Finding greener pastures and greener voters

From a talk to the Green Party of Montgomery County, MD, May 14, 2005

Sam Smith – Ten years ago next month a small group of us staged a conference of third party activists that led to several other meetings culminating in this country’s first Green presidential campaign in 1996 and, in suitably confused order, a few weeks later in the formation of a national association of Green parties.

Thus we can soon celebrate with a peculiar mixture of pride and disappointment the first decade of the American Green Party. The pride includes being part of a diaspora of the first great political idea since social democracy to spread across our globe without force of arms or even supranational organization. Upon meeting with a Green from, say, Tasmania or Africa, I am quickly reminded of how little borders interfere with our conversation for the only geography that limits us is the endangered atmosphere above our heads rather than some imaginary line drawn on a map.

The pride also comes from something that is still unappreciated by many Greens and certainly ignored by the media – namely that based on public opinion polls, Greens – despite their meager electoral showing – are the party that best reflects the view of a majority of Americans on such issues as the Iraq war, the environment, health care, campaign financing, population growth, genetically modified foods, and marijuana use.

In short, while the public may not elect us, they agree with us far more than they do with the so called major parties on a number of major issues. That they don’t know this is a reflection of media bias, the successful agitprop of the GOP and the Democrats, the Greens’ lack of the legalized bribery that funds the major parties, but also, sadly, it reflects a willingness of Greens to accept the marginal role assigned to them by America’s establishment.

There is another poll that I can not prove we have won, but evidence is pointing increasingly in its direction – and that is the poll of history. History is always the last precinct to be heard from.

As with every great cause in American history from abolition to civil rights and women’s liberation, the final result is often on a time delay fuse. Ideas that are ridiculed today become the accepted wisdom of tomorrow. It is often better, if forced to chose, to win tomorrow’s poll rather than today’s for today’s winner often is demonstrating nothing but the will and power to delay justice. Phil Hart once said of the Senate that it was a place that did things 20 years after it ought to. This sadly also applies to politics in general.

Finally, Greens have, on average, less polluting, less violent, less authoritarian, and less myopic than those of other parties. And, as I sometimes explain to folks, I dropped out of the Democratic Party out of fear that I might become liable under the RICO anti-racketeering statutes.

But a tendency towards virtue and prescience is not always appreciated – it actually annoys many. It is true, as the Mongolians say, that those who wish to speak the truth had better keep one foot in the stirrup. Nonetheless, it is useful to occasionally remember that whatever our failings we have tried to do right and this, in and of itself, is one of the great protections against doing wrong. Not a perfect one to be sure, but infinitely better than its alternative which is setting out to do we should know is wrong.

Now to a few disappointments and problems, which I offer not in the name of ideology, certainty, or righteousness, but more in the manner of fans discussing the tactics of the last game over a beer. Too often, among the committed, the choice of pass or run is regarded as an article of faith rather than what it really is: alternative mechanical solutions towards the same end.

For example, a shocking amount of nonrenewable energy has been expended on arguing whether supporting David Cobb or Ralph Nader was the right choice. Yet together these candidates received less than one half of one percent of the vote. Looked at another way, the candidates together received 2.3 million fewer votes than Nader had in 2000.

Before the election campaign I found myself a somewhat lonely voice trying to suggest that while it was necessary for the Greens to run a presidential campaign it was not really where their future lay.

I had come to this conclusion by a close look at the history of third parties over the past one hundred years. One thing I found was that if you want to affect national politics with a third party presidential run, getting over 5% – preferably closer to 10% – is a good way to start. Otherwise, you can probably expect a far less direct impact for your efforts, coming perhaps decades in the future. And, in any case, you can expect your swing at presidential politics to be fairly short-lived.

It is also worth noting that with the except of Eugene Debs, all the most successful third party presidential candidates drew primarily from disgruntled mainstream factions. Further each of the third parties had only one opportunity to make their point in a big way in a presidential race.

