Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What Do We Face?

By Steve Welzer (Green Party of New Jersey)
Talk given at Green Fest, August 9, 2009, Alfred, NY

The Green Party of New York State has some great energy! It looks like Rev. Billy and the Green candidates for City Council are going to rock New York City this fall. We've been encouraging Greens from the northern part of New Jersey to cross the Hudson and help out with the petition drive to get Billy on the ballot.

Unfortunately, from what I'm hearing based on my participation on the National Committee, the vitality in New York is kind of the exception rather than the rule these days among state Green parties. It would be hard to characterize the activity in my own state as energetic. Odd-numbered years are actually major electoral years in New Jersey, so this year there's a gubernatorial race plus races for 80 State Assembly seats and 40 State Senate seats in addition to hundreds of municipal- and county-level offices. With all of those opportunities, the Greens have two candidates in New Jersey - one for Assembly and one for council in a small town.

I'm aware that individual state parties have their ups and downs. One year in New Jersey we ran almost a full slate for the Congressional races -- we fielded candidates in something like eleven of the thirteen races. I remember how the New Mexico Greens were so dynamic during the nineties, but have been much less so recently. On the other hand, the Illinois party was not much to speak about ten years ago, but has really blossomed since the breakthrough campaign of Rich Whitney for Governor in 2006.

But I think an overall assessment would have to acknowledge a degree of disappointment that the Green Party, generally ... nationwide ... is much farther from breaking through -- from breaking out of the shadows of marginalism -- than many of us had hoped would be the case at this point -- as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the movement.

It was on August 10, 1984 -- 25 years ago tomorrow -- that 62 people came together on the campus of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota to establish the Green Committees of Correspondence. That was the initiation of the Green politics movement in the United States. It followed in the wake of the successes of Die Grunen in Germany after they became the first Green Party to enter a national parliament in 1983.

By the latter part of the '80s, in the U.S., Green Party candidates had started to appear on some ballots in a few states. During the '90s permanent ballot status became the goal of the growing number of state parties. Then we had that great shot-in-the-arm from the Nader campaign in 2000. That put us on the map; it enabled us to increase our media coverage, ramp up our membership, recruit more candidates.

The impacts of the Reform Party campaign of 1996 and the Green Party campaign of 2000 generated some hopeful talk about the development of a four-party system in this country. The idea was that there could be a major party of the left, the Democrats, and a minor party of the left, the Greens; alongside a major party of the right, the Republicans, and a minor party of the right, either the Libertarians or the Reform Party.

If there was ever any real momentum in that direction, it didn't last. The Reform Party just faded away, as had so many others in recent memory: the Labor Party, the New Party, the Citizens Party, the 21st Century Party. It's actually something of a tribute to us that we've endured for 25 years. The Libertarian Party was founded in 1972 and thus has endured for even longer, 37 years.

But it's 25 years or 37 years of enduring at the margins of American political life.

We know that third party politics in a winner-take-all system is excruciatingly hard. Nonetheless, an argument can be made that we, the Greens here in the U.S., ought to be doing better. They have a winner-take-all system in Canada, but the Canadian Green Party has been growing impressively in the last couple of years and is anticipating electing their first Member of Parliament in a coming national election.

They have a winner-take-all system in England, but the Green Party there just garnered 8.7% of the national vote in June's European Parliament elections. That's up from 6.1% in 2004. Two of their candidates were elected to the parliament and the Greens polled the *highest* vote totals in three cities, receiving 31% of the vote in Brighton, 26% in Oxford, and 25% in Norwich.

When we look at countries with proportional representation systems the reports are even more encouraging. The Green Party of Germany now has a solid, consistent base of 10-12% of the electorate. In those European Parliament elections in June the big story across the continent was the surge in the Green vote. A story from Reuters on June 7 quoted Thomas Klau at the Center for European Reform saying: "The rise of the Green Party has been striking. The Greens are the one political force in the European Union that has been closest to creating a true European party, a true European political movement ... with a political message that is strong and plausible."

