Sam Smith – I first became aware of the potential of third parties reading about the Dutch Provos in the 1960s. Teun Voeten would write much later in High Times:
The Provos set the stage for the creation of the Merry Pranksters, Diggers, and Yippies. They were the first to combine non-violence and absurd humor to create social change. They created the first ‘Happenings’ and ‘Be-Ins.’ They were also the first to actively campaign against marijuana prohibition.
It all started with the Nozems. Born out of the postwar economic boom, the Nozems were disaffected Dutch teens armed with consumer spending power. Part mods, part ’50s juvenile delinquents, they spent most of their time cruising the streets on mopeds, bored stiff and not knowing what to do. Their favorite past-time? Raising trouble and provoking the police . . . Roel Van Duyn. a philosophy student at the University of Amsterdam, was the first to recognize the Nozems’ slumbering potential. “It is our task to turn their aggression into revolutionary consciousness,” he wrote in 1965. Inspired by anarchism, Dadaism, German philosopher (and counter-culture guru-to-be) Herbert Marcuse, and the Marquis de Sade. Van Duyn, a timid, introverted intellectual, soon became the major force behind Provo magazine. But while Van Duyn presided over the Provos’ theoretical wing, another, more important element was provided even earlier by its other co-founder, Robert Jasper Grootveld, a former window cleaner and the original clown prince of popular culture. . .
Grootveld staged Saturday night happenings, wearing strange clothes and performing to growing crowds of “Nozems, intellectuals, curious bypassers and police.” Writer Harry Mulisch described it this way: “While their parents, sitting on their refrigerators and dishwashers, were watching with their left eye the TV, with their right eye the auto in front of the house, in one hand the kitchen mixer, in the other De Telegraaf, their kids went at Saturday night to the Spui Square . . . And when the clock struck twelve, the high Priest appeared, all dressed up, from some alley and started to walk Magic Circles around the nicotinistic demon, while his disciples cheered. applauded and sang the Ugge Ugge song.”
The Provos created various “White Plans,” including the White Bike Plan which called for replacing cars in the inner city with white bicycles, to be provided by the government. The bikes would be left unlocked so anyone could use them. Years later, this plan would become reality in places such as Oregon and Maine, but the Provos did not have as much luck. The police seized the bikes — to which provocation Provo responded by stealing some police bikes. Among other White Plans:
– anyone causing a fatal car accident should be forced to paint the outline of their victim’s body on the pavement at the site of the accident. That way, no one could ignore the fatalities caused by automobiles
– the White Chimney Plan (put a heavy tax on polluters and paint their chimneys white)
– the White Kids Plan (free daycare centers)
– the White Housing Plan (stop real estate speculation)
– the White Wife Plan (free medical care for women). . .
The reason for Provo’s demise was its increasing acceptance by moderate elements, and growing turmoil within its ranks:
As soon as Provo began participating in the City Council elections, a transformation occurred. A Provo Politburo emerged, consisting of VIP Provos who began devoting most of themselves to political careers. Provos toured the country, giving lectures and interviews . . . The division between the street Provos and the reformist VIPs began growing wider. Some Provos returned to their studies,. others went hippie and withdrew from the movement . . .
Provo held one last stunt A white rumor was spread that American universities wanted to buy the Provo archives, documents that actually didn’t exist. Amsterdam University, fearing that the sociological treasure might disappear overseas, quickly made an offer the Provos couldn’t refuse.
The Provos were both proto-Green and proto-political. They were also proto-semiotic — their politics revolved around symbolism that mocked and reversed the official symbols of the state. One Provo running for the city council explained that he would go there as an ambassador and not as a member. When Princess Beatrice announced plans to marry a former member of Nazi Youth, the Provos opened a bank account for an anti-wedding gift and started a White Rumors plan, encouraging such imagined threats as LSD being dumped in the city water supply or the mass drugging of the royal horses. A few days before the wedding the Provos just disappeared in order to avoid arrest. Responding to the White Rumors, however, the government stationed 25,000 troops along the parade route.
The rise and demise of the Provos foreshadowed in some respects later splits within both the German and American Green movements between anarchist and politically oriented factions. It is also a parable of the limits of both satire and politics. Nonetheless, few movements have made such imaginative use of their moment in history as did the Provos, something that I, among others, noticed.