That does not mean, however, that third parties – like certain insects – are merely born, have sex, and then die. In fact, some of the third parties have had long, remarkably healthy lives, but in large part because they were as concerned with local as with national results. The Socialist Party is the most dramatic example, with a history dating back over 100 years. By World War I it had elected 70 mayors, two members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials. Milwaukee alone had three Socialist mayors in the last century, including Frank Zeidler who held office for 12 years ending as late as 1960. And let us not forget Bernie Sanders who stands an excellent chance of being our first socialist senator, a fact, come to think of it, the right will never let us forget. They’re already treating it as a shocking expose.

Some highly successful third parties never ran anyone for president (except in fusion with one of the major parties). An example was the Liberal Party of New York, the longest lived third party next the to the Socialists.

My feeling is that the Greens should follow the path of the Socialists and the Populists and infuse themselves into every possible pore and precinct of this country and in every possible way. This can be called viral politics although, in truth, it predates such postmodern terminology with deep roots in traditional political behavior.

We must bear in mind that most politics today is largely based on acceptance of the tyranny of television and other forms of mass media. This is, among other things, extremely costly and a game Greens can’t afford to play even if they wished to. It is also inevitably top down politics. You can’t have a decentralized democratic movement run by TV.

But viral politics – whether done through traditional local organizing or through more modern tools such as the Internet – has not been eliminated by the media but merely obscured. It is widely used, for example, by the Christian right. And Howard Dean didn’t do badly with it, either.

It could be used far more by the Greens as well. Consider that in recent years as many as 95 congressional races and 40% of all state legislative races have been uncontested. What if Greens all over the country had been as diligent as Maine’s John Eder who not only won a seat in the legislature but won it again after being redistricted?

And while the San Francisco mayoralty may not seem as important as a Green presidential run, a few days after election it suddenly dawned on me that Gonzalez’ race was not just local; for me it meant that there somewhere in America there was a city roughly the size of my own in which 47% of the voters agreed with me. That was a remarkably cheering revelation.

If we had Matt Gonzalezes and John Eders all over America people would start talking and thinking about Greens in a different way. Whatever our results in a presidential race they would know that Greens really do matter in the ‘hood.

How do we get to this point? A good place to start is to stop thinking of the Greens so much as an ideological grouping with a literal agenda and more as a community of common spirits. Listen to how the Socialists’ own history describes their roots: “From the beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical.”

It can happen without even planning. At one point the majority of the steering committee of the DC Statehood Green Party consisted of three young staffers of local labor unions. This is certainly not the image the Green Party projects. I believe they had come in part seeking a community that expressed their ideals better than their jobs did. In fact, in almost every once great progressive movement one finds a restlessness among the young. Many of these groups – civil rights, women’s, environmental – have become more bureaucratic, less imaginative, and less brave with time. The Green Party – if it thought of itself as a safe house for the idealistic, the rebellious and the active – might be surprised at how many would like to drop in.

The problem is one of style and tone as much as policy and pronouncements. Are the Greens fun to be around? Do they make my work more useful? Am I strengthened by the affirmation I feel even if we may disagree on some issues?

If, on the other hand, we take a formalistic and bureaucratic approach to our efforts we will be rewarded with formalistic and bureaucratic results. One of these results will be to signal some that they won’t feel all that comfortable amongst us.

But if the feeling is that of a community or a home, our work can be more productive, more pleasing and more inviting.

John McKnight put it well when he said that “The structure of institutions is a design established to create control of people. On the other hand, the structure of associations is the result of people acting through consent. . . You will know that you are in a community if you often hear laughter and singing. You will know you are in an institution, corporation, or bureaucracy if you hear the silence of long halls and reasoned meetings.” He added:

– Community is built around a recognition of fallibility rather than the ideal.

– Community groups are better at finding a place for everyone.

If this seems na├»ve, come with me for a moment to a time of when politics was so much a part of New York City that Tammany Hall had to rent Madison Square Gardens for its meetings of committeemen – all 32,000 of them. In contrast, when the Democratic National Committee decided to send a mailing to its workers some years back, it found that no one had kept a list. The party had come to care only about its donors.

