Left Turn (Nov. 2001)   |  http://www.left-turn.org/

The Green Party and the Future of the US Left

By Howie Hawkins

The historic failure of the US left to develop its own independent political party has meant that broad popular support for progressive reforms have rarely been converted into public policy. In the absence of a viable independent left party, when it comes time to lobby for legislation or support candidates, the popular movements -- labor, blacks, women, gays, peace, environment, communities -- have had to turn the Democrats, the “liberal” political representatives of the corporate rulers. And knowing that the movements have no where else to turn, the Democrats have taken the movements’ political support for granted and instead focused on responding to the demands of corporate campaign funders and on competing with Republicans for swing voters to their right.

Only under the pressure of massive, disruptive direct action movements have the Democrats been forced to enact moderate reform programs. The New Deal of the 1930s was enacted under the pressure from below of the unionization drive in the 1930s. The Great Society of the 1960s was enacted under the pressure from the civil rights, anti-war, and other movements that exploded in the 1960s. Even then, the New Deal was a tentative, piecemeal, stop-and-go affair and explicitly racist in excluding blacks in the South from most of its benefits as an accommodation to the Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party. Much Great Society funding was quickly diverted to fight the war in Vietnam. It was a Republican, Richard Nixon, co-opting potential Democratic issues for his 1972 re-election campaign, who enacted most of the reforms of that era, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, federal affirmative action with numerical goals and timetables for hiring and contracting, and automatic cost of living adjustments for Social Security benefits.

In normal times, the Democrats have given only lip service to popular demands such as national health insurance. This reform was in the Democratic Platform from 1948 to 1992. But during sessions with Democratic majorities in Congress under Democratic Presidents Johnson, Carter, and Clinton, the Democrats did not use their governmental power to enact this reform. Today, even moderate reforms such as national health insurance have been dropped from the Democratic Platform. They no longer even give it lip service. The Dixiecrats have morphed into the Democratic Leadership Council, whose polished New South politicians like Bill Clinton and Al Gore wrap conservative policies in warm, fuzzy, “I feel your pain” camouflage. Their effectiveness in moving these policies -- including the embrace of the Fed’s monetarism and Wall Street bondholders’ fiscal conservatism, the neoliberal trade agenda, the welfare repeal, and the post-Vietnam Syndrome renewal of military interventionism -- would have astounded such Republican presidents as Eisenhower and Nixon and have surpassed the conservative policy benchmarks pioneered by Reagan and Bush Sr.

Without its own political party, the left disappears. The Democratic Party has been the graveyard of every popular reform movement since the agrarian populist revolt of the late 19th century. In attempting to influence the Democratic Party, the left silences itself by not speaking to the public directly with its own analyses and alternatives. Elsewhere in the world, it has been axiomatic for the left that it must have its own party that is completely independent of the capitalists in order to represent the workers and the common people generally. But in the US, the left has not been clear about its political independence. Seeking short term influence, the labor movement, the black movement, the women’s movement, and the peace, environmental, and community organization movements have oriented toward the Democratic Party, which is to say entered into coalition with the corporate money behind the party and the Dixiecrat, New Democrat, Blue Dog Democrat, and all the other varieties of conservative Democrats. Consistently supporting the Democrats for decades, the Democrats have consistently taken them for granted.

Professional Liberals Oppose Nader

One would think that after generations of failure at reforming the Democrats, progressives would have flocked to the Nader campaign of 2000. In fact, many grassroots progressives did. 150,000 volunteers signed up on the VoteNader web site. 2.9 million voted for Nader and some 20 million considered it, according to polls. But the professional liberal leadership was another matter, especially in the labor, environmental, and women’s organizations. They attacked Nader with millions of dollars of media ads to convey the message that “a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush.”

The professional liberals who head the labor, environment, women’s, and other mainstream liberal organizations have a material interest in Democratic administrations, as well as a cultural affinity for the middle-class professionals that people these administrations. To the professional liberals, Democratic administrations mean career advancement opportunities in the administration and its extra-governmental milieu of lobbyists, fundraisers, and contractors. If the Nader campaign made anything clear, it is that the professional liberals who head up the institutions of organized liberalism in the US will not lead their constituents out of their self-defeating dependence on the Democrats. The left itself will have to organize those constituencies into an independent left party from below.

Is the Green Party that left party that has been missing in US politics? The Green Party is still a work in progress and the radical left can help shape its development.

The Green Party is certainly to the left of today’s Democrats. The Greens’ moderate wing, which Nader best exemplifies, believes that capitalism can be tamed with through redistributive regulatory policies. Many of the moderates are ex-Democrats, former participants in reform Democratic campaigns, from Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy to Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown. Their programmatic demands focus on issues the Democrats, or at least the Democrats’ liberal wing, once stood fornational health insurance, repeal of Taft-Hartley, anti-trust enforcementas well as reforms that liberal Democrats, if not the Democratic Platform, have sometimes championed, including progressive tax reform, renewable energy, and shifting resources from the military to social and environmental needs.

