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Tilting at Windmills—A View from the Grassroots
by Paul Prior, http://globalcircle.net
The election is behind us and it's time to reevaluate the campaign in terms of its original goals. With the Great Crusader heading the ticket, Greens planned to gain the support of many voter blocs that were taken for granted by the Democrats, go over the 5% mark for matching funds, and build a "new mainstream." We all cheered his speeches.
Nader staffers and party leaders have tried to put a positive spin on their failure to reach the 5% for matching funds, as well as their poor showing in most states for future ballot access. Yes, they have thousands of names in the database for party building. But even before the election, some questioned whether another Nader campaign would build the grassroots, admitting that local success stories "don't add up to successful bids for state or federal office and mainstream media coverage" and "Maybe we are not meant to rule, but rather to remain in opposition to government…Until we adopt a fair electoral system, US Greens will probably be denied state and federal office… Without big campaign war chests, we remain invisible to the electorate." 1
Back in 1995 party leader Howie Hawkins in Z Magazine called for all-out local organizing: "Instead of the 100 or 200 independent left candidacies we had in 1994, we should have 1,000 or 2,000 in 1995", and called for an "ecological populism…economic justice, political democratization and decentralization, and ecological reconstruction.." 2 But now we still have 200 local candidates and it's five years later. Now we're hearing from Party leaders "we gotta get organized." Neglecting to build the base first, what we got in the Nader campaign was the Populism without the ecology.
The real problem with trying to build the base with national elections is the winner-take-all system that makes enemies of the other groups needed to become a major party.
The real problem with trying to build the base with national elections is the winner-take-all system that makes enemies of the other groups needed to become a major party. You can't run a separate progressive party like the Greens without taking more votes from the Democrats, and that makes mortal enemies of the progressive Democrats you need to grow the Party. Yes, electoral work is needed along with activism, but a third party in national elections is the politics of defeat, and there's plenty of work in local organizing and state legislatures that comes first.
The Democrats' "spoiler" charge forced the Greens into a strategy of "no friends on the Left." And Nader's harshest attacks came from traditionally liberal or progressive blocs, labor, minorities, women's groups, and major environmental groups. Of course Nader and the Greens were right all along about the Democrats taking those groups for granted, about the two-party monopoly, and most everything else.
But Nader expected them to gamble their support on one tiny party that has yet to win a single statewide or Congressional election and can only field a couple hundred local candidates to run in a half million local races nationwide. They need an alternative; but with 3% of the votes, the Greens have nothing to offer them. And 3% of the vote is a long way from displacing the Democrats, especially when they've declared war on all those who stayed with the Democrats.
But Nader expected them to gamble their support on one tiny party...
That was not the plan. The G/GPUSA working draft "Green Strategies for Social Change" under Howie Hawkins said "the movement for social change must become a majoritarian movement with a much broader social base." It asserts "the Greens appeal to all people who concerned peace, justice, democracy, and a sustainable environment" and "the most oppressed and marginalized sectors of society—to racially oppressed minorities, to immigrants, to sexual minorities" and that "identity politics" could not be ignored in elections: "People of African, Asian-Pacific, Latin, and Indigenous descent in the US are not going join a movement that downplays questions of racism in order to unite on the basis of class because racism is often the most pressing grievance in their lives. Women are not going to join a movement that relegates sexism to a "secondary contradiction." 3
The draft also explains why a much broader popular base of support would be needed to enact radical reform and protect it from corporate backlash that would destroy it. But that broad-based support depended on pulling together all the voter blocs that might support it, and that can't happen with the Green Party under Nader alienating them.
Without the expected support from progressive Democrats, Nader's best showing came from states that turned out the most votes for Perot before. His warmup speakers were Populists like Dugger and Hightower who never claimed to be Greens anymore than Nader himself. Nader attacked corporations but stopped short of spelling out radical remedies needed to do something about them. And like the major parties, the campaign largely avoided foreign policy and the central issue of US militarism around the world as the only remaining superpower.