One 19th century Tammany politician, George Washington Plunkitt, claimed to know every person in his district, their likes and their dislikes:

“A young feller gains a reputation as a baseball player in a vacant lot. I bring him into our baseball club. That fixes him. You’ll find him workin’ for my ticket at the polls next election day. . . I rope them all in by givin’ them opportunities to show themselves off. I don’t trouble them with political arguments. I just study human nature and act accordin’.”

In the world of Plunkitt, politics was not something handed down to the people through distant intermediaries. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude.

So the first non-logical but necessary thing we must do to reclaim politics is to bring it back into our communities, into our hearts . . . to bring it back home.

We must not only make politics a part of our culture but make our culture a part of our politics. The first political campaign in which I took part – at the age of 12 in Philadelphia – featured a candidate who made ten to twelve appearances every evening on different street corners, preceded by a string band that attracted the crowd. By the time, he was finished he had held an outdoor rally for 12,000 in front of city hall and defeated 69 years of Republican rule. How often have you seen that?

I remember something else from that period – a record my father brought home of labor songs. I do not remember anything anyone said about politics from that time, but I do recall bits and pieces of those songs. As Joe Hill said, ‘A pamphlet, no matter how well-written, is read once and then thrown away – but a song lasts forever.”

Reaching out beyond our community involves some changes. For example, liberals have increasingly become openly angry at those with the very votes they need. Disparaging huge sections of the country as hopeless “red states” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is indeed a frustrating time, but there are a few ways Greens can avoid this liberal trap.
It is useful to remember that bad politics gets people thinking about the wrong things while good politics gets them thinking about the right things. Segregation, for example, was in no small part a successful effort of the southern white elite to keep poor whites and poor blacks from discovering what they had in common. When Lyndon Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell got what was perhaps the greatest amount of good legislation passed in the least amount of time in American history, it was not just about civil rights – it was also about poverty and education. In other words, they got the south and the rest of the country thinking about better things.

We are taught today to think of our opponents as intrinsically evil, but consider this: Of 21 currently safely GOP states, 11 have above average poverty, 12 have below average income and 8 have severe drought problems. If you didn’t know they were sacred Republican turf, you might think they were excellent organizing ground for progressives. Further, 15 of these untouchable states, allegedly impenetrable behind their walls of faith-based family values, have above average divorce rates – all of them at least 90% greater than despicable, godless Massachusetts.

What if we got these places thinking about health care, pensions, good water, and job security instead of gay marriage and abortion? Remember that Christian fundamentalists have been with us a long time; but there was a time when we called them New Deal or Great Society Democrats. These matters are not as fixed as we are told to believe.

One way to change the atmosphere is to do it like AA – one day at a time, one step at a time. Build your coalitions issue by issue. You may be amazed at what you can create this way. I remember when we were fighting freeways in Washington and I went to a rally whose two main speakers were Grovesnor Chapman of the all-white Georgetown Citizens Association and Reginald Booker, head of group called Niggers Incorporated. I looked up at the stage and thought, we’ve won. And we had.

I tell folks that if an anti-abortion, gun-toting nun wants to help you save a forest put her on the committee. You will both learning something from the experience and you will scare the opposition because what the elite hates most is to find people who shouldn’t like each other being on the same side.

Loosening up on party organization can help, too. For example, issue committees that function with considerable autonomy often develop energy far more easily. Further, if you’re looking for better diversity, such committees can provide an attraction for those who might feel uncomfortable in the larger group. Latinos, who might not have much natural affinity for hooking up with the Greens, might find a quite independent Maryland Green Immigration Task Force much to their liking.

Another way to reach out to various communities is through creative followship. If you want to make friends one of the best ways is not to try to get them to do something for you but for you to help them do what they want.

In the end, there will be plenty who stand their ground far from yours. But even here there are ways of ameliorating the situation. If someone says, for example, they don’t approve of gay marriages, I say then don’t marry a gay. I follow up by pointing out that one of the key virtues of America is your right to do what you believe is right. But in order to have that right, you have to give it to everyone else as well. This is what is called reciprocal liberty. I can’t be free unless you are and vice versa.

