Win Locally, Lose Nationallyby Ryan Grim
Are the Greens too pure for their own good?
There are currently 171 Greens who hold elected office. This is small solace in such rough times, but still an impressive number. Of these, there are still more State House of Delegate members (one) than dog catchers, although it’s tough to imagine a Green dogcatcher. But the Greens are charting upward ever since their first electoral victory when Frank Koehn won a seat on a Wisconsin county board of supervisors in 1986. Each year they’ve won more seats than the year before, and have been able to hold most incumbent seats.
The closer one gets to the local level, the more Green victories one will find. Not a single Green has ever been elected to a seat higher than a state legislator or a mayor. There are of course simple reasons for this. Greens lack recognition, money, access to ballots, media outlets, and—the Nader campaign notwithstanding—are not yet perceived as a national force to be reckoned with. Since none of these barriers are anywhere near being broken, why is it that Greens continue to attempt to run candidates at the federal level? The answer is not an easy one, but it has much to do with Greens’ sense of purity and integrity, which permeates their every decision, from who they run and when they run, to how they run.
Linda Schade, a long-time activist and self-employed consultant, was asked to run for the Maryland House of Delegates by the Montgomery County Green Party. She had never considered running for public office, but the Greens were persistent and, after some soul searching, Schade accepted. Eight months before the election she stopped working and dedicated herself to full-time campaigning. When the Greens had first approached her, they asked her to limit the contributions she accepted to $100. She initially agreed, but shortly into her campaign she realized she was committing political suicide for the sake of purity. In her mind, it was unethical to take someone’s $100 if she didn’t intend to win, so she scrapped the recommendation.
In typical fashion, this created a life-or-death controversy within the Green Party. The party considered dropping her, but eventually gave in. Schade raised the limit to $1000, and was able to raise $32,000, twice what she could have raised using the Green limit. "What some Greens don’t understand," says Schade, who ended up losing by 7%, "is that it takes money to reach voters. I truly believe another $20,000 would have put us over the top."
One of the most consistent things about the Green Party is its inconsistency. In the same campaign in which Ralph Nader claimed that he wouldn’t campaign in swing states, he ended up doing just that in the weeks right before the election. Greens will (honestly) fight to support workers, local business owners, and the environment, while refusing to accept contributions from unions, small businesses, or environmental groups. They will claim that there is no fundamental difference between the major parties, but then absolve themselves of responsibility for Bush’s election, pointing the finger at the Supreme Court and butterfly ballots. They will argue that no Democrat should be safe from a Green run, but then go so far as to put up a candidate against the late Paul Wellstone.
For a "true" Green there are no good Democrats, yet they have openly discussed running the ousted Democrat Cynthia McKinney for president in 2004. Minnesota Greens sanctioned their run against Wellstone because he supported Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan. Did it matter to them that their own candidate also supported it? These inconsistencies do not go without notice, and do not come without backlash. Local Green candidates across the country often have had to deal with the "Nader hater" tag and the Wellstone issue as the most serious obstacles to election.
"I was held responsible for Ralph Nader," says Schade. As she realized by running, "Local politics is an echo of national politics." In Schade’s case, a right-of-center Democratic Committee (sound familiar?) inundated her community with flyers and mailings threatening that a vote for Schade was a vote for Bush. "There’s something about the Green Party you should know," began the mailing. "Linda Schade will prevent the first African-American from being elected to the House [of Delegates] from Montgomery County." For Schade to fight both the anti-Green backlash and the race card proved to be too much.
As every Green is well aware, Texas Observer editor Ronnie Dugger came out in a December Nation article against a Nader run in 2004. It would be difficult to find someone less likely to adopted such a position. In ’96 and again in 2000 it was Dugger who gave the nominating address at the Green Party conventions. Dugger ran for the US Senate as a Green in 2000 (and was endorsed by Noam Chomsky), but he lost in the primary to an organic farmer who walked the length of Long Island to get his name out. That Dugger has now begged Nader not to run brings to light the strategic sea change going on within the Green Party.
As Green Party activists focus more on local elections, they have a more "viable" chance of winning, thus shifting their focus from the national scene. It is only logical that if the party is sincere about both electoral victories and progressive issues, then its focus should be on the local level, where all politics truly are, as the saying goes.
Greens have had electoral success running serious candidates on the local level, with 171 Greens now holding office. These successes have led to progressive advances, particularly on environmental issues and matters of electoral reform. But Greens have utterly failed on the federal level and even, save for the recent election of John Eder to Maine’s House of Delegates, on the state level. The Greens failure at the highest level infamously contributed in part to the election of Bush and the mayhem that has followed.
