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Synthesis/Regeneration 29   (Fall 2002)

Electoral “or” Activist

by Jason Murphy, Gateway Green Alliance

Politics is a tough business with difficult decisions all around. One must not only deal with theoretical questions but organizational ones in order to decide which organizations deserve one’s loyalty, work, and time. Not joining any is no answer—nor is building a tiny, perfect, one. One reason why Synthesis/Regeneration is so important is that it is one of the few places where US Greens can deal with organizational and theoretical matters. I want to clarify here what it is that can set Greens apart from other progressive organizations. They can prioritize democracy in the US as they build Green organizations that support progressive actions and move their own campaigns.

A false dilemma poses only two options for Greens—they must be either electoral “or” activist. Greens are both and if they are not both then they are not worth joining or building. This isn’t the defining split among Greens in the US and its terms do not define one Green organization or the other. This false dilemma has gripped many conversations in Green forums, including past issues of S/R and I hope we can be free of it soon.

The two-party system is one of the main reasons US public political debate is so boring and manipulative. We know this argument and only a hack or a cynic would argue that US democracy is anything but a sham. (That’s why readers should metaphorically beat one liberal intellectual over the head per week—liberals cynically think all problems are reducible to mass stupidity without blaming the structures of power.) Most Greens have a long list of failures on the part of the Democrats. They are right but there is another point. Even if one of the parties was very good and progressive, that would not last long because there is no exit option if that party betrays the public interest. (This is why readers should not chalk up US evils to bad attitudes, bad spirits, or bad world views. The “axis of evil” is structurally rooted. The change of mind that is needed has already been made by many people.)

How to Win When You Lose

Greens prioritize democracy by running candidates who lose. Green candidates lose. Saying otherwise is playing the “what-if” game. Greens should understand that and run campaigns that make sense and that get things done even when they lose. There are two reasons. One: only by running third-party candidates will there be an incentive for the big parties to reform election laws. Neither party will pass instant runoff voting or proportional representation without feeling some pressure. Candidates running as independents appear as “fly-by-night” and do not raise the sort of threat that is needed. Two: running in an election opens up a forum to recruit the unorganized to become part of organizations, activist campaigns and protests. The first organization should be the local Green Party, if it is a progressive force and not a “what-if” election machine.

Let me cite a successful Green election campaign. Zaki Baruti was the Green Party candidate for Governor of Missouri. The press largely froze him out, with almost no mention in televised media. Even though he was the only Black candidate for state-wide office, the largest Black newspaper in his hometown, St. Louis, simply did not cover him. While many were disappointed, most members of his campaigns and most Greens realized long before that it was our own resources that had to be developed. He was able to use his list of contacts from a previous campaign to meet face-to-face with many organizations. He also had some access to Black radio stations and did solid grassroots campaign tactics like talking to people at busy bus stops and getting out literature.

Most importantly, he stressed two organizations—the Green Party and the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression—and urged everyone who heard him to join them and gave times for their next meetings. This campaign was a success because Zaki Baruti’s list of contacts is now longer, both organizations grew, and the Coalition’s phone rings much more often when there is an act of police brutality. This is all interesting because Baruti got less than 1% of the vote. He is no more elected than any other Green candidate for state office but he is more successful than many of them because of this organizational focus.

“Election vs. Action” Debate Dissolves

An “election only” Green would be one who thinks that activist stuff gets in the way. But, given that Greens are going to lose, vitalizing social movement organization is the only solid justification for the campaign. Pressuring the big parties on election reform is a side effect. Also, by building lists of contacts, one can improve one’s chances and one’s organizational contacts over time. Phone lists and neighborhood knock lists shouldn’t just be for elections but for meetings and protests as well. Candidates who understand this should be supported at every level.

Because Greens prioritize democracy, they don’t want to sit out any election, national or local. When Nader attended events side-by-side with Gateway Green Alliance members and visited the Gateway Green Alliance headquarters for a fundraiser after the election, he provided a good example of how a good Green candidate can work. He also advised Greens to build their organizations based on grassroots money—$100 from each of a million people. His campaign was about strengthening the resources of the Greens and “Naderite” organizations like the new Democracy Rising. Greens who think that they should only run in certain sorts of races don’t understand yet that it is not what they run for so much as how it is done. Local races should focus on building organizational resources as well.

An “action only” Green believes that election stuff gets in the way. But that’s the Green angle. There are hundreds of progressive organizations—single-issue, multi-issue, religious, secular, international, local, ideological, pragmatic... All of them are doing their best to get members and move campaigns. Without building a Party and jumping in the electoral arena, activists are dropping the tool that gets to people whom others haven’t gotten to yet. Most people are busy making bricks from straw and they need to hear about Greens from every angle available. Running without a concrete agenda that is steeped in the progressive scene is useless; that is why Greens are both electoral and activist.

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