In France, where Sarkozy's center-right party won with about 28% of the vote, the Socialists received 16.5% and the Greens were right behind them with 16.2%. This resulted in the Socialists and the Greens each getting 14 seats in the European Parliament. In greater Paris and in the south-east region of the country the Greens were the second most popular party. A couple of days after the election, Sarkozy invited Daniel Cohn-Bendit and several other Green leaders to the Elysee Palace for a chat. According to the New York Times, after the meeting Cohn-Bendit said: "Sarkozy realizes there's a green wave in France and he wants to surf it."

Well, there's a green wave just about everywhere these days. I think I'm justified in saying that nothing has more mojo in our culture right now than the concept of greening. Everything is going green, right? ... buildings and homes, appliances, foods, cars ... college campuses ... mutual funds ... Goldman Sachs says the atrium of its corporate headquarters in Manhattan has gone green with organic plants and VOC-free finishes and a micro-porous bioceramic filtration system in its water coolers!

We know that there's an enormous amount of greenwashing going on, an enormous amount of hype and opportunism associated with this trend, but we shouldn't discount its genuine significance and energy. Greening is clearly becoming a major phenomenon, one that can potentially, at least, change lifeways. I see it as the beginning - just the beginning - of a long-term transformation of human consciousness, one that's happening globally and ultimately involves nothing less than the trajectory of our civilization ... which must be re-directed onto a path of sustainability. This is *starting* to become understood; younger generations grow up now very aware of what Earth Day means.

It would seem logical that the political parties that give electoral expression to this phenomenon - the Green parties - would thrive. And what's happening in Europe bears this out.

So the question has to be asked: What's wrong with Kansas? What's wrong with New Jersey? Why are so many of our state parties and the US Green Party suffering from lethargy or arrested development ... and from an ongoing, frustrating consignment to the margins?

We need to understand where we're at, and why. We need to be able to explain it ... to ourselves and to others.

Some of the factors are clearcut. Any analysis of the situation has to start off mentioning that inescapable bane-of-existence for all third parties operating within a winner-take-all system, namely: the so-called "spoiler" problem. This issue hangs over our heads at all times, but it became a front-and-center source of division among Greens, in particular, after the very prominent and controversial impact we had during what was essentially our very first full national campaign in 2000.

The division in our ranks about this - whether to care about spoiling or not - was surely one factor, if not the primary factor, that resulted in the dissolution of the alliance between the Greens and Ralph Nader after the 2000 campaign. Whether viewed as Nader abandoning us, or our failure to sustain the alliance; whether his mistake or our mistake ... the bottom line was that it was a bad situation for us. His competing candidacies as an independent in 2004 and 2008 hurt our campaigns. Some of the electorate continued to blame *us* for the 2000 Bush/Gore fiasco, while some people chastised us for "losing Nader." The whole thing ended up being dispiriting for many Greens and disheartening for potential supporters who had been intrigued by the idea that a Nader/Green alliance might become a serious new political force.

Another ongoing factor contributing to our marginalization - another constant of third party political life - is cooptation. The lettering or background on the campaign signs of Democratic Party candidates in local races in my state often is ... emerald green. The signs shout: "If you care about the environment, vote Democrat." If Nader's vote-total really did make any difference in terms of Al Gore being denied the presidency in 2000, then a case can be made that he did the Democrats a great favor. Out of office Gore was liberated to take a strong environmentalist stance he never would have taken as president. Subsequently Gore's books and his movie very much helped the Dems to co-opt the greening issue.

We also have to understand that a party like ours will always tend to be subject to the vagaries of the power cycle in Washington. No surprise that it was the Democrats who were the primary beneficiaries of the revulsion engendered by the Bush II Republican administration. When they - the Democrats - were in power during the 1990s, the inevitable disillusionment and dissatisfaction with them helped us to make the case that we are the real progressive alternative. It made sense, then, that our best showing in a national campaign, in 2000, came after the eight years of Clinton-Gore, and our weakest national vote total, in 2008, came after the eight years of Bush-Cheney.

