Until recently, the Greens were among the least successful third-party movements in American history. None of the seven alternative-party governors elected since 1914 have been Greens. No Green presidential candidate has ever approached the electoral heights reached in this century by such third-party nominees as Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, George Wallace, or Ross Perot. More significantly, there has never been a Green member of Congress—not even in the House, which has had more than a few Independents, Progressives, Minnesota Farmer-Laborers, and Socialists. Only the Greens would consider 17 percent of the vote in a congressional race a resounding success, trumpet the fact that 57 of their members hold elected office in a country with more than 500,000 such offices, or nominate Al Lewis, who played Grandpa on The Munsters, for governor of New York. The list of elected Greens around the country is a who's who of electoral obscurity, from Mayor Julie Partansky of Davis, California, to Stephanie Porras of the Lexington, Virginia, Natural Bridge Soil and Water Conservation District Board. To date, the Green movement's most notable victory seems to have been winning control of the city council in Arcata, California. And on what should be the Greens' ideological home turf—the environment—they have failed to win the support of groups like the Sierra Club or the League of Conservation Voters.
So why, depending on whom you ask, is the Green Party either the worst threat to progressive politics in America since Reagan, or the greatest hope for American liberalism since the New Deal?
Go, Green, Go
The Greens have been on a roll in New Mexico. Two of them, Carol Miller and Bob Anderson, garnered double-digit returns during congressional campaigns in 1996 and 1997, the highest ever for Green candidates. But in both races, Republican candidates with less than 45 percent of the vote won, which is why others would say that the Greens' only real accomplishment was to put two solidly Demo cratic districts in GOP hands. Last year, Miller won only 4 percent against progressive Democrat Tom Udall, but And erson won 11 percent—not enough to win, but enough to keep Democrat Phil Maloof out of office in New Mexico's mostly Democratic First District.
The Democrats took notice. In August, New Mexican state Senator Cisco McSorley floated the possibility of offering Miller and Anderson posts in then–Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martin Chavez's potential cabinet. Depending on your point of view, that could be seen either as an outright bribe or as a move toward German-style coalition politics within the confines of a two-party system. Miller and Anderson thought it was the former, and declined the offer. In September, Anderson got a call from House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, more or less begging him to withdraw from the race. Anderson refused.
Gephardt's entreaties might suggest that, for better or worse, the Greens are in fact having an impact on the Democratic Party. But the Greens' recent advances have not prompted a shift in the party's approach to environmental issues at the national level. Tony Wyche, Democratic National Committee deputy press secretary, says that "in terms of environmental issues, we think we've got things correct here. We're more concerned with what the Republicans are doing against [environmental protections]."
State Democratic leaders, however, are a little more circumspect. Party strategist Terry Brunner says that in New Mexico, the Green races pushed Democratic candidates to emphasize their stands on a range of key progressive issues, not just environmentalism, and to "make sure they can convince people that where they stand is the right place. It's another segment of voters that [they had] to appeal to." Elsewhere, the pros pect of Greens spoiling close races made Dem o crats downright testy. When asked about any pressures the Green candidacies were putting on Democrats, Bob Mulholland, a campaign advisor at Democratic headquarters in California, blared, "Look, they're irrelevant. Why is everyone writing articles about them? They're only relevant to reporters. The issue here is education! Do you have any other questions?"
In substance, the Greens hold genuine appeal for progressive voters. Miller's platform read like a progressive wish list, from gun control and gay rights to universal health insurance. Most liberals believe, as the Greens do, that Washington is awash in special interest influence, soiled by big-money politics, and unresponsive to popular opinion. When Greens like California gubernatorial hopeful Dan Hamburg told liberal voters that "the [Democratic] party itself has become the hostage of big business," people listened.
But simply getting the ear of liberal voters and flust ering Democratic politicians does not translate into a progressive victory. No Green even came close to being elected to Congress this November; in fact, the most successful third-party candidate in the country was Jesse "The Body" Ventura, former bit actor, pro wrestler, and Navy Seal, who body-slammed his way to the Minnesota governor's mansion on the Reform Party ticket. Indeed, the most visible result of Green congressional races during the past four years has been the election of Re publicans—and frequently anti-environmental Republicans. As Dan Lungren, the recent GOP candidate for governor in California, chanted at a rally in July, "Go, Green, Go."
