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Monday, February 01, 2010


Hey John,

I voted for Nader in 2000, Kerry in 2004 (just to get Bush out), and nobody in 2008. I vote for Greens, when they appear on the ballot, in state and local elections. There are deep structural impediments (electoral laws) that prevent third party success, and the electorate, while not knowing the specifics of these, instinctively understand that chances for third parties are nil: ballot access laws, the winner-take-all plurality system, single-member districts, campaign finance, media coverage, etc. The state of the imperial empire is really, really bad for the people -- worst in my lifetime. When it gets really, really, really, really bad, people will rise up again. Unfortunately, by then it might be too late. The late Howard Zinn, the eternally hopeful optimist -- I wish I were like him, but I'm not. I still preach to whomever listens, though, hoping that he and others are right: progressive change comes at the most unexpected times from the most unexpected places.

the electorate, while not knowing the specifics of these, instinctively understand that chances for third parties are nil

In much the same way, and with about the same level of sophistication, that a herd of cattle understand that heading down that ramp is really the only option available to them.

This is brilliant. The headline alone is worth the price of admission. Fantastic work; I am, well, green with envy.

tis naught but the SEP field at work here. quite strong too, i was caught in it for a while in '03-04 and barely escaped...

Chris: The headline alone is worth the price of admission.

Man, the temptation to pretend I wasn't just making a Simpsons reference has never been greater.

James, just to be clear, I don't lump everyone who voted for Kerry in 2004 in with Mr. DL—so please don't take it personally. While I agree that there are structural impediments to third party success, though, they aren't insurmountable by any means, and the most basic requirement for surmounting them is that people actually vote for the third parties they believe in. The thing that kills me is the huge number of progressives who won't vote for a non-Democrat even in the safest of safe states—and I think that that more than anything else belies the notion that they're doing what they do on the basis of a cool, informed assessment of the state of the electoral system. There's some of that, but I'd say fear plays a much bigger role.

So I'm not going to go too easy on the guy, because he's just complaining, but there's a worthwhile comparison to be made here between the rise of the European greens and the non-rise of their American equivalents. Aside from the fact that European parties are working in a parliamentary system (it's an advantage, but you can work around not having it), the greens in Europe spent their initial years doing pretty much everything but electoral organizing. They were doing education and awareness, fighting the cultural battle, and running local and national pressure campaigns. Then, when they finally did hop into the electoral battle they brought a lot of support from a fully fledged social movement with them. My frustration with both DL in the above case and with some of the people in the Green party is that they seem to think the electoral arena is the entire scene of the fight. If we get a viable left third party, it's not going to be cause Nader or Cobb McKinney or whoever carves off an extra percent every four years--it's going to be because people plunge themselves into the anti-war, social justice, anti-corporate, and environmental (among others) movements, work to expand them and create a united consciousness in them, and then that movement as a whole storms out of the Democratic coalition over something like, I don't know, a Democratic president announcing that he intends to wage a perpetual war on Central Asian wedding ceremonies. Viable third parties don't spring out of nowhere--but from an electoral perspective, they appear too, because their roots are in non-electoral social movements. Think the socialists and the labor movement back in the 1910s.

There isn't a movement cohesive enough to do that right now. On some level you're right to critique thinking like that of Mr. Feffer up there. On another, when millions of people start thinking the same way it stops being a logical error and starts being a structural reality of the world we're organizing in, and we then need to ask not whether it's smart thinking but what kind of steps might take us around it.

I love this DL!

His twin-born, the SL, somehow poetically, reverses the kinetics and looks to leap from the boat:

SALIVATING LIBERAL: Look at the beautiful sea! It's so, so...rich with change!

ME: No, it's rich with life's rich essence. It's sewage. Shit.

SL: You're wrong. And besides, if it is, I'll just plug my nose!


ME: Ugh, there goes the pants...

Rob, thanks for the outstanding comment. I agree with nearly all of what you said. And I'd be interested to hear your own thoughts about how to deal with the structural reality you posited in your last paragraph.

I'm hoping JMC will chime in (if he's reading along), since he has intimate first-hand knowledge of the Green Party and can respond to some of your specific points. My sense has been that the Greens are in fact doing much of what you're talking about, and they were having some success at it for some time—building their local presence and scoring high-profile electoral victories at various levels throughout the country.

But neither the Green Party nor any other ostensibly progressive party can possibly succeed if the very progressives who agree with its entire platform and support all of its goals also adamantly refuse to support it in any way, whether at the ballot box or on the ground, and instead sit on their hands waiting for the magic unicorn party to appear. Barring some Ross Perot-style celebrity-driven one-off, it's never going to happen. And some of the social movements you're talking about do already exist—but the problem is that the progressives in those movements refuse to vote for anyone but Democrats, or even (at the very least) to work on the systemic changes that would make it less threatening for them to do so.

