Greening America

SAM SMITH, MULTITUDES – In 1995, as an active member of the Green Politics Network, I joined a number of other Greens in hosting a conference of third party activists. Over a hundred showed up, ranging from one of the founders of the ancient American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers, and Democratic Socialists of America. It was a recklessly dangerous idea for a Washington weekend, but Green activists John Rensenbrink, Linda Martin and Tony Affigne seemed to know what they were doing and I was happy to go along.

We established two basic rules:

– We would only discuss issues on which we might find some agreement.

– We would reach that agreement by consensus.

We broke the body into tables of ten or so, each dealing with a different topic. All policies that were proposed were written on newsprint posters. Then participants were given three color stick-on dots with their names on them. Everyone then went up to the board and placed their dots on their favorite issues (cumulative voting style, so that all three dots could, if desired, be placed on one issue). After the vote, those with only their dots on a particular issue were allowed to move them to their second choice (a la instant run-off voting) and so forth until a clear consensus of three issues emerged. This scheme not only produced a consensus, but one that was physical and visual as well as intellectual and was fun to watch.

When the various groups produced their recommendations, they were turned over to what was known as a “fishbowl negotiation.” Each small group selected a representative to negotiate for it with representatives of all the other tables. The representatives sat in a circle with those they represented behind them. Anyone could stop their representative and request a small group conference but only the representative could speak in the larger assembly. It worked remarkably well.

The small group that had the most difficulty with such techniques was comprised mainly of Marxists who had selected economics as their area of concern. We were, one suggested, guilty of what the Master had called “parliamentary cretinism,” and the socialists resisted it firmly. One result, ironically, was that the weakest section of the final statement was that dealing with economics. On the other hand, the libertarians came to the organizers at one point and offered to leave the meeting so a full consensus could be maintained. We encouraged them to stick around, changing our own rules to accept several levels of consensus.

Despite the wide range of views present, despite the near total absence of Robert’s Rules of Order, the final document, with full consensus, called for nothing less than a major transformation. The group unanimously agreed to support proportional representation, campaign finance reform “to provide a level playing field in elections;” initiative, referendum and recall; better ballot access; the end of corporate welfare; strong environmental policies; sexual and reproductive freedom; an end to the war on drugs and treatment of addiction as a health matter rather than as a crime; a dramatic cut in military expenditures; workplace democracy and the maximum empowerment of people in their communities “consistent with fairness, social responsibilities and human rights.”

Not bad for a group ranging from one of the founders of the ancient American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers and Democratic Socialists of America. It shouldn’t have worked at all, but because the rules we had used felt fair to those present, it did. By ignoring topics of obvious disagreement, we even surprised ourselves with the level of consensus.

We had also discovered the possibility of a political transformation, of moving beyond left and right. We understood that these were different times — not the thirties, not the sixties — times that required different imaginations and different risks. We had reached out and had found that we were not alone.

Something else happened that weekend. As a gaggle of Greens gathered on my front porch for beer and pizza, I heard strange sounds. Some of those present were actually talking about running Ralph Nader for president. What had I gotten myself into? They don’t even have a national organization and already they’re talking about a presidential campaign.

Not too many months later, we staged another conference — this one just for Greens — aimed at building further support for a national association and — at least for some — launching a Nader presidential campaign. Halfway through the weekend, however, one of Washington’s rare blizzards occurred, trapping Greens in homes around the area. I found eight phones and two lines in my house and for hours those huddled on Newark Street plotted with those similarly confined elsewhere in the metropolitan region. Everything else was closed but the Greens were open for business.

Out of this curious beginning, and within months, the skeleton of a national Green political movement was formed, eventually strong enough to wage a presidential campaign and create parties in a score of states.

By December 1996, eight months after the snow-bound conference, the Greens had actually run a presidential campaign. The first Nader campaign, hampered by the candidate’s refusal to raise significant funds, had produced a low vote but nonetheless proved invaluable as an organizing tool in about a score of states. It would be dismissed in the media, but it had created the skeleton of an national organization.

Now it was time to do something about it. After a Friday night gathering at which key Greens and their friends, including Nader, Bill Greider, and Ronnie Dugger jammed my living room to toss ideas with  each other, we headed the next day for Middleburg, Virginia.

Strictly speaking, you probably shouldn’t create a national Green Party in the pool house of a farm in the middle of Virginia hunt country. But a third party that spent less than a penny per vote on its presidential campaign, had no fixed address and whose candidate wouldn’t even support its platform, was not about to get uptight about minor matters of ambiance. Besides, owner Elaine Broadhead had invited us.

And so, years after the European Greens had been born, some 30 state Green parties came not just to join together, not just to offer a few new policies, but to declare the old liberal-conservative dichotomy irrelevant, tautological and just plain dead.

That’s a lot to do in one weekend. Yet the participants seemed neither particularly driven nor harried. A stranger might even have imagined that they had come in triumph. They clearly viewed the one percent of the national vote their candidate received not as the media had — statistically insignificant — but with the boundless pleasure of parents observing a new baby. They transformed the tiny, fragile specifics before them into an infinity of hope and dreams.

Further, in state after state, the Greens had gotten on the ballot by beating down arcane, dupoloistic rules that left voters to choose only between two deeply defective parties. And despite appearing on just 21 state ballots, the Greens had beaten the Libertarians, their full pocketbook notwithstanding. In some places, such as DC, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco, Nader even ran ahead of Perot and in Madison, WI, he came in second.

People from thirty states, many of whom had never met previously, had come together and formed a union and a plan. They had created an important new political option for America. Yet only after it was over, did I notice something truly unusual: nobody had really run the conference. The planning committee had been so unobtrusive it was invisible, the individual sessions were moderated by a rotating squad of volunteers, and matters were discussed according to the unspoken Green rules of considerate anarchy.

It was clear in retrospect that nobody had been in charge. Yet it had happened anyway. A national Green Party had been formed.

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