Why the Greens are also celebrating Election '02

Buoyed by a handful of grass-roots victories, the Green Party claims the midterms showed the hollowness of its Democratic rival.

Published November 18, 2002 2:18PM (EST)

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 Manski, 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 already defected.

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.

Greens, it 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 town councils.

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 Republicans.

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 Manski. "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 on issues."

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.

Manski 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, Manski replies, "I don't, actually."

"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 Manski.

The Green 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 Manski, explaining the difficulty of cooperation between Greens and Democrats.

And yet 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 competitive.

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 Manski. "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.

If 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 decades."

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.

A McKinney 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 swamps."

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 abandoned."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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