(I'm talking about genuine progressives here, by the way, not just liberals who don't want to be called liberals.)

So although the Greens have to take responsibility for their success or failure, I most definitely do blame the millions of progressives who know full well about the alternatives that are available but refuse to support them in any way—or even work actively to undermine them (as so many progressives did in 2004).

John, thanks for the shout out. I saw your post earlier today but haven't had time to respond as I've been swamped at work.

What frustrates me even more than the liberals who won't leave the Democrats are those who don't like the Greens for whatever reason (personal problems with Green activists, fed up with meeting structure, or disagreement with a single platform plank) and say the solution is to build yet another 3rd party alternative that's almost like the Greens but solves the problem they have. Yes, I'm looking at you, Matt Gonzalez! I don't think these people appreciate the enormous amount of work that went into getting the Green Party started. I didn't get active until after we'd managed to achieve ballot status in California, but I've heard the story from older activists who still haven't burned out.

As Rob says, the US Greens have been most successful when we've worked in larger campaigns and social movements. We've always seen our role as the electoral arm of the social groups that are politically active. As such, Greens were at our most successful during the Seattle anti-WTO movement and the large anti-war protests. That's still how we organize--our current projects are working with a local citywide coalition to save public transit, and a statewide coalition that's gathering signatures to repeal CA's ban on gay marriage. But the US Greens are a very decentralized bunch (it's one of our 10 Key Values), so some locals have focused more energy on internal party politics or meaningless electoral campaigns. Those groups have typically been less successful that groups like the SF Greens, who have focused on local campaigns and influencing the local elections through our voter guide--ultimately, the advantage to decentralization is we can learn from mistakes, and the less successful groups can copy those with better strategies.

That said, there are several reasons why I think the Greens have not done as well in recent years. First, the number of people out in the streets for today's social movements (even pro-choice or pro-gay marriage rallies) is only in the 100's, as opposed to the tens of thousands that turned out at protests prior to 2003. So, there's less opportunity to turn non-active people active. Second, within the larger coalitions such as the 2 I mentioned above, Greens do great work, and often the lion's share of the work, but we rarely get much credit as an organization, even if the coalition is ultimately successful. So even knowing of these successes, people are not going to be inspired by them to re-register Green. Third, during the Bush years, many people (especially those too young to have lived through Clinton) saw the grass as greener on the Democratic side of the fence. Having a Democrat in the White House is so helpful for dispelling that illusion that we're thinking of awarding Obama a prize for helping us recruit. And finally, there's the problem of the Nonprofit-Industrial Complex that dominates the leadership of these social movements. Most local activism (in SF, probably elsewhere) is dominated by nonprofits who rely on the local political machine for funding. Their paid staff can work on these issues all day and can always go to lobby at City Hall, so naturally these same staff members tend to take leadership in activist groups. As a result, such groups can only go so far without running into the local Democratic machine.

I'll agree that the Green Party has its share of problems, but those who think we should be doing something differently should join up. Many of us in the current leadership would be happy to turn over the keys to some responsible new operators, so long as they agree with our values. We've had to fend off several takeover attempts by organized groups of the usual old-school leftists, but otherwise welcome new activists and new ideas.

Great headline,reminds me of 'The food here is terrible and the portions are small'.

I'll add one other factor into the mix here and that is the more or less routine disparagement of and/or thinly veiled contempt for third party organizing which extends across the board from opportunistic liberalism (e.g. the Nation) to the principled left (e.g. Zmag).

The explanation for the former is more or less obvious: personal and professional connections to DP party and its off-shoots in the think tank and media/PR establishment require that challenges to DP hegemony be stomped out, whether enthusiastically (e.g. Eric Alterman, Norman Solomon, etc) or with world weary resignation (Katrina van den Heuvel).

When it comes to the principled left, here ideology plays an important role-specifically the underlying anarchist foundation is one which is committed explicitly to distrust of authority and institutions generally and competing for an obtaining political power specifically.

This is reflected in lots of ways, maybe most conspicuously in Chomsky's well known crack about "trying himself in advance for the war crimes he is about to commit" when he takes office as president. If you assume that institutional power on any or all levels is necessarily corrupt and authoritarian it becomes hard to generate much enthusiasm for building the foundation necessary for competing and exercising it. Whether they are aware of the basis of these attitudes, a large fraction, if not the majority of leftists share this default skepticism/cynicism-one which has, whatever its justification, proven to counterproductive in this and other respects.