I became more seriously interested in third party politics with the 1969 Norman Mailer-Jimmy Breslin campaign in New York City. This was a paragon of political campaigning: colorful, uplifting, funny, and – most importantly – full of good ideas. When Mailer and Breslin proposed a Manhattan monorail and jitney buses, they accompanied their arguments with maps, stats, as well as top, side, and interior views of the vehicles in question. They proposed monthly “Sweet Sundays” – when the city would come to a halt “so human beings can rest and talk to each other and the air can purify itself.” Among their other planks: restoration of Mohammed Ali’s world championship, vest pocket neighborhood colleges and zoos, free bicycles in the parks, a US Grand Prix in Central Park, and weekend jousting matches for teenagers. Mailer and Breslin understood that real politics is not just a matter of management but a collective expression of a community’s soul. Their two most important ideas, however, were that New York should become the 51st state and that, as a consequence, neighborhoods should become the self-governing equivalents of towns and villages.
One of the spin-offs of the campaign was Peter Manzo’s book “Running Against the Machine,” which inspired this then-young journalist to write an article arguing that DC should become a state, which in turn led, several months later, to the formation of the DC Statehood Party.
The DC Statehood Party would held a seat on the city council and/or the school board for almost all of the last quarter of the century. Like all such movements, it had its ups and downs. In 1984, during one of its weaker periods, I wrote an article suggesting that the party revive itself by becoming the DC Green Party: “I suspect the mere discovery that a Green Party member sat on the city council of the capital of the United States would attract international curiosity and attention. In truth, the DC Statehood Party was probably the world’s first Green Party. The Statehood Party has always been decentralist, anti-authoritarian, democratic and environmentally aware.”
Later, when I would make the claim, I would say we had picked the right politics but the wrong name. Like Victor Borge’s uncle who invented a soft-drink called 6-Up and died penniless, little did we know how close we had come. . .
The Statehood Party served a two-thirds black city still in the throes of the second reconstruction era. And while we were concerned with ecology, our definition of ecology included the ecology of human relationships within the city and within our neighborhoods. We did not have spotted owls or threatened forests, but we did have forgotten children, decrepit housing, terrible schools, endangered communities, and the deadly pollution of crime.
There was something else important about the DC Statehood Party. More than a few of its leaders had come out of a major struggle against a proposed freeway system that would have made DC an east coast Los Angeles. Some were veterans of the white peace movement or the black civil right movement, but others were ordinary middle class citizens who awoke one morning to find the house they had struggled to buy about to be taken for a road. Among the Statehood Party’s other atypical allies were small business people who were learning what city planning really meant. And the party’s leader – Julius Hobson – wore a fedora and a tie, smoked a pipe and worked for the Library of Congress. You didn’t have to be young, militant or a member of a counterculture to belong to the Statehood Party. You just had to be mad – and want to do something about it.
Sometimes the party seemed to disappear entirely only to be revived by new faces and new ideas. This happened again in the mid 1990s as the federal government seized control of the city government, making a mockery of what was known as “home rule.” And as the Statehood Party was reviving itself, so was a Green Party, younger and whiter than the Statehooders, and so was the Umoja Party, a movement of young black activists that received ten percent in its first run for office.
Thus DC had three alternatives to the major parties, but no democracy within which they could function. We were, you might say, all dressed up with no place to go. The three parties actually represented different demographics far more than different ideologies. And it wasn’t long before the Greens and the Statehood members found themselves talking about coming together, which they finally did with remarkable ease and comfort.
This doesn’t happen every day. The merger of two parties was so rare that the DC Board of Elections didn’t know how to handle it. Yet it worked, creating a blend of the tough, pragmatic, biracial politics of the Statehood Party and the vision, concern and decency of the Green Party. To be sure being a Green in a black city — or being a black in the Green Party — was a little different, but they were figuring it all out. When you run out of trees to hug, you just hug each other.
But it took awhile to get there, even for me. In 1993 I wrote,
I think the Green philosophy is the most important new ideology in half a century. I have no problem with their ten key values, although several of them seem a bit pompous and they’d be easier to remember if there were only three or four. I admire the Greens I know, I’ve contributed to the cause, I read their journals and I agree with many Green policies.
