the Greens are also celebrating Election '02
November 18, 2002
Republicans aren't the only ones feeling
validated by the 2002 elections. For many Green Party leaders, the
Democrats' defeat and the conventional wisdom explaining it confirm
criticisms they've been making about the Democratic Party for years
-- that it lacks backbone and has betrayed its progressive base.
"There's no question that [the] election results demonstrate the
structural weaknesses that the Democratic Party has," says Ben
Mansky, co-chair of the Green Party steering committee. "It's
dependent on corporate money for financing, and therefore the
leadership is unable to deliver the political agenda that so many
progressives expect." Some pundits are calling on Democrats to
reenergize their activist base, but parts of that base may have
After the messy 2000 election, some liberal
Democrats hoped Greens would guiltily defect, or return, to the
Democratic Party. There is no evidence that happened. "There were no
prominent people who switched or major debates about strategy," says
Green Party political coordinator Dean Myerson.
Instead, the party
has grown, posting small but significant victories in the midterm
elections. In Maine, Green candidate John Eder won his election to
the state Congress 2-1 over his Democratic opponent. The party also
won local offices in Rhode Island, Hawaii, Texas, Minnesota and
North Carolina. Pennsylvania congressional candidate AnnDrea Benson,
endorsed by Jesse Jackson, won more than 20 percent of the vote -- a
Green record in a House race. And the party was especially strong in
California, where 26 Greens were elected. It held on to its control
of the Sebastopol city council and gained a majority on the school
board in California's Nevada City, not a traditional lefty hotbed.
Peter Camejo, the Green candidate for California governor, took 5
percent of the vote -- the most any third-party gubernatorial
candidate has received in California in 25 years. In San Francisco,
he got more votes than Republican candidate Bill Simon.
seems, have proved adept at the kind of local, grass-roots
organizing that the Christian Coalition mastered years ago, when
they began their ascent to power by taking over school boards and
Yet while the Christian Coalition's victories
strengthened the Republican Party, Green growth is likely to hurt
the Democrats. And in a winner-take-all system, that helps the
The division between left activists in the Green
Party and liberal and moderate Democratic voters is bad news for
most Bush opponents, and both sides deserve some of the blame.
"There was some move by both Clinton and Gingrich to try and grab
off Perot voters in '92," says Steve Cobble, former political
director of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. "The normal reaction
if you see a constituency that's feeling alienated and not being
dealt with is to try to capture that. The normal move by the
Democrats would have been to reach out to the Nader young people and
try to consolidate their position for 2004. That did not happen."
Republicans have consistently coddled their far-right supporters --
even if it meant adopting unpopular positions -- knowing such people
are the ones who get out the vote. The Democrats, though, spurn the
far left as embarrassing -- and thus drain their party of passion.
"Republicans have always paid respect to the Christian right with
their position on abortion," says Myerson. "We don't get similar
respect from Democrats."
And the Democrats' abysmal performance in
the last election has removed one of the last reasons some leftist
holdouts had for standing behind them -- that their institutional
power can be used to check Republican excess. "The strategy of
working within the Democratic Party has been unsuccessful at
delivering the one thing it claims it can do, which is hold the
Republicans at bay," says Joel Sipress, an American history
professor at University of Wisconsin-Superior, who serves on the
Minnesota Green Party state coordinating committee. "Their
short-term strategy is in fact not pragmatic. It's not achieving the
one pragmatic thing it promises it can achieve."
It can be strange,
however, to listen to Greens talk about political pragmatism. The
Greens may be building a grass-roots movement, but they have no real
concrete plan as to how they might eventually exercise political
power. "There's a lot of messianic thinking among the Greens -- if
we build it they will come -- rather than a strategic campaign
plan," says Micah Sifry, author of "Spoiling for a Fight:
Third-Party Politics in America."
Thus even as the Democrats
gesture leftward -- for example, with the election of liberal Rep.
Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to be House minority leader -- the Green
Party leadership remains scornful of allying itself with Democrats
to ward off Republican gains. "At this time there is no real hope
among Greens that Pelosi in leadership will mean a significant
improvement in Democratic policy," says Mansky. "Is there any
possibility of the Democratic Party playing a role in a larger
social movement that is effective in achieving progressive aims? A
lot of people who are in the Green Party see that possibility as
being close to nil."
Some progressive Democrats have reached out to
Greens -- Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., has talked to Green
leadership, and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., attended the Greens'
election night celebration in Wisconsin. But Myerson says they
haven't asked Greens to return to the Democratic fold. "The issue
isn't switching," he says. "It's staying in touch because we agree
In the 2000 presidential campaign, Robert Borosage,
director of the liberal group Campaign for America's Future, points
out that some Democrats tried to convince Ralph Nader to run in the
Democratic primary instead of on the Green ticket. Now, though,
Democrats have more or less given up on winning Greens back.
"They're intent on building a party. There's a limit to how much
cooperation there can be," he says.
Mansky still clings to the
Nader campaign notion that the difference between Democrats and
Republicans is negligible -- and thus hurting one or helping the
other isn't worth worrying about. Asked whether he believes Bush's
policies on the environment, women's rights and foreign policy are
significantly worse than Clinton's, Mansky replies, "I don't,
"We were already on a downward course," he says. "That's
certainly true on environmental issues. I don't know that Roe vs.
Wade is going to be overturned in the next two years. I don't see
that. I don't think it's any more likely than it was before."
Seeing little at stake in two-party elections, Greens believe it's
time for progressives to stop playing a desperate defense. "Ever
since 1980, people on the left have been in purely reactive mode,
reacting to the questions and issues and choices as framed for us by
the right wing," says Sipress. "If we don't take the long view we'll
be incapable of producing a kind of politics that in the long run
can defeat the right wing. What the 2002 elections confirm is
something that a number of us have been saying for a long time --
that the Democratic Party in its current form simply can't withstand
the right-wing juggernaut because the Democratic Party currently has
nothing that can mobilize and inspire people."
But do the Greens?
The party's strategy is premised on the conviction that most
Americans agree with them -- even if they don't realize it yet. A
majority of voters may have chosen right-wing candidates in the last
election, but Greens believe that most of the nonvoting population
shares the Greens' values. "We believe [our agenda] is an attractive
agenda for tens of million of Americans," says Mansky.
agenda is essentially an old-school liberal one focused on economic
justice, civil liberties and environmentalism. It differs from the
Democratic Party most dramatically in its opposition to big
business, calling for living wage laws and arguing, in a Green Party
statement of values, "Local communities must look to economic
development that assures protection of the environment and workers'
rights; broad citizen participation in planning; and enhancement of
our quality of life. We support independently owned and operated
companies which are socially responsible, as well as co-operatives
and public enterprises that distribute resources and control to more
people through democratic participation."
Greens believe that the
Democratic Party, because of its reliance on campaign contributions
from corporate donors, is essentially corrupt. "We cannot build
lasting coalitions with corporate elites," says Mansky, explaining
the difficulty of cooperation between Greens and Democrats.
Democrats can't simply jettison their relationships with
corporations. As Cobble points out, in the recent elections
Republicans spent much more money than Democrats, which he argues
was the major factor in the Democratic defeat. "The party has to pay
attention to its fundraising," he says. "Everything the Greens say
about the Democrats' love for corporate money is correct, and even
with that they got outspent by $180 million." Thus without a
radically new electoral strategy, it's essentially impossible for
Democrats to satisfy the Greens and still remain remotely
It is true that the Greens have had some success in
mobilizing those alienated by two-party politics. "The Democratic
Party has failed to appeal to the disaffected," says Mansky. "Greens
have had limited success in appealing to Americans who generally
don't vote. In exit surveys in a number of races, half of our voters
are people who are traditional nonvoters."