Greens often comfort themselves by clinging to the (correct) notions that the Supreme Court stole the election; the Socialist Workers Party got a couple thousand votes, so blame it on them; the ballots were confusing; the ballots weren’t counted right; Republican operatives sabotaged the recount; Gore really won. While all of these are true, Dugger rightly points out that, "The fact that an event has a multiplicity of causes does not dissolve any of those causes or absolve any group of players of their responsibility."
Indeed, Greens at the time accepted and relished the responsibility. Nader’s campaign was based on the idea that the Republicrats were one and the same. Nader himself didn’t seem to think it would be a bad time for the Democrats to take a "cold shower." Exit polls indicated that Nader most likely made it possible for Bush to win New Hampshire’s four electoral votes (Bush "won" by four) and clearly turned a lopsided Gore victory in Florida into a race close enough for Bush to steal. The Green Party is not absolved of this responsibility simply because the Supreme Court ultimately tipped the balance in a clearly partisan coup.
In January of 2000 the economy was running. Unemployment was low. Poverty was declining. We were at peace. The Bill of Rights seemed at least somewhat safe. We had a balance of power. The economy is now in the crapper, unemployment and poverty are rising, we are at war while preparing for a second, the Bill or Rights is in tatters, and all three branches of the Federal government are in the hands of reactionary neoconservatives. Because times were different in 2000, it was entirely reasonable to campaign and/or vote for Ralph Nader (as I willingly admit I did), even knowing we might risk a Bush victory. We couldn’t predict the future (though some, like The Nation’s Katha Pollit, were more on the mark than others). We couldn’t have foreseen 9/11, and didn’t realize what a shrewd and extreme politician Bush would turn out to be.
But now we know, and now we’ve seen. There are no more excuses. Given the damage done to civil rights, the environment, and the movement toward multilateral efforts to achieve world peace, if Bush is elected to four more years, it is plausible that we will no longer be a free and peace-loving nation. Because the world’s very future sits on a razor’s edge, progressives have a duty to defeat Republicans at the federal level through the only party that has a chance to do so. A focus on building the Green Party by running serious candidates at winnable levels would not distract from this. Dugger lays out a strategy for the former goal and I won’t repeat it here.
As for the latter, there are a few things a candidate should know at the outset of a run. First, because of a new FEC rule, it is legal for a candidate to pay him or herself for running. Progressives may initially flinch at this rule, but any impoverished activist who has run a campaign knows this new rule will open the door to candidates who otherwise couldn’t afford to stop working. This financial freedom is even more important because of the reality that very few candidates from any party win their first time around. Mistakes are bound to be made, but they are ones a candidate will learn from. The most important piece of advice winning candidates have to offer is "run twice."
Once one decides to run, a strong campaign team assembled well in advance of the election is crucial. The tendency of most volunteers, especially progressive-minded ones, is to ask for enormous amounts of responsibility and then flake out. To avoid this, it’s wise to assign each new volunteer a task before investing the time and energy into orientation. If he or she completes the task you may have stumbled on to that true rarity: a dependable campaign volunteer. House parties, focused mailings, and doorknob-hanging solicitations have proven to be effective fundraisers.
But if the Green Party intends to be around for the long haul, it’s likely that it will have to ditch its rule banning the acceptance of contributions from environmental groups, unions, and small business owners. All three are natural constituents of any Green Party official. Why give them a free ride? Purity? Integrity? Everyone knows that the Green Party is influenced by environmental groups, anyway. Voters only want candidates to be uncorrupted by corporate money. Besides, the most crooked butterfly ballot couldn’t get voters who fear the influence of union or environmental money to cast a vote for a Green anyway.
For the most part, Dugger hasn’t told Greens anything they didn’t already know. Cases of "Green Guilt" have been popping up in swing states over the course of the past two years, increasing as Bush lurches ever further to the right. As I look back at myself scrambling from car to car on the A or C train each morning passing out a stack of flyers I shudder to think what hands they may have landed in. A tourist from Florida? A woman in town on business from New Hampshire? No. I didn’t elect Bush. But yes, I accept the responsibility that I aided and abetted. I took the responsibility then, and I accept it now. I feel no guilt. It was the right thing to do at the time. How could we have known? But times have changed.
RYAN GRIM is the senior congressional correspondent for the Huffington Post. He is the author of This Is Your Country on Drugs (Wiley, 2009).