But despite all this, I have never gotten actively involved with the Green movement. I guess you could call me a couch Green. The problem is that when you come right down to it, I don’t feel I’m good enough to be a Green. I doze when I read Green magazines, I can’t remember what Green acronyms mean, I like Big Macs, and I drive my car too much. I’m like the guy who admitted to the New York Times that he didn’t recycle cat food cans because he couldn’t stand the smell as he washed them out and I’m afraid that if I attended a Green meeting I would be found out.
Further, I have a suspicion that a lot of people in the Green movement were also in my Soc Sci 2 class, writing ten pages on the differences between Locke and Rousseau while I was struggling to fill one.
I know that having a strong moral core is part of what has made the Greens as successful as they are. I understand the role of philosophical debate and discussion in creating a movement. And I respect mightily the Green emphasis on finding the right way to decide whatever you are going to do. But I also admit to a strong desire to let someone else take care of it.
Until the Greens decided to get involved in politics, I was never quite sure whether they were a political movement or a church. Maybe they were part of what Fran Liebowitz calls the “religious left.” Certainly there was an aura that to be “part” of the Green movement demanded not only acceptance of a catechism but a commitment that went far beyond that required by any political party I had previously encountered. There was, it appeared, no ‘motor voting’ among the Greens.
Thus it was encouraging to find Greens actually showing up on the ballot. Now they were getting on to my turf, politics, where few practiced what they preached, but the best avoided preaching what they practiced. A place with few saints, but home court for well-meaning sinners. An opportunity to discover the expediency of our ideals, the survival value of our morality, and the self-interest in our virtue.
Politics is not a neat place. A young legislator once asked Earl Long whether ideals had any place in politics. “Hell yes,” said Ol’ Earl, “you should use ideals or any other damn thing you can get your hands on.” I’ve known politicians whose only virtue was that they voted right; I have known others who could exude virtue even as they eviscerated virtuous legislation.
Vaclav Havel says that genuine politics is “simply a matter of serving those around us, serving the community, and serving those who will come after us.” Or as James Michael Curley put it, “Wherever I have found a thistle, I endeavored to replace it with a rose.”
Politics is the sound of the air coming out of the balloon of our expectations and it is the music of hope. It is laundry lists and dirty laundry, new hospitals and old hates, finding out what others think about something, and the willing suspension of our closest beliefs in order to get through the next month or year. Not least, as Paul Begala says, politics “is show business for ugly people,” a theatre in which each voter and candidate writes a different morality play.
It is hard to descend from the mountain top of exquisitely constructed ideology into the thorny, rock-strewn valley of politics. But in the end, the only test of faith is when it is put to work. It is a test that is graded on a curve — not by its proximity to perfection but by its improvement over all previous, surrounding and potential imperfections.
The moral person can not, without dire consequences to others, impose ideals on a political community, but can only, as the Quakers say, witness them. Empirically, the results are highly unpredictable. The whims of history, chance, the symbiotic relationship of all individual ideals existing at a particular moment, and the weather on election day determines the outcome. To fail in this context is not necessarily a failure of morality or of leadership, but often nothing more than bad luck. Six months or years earlier or later, the same actions could produce markedly different results.
In practicing such existential politics, the burden of one’s ideology lightens. And it becomes possible to discover the little things that might have, or might still, make a difference. It may not be one’s message at all, but one’s tone. The philosophy may be right but the specific legislative application awry. You may have been talking philosophy while thinking American, rather than — more productively — the other way around. You may have been arguing with statistics and assumptions when you should have tried anecdotes and analogies.
In Summer Meditations, Havel says that a politician does not have to lie but “need only be sensitive and know when, what, to whom, and how to say what he has to say. It is not true that a person of principle does not belong in politics; it is enough for his principles to be leavened with patience, deliberation, a sense of proportion, and an understanding of others.”
This is the part of politics that doesn’t appear in any platform. Done badly, it becomes demagoguery and manipulation. Done well it makes every voter a part of the office the politician holds.
