Author’s note: the following article represents my opinions and not those of Independent Political Report. I publish this article here in the belief that IPR readers would be interested in reading one American’s reasons for taking the less-traveled road of independent politics.
As a progressive, politically active American, I frequently take part in discussions about how to realize progressive ideals in American politics. These discussions, naturally, turn to strategy, and often turn into heated arguments about the merits of voting for Green Party candidates. However, the Green Party strategy discussion usually arises in reaction to another topic; I have rarely seen a discussion that is dedicated to the subject of whether the Green Party offers a viable progressive strategy, though I have seen editorials on progressive sites railing against any strategy that veers from the orthodox progressive Democrat strategy.
As a progressive who has become an advocate for the Green Party as the most viable vehicle for progress, I would like to open serious discussion on this topic among the community of progressives. I ask that you approach this discussion with an open mind and a respect for open debate, and that you read the entire piece before responding. I’ll try to make this comprehensive yet concise. Without further ado:
A Progressive’s Case for a Green Party Strategy
1. The State of Politics in America
The current political state of affairs in the United States is alarming. The global financial collapse has brought us the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes. The super-rich are getting richer and more powerful, while the vast majority are getting poorer. The US is mired in two expensive, bloody wars with no end in sight. The scientific evidence about the state of our planet grows steadily worse, yet politicians take no action. Our civil liberties are being revoked by a growing police state. On measures from poverty to life expectancy, the US standard of living is quickly dropping on the charts, aided by our expensive but ineffective health care system.
Progressives have solutions to these problems, but have been unable to turn their solutions from ideas into public policy. For the purposes of this article, “progressives” are defined as people who generally support democratic regulation of the economy, progressive taxation, fair trade, a strong social safety net, single-payer health care, a more peaceful foreign policy, action to protect the environment and prevent global climate change, protection of civil liberties, and human rights.
Many progressives hoped that Barack Obama would turn US policy in a progressive direction once elected president. Although Obama has pursued the agenda of corporate and military elites less brazenly than his predecessor, the direction taken by the ship of state is still very much the same. Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress supported the Wall Street bailout, the largest upward transfer of wealth in history. His economic advisors, led by Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, have continued to implement the neoliberal economic ideology that has concentrated America’s wealth in ever-fewer hands while bringing the real economy to its knees.
Obama has continued Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “graveyard of empires” and now host to the longest war in US history. He has escalated not only the war on Afghanistan, but also the war on the US Constitution, both defending and expanding on his predecessor’s dictatorial claims of executive power, as Glenn Greenwald has so ably documented. Obama refused to join the global community in condemning the Israeli military’s massacre of activists in international waters or the military coup in Honduras, a nation that still bears deep scars from US government intervention. Obama’s retention of Bush’s Secretary of Defense was no mistake – he plays by the rules of the military industrial complex.
Obama has taken no action on climate change, although he has attempted to open vast areas of pristine ocean to offshore drilling for oil (shortly before BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill hit the headlines) and secure taxpayer-backed loan guarantees for nuclear power plants, which could be described more truthfully as bailout guarantees. The refusal of the world’s wealthiest country to address climate change doomed the Copenhagen Climate Conference, which was possibly the world’s last best chance to prevent catastrophic climate change, to failure.
The Democrats’ health care reform bill, which is touted as the major accomplishment of the Obama administration to date, attempts to solve America’s health care problem by giving huge public subsidies to those who caused the problem: the for-profit health insurance industry. Obama’s personal role in removing the “public option” and key drug price controls from the bill for the benefit of industry groups has been well documented. The resulting bill will not control costs, and it will not provide universal coverage. It will enrich profiteering corporate interests with public dollars, and it will ensure that Americans continue to pay more than any other country in the world for a health care system that the World Health Organization ranks 37th globally.
After bailing out the financial speculators who brought down the economy with trillions from the US Treasury, Obama and the Democratic majority paid back labor for its diehard support with a relatively puny stimulus package that progressive economists, who had seen the financial crisis coming when neoliberal economists utterly failed to, unanimously condemned as too small and poorly targeted – a halfhearted leap across a gaping chasm. Instead of targeted aid to spur demand, much of the Democrats’ stimulus came as middle-class tax cuts and corporate tax breaks. This time, progressive economists were doubly right: the weak stimulus failed to end the recession, and its failure was seized upon by corporatists to discredit the Keynesian economics that had brought unprecedented prosperity for decades after the New Deal.