The Greens' jump into national elections should have been questioned for an even better reason. And again it comes down to the winner-take-all system.
Assuming the Greens don't move to the right, any future growth of the Greens wouldn't just take Democrat votes; it would have to take the more progressive voters from the Democrats and independents across the board, leaving only mainstream voters and reactionary blocs to elect the worst possible politicians from both parties. What few progressive voices we still have in Congress to stall bad legislation will be silenced, their supporters drawn into a third party that can't get a single seat in Congress without proportional representation. The forces of corporate reaction couldn't ask for more.
What few progressive voices we still have in Congress to stall bad legislation will be silenced, their supporters drawn into a third party that can't get a single seat in Congress...
Running as a separate party in national elections doesn't work, but fusion doesn't look good either. The Greens reject the option to on the same issues from inside the Democratic Party. In the Working Draft they argue that "The Democratic Party has been the graveyard of every democratic social movement for more than a century" and urge "running candidates from this position of class independence against the candidates that represent the corporate parties, the Democrats and Republicans." That leaves no realistic strategy open to the Greens as a separate party in national elections.
There are many options open to the Party in local elections, but even if the Greens could gain power in Washington, or even become the majority party in the House and Senate, the Party could not control the legislative agenda. Federal election law was written to keep parties and election campaigns separate, financially and legally, so parties have no control over their candidates. In most states party conventions can't even pick their own candidates, but have to submit them to voters in the primaries. So when they do get to Washington they're at the mercy of all the powers that be. Forgetting their campaign promises is the one thing politicians are most famous for, and that's the reason.
Federal election law was written to keep parties and election campaigns separate, financially and legally, so parties have no control over their candidates.
And actually making radical change through elections would prove even more elusive. The reactionary separation of powers and difficulty of amending the Constitution are well known, and the "unelected government" and national security apparatus is outside Congressional jurisdiction. Also, the Party's Congressional candidates haven't begun to work out a common legislative agenda. They lack the armies of lawyers and accountants needed to plan the reform of the entire corporate government, including the Federal Reserve, the tax code, the Uniform Commercial Code, the court system, and federal bureaucracy. Putting together Green think tanks to work on these things would be a good start.
Greens should focus on local organizing and state legislatures which have many powers, redrawing Congressional districts every 10 years to suit the party in power, writing ballot access laws, deciding how federal electors are allocated (Maine and Nebraska are not winner-take-all), and they count the votes. States also charter corporations. State legislators are also closer to home and the parties that put them in office. All the right reasons to focus on states first instead of national elections. The Party could start working with political novices locally to develop credible campaigns using the Independent Progressive Politics Network Election Manual.
The Party in the early '90s was wise to resist the faction trying to rush headlong into national elections without building the popular base first. Gaining political power in the existing system is not even a goal of the Green values. 4
In the end, no amount of party building can make broad change in the face of ruthless forces that answer to no one. A corporate government that can bomb whole countries into the stone age, jail and beat thousands of nonviolent demonstrators on network TV, and squeeze the life out of hundreds of millions in third world countries for profit, is not going to let elections get in their way. It takes a Green Revolution in global awareness. Otherwise the movement may be lost by tilting at windmills in Washington.
1. Linda Martin, Driving Mr. Nader.
2. Hawkins, Howie (February, 1995). "Greens and the Election," Z Magazine http://zena.secureforum.com/Znet/zmag/zarticle.cfm?Url=articles/feb95hawkins.htm
3. The G/GPUSA working draft "Green Strategies for Social Change" is online at http://www.greenparty.org/program/grstratsoch.html. Howie Hawkins chairs the G/GPUSA Green Program Working Group. The draft explains "The Greens' goal is not to get into the existing power structure, but to restructure the power."
4. Ten Key Values are online at http://www.greenparty.org/values.html "...public participation at every level of government..." is simply a commitment to active engagement with governmental entities.