Can the Greens survive in such a murky, illogical and tempting environment — potentially as toxic as any against which their environmental creed inveighs? I suspect so — if they take into their hearts — as well their minds — their own faith in the power of decentralized public conversation and decision. But to do this, they must accept the fact that many, if not for a long time most, of the voices will not be pals of their paradigm. They will buy bits and piece of the program, they’ll like a particular candidate, or favor a candidate’s stand on a certain issue. But they won’t be Greens as the Greens describe themselves. It will be frustrating, humbling, and confusing.
But if any political group has done the moral homework necessary to go into politics and survive with honor, it is the Greens. Once they have made as many political mistakes as the rest of us, they may even come to enjoy it and learn to tell jokes on themselves and get Mrs. Johnson’s sewer bill straightened out even though it’s not in the platform.
Anyway, it’s not so bad to be wrong from time to time. Despite their complaints, that’s how Americans like their politicians. It helps to keep them under control. And to some of us it would be a sign that now we, too, could call ourselves Greens.
Just one month later I wrote:
In the last issue, I mentioned that I didn’t go to meetings of the Greens for fear that these noble folk might evict me for violating all or part of one of their ten key values.
That is no longer true. As the issue was in the mail, I was on my way to the campus of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Me., to take part in a conference on new politics. I had expected to hide myself among members of the New and 21st Century parties, participants from the National Peoples’ Progressive Network, stray Libertarians, and even perhaps a curious interloper from the Perot crowd.
In fact, representatives from some of these groups were there, but the crowd and agenda were overwhelmingly Green. My initial anxiety quickly dissipated, however, for while the thermometer outside never rose above 25 degrees for four days, the temperature inside the meeting rooms was as comfortable as I have experienced at a political gathering in a quarter of a century.
My previous apprehensions, it turns out, had not been totally misplaced; I had just not realized the extent to which American Greens are moving in different directions.
Since 1984, the American Greens have been involved in this country’s longest continuous political soul-searching session — with time out only for constant revisions of their by-laws. Much of this was necessary and fruitful, but over time such a practice can become self-indulgent and even masochistic. As the group seeks the one true way, the number of alleged apostates and heretics mounts rapidly, recriminations become common, and all but those most hardened to endless reiteration of theoretical arguments begin looking for the exit sign.
As I close as I can figure out, something of this sort has happened among the American Greens. Some of it has bordered on the astounding. I gather, for example, that there has been considerable debate as to whether Greens should believe in “post-patriarchal values” or feminism. While either one would do for your average real life political issue, a number of women at the new politics conference told me that the theoretical Greens — or left Greens as they are sometimes called — had been particularly harsh towards women, an unseemly stance for either feminists or post-patriarchs.
In any case, many of the Greens at the new politics conference had tired of the fulsome debates and anorectic action they saw within the US Greens and had drifted, been pushed, or jumped, into the world of third party politics.
The result last fall was a record number of serious candidacies in state, local and federal elections. Fifteen out of 92 candidates won office, such as the engaging, pony-tailed new mayor of Cordova, Alaska, Kelly Weaverling. Others did far better than one might have expected, such as Linda Martin who got 14% of the vote against Daniel Inouye. Others made respectable showings — from California to Florida to Maine.
In aggregate, the candidates were an appealing lot: smart, personable, and articulate people who would have found quick acceptance in the Democratic Party were it not for their concern for truth and conscience. These were not radical flakes; but ordinary Americans who had tired of the two major parties’ dissin’ the environment, democracy, justice, and their own constituents . . .
And even Cordova mayor Weverling says, “For the next election I may cut my hair and trim my beard. Who would not cut his hair or trim his beard to save his mother’s life?”
I decided that I had gotten mixed up with a bunch of pre-mature moderates who sincerely, and with no little credibility, saw themselves as the mainstream of the future.
In a little over a decade, Green politics has grown from being a German eccentricity to the point where Greens are becoming a significant factor in France; there are ten Green parties in Africa; three in Japan; a new Green party in Spain; there is now a global Green steering committee; and the Greens are running first in the Ukrainian polls.
Nothing like this has ever happened in politics: the autonomous, undirected budding of scores of compatible parties around the globe, joined by a passion to save the planet, devolve power and inject decency into governmental affairs — linked primarily by computer bulletin boards and occasional conferences. The global village exists and it is very green.