Cynthia McKinney was a terrific candidate for us last year. She had to be disappointed to wind up with under 200,000 votes in the whole country and the lowest total among the minor party candidates.

Are we the least viable among the third parties? No ... to the contrary, I think we have the most potential among them. But we could get discouraged with results like we saw nationally last year. Unless - again - we're clear about where we're at, where we've been, and what we face.

After being down for the last so many years - three, four, five years - on account of the factors I've mentioned, and others, most of us are *not* discouraged, it seems to me - and I think the main reason is that we see the growth of the sustainability movement all around us - and we feel it should mean that it's just a question of time and continued effort and the confluence of the right set of circumstances until we break through -- in the way that the Canadian Greens seem to be on the verge of doing. They also languished for many years until recently when a couple of fortuitous things happened. First of all, with Canada having stronger cultural ties to Europe than America has, the successes of the European Green parties have had more influence on the electorate there than here. Second of all, the well-known, well-respected, and dynamic longstanding executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada made the growth of the Green Party her passion three or four years ago. Elizabeth May has been helping enormously to transform that party into a serious force in Canadian politics, and their time seems to have arrived.

And now, here in the U.S., the Democrats are in power again, giving us the chance to better make the case that we're the real alternative. There are a lot of positives suggesting that the time for our breakthrough may be nearer at hand than our recent frustrations would otherwise indicate.

But ...

I want to finish with a kind of cautionary projection regarding what we might be facing as activists working for social and political change in this particular time and place.

I think there is a *possibility* that neither the Green Party nor any other third party will ever break through here in the United States.

The microcosmic feeling we've had of being kind of stuck-in-place may be a function of operating within a society which is, in fact and indeed, stuck-in-place at a macro level.

This is the so-called cradle of democracy, yet progress toward multi-party democracy, evident in country after county all over the world, has been notably absent here. It is not inconceivable that America may never replace its archaic winner-take-all electoral system. Or, to put it the other way, as grotesque, outlandish, and morbid as it may sound, America may pass into oblivion still mesmerized by the sorry spectacle of Republican vs. Democrat.

Why? Well, there is an historical pattern whereby the most dominant and ostensibly successful empires can just atrophy over time into a stupor of inertia, complacency, and stasis. Things that are going in a direction deemed to be successful tend to keep going in that direction ... beyond the point where they've maxxed out their potential ... and then they ossify, unable to resolve festering problems or to even recognize them: consumption rather than production; intractable inequality; breakdown of community; disregard for limits.

Egypt, Rome, Spain, England ... America ...

Those of us who came of age during the sixties know how clearly the imperative for fundamental social change in this country was articulated at that time. Well, a full adult lifetime has passed since then, over 40 years, and the extent of significant social change has been extremely disappointing . . .

. This country just can't seem to get anywhere in terms of significantly resolving its healthcare crisis. Try after try after half-hearted try.
. This country is on a track leading to bankruptcy - entitlement obligations, as well as social programs, are way underfunded - yet the United States just can't find a way to reduce its insanely bloated and unnecessary military expenditures - whether the administration is Republican or Democratic.
. The American suburban middle class lifestyle paradigm is unsustainable and spiritually bankrupt, but efforts to transform it - like the cohousing, relocalization, and new urbanism movements - remain marginal.
. The two establishment parties command less and less loyalty as the decades pass, but electoral alternatives like the Green Party just can't get any traction.

These are signs of atrophy. The folly of aspiring to dominance and imperial expansion is so persistent, so ingrained at this point, that the United States of America, as a nation-state and a society, could conceivably be beyond redemption.

Maybe the onset of what Richard Heinberg calls Peak Everything will jolt this country out of its imperialist, materialist rut ... and in that case pathways toward the Greening of America might open up, and the prospects for the Green Party here might become as bright as they are in most other advanced democracies.

But we need to be aware of the possibility that this country, uniquely suffering from having its head in the clouds of grandiosity and dominance, will just simply fail to see the light that everyone else can see.


We need to keep trying even if there is a chance that that's what we face. The opening up of the electoral system in this country would be beneficial to the entire global geopolitical landscape. America is currently the great cultural trendsetter, so a breakthrough for Green politics in this country would advance our movement immeasurably worldwide.