For those of us who (like myself) worked with the Greens and still support them, while the party itself presented its share of obstacles, far more important to preventing the kind of critical mass necessary from developing was hostility or apathy (at best) of the establishment left-including some of the most principled, articulate and deservedly celebrated figures associated with it, and the default assumptions with respect to power and institutions which they have successfully argued for and which have been adopted by subsequent generations.

[buys this thread candy and a dozen roses]

A Simpson's reference? I'm crushed. I thought it was straight lift from S.J. Perelman.

Make that "a straight lift." Forgive the typo; my neurons aren't back from the dry cleaners yet.

(First, just to explain where I’m coming from, I’m a somewhat peripatetic twentysomething with a background and occasional employment history working on climate and environmental issues. Second, apologies in advance for the fuzziness of the ideas below.)

Thanks for taking the time to go talk about your strategy, JMC. I think people’s experience of local green party groups has varied significantly, and it’s good to hear from someone who’s familiar with one of the more successful incarnations. I’ve seen a couple of local green parties in action, but generally I haven’t found them to be a presence in the issue-activism world that I’ve moved in. I have heard that in other places the Greens are better based in local movement politics, but I’ve never been anywhere where that was the case; we certainly didn't feel like they were the electoral arm of our work.

The problem of what to do about it, of course, is a real pisser. For my part, I tend to think about the problem facing us more as one of developing a unified left movement than as one of building a party—I don’t think we’ve gotten to that stage. The power of the anti-globalization movement was that it brought the social justice and peace and environmental and what-not folks together against common enemies, and encouraged them to think about the common roots of problems. Today, we're more fractured again.

How do we get more of that? My best answer isn’t that fantastic—it’s to get really involved in groups that are doing good work, and do so expressly from the perspective of a radical critique of corporate power in society, and a broad understanding of what movement we’re a part of. I’ve had some promising experiences getting groups of issue-activists to watch clips from The Corporation and similar movies and talk about the roots of these issues, and pushing groups from within towards talking and thinking about problems more explicitly in terms of who has power society. (Citizens United is a real gift for this, obviously.) My goal is to get the groups I'm in and people I work with telling a story about themselves that makes them a part of a populist, anti-corporate left. That, it seems to me, is the necessary first step.

As you can probably tell, I tend to see the Greens as a “they”, even when I cast votes for Green candidates (I mostly vote democrat); I tend to think of the greens I've seen in action as people who prematurely jumped into electoral fights without the groundwork or specific grievance that would make those elections meaningful and winnable. I want to build a powerful left, but my own approach to that hasn’t led me much into the electoral world, and I’ve rarely worked directly with Greens in my own efforts. My hope would be that over time more local Green parties will start reaching out effectively into that issue advocacy world, or that as local issue campaigns run up against walls they’ll become increasingly inclined to carry their fight into the electoral arena, and that somewhere down that road lies a unified activist and electoral left.

Nah. Until the Greens secure financial support from Exxon-Mobil and Blackwater Worldwide, they are not a real party and it makes no sense whatsoever to vote for them.

I'm just curious. You do realize that as a progressive you are an embarrassment to the democratic primary and caucus process, right? Please tell me you get that we can't stand you in the democratic party, that you invaded the democratic party, defiled it, and now are whining you want to go somewhere else and start anew.


Ironically, we actually do agree there should be a third party, but only to help remove your blight from the democratic party.


progressives = Keith Olbermann = get the heck out of the democratic party.

I'll never forget the time Keith Olbermann looked into the camera AND LIED about Hillary Clinton while using a calm, cool and collected voice that I've never heard him use before.

When Progressives are ready to apologize to Hillary Clinton for crapping on the caucus process, and demanding she get out of the race before all democrats had had a chance to vote, and realizing that Hillary Clinton actually got more delegates from the primary contests, even when Florida and Michigan are not counted ,then you can consider yourself on democratic probation.

When you further acknowledge that most of Hillary Clinton's donations came from main street, and not wall street, and that she would have been more beholden to middle america than an inexperienced Barack Obama has been, you can consider yourself a democrat again.

Here is an image of your hero Keith Olbermann. http://dailypuma.blogspot.com/2010/02/msnbc-who-bill-oreilly-cites-news.html With text on the suit of what he said, and the quote above denying he ever said it. What a jerk.

Many great comments...I'll chip in with ms_xeno for some champagne.

JMC: Thanks for taking the time to fill us in on all that--very interesting and useful information. And I definitely agree with you that it's frustrating that so many progressives will carp about the failings of the Greens, but won't help to make whatever changes they feel are needed. The Green Party is nothing if not accessible.

My main disappointment with the party was 2004, when (in terms of presidential politics) it basically became a caucus of the Democrats. I think that was a gigantic mistake which may have destroyed the Greens' chances to be taken seriously at the national level for a long time to come, and that's a crying shame.