This doesn’t mean approval but tolerance. As my father used to say to us: you don’t have to like your relatives you just have to be nice to them. (And I always thought he was reminding himself as well)

I think this distinction has gotten lost in today’s political debate. I suspect that many Christian conservatives feel that liberals are trying to get them to approve of rather than just accept things that violate their beliefs. My response is no, you don’t have to like what other Americans do, you just have to be nice to them. And that includes not banning them from relationships and choices they have made, not disparaging them or segregating them in any way. Remember, if you can make gays do what you want, someday someone may decide to do the same to Christian fundamentalists. Your freedom is not just a right, it is a bargain you have struck with other Americans.

This, I obviously would hope, would just be a first step. But it is an important one and it is through making such distinctions that Greens can become not only the wave of the future but the mediator of past troubles.

Finally, one external factor has dramatically altered things for the Greens as well as everyone else: the end of the First American Republic following September 11. Besides all its other horrors, the developments make it even more difficult for a third party. But the war on terror is in many ways a war to protect a tiny percentage of the American elite and their capitals of politics and business. When the White House went on red alert the other day, the mayor of Washington – just a few blocks away – wasn’t even notified.

Our situation is not unlike Orwell’s 1984, in which only ten percent of the population were actually members of the party; the rest lived in a countryside with relatively normal lives.

Oddly, however, this presents an unusual opportunity for the Greens. What if the Green Party declared itself the party of the countryside, of free America, and set its sights on organizing not just the survival, resistance, and rebellion of the unoccupied homeland, but its revival, its discovery of self-reliance, and its energetic practice of democracy and decency? There is a logic to the Greens becoming the party of free America. After all Greens are the party most in the American tradition of decentralization, democracy, and cooperative communities. And they have ample precedent in the grassroots Populist Party which took on robber barons of startling similarity to those now served by the Bush regime.

The important thing, however, in discussing all these matters is for Greens to remember that they are members of the same team, selecting the next play not to prove their virtue but to improve their mutual position. The virtue they can take for granted; the position will be determined by each day’s practical choices. If there is any virtue to be consciously observed during these difficult decisions it is that of kindness towards each other.

As for the rest of America let us proceed on a course both radical and gentle, determined and patient, critical of those in power yet kind to those they have misled, and, most of all, serious in our intent, yet joyous in our manifestations of that intent, spreading the message that a green world is not only a better one, but a happier one as well.

History’s hints for third parties

Originally published in the Green Horizon Quarterly

Sam Smith, 2012 – Added to all the other obstacles faced by third party activists is a paucity of analytical and historical guidebooks for their struggles. The media tends to be dismissive of third parties and lacking in understanding of their contributions to American politics. While some academics have done fine studies of individual movements and parties, scholars aren’t particularly interested in the aggregated effect of third parties. Further, as with journalists, one finds on campus a deep and uncritical reverence for a ‘two party system’ that has, in fact, formed America’s largest conspiracy for the restraint of trade – the trade in political ideas. Finally, activists themselves are usually so involved in what should be that they can forget to look closely at what is and how it works for and against their efforts.

This windshield appraisal of America’s third party movements is not for the purpose of proving a thesis, arguing a point or suggesting reforms, but rather to help activists gain a better sense of the political environment in which they have to work. And to help them recognize both the potential and the limits that present themselves.

First, the good news: America’s third parties have been immensely important to the country as catalysts of political and social progress. Their efforts lent weight to the anti-slavery movement, to the institution of an income tax, and to women’s rights. While most of the power in 20th century politics was held by centrist or conservative white Protestants and Irish Catholics, the major reforms of that period stemmed from three third party movements: the Populists, the Progressives and the Socialists.

One reason journalists and historians tend to discount the impact of third parties is because of their obsession with apexes of power and those who inhabit them. In reality, however, change often comes not from the top or the center but from the edges. Ecologists and biologists appreciate the importance of edges as sources of life and change, whether they be the boundary of a forest, the shore of a bay or the earth’s patina so essential to our being that we call the atmosphere. The political edge, at least metaphorically, has many of the same critical attributes.