And at the end we gathered in a circle and were asked to speak a word or two about what the conference had meant to us. In over 35 years of politics, I have never held hands in a circle with a mayor and a congressional candidate. It felt both odd and a little bit wonderful . . . The Green story is being missed by the media partly because the phenomenon is so invasive and so human that it does not need a central hierarchy, armies or mass media to take hold. More than either a movement or a politics, it is an idea — which, like the idea of democracy — is spreading more like a benign virus than like an empire . . .
The people gathered in Brunswick, Me., had long ago stopped being fooled. They had decided to go with what common sense and decency told them rather than accepting the charades of political prestidigitators. It is, in the end, the only tool we have. Simple, rudimentary, yet with the inexorable power of truth speaking to illusion.
By 1995, now 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 American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers, Democratic Socialists of America, and followers of Lenora Fulani. It was a recklessly dangerous idea for a Washington weekend, but 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.
I was one of the kickoff speakers and said:
One good way to describe the history of our country is that it has involved repeated conflict between the specifics of the soul and institutional abstractions — between people and places on the one hand and, on the other, a succession of systems desiring to exploit, subjugate or supplant them.
Sometimes, as with the Indian, the battle was lost. And we suffer still from the late 19th century coup by the corporate system against early American ideals of economic and political freedom.
On the other hand, by the end of the American revolution, this country had successfully challenged both the monarchy and feudalism. And it would eventually take on — through emancipation and the franchise — systems for the suppression of blacks and women.
There was the struggle of labor against the industrial system. And the struggle of immigrants against urban systems, and the struggle of farmers against the eastern banking system,
And through all this time there were also those Americans who sought a politics in which places mattered more than systems, perhaps most strongly evoked by Aldo Leopold when he said that a good thing is anything that tends to add to the integrity, stability and beauty of a place.
As a simple empirical matter, therefore, you can say that one of the great characteristics of Americans is not merely opposition to a system of the moment but antipathy towards unnatural systems in general — opposition to all systems that revoke, replace or restrain the natural rights of humans and the natural blessings of their habitats.
This, I think, is why we are here today. If nothing else binds us it is an understanding of the damage that heartless, leaderless, mindless systems have done to the specifics of our existence. . .
Further, in our distaste with the systems suffocating our lives, we are very much in the mainstream. These systems have done half our work for us, they have lost the people’s faith. Even the Hundred Year Reich of American corporate culture is faltering because of its failure to produce jobs and rising incomes any more.
And who better to do the other half of the task than those who come out of a honest politics of people and place, of communities and compassion? . . .
But we must stake out a position with real programs for real people, with our enthusiasm on our sleeve and our ideology in our pocket, with small words and big hearts, and — most of all — with a clear vision of what a better future might look like. We must tackle what Chesterton called the “huge modern heresy of altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul.”
Here is what our politics should be about. Just as we are cleaning up the toxic wastes, the fouled rivers, and the noxious atmosphere of our environmental legacy, so we must confront the ecological destruction of our political system. The conflict can no longer be a phony battle between liberals and conservatives that leaves us the choice of control by huge corporations, huge government, or a conspiracy between the two. The question is whether we can restore the individual and community to the center of American political life.
This then is our task. Let’s embrace it not as sectarians or as prigs but as a happy fellow members of a new mainstream. Not as radicals permanently in exile but as moderates of an age that has not quite arrived. Let’s laugh and make new friends and be gentle with one another. Let’s remember Camus’ dictum that the only sin we are not permitted is despair, And above all, let’s keep in our mind’s eye the place where the sun hits the front stoop on a pleasant morning and makes us feel that this is how good everything else should be as well.
`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 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. 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 meeting at which nobody yelled at anyone.
We had also found real confidence in 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, I wondered. 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 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, but for that reason particularly dramatic, blizzards occurred, trapping Greens in homes around the area. I found eight phones in my house and for hours those huddled on Newark Street plotted with the similarly confined elsewhere in the metropolitan region. Everything else was closed but the Greens were open for business.
I wasn’t hot on a presidential campaign. As Linda Martin recalled in her book Drving Mr. Nader, “Most of the Third Parties ’96 conferees agreed: we needed to run a candidate in more than a handful of states, and most wanted Ralph Nader at the head of our ticket. All, that is, except our resident curmudgeon, Washington journalist and political pundit, Sam Smith. Smith would say later, ‘Having seen other top-down third party presidential campaigns, I couldn’t see the organization in place that could pull it off.'”