The radical wing of the US Greens is anti-capitalist, seeing Green politics as an expansion of traditional socialist perspectives to include the harmonization of society with nature as well as of human with human. It wants to socialize, not merely regulate, the private economy, and to do so in a more decentralized and democratic way than the statist, bureaucratic models of the Old Left, both Communist and Social Democratic. Indeed, the radical wing sees the Greens as the political party expression of the New Left that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Like the New Left, the radical Greens put as much emphasis on the critique of oppression and hierarchy based on race, gender, and sexual orientation and on the transclass issues of peace and environment as on the Old Left’s focus on class exploitation. And like the New Left, the radical Greens envision a movement-based party, engaged as much in education, movement-building, and direct action as electoral politics in order to avoid the strategic impotence of the purely parliamentary strategy that captured both Socialism and Communism in postwar Western Europe.

The moderate wing is oriented most toward winning over progressive Democrats by raising traditional liberal demands, while the radical wing is focused most on engaging the most oppressed social sectors that are alienated from participation in the political process as well as radical activists such as those in the global justice movement and encouraging their anti-corporate resistance to develop into positive movement for an ecological socialism. Of course the radicals fight for the liberal reforms favored by the moderate wing. But they are also concerned that limited to that moderate reform program, it will be easy for the Democrats to co-opt the Green movement base back into the Democratic Party at any time the Green vote begins to swell. The Democrats could simply parade the liberal demands around with a progressive Democratic presidential candidate to bring these Greens back into the fold while making sure that the progressive loses in the end and winds up, like the Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988, with little or no substantive concessions from the party’s ruling corporate power structure.

Internal Green Politics

The moderate and radical wings of the US Green Party movement were divided organizationally in the 1990s. However, new organizational developments over the last year may have put the organizational division largely to rest. The issues that precipitated the organizational rift in Green political organizations in the 1990s have not been resolved, but the organizational rivalry may be effectively over.

The precipitating issue in the split was whether the Greens should stand for socializing or just more strictly regulating the private economy. The Green Program adopted in 1990 at the national Green Congress by the then unified national Green organization, the Green Committees of Correspondence, had a definite anti-capitalist thrust, with planks calling for socialized medicine, banking, insurance, energy, transportation, and housing. Soon thereafter, a group that would eventually form the Association of State Green Parties began calling for a Green Party that would be separate from the existing Green “movement” organization, the Green Committees of Correspondence. They wanted a more “pragmatic party” separated from the more “visionary movement.”

At the Green Congress in 1991, the model of separate movement and party organizations was overwhelmingly rejected in favor of a movement-based party engaged in both electoral and extra-electoral action. The Green Committees of Correspondence became the Greens/Green Party USA (GPUSA) to reflect this decision.

At this time, a second issue came to the fore. Alaska and California acquired ballot status for their state Green parties but the GPUSA structure did not readily accommodate their state party structures as prescribed in state election laws.

Who Decides? Party Activists or Party Voters?

GPUSA’s structure was based on party activists. It was modeled after the German Greens’ structure, which was a traditional left mass membership party where members who subscribed to the party principles and paid dues were organized into local branches and had voting rights in the party, except that the German Greens had incorporated several anti-bureaucratic measures to counter the tendencies toward oligarchy that had characterized the socialist and social democratic parties. These measures included imperative mandates by local chapters to their delegates to party congresses, term limits and mandatory rotation of party officers and elected public officials of the party, and a ban on simultaneously holding party and public office.

The election laws of the states in the US make the party member structure difficult to maintain. These state election laws are based on party voters. State election laws open up party voting rights to any party voter, no matter what their political principles or contribution or commitment to the party organization. Anyone who enrolls in the party with the board of election in 27 states and DC, or who simply asks for the party ballot in a primary election in the 23 states that don’t keep party enrollments, has voting rights in the party primaries that nominate candidates and, in most states, elect party leadership. The US is unique in the world in this way: the state, not the party, determines who the party members are. The state determines who can vote on party nominations and, in most states, the election of party precinct, county, and/or state committees in primary elections.* The leadership of the California Green Party in particular opposed the GPUSA structure because it did not allow for representation of their 80,000 enrolled members and demanded that GPUSA move toward a party voter model. GPUSA resisted, arguing that the overwhelming majority of those 80,000 party enrollees had no idea who their leaders were or that they were making this representation.