As especially hard as it might be to accomplish our goals in this country, we also have a special responsibility to work as hard as we can to try to do so. Real hope for our country (as opposed to Obama's vacuous and now fading hope) ... real hope lies with the prospect that we might succeed in our efforts. (By "we" I don't mean just members or supporters of the Green Party ... grandiosity is the problem, certainly not the solution! By "we" I mean all those who understand, support, or work for eco-communitarian, socially just alternative politics and lifeways.)

But if it comes to pass that America goes into terminal decline while still offering only two choices on its ballots ... so be it ... our focus as Greens will have to shift toward building the new society -- locality by locality, region by region -- within the shell of the old imperial center as it crumbles away.

In fact, we can and ought to be doing both at the same time: trying to open up the electoral system, trying to grow the Green Party; and also building up alternative institutions ... constructing lifeboats ...

Clearly, there's lots of work to be done.

We need to be realistic about our situation and have a long-term perspective in regard to our prospects. We undoubtedly face our share of ups and downs ... including periodic bouts of malaise. But we need to shrug those off. Discouragement can't be an option.

We need to find ways to encourage each other, energize each other and sustain the energy of our movement. Turning to the Rev. Billy's of the world for re-spiritization - and fun - helps a lot. Events like this wonderful Green Fest help a lot. It's been a great couple of days - thanks again to the organizers - and I look forward to seeing everyone again at the next Green Fest ... maybe our breakthrough will then be at hand, or at least a couple of steps closer ...

Steve Welzer is a founder of the Green Party of New Jersey and a member of the National Committee of the Green Party of the United States. He is the editor of the GreenGram, the newsletter of Green Party of New Jersey, and is a co-editor of Green Horizon magazine. He also writes for Synthesis/Regeneration, a magazine of Green social thought. Steve was a Green Party candidate for US Congress from New Jersey in 2008, and this year he is running for State Assembly. He lives in East Windsor, New Jersey.

1 comment:

dcnyg said...

Welzer states, " The idea was that there could be a major party of the left, the Democrats, and a minor party of the left, the Greens; alongside a major party of the right, the Republicans, and a minor party of the right, either the Libertarians or the Reform Party."

That statement by Welzer indicates the primary reason that we Greens face the circumstances we do face. The Green Party hasn't succeeded, when it clearly in a rational society should have, because near everyone in this nation (including Greens) has been successfully indoctrinated to irrationally falsely believe that Democrats represent the Left... which they in practice certainly have not been any part of, and they in practice are surely not in it now. Note how very comfortably contented Obama voters are with Obama doing the same or worse than Cheney/Bush would be doing now. Obamamaniacs got what they really voted for; with that all being much different than what they said or implied that they wanted. Obama has excelled at keeping his campaign promises to maintain the full-spectrum regressive "legacy systems" policies continuum. Obama has voter responsively provided all the regressive shit and protection of rot that Obama voters voted for. Democrats aren't in any part of the Left, and Democrats aren't any part of the Solution. Democrats are the greater part of the Problem.

Having the same strategic goals in common, as evidenced by the effects of legislation and policies rather than empty rhetoric, the struggle between Republicans and Democrats is not partisan (between parties) in nature. It's internecine factionalism within one corporate party having two major wings — the two having distinctly different cultural preferences... and different preferences for the means to be most used to attain the same ends commonly desired by both. Democrats prefer fascism to have a more aesthetically appealing fashion.

We can't expect to become an actual alternative if we organizationally strive to be a 3rd party, when it is a 2nd party, which is actually Left, that is actually needed.

The function of Democrats is to murder movements. For the Green Party to itself enter the Left, we need to never fret over being "spoilers" because our spoiling covertly regressive policies, which Democrats seek to routinely redeploy, should be our goal. To become an alternative we must very purposefully slay Democrats... slay them with absolutely no sympathy nor remorse, because they deserve none.

David J. Cyr
Delhi, NY
GPNYS SC member - Delaware County