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. With e-mail and web sites we found ourselves creating a a cyberarchy of transformation — as different from the hierarchy of traditional information and politics as the vast wilderness of America was from the taut geography of 19th century Europe. The dukes and baronets, clinging to their decadent landscape of conventional American thought, railed against the primitiveness, the raucousness, the freedom of the new media, but their voices were silly whining in the happy hubbub of people discovering a ubiquitously hospitable new frontier. The ways of the Net would soon become inseparable from the ways of new politics. The Net had become the smoke-filled room, the Tammany Hall and the political picnic of a new age.
There were other things that mattered. John Rensinbrink started publishing the Green Horizon newsletter in 1993 to help explain, develop, and foster the idea of an association of autonomous state Green parties in the United States. The newsletter was also the voice of the Green Politics Network, an informal group of people convinced of the latent power of the American Green movement and urgently concerned that its time not be missed.
With the heady discovery of how many of us there really were came a sense of incipient rebellion based not on ideology but on dreams and values — a shared faith that freedom, the individual, and decency still mattered.
It was not just a different politics but a different philosophy and culture. And it was one that allowed respect to develop even among those who might have been antagonists. It was possible to accept others as a part of a community that had precedence over political belief.
A few months after the third party conference, I attempted to describe what had happened and the new kind of politics that inspired it:
As we lurch towards yet another debilitating presidential choice, a new variety of politics is starting to take root. It is far too early to say whether it will become an effective and permanent alternative to what we now glumly know as politics, yet even in its nascent form it offers the best hope that we can reverse America’s extraordinary flight from democracy and decency.
This politics is so new and so decentralized that it doesn’t even have a name. Except I think John Rensenbrink may have given it one back in 1992 in the title of a book he wrote: “The Greens and the Politics of Transformation.” Rensenbrink used the phrase to describe a holistic politics and economics, that goes “from local to global and back again, that goes beyond where the left has left it, both in theory and in practice.”
At its heart, the politics of transformation separates quickly from both left and right because it proposes not only new policies but a dramatically new way of going doing politics itself. It proposes a politics centered not around institutions but around communities — and not around winning but around consent. . .
Transformationalists believe that you can not have a decent society without a decent politics . . .In Rensenbrink’s view: “Transformation can conserving, reform-minded or revolutionary, depending on the context in which action is considered and taken. Transformation means reinvigorating citizens with a sense of personal worth and responsibility, it means reviving grass roots both in business and in government, it means choosing communities and the environment over the profits and power of megacorporations and big government . . .
“Transformation requires both a sturdy defense of communities and persons and a resolute will to fundamentally alter the power structures of society at all levels. This includes the need for a sincere turn to electoral politics as a primary vehicle of transformation. . . . This cannot be done through the two major parties, it needs to be done through new transformationally grounded political parties.”
Says Rensenbrink, “The goal is not just to replace existing power with another power but to alter the way power is exercised.” For transformationalists, therefore, not only must political power change, but the politician and citizen as well — those exercising it and those affected by it. As in the decades before the American revolution and during the civil rights, environmental and women’s movements, we must let the catalytic legislative body become the congress of our own hearts and minds. .
The model for transformational politics is the green political movement. Started in Germany in the early 1980s, the Green Party from the beginning intended to change not only what was done but how it was done. German Green Petra Kelly called the Greens an “anti-party party” that stood for “shared power” rather than “power over.” . . .
The transformational politics of the Greens stands in stark contrast to the two major American parties because it demands not only a central place for the individual but for the exercise of individual will and of responsibility. In this it echoes both America’s transcendentalists and Europe’s existentialists,. From the former comes the notion of ecological unity; as Emerson said, “the world globes itself in a drop of dew.” From the latter, a strong rejection of predestination and the concomitant need for people to form their own morality and then act upon it. Together, they eschew false icons of authority, celebrate free will and demand that we use it wisely. It is a far more difficult politics than one that merely carried out on a trading floor where promises are traded like shares of stock. But it is infinitely more optimistic as well. In the words of the title of Kelly’s 1985 book, we begin “fighting for hope.”
