both.

...if Greens begin to focus on the big picture and point outward, we might stop devouring ourselves with bickering over internal issues that are petty by comparison.

Being both realistic and fair, chalk it up to human limitations. Keeping a focus is one of the most difficult challenges humans face, particularly a collective focus. In recognition of the human tendency to lose concentration, groups of all kinds from tribes to religions to businesses-and political parties-have opted to center around a few icons, mission statements or ideas. ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." "Workers of the world unite!" "Pizza in 30 minutes!") Greens have their own focalizing iconography in the key values. So when Greens seek unity, the key values are an obvious starting point.

A political party particularly needs a clear and fairly simple message. Greens want to communicate with a mass public that, especially in the anti-political context of American culture, has a limited attention span for politics. Pulled to and fro by family, work, etc., most people have only so many attention slots for political ideas. Witness the fact that most successful political campaigns in the US continually hammer on three or four main themes. (e.g., Ronald Reagan 1980-cut taxes, reduce regulation, beef up the military; Bill Clinton 1996-save education, environment and Medicare.) When Ralph Nader in 1996 focused his message on restoring democracy and reducing corporate power, he provided a classic example.

So, for both internal unity—to provide a sense of common purpose—and communication with the public, Greens might settle on several big ideas to put across. And if Greens begin to focus on the big picture and point outward, we might stop devouring ourselves with bickering over internal issues that are petty by comparison.

One might argue that focusing on a few big messages plays into the dumbing down of the American public perpetuated by politics and business as usual. Overcoming that pitfall requires an art form of selecting messages that have a larger educational value. They must be simple without being simplistic, comprehensive without being overwhelmingly complex, big without being boggling.

In choosing messages, Greens might begin with the original four key values (and as much as I love all 10, it's a lot easier to keep four in my head at once.) Here is one example based on a simple statement of the value, a big idea that derives from the value, and a major policy change to implement the idea. (Of course, this is just my take, though drawn from a sense of what Greens in the US and worldwide are talking about now.)

In each case, the policy goes beyond anything that politicians from the two major parties are likely to espouse. For instance, we will be hearing more about response to climate change as weather grows nuttier, diseases spread, and evidence mounts. But few if any mainstream politicians will go as far as calling for an end to fossil fuel burning. It is the role of third parties to stake out the most advanced positions, to put on the table ideas that the big parties won't. And in our campaigns we don't have to limit ourselves to just the "Big Four" ideas, just put them in the forefront.

One criticism that might be made of my simple list is that some of the ideas are not very simple-natural or ecological services, proportional representation, eco-taxes, property taxes on wealth, for instance. This points up the kind of organization we are trying to develop, the operational function that is at the heart of a political party. At root, it is an education/communications system. That is what we should see ourselves as.

Consider the two big parties. What is it that they are trying to do raising all that money we complain about? Primarily, they are buying media, and mostly TV time. They are creating a communications system to "educate" the public. If the task before us-building an alternative political party-often seems overwhelming, this at least helps to clarify the challenge. It is to generate a communications system capable of presenting and explaining a series of vital new ideas to the public.

Our limited resources are another argument for focusing on a few key ideas, rather than a long laundry list. At the same time, our limits should not be a cause of despair. An important point distinguishes Greens from the two major parties. They are mostly fundraising and media-buying operations. We are serious about building a grassroots expression, which is inherently more energy-efficient. A media campaign alone is far more expensive than a grassroots-media mix. We'll never have as many dollars as the Democrats or Republicans. But we don't need them. What we need is an optimum of adequate fundraising and a strong grassroots.

It is time to place a simple yet adequate agenda before the public, to say it loud enough, long enough, and often enough to get through.

Part of building that grassroots is creating our own media. Perhaps the most glaring gap in environmental and progressive funding is support for alternative media. Funders support campaigns and hope for coverage by mainstream media. This flies in the face of the experience of successful democratic movements in U.S. history. From abolitionists to women's suffrage to labor to civil rights, each developed its own communications media to set the tone and put out their message undiluted. Greens should set a major priority of building community-based media where none exist, and strengthening existing grassroots media. It is a natural mesh. Both political parties and self-generated media unite and focus movements. A political party worth its salt should have its own media.

This involves fully embracing the possibilities offered by the new electronic media. Neo-Luddites smashing computers notwithstanding, the democratic possibilities opened by new media are stunning. We can make our own daily newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television channels already, not to mention our own virtual town meetings and congresses. The number of people who can access the new media is growing exponentially. Electronic communication is already playing a discernible role in alternative politics. Within a few years, it will be at a critical mass sufficient to swing elections and mount major issue campaigns.

So let us focus on uniting ourselves as an education/communications system, bringing ourselves together around several big ideas and building the means to communicate them to the mass public. Greens have spent a lot of time in endless internal debates and fighting. All the time, the gap has been widening between the rich and the rest of us, democratic participation has been declining, vital needs have gone unmet, and the biosphere has slipped deeper and deeper into crisis. We don't have the luxury of time to fight among ourselves much longer.

It is time to get on mission and message, to turn our prime attentions outward rather than inward. It is time to place a simple yet adequate agenda before the public, to say it loud enough, long enough, and often enough to get through. Greens more than any other voice in politics have the understandings and ideas it will take to address the planet's spreading social and ecological crisis. If not Greens, who? If not now, when?

Patrick Mazza is national co-chair of the Association of State Green Parties, and an Oregon delegate to ASGP. The opinions reflected in this article are his own. Mazza can be reached at patmazza@teleport.com or (503)283-9621.

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