However, it's a very big
mistake to assume that these people are representative of nonvoters
overall. "It's not clear that if the Democrats had taken the Greens'
chosen position on a host of specific issues that the electoral
outcome would have been different," says Sifry. After all, a Gallup
poll taken the weekend after the election had 57 percent of
respondents saying the Democrats were too soft on terrorism, and 54
percent of Democrats criticized their own party as too liberal.
the Greens think there's a silent majority of progressives out
there, that's partly because they are concentrated in areas where
loathing of Bush is so widespread as to seem commonplace. "So far
they've been primarily organizing in countercultural enclaves that
already have a concentration of like-minded people -- Berkeley,
Santa Fe, Chapel Hill, Ithaca -- college towns and other alternative
meccas," Sifry says. "That's enabled them to build up a little bit
of local strength, but if they're ever going to tap the broader
potential they have to be organizing in communities of color, among
average working people who are suffering from this incredible
redistribution of wealth that's taken place among the last two
The problem is that there's little evidence such people
will be responsive to the Greens' message. It's easy for Greens to
believe their appeal is broad, because, as Donald Green, a Yale
political science professor who co-wrote "Partisan Hearts and Minds:
Political Parties and the Social Identity of Voters," says, "When
progressives talk politics, they tend to talk with one another." In
reality, though, "The Greens are a very, very tiny group of people.
They're numerous in an absolute sense -- you could pack a shopping
mall with them -- but in terms of the typical rank and file person,
they're very unusual."
Accepting this and coping with it would mean
teaming up with moderates -- something Greens have been loath to do.
"They have an otherworldly view of politics," says Green. "They
aren't so concerned with winning elections -- in some sense they
would rather lose an election and be right than win an election and
have to form a coalition."
That said, there is a chance the Greens
will reach out for the black vote in 2004 by running former
Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., for president, a
possibility that has Green circles abuzz. McKinney has been speaking
at Green events and antiwar protests, and some Green candidates in
the last election made their support of her the center of their
campaigns. "People have been trying to draft her," says Myerson. "I
don't know if she's seriously considering it."
Her office didn't
return calls seeking comment.
One of Congress's most unapologetic
critics of Israel, McKinney was defeated in her Georgia primary
earlier this year in a race in which her opponent was supported by
pro-Israel groups from out of state. While it clouded her immediate
future, the race solidified her reputation among some on the left as
an embattled voice of conscience on the Middle East.
candidacy, says Sifry, would give the Greens "an entree into some
very alienated communities of color. They may very well put McKinney
up as their candidate for president or vice president in order to do
that." Yet he adds, "So far, what I've read and heard about Cynthia
McKinney suggests that this is a disaster."
That's because McKinney
has been the most high-profile proponent of the "Bush knew" theory
of 9/11 -- which is another reason she's become almost a cult figure
for some progressives. Sifry suggests that in the short term, a
McKinney candidacy could expand the Green Party, but at the same
time it would deepen the party's alienation from the mainstream.
Her popularity, Sifry says, "represents the rising emergence of
post-9/11 conspiracy thinking in some parts of the left," he says.
"It's not enough to blame 9/11 on the incompetence of our national
security establishment. For some people this all has to be part of
the oil junta takeover. I'm afraid that Cynthia McKinney, who may
have wonderful progressive positions on a host of everyday issues,
could have the effect of helping the Greens further into the fever
Democrats might delight in such a spectacle -- just as
Republicans did when Pat Buchanan left their party and took his
taint of paranoid nativism with him. But the Democrats and the
Greens may actually need each other. There are concrete issues the
two sides can work on that will benefit both -- for example,
campaign finance reform and instant runoff voting, which would allow
dissenters from the two-party system to express their preference
without acting as spoilers. Instead, a McKinney run could chip away
at one of the Democratic Party's key, and most vulnerable,
constituencies, thus increasing rancor between the two parties at a
time when a rapprochement is desperately needed.
"I think we're at
a moment where both Democrats and Greens have to be honest about
their own weakness and not beat their breasts," says Sifry. "There
have been times in the past where third parties have acted in
popular fronts with major parties because they saw the major
threats. It didn't mean the cause of social change was being
Michelle Goldberg is a staff
writer for Salon based in New York.