Shallow Grass Roots
"I don't think it's all over November 3rd," Hamburg said in Oct ober, be fore taking less than 1 percent of the California vote. Indeed. The Greens have always tended to be a little cagey about their immediate prospects for success. When asked if he thought the Greens would win in November, Association of State Green Parties (ASGP) organizer Thomas Sevigny demurred. "Our main goal is to foster the growth of the state Green parties," he said, "which are in various stages of growth." They would rather talk about the next race, the next election.
That the Novem ber elections were not quite the watershed the Greens hoped they would be is due primarily to the fact that their vaunted grassroots network is largely mythical. There are only about 115,000 registered Green voters in the United States, and more than 80 percent of them are in California. The Greens' support comes mostly from young voters, and it is no coincidence that many of their local successes—in Laramie, Wyoming; Boulder, Colorado; Fayetteville, Arkansas; Santa Monica, California; Iowa City, Iowa; and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to name a few—have been in small cities with large state universities and correspondingly disproportionate numbers of young voters. The highest concentration of elected Greens is in northern California counties like Humboldt, a stronghold of unregenerate sixties values. Most of the new state Green parties are tiny, and most of them will probably stay that way.
The thinness of Green support nationwide was well demonstrated in 1996, when the Greens' presidential candidate, Ralph Nader—a candidate who had significantly more name recognition than the Greens did as a party—took just under three-quarters of a percent of the popular vote. Over one-third of Nader's votes came from California, and most of the rest were in New York, Washington, New Jersey, and Oregon; the highest state vote percentage he achieved was in Oregon, with 3.59 percent. In New Mexico, he scored only 2.38 percent. In many states, Nader finished behind Libertarian candidate Harry Browne. In Nevada, Nader lost to the "None of These Candidates" ballot option.
Even assuming they can find a candidate more visible and electable than Nader, the Greens will face formidable obstacles. State ballot laws, written by Democrats and Republicans, naturally favor those two parties. And while the requirements for automatic ballot access are reasonable in states like Delaware, which requires third parties to register only one-twentieth of one percent of residents as party voters, other states, like Florida—where a third-party candidate must get a whopping 3 percent of registered voters (245,000 at last count) to sign a petition, one form per voter—make it hard for a grassroots party to get started. Since most elections in the United States are run on a winner-take-all system, in which votes for a minor candidate are essentially wasted, there is little incentive for voters to select even a promising third-party candidate.
Accordingly, says the ASGP's Sevigny, the Greens have campaigned heavily for proportional representation and instant runoff or preference voting. But such efforts at electoral reform are unlikely to bear fruit anytime soon, not least because the Re publicans and Democrats tend to be vigorously opposed to preference voting. Even more problematic is the fact that, from the looks of things, the Greens are years away from running a sophisticated national campaign. The Greens have no real national organization—a fact in which they take some pride. Eschew ing a centralized, top-down party apparatus like Ross Perot's Reform Party as inherently corrupt and antidemocratic, the Green Party actually is the aforementioned Assoc iation of State Green Parties. Formed in the wake of Nader's presidential run, the ASGP currently consists of 24 autonomous state Green Parties, each with its own platform and bylaws. Decentralization is a founding principle, and although Sevigny maintains that a central organization for coordinating media campaigns and candidate appearances will be put together for the 2000 presidential run, not everyone shares the ASGP leadership's newfound pragmatism. As one delegate to the group's 1996 convention put it, "ASGP is not a thing, but a process where electoral and issue activities of state Green Parties come together in a creative, open way to build a national party based securely on the state Green Parties."