Third parties have come in all sorts of shapes and colors. Some have aimed at a single issue such as slavery or drinking. Some have been driven by the popularity of an individual such as Teddy Roosevelt or Ross Perot. The ones with the deepest effect on the country’s history have tended to be both parties and movements spreading like a virus throughout American culture, such as the Populists, Progressives and Socialists. To be any of these represented a commitment far beyond today’s membership in one of the major parties. Finally, there have been statewide parties such as the Farmer Labor Party, New York’s Liberal and Conservatives, and the DC Statehood Party that were far more successful within their constituency than many national third parties.

By far the most successful third party in history was the Republican Party which four years after its first run for the White House elected a president, Abraham Lincoln. But this is only part of the story, because two third parties helped lay the groundwork beginning 20 years earlier with the presidential campaigns of the anti-slavery Liberty Party and Free Soilers.

Two other 19th third parties served either as precursors of something bigger, with the Greenbacks, with its emphasis on monetary policy, a warm-up band for the Populists and the Prohibition Party, which got only 2% in its best presidential bid, but won a whole constitutional amendment 50 years after its founding.

In the 20th century, if you wanted to make a big splash in national third party politics, the best way to do it was with a major icon such as Roosevelt, Wallace or Perot. Here are the best numbers for various third party candidates:

Theodore Roosevelt 28%
Perot (1992): 19%
LaFolette: 17%
George Wallace: 14%
Debs (1912): 11%
Perot (1996): 9%
Anderson: 7%

All other 20th century third party candidates got 3% or less, including Debs in three additional runs and Thurmond and Henry Wallace in the hot 1948 race. It is useful to note that all the leading third party candidates – with the exception of George Wallace and Debs – drew heavily from mainstream constituencies rather than running as radical reformers.

Obviously the numbers don’t tell the whole story. For example, the New Deal drew from Populist, Progressive and Socialist ideas despite low turnouts for their candidates. The Populists, despite topping out a 9% in a presidential race, influenced the politics of two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin.

Still, if you want to affect national politics with a national third party presidential run, history suggests that getting over 5% – preferably closer to 10% – is a good way to start. Otherwise, you can probably expect a less direct impact for your efforts, perhaps decades in the future. And, in any case, you can expect your swing at presidential politics to be fairly short-lived.

That does not mean, however, that these parties – like certain insects – were merely born, had sex, and then died. In fact, some of the third parties had long, healthy lives, in large part because they were as concerned with local as with national results. The Socialist Party is the most dramatic recent example, with a history dating back over 100 years. The party’s own history suggest that eclecticism didn’t hurt:

‘From the beginning the Socialist Party was the ecumenical organization for American radicals. Its membership included Marxists of various kinds, Christian socialists, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish socialists, foreign-language speaking sections, single-taxers and virtually every variety of American radical. On the divisive issue of “reform vs. revolution,” the Socialist Party from the beginning adopted a compromise formula, producing platforms calling for revolutionary change but also making “immediate demands” of a reformist nature. A perennially unresolved issue was whether revolutionary change could come about without violence; there were always pacifists and evolutionists in the Party as well as those opposed to both those views. The Socialist Party historically stressed cooperatives as much as labor unions, and included the concepts of revolution by education and of ‘building the new society within the shell of the old.'”

By World War I it had elected 70 mayors, two members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials. Milwaukee alone had three Socialist mayors in the last century, including Frank Zeidler who held office for 12 years ending in 1960. And the party reports that Karen Kubby, Socialist councilwoman, won her re-election bid in 1992 with the highest vote total in Iowa City history.

Some highly successful third parties never ran anyone for president (except in fusion with one of the major parties). Albeit in a confused and weakened status at the moment, the Liberal Party of New York remains the longest lived third party next the to the Socialists. Founded in 1944 – in a break with the more radical American Labor Party – the Liberals benefited immensely from New York’s fusion-friendly election laws, which allowed it to support Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and to claim credit for giving Kennedy enough votes for his presidential victory. Other nominees of the party have included Averill Harriman, Mario Cuomo, Jacob Javits, Robert Kennedy, Fiorello LaGuardia and John Lindsey. Swinging the gate of New York politics made it exceptionally important.

