Independence under winner-take-all

By Ted Glick
Published July 4th 2005 in ZNet
It's a shame, on this 4th of July weekend, that the independence movement, political independence from the two corporate-dominated parties, is not as strong as it should be. The need is crystal clear. The Democrats continue to demonstrate, again and again, that they cannot be counted upon to consistently oppose the regressive and destructive policies of the Republican Party. What resistance they put up is occasional at best. More often they take Republican-lite positions out of fear of offending their big money donors or fear of standing up for principle.

Many activists and leaders in the broad progressive movement understand the severe limitations of the Democrats. Why then aren't more people joining the Green Party, the Labor Party or some other alternative political formation? Why aren't we seeing the kind of people of color-led independent political movement that developed in the 1980's via the Rainbow Coalition?

The winner-take-all political system, I would say, is the primary-not the only, but the primary-reason. Because of it, many progressives feel that if they want to advance positive legislative reforms or defend against negative ones, they have to supportpeople who have a decent chance of being elected to office and who are at least more vulnerable to organized political pressure, which will usually be Democrats.

If we had a proportional representation (PR) system, the system used by most of the world's electoral democracies, it is certain that alternative parties would grow stronger. Under PR, a party that gets 5% of the vote gets 5% of the seats in the legislature. If it gets 15% it gets 15% of the seats. Such a system completely undercuts the "spoiler" dynamic that hurts parties like the Greens in partisan elections, as does Instant Runoff Voting, an electoral reform that is picking up steam all over the country.

Hopefully, some day in the not too distant future, we will bring PR to this country. Until that day, an independent political movement that wants to have a real political impact must be creative and flexible when it comes to the tactics it uses. Otherwise, it risks degenerating into a small and ineffective party of true believers rather than a truly mass party able to articulate the demands of the people because it is connected to them in myriad ways.

Two years ago, in mid-2003, I put forward what I thought was a reasonable, creative tactic for the Green Party to use for its 2004 Presidential campaign: a "safe states strategy." The essence of it was that while getting on the ballot in as many states as possible, the GP Presidential campaign should focus the campaign in the states which were pretty much "safe" for either Bush or for the Democrat, states where past voting results made it likely that there would not be a close contest.

This tactic made sense to me for two main reasons. One was the strength of "Bush must go" sentiment among progressives, including within the Green Party. Using this tactic, the Greens could run a campaign in a way which would minimize the possibility of it increasing Bush's chance of winning.

The other reason was because such a strategy held the most promise of getting the largest possible GP vote. Safe states rarely receive visits from the Dem and Rep campaigns. A GP Presidential visit would likely garner more press attention as a result. In addition, an aggressive message could be articulated to progressive-leaning voters: don't waste your vote; we all know the likely election winner in this state; send a strong message by voting for a candidate and party that is closest to the values and principles you hold.

Many people, both Greens and non-Green independents, saw the wisdom of this tactic. Others, mainly Greens and a few socialist groups, were critical of it, some bitterly and loudly. As it ended up, the Green Party chose a Presidential candidate, David Cobb, who adopted a different strategy, a "smart growth" strategy. That strategy prioritized building the Green Party with a secondary emphasis on running in such a way as to help get Bush out. Cobb's campaign did include some of us who supported "safe states."

Do I think that the Green Party should use a "safe states" approach in 2008? Not necessarily. A tactic is something used at a particular time and place because it makes sense for that particular time and place. It might make sense, or it might not, to repeat it in the future.

What are some of the factors that should go into a determination of what the Green Party or, perhaps, an alliance of the Green Party with other groups, does in 2008?

One key factor will be the strength of the consciously independent progressive political forces. For example, there is a U.S. Social Forum planned for about a year from now in Atlanta, Ga. If that event turns out to be massive and successful, that will be a statement about the growing strength and unity of the independent progressive movement. The dominant perspectives of those at that Forum on the 2008 question will be important.

Also important will be the relative strength of the Green Party itself by 2007. 2004 was an extremely difficult year for the GP. Between the strength of "Bush must go" sentiment and the decision of Ralph Nader to run as an independent, it was an accomplishment for the GP to emerge more or less in one piece after November 2nd. It has been regrouping and rebuilding ever since. The success of that process, as well as the GP's success in building stronger ties to the broad progressive movement, will be key factors.

The extent to which leaders of labor, the African American, Latino and other people of color-based movements, the women's movement and other progressive constituencies take concrete steps toward political independence will be important. Since the election, for example, a number of leading African American progressives have made public statements critical of the Democrats and in support of independent political action. If those who have made these statements move to give them organizational shape and build grassroots bases, this will be a critical and positive development.

And finally, it will be important to consider the experiences and thinking of those progressives who are right now operating within the Democratic Party but who are strong on the issues and are willing to work with progressives outside of the DP, those who have put allegiance to the issues above allegiance to the party leadership.

Of course, there are those in or around the Green Party who believe that, come hell or high water, the Green Party should run what was called in 2004 an "all out" Presidential campaign in 2008. That could end up being the right thing to do, but it seems to me that whatever decision is finally made, it will be a much wiser and sounder decision if care is taken to consciously work with, listen to and take into account the thinking of the many non-Green progressive allies. Under a winner-take-all system, it is not enough to proclaim independence. Our tasks in the USA are much more complex and difficult.