If Real Change Starts at the Bottom, Why Is the Green Party Focused on the White House?

Campaigns are a tactic, like protests and boycotts, and the trick is to use them wisely, not to prove how good you are.
white house green party

Photo by TriggerPhoto / iStock.

I’m taking it in the chops from some Green Party members for not supporting Jill Stein for president. It’s nothing new for me. I’ve tried to discourage Green Party runs for president for a long time, feeling that, in most cases, building from the bottom up is the most useful thing a third party can do and—absent fusion politics or ranked-choice voting—there is little to come of a presidential run other than a lot distraction from more meaningful efforts.

I saw politics not as salvation, but as a tool largely unused during the previous decade. 

My third party experience goes back four decades. I was one of the founders of the DC Statehood Party, which won representation on the city’s council and/or school board for many years. I was also involved in getting the national Green Party off the ground.

Looking back, there was a striking difference between the two parties. The Statehood Party was formed by civil rights, anti-freeway, and anti-war activists who’d learned the ropes during the 1960s. For my part, I saw politics not as salvation, but as a tool largely unused during the previous decade. It wasn’t designed to replace the protests, boycotts, and strikes that defined 1960s activism, but to serve and add to it. Further, we organized by issue rather than by ideology or social identity. For example, strange is it may seem today, DC’s successful anti-freeway movement was kicked off by Black and White middle-class homeowners who didn’t want their neighborhoods wrecked. And nobody asked them where they stood on other matters.

When, in the 1990s, the Bowdoin College professor John Rensenbrink called me about coming to a gathering aimed at launching a national Green Party, I told him that I wasn’t good enough to be a Green. He said that was all right and that there would be a Libertarian there as well. I ended up helping to get the Green Party started, albeit declaring myself chair of what I called the “Big Mac Caucus”—those of us who didn’t always eat, buy, and recycle the proper way in our personal lives.

Although I would make many friends in the party, my first reaction reflected what I now perceive as a difference between the DC Statehood Party and the Green Party. The former’s only real test was whether you supported its issues; the latter was more a formal community, like a church or club, complete with 10 key values.

When I was in the Statehood Party, I even kept some voting registration forms in a file so I could switch my party affiliation to Democratic for a few months when a hot primary fight was going on. I would never admit doing so as a Green.

"In a general sense, devolution is a synonym for 'power sharing.'"

In fact, the only important matter on which I would split from the Greens was presidential runs. These struck me as a waste of time, money, and, except in special cases, an invitation for the powerful to blame Greens for the Democrats’ problems—as they did, misleadingly, with Nader in 2000. There was a century’s history of third-party failure to back up their accusations. And the exceptions were special—like the populists, who were so successful at fusion politics (where candidates appeared on two tickets) that this system was outlawed in most American states.

The record of the Green Party’s presidential races shows that in 2000 Ralph Nader got only 2.7 percent of the popular vote, while in 2012 Jill Stein got only 0.4 percent. And there is little evidence that these White House contests improved the Greens’ overall condition in any way.

I had long hoped that the Green Party would put their emphasis on more local politics, like the DC Statehood party did. As I wrote back in 1997:

Liberals are afraid to criticize big government because they think it makes them sound like Republicans. In fact, the idea of devolution—having government carried out at the lowest practical level—dates back at least to that good Democrat, Thomas Jefferson. Even FDR managed to fight the depression with a staff smaller than Hillary Clinton’s and World War II with one smaller than Al Gore’s. And conservative columnist William Safire admits that “in a general sense, devolution is a synonym for ‘power sharing,’ a movement that grew popular in the sixties and seventies as charges of ‘bureaucracy’ were often leveled at centralized authority.” The modern liberals’ embrace of centralized authority makes them vulnerable to the charge that their politics is one of intentions rather than results.

The Greens have been showing this same top-down bias, to their own disadvantage. It is, among other things, ahistorical, as the bulk of serious positive change—such as with abolition, the environment, marijuana, and gay rights—starts at the bottom and works its way up.

Campaigns are a tactic and the trick is to use them wisely, not to prove how good you are. 

You get a sense of this in my state of Maine, where the American Greens not only got their start but continue to run local candidates successfully. Its largest city, Portland, has had elected Greens since 2001, and there are about 40,000 party members statewide.

You are not a nut if you are a Green in Maine. Instead, you are a member of a group that best defines progressivism in its state, which will vote this fall on referendums calling for a 3 percent tax on household income over $200,000; a minimum wage of $12 an hour; an end to marijuana prohibition; $100 million in bonds for transportation projects; and statewide ranked-choice voting (which Portland already has).

But despite the role the Greens have and could have in moving us forward, a glance at the Maine and other Green websites finds an obsession with Jill Stein’s campaign for president.

I learned my politics in places like Philadelphia, greater Boston, and Washington, D.C. Call me—as former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry once did—a “cynical cat,” but I’m conscious of the huge difference between treating politics as a tool as opposed to treating it as an ideology, theology, or certification of one’s own virtue. Campaigns are a tactic, like protests and boycotts, and the trick is to use them wisely, not to prove how good you are.

Which is why I am voting for the Democratic candidate for president—who, sadly, is Hillary Clinton—because that seems the best way to save the Supreme Court, the Senate, social programs such as Social Security, and other pieces of our democracy. I’m choosing a battlefield over pointless proof of my own virtue.

And one week later, I will attend the next meeting of the Greens in Brunswick, Maine, to talk with others about what we do next.

This article was originally published by Undernews. 

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