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Synthesis/Regeneration 16   (Summer 1998)

Green Party Potential Transcends Elections

by Dan Coleman, Iowa City Green Party

In Synthesis/Regeneration 15 (p. 28), Steve Hill described the Green Party as "the electoral arm of the green movement. That is our unique contribution to our society, our movement, and our planet" (emphasis in original). This formulation understates the potential role of the Green Party and overstates the importance of electoral politics to the task of building an ecological society.

The left has not had a unifying analysis or ideology since at least the demise of the New Left toward the end of the Vietnam War. Only with the appearance of the Green Party a decade ago did American activists have available a political movement actively organizing around a transformational and contemporary political philosophy on which could be built a broad-based program, movement, and party.

Only with the appearance of the Green Party a decade ago did American activists have available a political movement actively organizing around a transformational and contemporary political philosophy ...

The importance of a transformational ideology in undergirding political change should not be underestimated. Historian George Rudé has analyzed political movements and protests going back to the Middle Ages. In doing so, he has identified two kinds of ideologies: inherent, which are the traditional, commonsense beliefs of most people; and, derived, which are a systematic, coherent critique of the status quo along with a strategy for change. Rudé finds that traditional ideologies form the basis of defensive struggles which do not significantly threaten the status quo such as worker resistance to plant-closings or recent efforts to support affirmative action. The potential for political and social transformation is present only when the traditional ideology is supplemented by a derived ideology that brings with it more radical goals.

Americans have a received belief in the importance of democracy. Greens bring with us a sense of democracy as a grassroots, participatory process. For example, it is natural for people to defend their homes through NIMBY type struggles. By allying ourselves with them, Greens can bring a sense of global and social responsibility to what might otherwise be a more narrow, self-interested endeavor. Because this connection between the traditional and the derived ideology is very much a lived one, as Greens we find ourselves contending, not on some uniform, national slate of issues, but on a wide variety of terrains depending on the political opportunities and on the organizing and issue contexts available in our communities. Thus, the national Green Party journals publish accounts of various locals working on everything from labor issues to nuclear waste/energy to forest preservation to militarization to elections with differing emphases and success from place to place. The philosophical implications of the ten key values of the Greens provide a common ideological framework for these diverse struggles while allowing the flexibility for tailoring a unique strategy for particular locales.

Electing the right people to office has never been sufficient for political change.

It is not surprising that some people come to the Green movement believing that electoral politics is our unique and essential contribution to society. After all, we are taught that voting every year or two is sufficient individual participation in a democracy. The inherent ideology of democratic party activists or perhaps even candidates themselves. However, most participation leads those with a deeper commitment to perceive the next step of political activism as becoming activists. Greens understand that elected government is not the only realm of power—and that it is in fact subordinate to the economic realm and in many ways to the non-elected professional bureaucracy. Electing the right people to office has never been sufficient for political change. Those of us in the Green Party who have experienced electoral success have seen first hand that the support of organized, committed activists is needed for elected officials to get results and that, even then, they can rarely achieve more than limited reforms.

What is urgently needed in today's society is a political ideology and movement that unites people across issue interests, that ties work for reform to more radical efforts at social and political restructuring, that builds and supports the new institutions required by an ecological society, and that contends in all realms of power—political, economic, bureaucratic, and social—in furtherance of its goals. In today's political climate, the Green Party is uniquely positioned to fill this need. To abandon this historic role is to consign ourselves to the position of one among many third party efforts that may ultimately be little more than flotsam in the flood of capitalist globalization.

Nonetheless, elections do form an important part of the work of a radical movement. Electoral campaigns provide a rare opportunity to convey the full range of concerns of the Green program to the public. They allow us to reach out to a broader constituency than can typically be done through issue organizing, Green educational programs, or through building alternative institutions. But care must be taken that our electoral work does not convey to citizens the mistaken impression that electing Greens to office is sufficient to achieve fundamental change. Through our electoral work, the Green Party can bring our message to many people, express the relevance of our work, and achieve a variety of important reforms. But to be satisfied with that does a disservice to the urgent crises faced by the people of the world today and falls short of the critical leadership role that awaits the Green Party.

Dan Coleman is a member of the Iowa City Green Party and author of Ecopolitics: Building a Green Society

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