The Farmer Labor Party in Minnesota lasted 26 years before merging with the Democrats. During that time it elected a senator and a governor. And in DC, the Statehood Party held an elected position for 25 years and some years later merged with the DC Green Party.

As for the Greens, the recent near victory of Matt Gonzalez for San Francisco mayor is the latest sign of success in viral politics of a party that had already elected a score of mayors elsewhere. While SF mayoralty may not seem as important as a Green presidential run, I was shakened from that assumption a few days after election when it suddenly dawned that Gonzalez’ race was not just local; for me it meant that there somewhere in America there was a city roughly the size of my own in which 47% of the voters agreed with me. It was a remarkably cheering revelation.

There is, it appears, no one right way to run a third party in the U.S. It always has to be a form of guerilla politics because the rules are so thoroughly stacked against those not Democrats or Republicans. Thus the judging the right tactics at the right time, as opposed to planning moves strictly on the basis of their presumed virtue, would seem to be the wisest course. To slow down traffic I might be morally justified in stepping into the Interstate, spreading my arms, and shouting, “stop,” but it is probably not the most useful thing I could do for the cause. Besides, like some third party presidential candidates, I might not have another opportunity. My initial virtue might turn out to have been terminal.

For example, the question of fusion arises periodically. History clearly shows that there is no clear answer as to whether fusion is useful or not as a general principle because sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. The Liberal Party of New York used it magnificently (thanks in part to the laws of that state) while many feel fusion helped bring down the Populist Party. Beginning in the late 19th century state legislatures began taking action against fusion because, presumably, they thought it was working. And it can be argued that the moves against fusion were part of a broader counter-revolution that included the end of Reconstruction and giving corporations rights of the individual. In any case, today forty states and DC ban fusion.

One may oppose fusion on principal – for it certainly degrades the message of one’s party – but how is it that unprincipled opponents of reform also see it as such a danger? These are the sort of questions that Greens need to answer pragmatically without tying themselves into all sorts of moral and ideological knots. The impact could be profound. For example, the ban on fusion is the only thing preventing a third party from running its own candidate for vice president along with, say, the Democratic candidate for president. If Nader had run for vice president in 2000, his vote total would have been much higher and might have revealed far more sympathy for Green politics than is apparent today. Instead of being blamed for 2000, the Greens might have been actively courted for 2004.

Similarly, the question of whether or how to run a presidential candidate needs to be subjected to the lens of history. Again, the lessons are multiple and far from clear. To me, they suggest that a good third party presidential run should be reserved for when the stars are aligned – a major party weak, an unusually popular voice for your own, and a social revolt in the making.

There is one other factor that is truly new in America: the destruction of constitutional government in the wake of September 11. Besides all its other horrors, the developments make it even more difficult for a third party national campaign. But the war or terror is in many ways a war to protect a tiny percentage of the American elite and their capitals of politics and business – much as only ten percent of those in Orwell’s 1984 were actually members of the party; the rest lived in a countryside living relatively normal lives.

Oddly, however, this presents an opportunity for the Greens. As I wrote recently:
“At present the Green Party seems exceedingly concerned with whom it will run for president, if anyone. This is a time-consuming, agenda-skewing, image-monopolizing business. . . But what if the Green Party declared itself the party of the countryside, of free America, and set its sights on organizing not just the survival, resistance, and rebellion of the unoccupied homeland, but its revival, its discovery of self-reliance, and its energetic practice of democracy and decency? There is a wealth of electoral opportunity. For example, in 15 states more than half the state legislative seats are presently won without a contest.
“There is a logic to the Greens becoming the party of free America. After all Greens are the party most in the American tradition of decentralization, democracy, and cooperative communities. And they have ample precedent in the grassroots Populist Party which took on robber barons of startling similarity to those now served by the Bush regime.”

The important thing, however, in discussing such matters is for Greens to remember that they are members of the same team, selecting the next play not to prove their virtue but to improve their position. The virtue they can take for granted; the position will be determined by each day’s practical choices. If there is any virtue to be observed during these difficult decisions it is that of gentleness towards each other. And while there is much to be learned from the past, perhaps the most important is an appreciation for the magnificent uncertainty of the whole adventure.

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