Transformational politics also stands in contrast to post-modernism and its random rearrangement of the furnishings of the past, its avaricious co-optation of the technologies of the present and its self-serving distortion of words of meaning — the shared politics of the White House and the 104th Congress despite their mock struggles.
Which is not to say that Greens own the franchise on the politics of transformation. As in other moments of great pressure, spontaneous combustion breaks out in places small and large as we discover how wrong we have been and how much it does haven’t to be like that. The growth of innovative and cross-cultural spirituality, the ethic of voluntary simplicity and down-sizing, the willingness of many to become what Milton Klonsky back in the 1950s called the “draft-dodgers of commercial civilization,” the rise of holistic medicine, and the transformational press are all signs of a quiet storm building on the plains of the American soul.
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 friends, including Nader, Bill Greider, and Ronnie Dugger jammed my living room to toss ideas to 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.
It wasn’t the first time the farm had been used for politics: Jack Kennedy had retreated there from the more public places of Camelot. But in the minds of many on this December weekend, it seemed entirely likely that what was happening far surpassed such an incidental contribution to history. After all, this time the farm was not merely hosting a national icon, but giving birth to a national idea.
Years after the European Greens had been born, some 30 state Green parties had come 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 slate and 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 had come in second.
I had been skeptical of the enterprise from the start. I had seen the Peace & Freedom Party start at the top and end up nowhere. I had been in the third party business for more than a quarter or a century and could see every down side. I knew enough about Nader to realize that he and the Greens would not be a perfect match. I believed the Greens should start where their hearts were — in the community — and build out from there.
I was wrong — not because my concerns were unwarranted, but because they were far outweighed by other things. In fact, Nader did about as poorly in the vote count as I had expected. What I had not expected was that it wouldn’t matter much at all. Where I had foreseen defeat others had found victory.
Those such as John Rensenbrink, Tony Affigne, Linda Martin, Dee Berry and Tom Linzey, who saw the Nader campaign as the grease to slide the Greens into national politics, were more than confirmed. Those Nader associates such as Rob Hager who perceived the synergy-in-waiting proved more than prescient. Those who knew this was the time to seize were more than wise.
In theory it shouldn’t have worked at all. The Nader campaign functioned without paid staffers, pollsters, consultants and focus groups. A national clearinghouse led by Linda Martin was staffed entirely by volunteers. When reporters asked Nader whether he supported the Green platform, his response was, “Which one?” You could, in fact, take your pick. The media gave the Greens no quarter. Clinton and Dole spent one thousand times as much per vote as Nader. And most Americans didn’t even know what a Green was.
In a strange way, though, Nader and the Greens needed each other. For all his good works, Nader’s utopia never had seemed to stretch much beyond tedious regulatory reform. The Greens, on the other hand, were far more likely to confront bulldozers in a forest than the bullies in the corporations that owned the forest. In combination, Nader and the Greens could address both cause and effect.
The symbiosis changed both parties. At the Middleburg conference, about half of the attendees — people in key positions in state parties — had joined the Greens because of Nader. They were younger and less granolaesque than the long-time Greens present. A representative from New Jersey broke into the discussion with a cry of “Yo!” and a young Maine delegate moderating a session actually told some back-of-the-hall conversationalists to “shut up.” To be sure there were familiar Green touches — a delegate demanding a “vibes check” to make sure that no one was feeling undue angst about “process,” and another who peremptorily decided we should spend our stretch break doing ti-chi. But it was clear that the Nader effort was even changing the internal language of the Greens, not to mention providing us with enough lawyers to set up regional legal aid networks to deal with electoral problems.
As for Nader, he seemed to have changed as well. He had started the campaign with numerous conditions — not the least of which was his refusal to take direct campaign funds. But as state after state developed its own Nader campaign and as the underlying decency and logic of the Green idea insinuated itself even amongst the capos of the Nader operation, their leader reached the point that he would report to the Middleburg crowd that when asked by reporters about tree-hugging he would say that there were a lot worst things to hug — like Clinton or Dole. Nader also volunteered to help continue to take the Green message across the land. and even displayed more than a casual interest in getting involved.
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 rules of Green considerate anarchy.
It was clear in retrospect that nobody had been in charge. Yet it had happened anyway. And if that was not a new paradigm for America, then what was?