John Halle: I'd agree that there's too much disparagement of third-party organizing on the left, though I haven't seen as much that I think comes out of an underlying distrust of authority. I attended an event in 2000 organized by the ISO in which one speaker made some smirking dismissal of the Greens and got a lot of hoots and agreement, and I thought, you have got to be kidding me. In that instance (at least) it was just a case of good old fashioned lefty purity and factionalism. To be clear, I have no problem with socialists saying that the Greens don't go far enough because they don't outright embrace socialism; that's a valid critique from their perspective. But I don't see any justification for the level of contempt and condescension I saw there, especially when most ISO members would no doubt agree with 95% of what the Greens represent and are working for.

Rob: I agree with you regarding the need of any left party to have strong ties to social movements, but I disagree with the notion that those parties should just sit on the sidelines until the support is strong enough to make it likely that they'll win an election. First, there's nothing wrong with losing national elections if it raises the profile of a left party, as it did for the Greens in 2000 (and if all of the people who said they wanted to vote for the Greens in 2000 had actually followed through on it, it could have made an enormous difference--not just because the Greens would have qualified for matching funds but because it would have made it clearer that there is an alternative). No, we're not going to get to success carving off an 1% every four years, but an additional 5% every four years would have a tremendous impact.

More importantly, one of the major functions (and strategies) of the Democratic Party is to co-opt popular movements. The perfect example of that is the 2004 election, in which the anti-war movement transformed itself into the anyone-but-Bush movement and redirected its energies into electing a virulently pro-war Democrat--someone who'd actually tried to outflank Bush from the right regarding Iraq. It was a complete debacle; not only did Bush win anyway, but Kerry's loss effectively become a defeat for the movement itself, leaving it broken, demoralized, and with nowhere to go. If those people had instead chosen to back a candidate who opposed the war, regardless of the prospects for electoral success, it could have made a huge difference. That's just one example, but it generalizes.

If we wait for progressive social movements to build to a critical mass and then try to say, here, direct your electoral efforts toward this great party!, it's all but guaranteed to fail; there needs to be an electoral arm of left/progressive social movements that's always there, always available, and always growing. And based on my own experience looking at the Green Party's platform, principles, and organization (or conscious lack thereof), I'd say they're not only the obvious choice but that it would be hard to imagine a better alternative.

Hey John,
I see where you're coming from on this, and I agree with you more than I expected to. The thing I've always respected most about the Greens is that they did go through the significant effort of creating a party infrastructure that would be there when we have a chance to break through with it. At the same time, I've been inclined to fight issue battles as far clear of the electoral world as possible and wait for the right moment to turn there.

That said, the point about cooptation and the left sharing the democrats' defeats is a good one. I think the dangers the left becoming to coopted by the dems can be overstated--the rumblings over Obama's Afghanistan policy and the health care clusterfuck do suggest to me that a significant portion of the left maintained an independent commitment to its ideology, and is going to emerge from this couple of years with its faith in the democratic party diminished but its commitment to action intact. (This excludes that portion that was activated only by the Obama campaign, but that isn't a group that was going to become part of a real reform movement anyway.) On the other hand, we could see a lot of activists flame out as they watch the spectacle of an administration that they'd projected anti-war and anti-corporate principles onto selling them out. If it's the latter, then you're right, and we should have been trying to channel that movement into a party where it wouldn't be subject to being sold out. If it's the former, then 2012 may be a hell of an opportunity for a populist, anticorporate left to start asserting itself as an independent force. I've gotta think some more on this, and we'll have to see how which way activist sentiment falls.

Lastly, thanks for having this conversation. I've been lurking here on and off for some months now (courtesy of fafblog's blogroll) and have to confess I was a bit bemused by your electoral politics, but your last comment here in particular is a better strategic argument for a direct push for a third party than I've seen before.

Wow, it's nice to finally find intelligent conversation about these issues somewhere on the web. I'd almost lost hope of finding any, which is why I started my own blog (http://threewestwinds.com)- to foster exactly this sort of discussion. I'm approaching the issues from a technical and philosophical bent rather than a practical one, but it's still about basically the same things.

On the other hand, I'm still not sure the Green party is viable. Not to say that they don't have or couldn't gather enough support, but I think that the entrenched power structures aren't going to give up so easily. I don't want to sound too much like a conspiracy theorist, but the example RobK pointed out of Hillary being basically forced to step down (among other things) suggests to me that the electoral process isn't really under popular control anymore.

Unfortunately, I'll be leaving the country before then end of the year, so at the moment I'm focusing on a whole different set of problems - learning a new language, navigating the labyrinthine bureaucracy to get a new passport, etc. But that's the story of how these problems arise in the first place, isn't it? Everyone is focused on their own problems rather than the larger issues.

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