In 1992, a small group of people unhappy with GPUSA’s socialistic platform and now projecting a party voter structure that conformed to the traditional US party structures prescribed in state election laws, formed the Green Politics Network, which began calling on GPUSA affiliates to leave GPUSA and form an Association of State Green Parties. This call did not come to anything until the weekend after the 1996 election when a dozen states met to form the ASGP in the wake of the first Nader campaign.

Things were stalemated from 1996 until 2000, with both ASGP and GPUSA competing for affiliations. GPUSA sought unity talks, but ASGP refused until June 2000 when the divisions threatened to hurt the Nader campaign. Negotiating teams from both groups finally met in Boston in early October and came up with the Boston Proposal. The Boston Proposal projected a unified statutory party based on party voters carrying forward the ASGP structure (although modified in several ways to deal with GPUSA concerns about people of color representation and bottom-up democracy), and a parallel movement organization based on party activists carrying forward the GPUSA party activist structure.

Party and Movement

The Boston Proposal institutionalized the separation of party and movement that most Greens had rejected in 1991, myself included. But two things had changed. The Greens now had two dozen ballot-qualified Green parties having to conform to state election laws in order to put their candidates on the ballot. And the majority of Greens, following Ralph Nader’s lead in declaring the ASGP convention in 2000 to be the Green Party convention, had moved into the ASGP camp. I believe that few chose ASPG over GPUSA because of the program and structure issues. Most Greens were repelled by the organizational rivalry and tried to work around it. Most Greens went with ASGP in 2000 simply because they wanted to be where the action was with the Nader campaign.

In these new circumstances, many of us in GPUSA supported the Boston Proposal. A unified Green Party would present a united front to the public and, just as importantly, create a united front among the Greens, where all tendencies could present their views and let the membership makes its choices. At the same time, a movement organization could organize grassroots Green activists. An organized rank-and-file is the best antidote for the oligarchic and bureaucratic tendencies of electoral parties, particularly those structured under US state election laws.

The state party representatives to the ASGP Coordinating Committee unanimously accepted the Boston Proposal at a December 2000 meeting in Georgia. At its July 2001 meeting in California, ASGP accordingly changed its name to the Green Party of the United States and made the bylaw changes required to implement its end of the Boston agreement, including filing to be recognized by the Federal Election Commission. But GPUSA rejected Boston Proposal at its Green Congress in July 2001in Illinois. A 55% majority of votes supported it, but it required 2/3 support under GPUSA’s bylaws.

Many in GPUSA felt that the pro Boston Proposal majority had been artificially lowered by organizational maneuvers made by the anti Boston Proposal faction over the previous six months. Finding itself with a temporary majority at a national committee meeting the previous February, the anti Boston Proposal faction called for the immediate recall of the existing three-person Coordinating Committee, the day to day executive body. In the election of a new Coordinating Committee, they obtained a 2 to 1 majority, which they then wielded to pack and purge the various working committees of GPUSA, including most notably the planning and credentials committees for the upcoming Green Congress. Even before the Green Congress, these maneuvers discouraged many pro Boston Proposal delegates from even attending the Green Congress. At the Green Congress, the credentials committee ruled arbitrarily, in violation of the bylaws, that members who had requested dues waivers would not be counted in determining state delegations’ vote totals, a decision which lowered the pro Boston Proposal vote. The Credentials Committee also awarded two-thirds of the big California delegation’s votes to the anti Boston Proposal faction despite the fact that the pro Boston Proposal position had been supported by an overwhelming majority in a statewide poll of members.

The first day of the Green Congress was a nightmare, with neither the agenda nor the credentials committee report getting approved as both sides made one parliamentary move after another. By the second day, the pro Boston Proposal faction figured they had a majority, but not a two-thirds majority if the credentials committee report was accepted, and that it would be better to get the moral victory of a majority vote in favor than to have the Green Congress stalemated all weekend. So the agenda and the vote on the Boston Proposal went forward without a challenge to the credentials committee report. The pro Boston Proposal majority got their moral victory and then proceeded to begin organizing the Green movement organization called for in the Boston Proposal separately from GPUSA.

Provisionally named the Green Alliance, this Green movement organization will have its founding meeting after the November 2001 election. GPUSA will continue, but as a much smaller network. Most of its state party affiliates have disaffiliated since the Green Congress in July, including Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Moreover, the GPUSA minority that was able to veto the majority support for the Boston Proposal due to the 2/3 super-majority requirement has now turned in on itself, with two of the three members elected to its Coordinating Committee resigning within a couple of months.