The Greens also have a bit of a public relations problem. The old, pre-1996 Green Party, an outgrowth of 1960s radical politics, consisted mostly of tree-hugging ex-hippies. The new Green Party consists of disenchanted Democrats and pragmatic progressives—as well as tree-hugging ex-hippies. The problem is that outside New Mexico, the ex-hippies get most of the press. Much of the media treat Greens as novelty items and focus on those candidates with a penchant for New Age aphorisms and politically suicidal indifference to drug use—like California gubernatorial candidate Hamburg, who told reporters that he generally smoked marijuana, though he had laid off for the campaign. The Greens' "hippie wing" is also probably responsible for some of the more outlandish planks in the (nonbinding) ASGP platform, including "key values" such as pacifism and critical-gender-theory stuff like their call for "the replacement of the cultural ethics of domination and control with more cooperative ways of interacting that respect differences of opinion and gender."
The Politics of Irrelevance
What is most striking is how little support the Greens have from the most prominent envir onmetal groups. The Sierra Club did not endorse either Miller or Anderson in their New Mexico congressional races, but instead endorsed the Democratic candidates. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) named Repub lican incumbent Bill Red mond to their "Dirty Dozen" list and targeted New Mexico's Third District as a key congressional race—yet their endorsement still went to the Democratic candidate, Tom Udall. And rather than endorse Green candidate Bill Belitskus in the race for Pennsylvania's Fifth District—a race in which no one else was challenging the Repub lican incumbent—the Sierra Club didn't endorse anybody.
Environmental groups believe that their cause is best served when they support candidates who are both dedicated to the environment and likely to be in a position to do something about it. "When we make endorsements, we are giving the voters strategic guidance," says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "We don't have a principled position against Greens, but we have not found a case where a Green candidate is likely to win." Some Sierra Club chapters have endorsed Greens for state and local office—but only where such candidates had a real chance at winning.
But as far as environmentalism is concerned, perhaps the most important criticism of the Green Party may not be that they are too unrealistic, too disorganized, or too radical, but rather that they are just irrelevant. Whereas issues like affirmative action, feminism, and abortion remain hotly contested, environmentalism has become thoroughly embedded in American culture. A survey by Greenberg Research found that "the expectation of a clean environment has evolved into a virtual norm—a near universal belief in the country that this is the right way to organize society." Basic environmental protections even find heavy support among Republican voters. Republican pollsters Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates found that among all but one segment of GOP voters, a clear majority preferred to "do what it takes for clean air and water" over the proposition "strict regulation hurts business and costs jobs." The fact is that most Americans support environmental protection; according to a poll by Citizens for a Sound Economy, an industry apologist group, more than three-quarters of Americans consider themselves "environmentalists." And the Democrats, for all their reversals on social issues, remain fairly consistent in their defense of the environment. Environmentalism doesn't need the Green Party.
Moreover, the environmental movement as a whole has been most successful working indirectly. The LCV runs the "Dirty Dozen" campaign each election cycle, targeting egregious environmental offenders like Helen Chenoweth and Lauch Faircloth. In 1996 they helped defeat seven of the twelve offenders, and in 1998, nine, including Faircloth. The Sierra Club runs a similar campaign. Research on nine close 1996 races in Michigan, South Dakota, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, New Hampshire, California, and Maine—where environmental organizations conducted aggressive campaigns—found that environmental issues were the first or second most effective attack in eight of the nine. The Greenberg study also found that positive campaigns which highlight a given candidate's spotless environmental record—the Greens' preferred strategy—are ineffective, because voters "expect leaders to support a norm." Conversely, negative campaigns that highlight a candidate's bad voting record on environmental protection, like the LCV's, have proved extremely effective.
But the Greens have set their sights beyond being environmental gadflies. "We see absolutely no difference between the Democrats and Republicans," says Sevigny. "It's like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic—the ship is still sinking; the ship needs to be fixed." Buttressed by the pragmatists and mainstream progressives who joined the Greens out of disgust with Democratic reversals on issues like welfare, the more ambitious Greens seek to replace the Demo crats entirely and become a full-fledged national progressive party.
There are indicators, however, that the Greens' position is less a principled than an opportunistic one. Because they are now focused on building a third party, the Greens run candidates wherever they can, not just in races lacking any other progressive or environmentalist. The result is that in several cases, the Greens have run against strong progressive candidates purely to maintain an electoral presence—and increasingly, they threaten to keep truly viable progressive candidates out of office. In New Mexico, Carol Miller refused to drop out of her congressional race even after several prominent Greens told her that continuing her campaign against Tom Udall, the progressive, pro-environment Democratic candidate, ran counter to the Greens' basic goals. From an environmentalist perspective, says the Sierra Club's Carl Pope, the key problem is that there is "no state Green Party that has the discipline to run only against mediocre candidates. In every case, they have run candidates in races where there is a very strong environmental candidate." And the more successful the Greens are in such races, the more they weed liberal Democrats out of the pack. In essence, the Greens are gambling that they will either reinvigorate the American left or kill it trying.
A Better Way
The Green Party is half right. Progressives do need to mobilize a grassroots constituency lest the Republican majority become solidly entrenched. But spoiler candidacies, the preferred method of the Greens, are not the way to do it. (And they are spoilers; despite the Greens' claims to the contrary, voting studies in the Southwest show that the Greens take far more votes from the Democrats than from the Republicans.) The most effective progressive reform movements in American history, past and present, have changed liberal politics through a combination of fusion candidacies, grassroots organizing, and, most importantly, primary politics.
The difference is more tactical than ideological. Like the Greens, the New Party, for example, thinks that the Democrats are unresponsive to the poor and disenfranchised, and have become too conservative. "The relationship between progressives and the Democratic Party is abusive," says the New Party's communications director, Adam Glick man. "They take our money and our work, and then when they're elected, they take other people's ideas." But the New Party's empowerment strategy is far more politically astute.
While working to build coalitions between minority and labor groups (two liberal constituencies whose historic antipathy has long been a Democratic headache), the New Party campaigns for progressive candidates in Democratic primaries. Where no such candidates exist, they run their own. In states where it is permitted, the New Party runs fusion campaigns, endorsing the most progressive major-party candidate as their own. Similarly, the Connecticut-based Legislative Electoral Action Program (LEAP), a coalition of unions, women's groups, and environmental organizations, recruits progressives to run against conservative Democratic incumbents in state primaries. [See Jason Zengerle, "Old Parties, New Energy," TAP, May-June 1998.]
The essence of these strategies is to re-liberalize the Democratic Party by reenergizing its progressive constituencies—precisely the way that the religious right has come to dominate the Republican Party. Because moral conservatives are so well organized, Republican leaders are inclined to keep those votes secure by maintaining a conservative GOP platform. But because the Democratic Party's most progressive constituencies—organized labor, minorities, and the poor—lack a solid grassroots network and fail to show at the polls, many Democratic candidates have been forced to move toward the center to amass enough votes to get elected. If the Green Party combines its manifest energies with those of LEAP, the New Party, and organizations like them, they might be able to reenergize progressive voters—and make it in the Democratic Party's best interests to move back toward the left.
Granted, most such efforts are still small-scale, as are the organizations involved. Many of the New Party's 175 elected officials are, like those of the Greens, on school boards, state legislatures, and city councils. But the more significant successes are starting to add up. In 1994, LEAP helped propel progressive Bill Curry to an upset in the Connecticut gubernatorial primary; he nearly beat incumbent Repub lican John Rowland in the general election. Earlier investments in nascent progressive politicians have put 28 LEAP-affiliated Connecticut state legislators in committee chairs or other leadership posts. Likewise, the New Party was crucial in the 1994 election of U.S. Representative Danny Davis in Illinois's Seventh District and helped liberal Democrat Phil Andrews trounce his more conservative opponent in a key Maryland county election. None of these victories have come at the expense of other liberals, and all of them have helped to revitalize the local progressive grass roots.
The Green gamble is certainly understandable, mixing as it does a politics of hope with a politics of frustration. The rightward shift of Bill Clinton and most of the Democratic Party leadership during the past four years has left many progressives feeling betrayed. But ultimately that gamble is dangerous, and not just to the liberal establishment and perceived Democratic sellouts. The Greens have little chance of electing anyone to Congress anytime soon, let alone a governor or a president. But if every Green candidate were as successful as Anderson in New Mexico, the GOP might well be on its way to a House supermajority with which they could gut not only environmental legislation but probably most of the New Deal as well. If the Greens truly wish to bring about a progressive renaissance, they should contemplate that possibility.
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