So the organizational rift in the Green Party movement seems to be resolving itself with the demise of GPUSA as a real factor in the Green Party movement. The Green Party of the United States has the affiliation of all the ballot line state Green parties, as well as almost every other organized state Green party aspiring for ballot qualification. The issues that led to the original split will continue to be debated within that Green Party structure. The Green Alliance hopes to play an important role in building grassroots organization in the Green movement and providing a home for the radical left within the Green movement. No less important was the founding of another Green movement organization in August 2001, the Campus Greens, by over 100 campus groups. The Campus Greens can provide a bridge for high school and college students into activism and the Green Party movement.

Strategic Questions

Having a unified Green Party in the United States will obviously help the Greens organize. Many activists have kept their distance from the Greens because of the split and too much energy within the Green movement was diverted into the organizational rivalry.

Most important for the future of the Greens will be what the Greens do. The most immediate challenge is the blame-Nader-and-the-Greens-for-Bush chorus coming from Democrats, the professional liberals, and the corporate media pundits. This chorus will only get stronger as Greens challenge Democrats in more and more races. The Greens will have to clear that they are not about moving the Democrats to the left, but about building an alternative to it with class independence from the corporate rulers, including their “liberal” style of political representatives in the Democratic Party. Rather than apologize, the Greens should attack the defensive lesser-evil strategy of voting for Democrats to stop Republicans, which has only moved the whole spectrum to the right one election after another as the Democrats have taken their left for granted.

Local elections are where the Greens can win more and more elections in the next few years in order to establish credibility as a realistic political alternative and as effective political representatives for the common people against the corporate interests. These elections and experiences in office can lay the foundation for credible runs for state and federal office in the future, including the 2004 presidential election.

Contrary to the suggestions of even some sympathetic commentators, it would be strategic suicide for the Greens to abstain from the 2004 presidential election in the name of a popular front with the Democrats against the Republicans. An independent left will never develop by silencing itself to support Democrats. Who will be the peace party opposing military interventions for imperialist objectives under the guise of a “war on terrorism”? Who will counterpose new institutions and policies for global justice and democracy to corporate globalization under the protection of US military power? Who will counterpose an ecologically sustainable economy to the endless, ecologically destructive accumulation of capital? Who will fight for fair labor laws, a guaranteed basic income, universal health insurance, renewable energy, infrastructure repair, and the other crying domestic needs being sacrificed to militarism and Wall Street bondholders’ priorities? Certainly not the Democrats!

The Greens need to run a presidential slate in 2004 because the presidential race is the political process in which most Americans pay some attention and it is the campaign in which millions of people can be reached, mobilized, and organized, as Nader’s 2000 campaign demonstrated. A Green presidential campaign can reinforce and multiply the impact of local Green campaigns in the next few years.

In addition to electoral politics, the Greens need to participate in the global justice, living wage, peace, environmental, and other movements in a much more coordinated and visible way. Most Green activists come out of these movements. But when they show up at the demonstrations and conferences, they come largely on their own rather than as part of organized Green contingents. This needs to change if the movements are going to see the Greens as the party for the progressive social movements.

Finally, the Greens need to prioritize organizing in working class and people of color communities. The most important political impact of the Nader campaigns in 1996 and 2000 within the Greens has been to smash the resistance to class issues and programs aimed at redistributing wealth and income and power. Some of the resistance to the Green Program adopted in 1990 was not only to its socialistic planks but also to its redistributive planks like the progressive wealth tax. After Nader, the resistance to these populist class perspectives is gone. Whether a basically capitalist economy can run under redistributive regulatory regime and whether, even if it can, it would really result in justice and freedom for all are questions the radical wing of the Greens will be sure to raise. But one thing is indisputable: the post-Nader Greens are far more class conscious than the pre-Nader Greens.

Where Nader and the Greens have been weakest, in style and results if not positions on paper, is building in communities of color. While in some cities like DC, Syracuse, and Hartford, the Greens have begun to develop into diverse organizations with multicultural leadership, doing so across the country is absolutely necessary if the Greens are to develop into a majoritarian vehicle for fundamental social change in the US.

There are two possible roads to this end. One is to organize workers and people of color directly into the Greens and Greens should prioritize this organizing. But the Greens should also be open to the possibility that the road will take the form of an alliance of independent progressive parties. The Labor Party has finally begun to run independent candidates. If ethnically-based parties like La Raza Unida of the 1970s and the National Black Independent Political Party of the early 1980s were to re-emerge with a clear commitment to independent politics so they would not be co-opted back into the Democratic Party as La Raza Unida and NBIPP were, the Greens should welcome such initiatives and seek to develop alliances.

The organizational developments in the Greens this year are important. Hopefully, all of the time and energy that got diverted into organizational rivalries in the 1990s will now get focused on the strategic organizing the Greens need to do in the 2000s. Doing that organizing is what will count most in the end.

Howie Hawkins has been active with the US Greens since their first national meeting in 1984. He works as a co-op organizer and truck unloader in Syracuse NY.

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