As the economic order propagated by corporatists in both establishment parties takes its toll on the working class, right-wing demagogues deflect the resulting rage away from the economic power elite and towards the easily scapegoated other: immigrants, gays, Muslims, blacks, and the educated liberal class. The Democratic Party, which is staffed by, ideologically wedded to, and financially dependent on the economic elite, will not direct populist anger at the real culprits of the crisis, as Franklin Roosevelt did. A rising tide of special interest money in elections is driving both parties to the right, while voters feel caught in the seemingly hopeless choice between one party that wants to keep driving towards the cliff, and an opposition party that wants to step on the gas.
What are progressives to do? First, we would do well to stop hacking at the branches of evil, and turn our attention to the roots.
2. The Roots of Evil, part 1: Corporate Money in Politics
During the health care debate of 2009-10, polls consistently showed that 45-60% of Americans favored a single-payer system, while 65-75% favored the “public option”, a government-run health insurance plan that would compete with private industry. Yet the final plan passed by the Democrats had neither. But doesn’t common knowledge hold that the Democrats represent the “left” half of America, while Republicans represent the “right” half? If that were the case, the Democrats would have pushed for single-payer and included the public option without question. Instead, they paid lip service to the public option while killing it behind closed doors, and even fought on behalf of the insurance industry to preclude any mention of single-payer. How did we get to the point where our government is dominated by two parties that, on basic economic issues, are well to the right of the American people?
The answer is that in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was beating the Democrats with an easily accessible anti-government message that corporatists were all too willing to bankroll, Democratic Party leadership decided that the best way to compete with Reagan Republicans was to stake their own claim on the gold mine of corporate campaign cash. In return for funding both sides, the corporatists gained the assurance that whether the socially liberal or socially conservative team won, economic policy would prioritize maximal corporate profits as the highest good. Progressives got their first strong taste of the new bipartisan consensus during the Clinton administration, which succeeded where the Republicans had failed by passing so-called “free trade” agreements such as NAFTA and WTO. These agreements, written by corporatists to enshrine maximal profit margins as the defining principle of international law, represent the greatest surrender of democratic sovereignty in the history of the United States.
The main reason why the progressive agenda hasn’t advanced, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans hold power, is that progressive values conflict in many respects with the corporatist ideology that both establishment parties are now beholden to. Single-payer health care is objectively a better system than the current US model, but neither party in Washington will even allow public discussion of single-payer, because to do so would discredit the corporatist dogma that the private sector (the mythical “free market”) is always more efficient than the public sector. Out-of-control military spending in the US is impoverishing us, eroding our freedom, and creating an endless feedback loop of global violence, yet neither party will challenge the prerogatives of the military-industrial complex, which has grown into exactly the monster that Eisenhower warned of.
3. The Roots of Evil, part 2: The Plurality-take-all Electoral System
In a September 2010 Gallup poll, 58% of Americans agreed that the Democratic and Republicans do such a poor job representing the American people that a third major party is needed. How is it that in a country that prides itself as the birthplace of modern democracy, the majority of people feel represented by neither of the parties that win virtually every election? The difference between what Americans aspire to and what the political class gives them, which many call the “democracy gap”, can be attributed to the plurality-take-all electoral system.
Americans elect our representatives almost exclusively in single-winner elections where the candidate who receives the greatest absolute number of votes, even if that is less than a majority, wins the office: thus, plurality-take-all. This system naturally tends to the formation of two voting blocs. The two-party system is only a symptom – the underlying cause of the democracy gap is the plurality-take-all voting system.
Most are familiar with the “spoiler dilemma” that plagues plurality-take-all elections: because a candidate can win with less than a majority, if there are more than 2 candidates, voting for the one you agree with most can allow the one you agree with least to benefit from a “vote-splitting” situation. Because of this, the two dominant parties are usually able to coerce Americans to vote for them, even when their candidates fail to inspire enthusiasm, because voters see voting for the dominant party closest to their views as the only plausible alternative to allowing the other dominant party to take power. In short, Americans are stuck in a vicious cycle of voting for the lesser evil.
While corporate money in politics exerts a rightward pull on both establishment parties, plurality-take-all voting leaves most voters feeling that their only choice is between a socially liberal corporatist party and a socially conservative corporatist party, or as the traditional left-to-right political economic spectrum would have it, a center-right party and a far-right party. The center of gravity in Washington politics remains the corporatist-militarist consensus. Progressive Americans find themselves in a unique position among large blocs of voters, as they are now publicly repudiated by the dominant party that most of them vote for. While polls show that most Americans feel they are no longer represented by the corporatist duopoly, progressives know that they no longer have a voice in government, and so are in the best position to act.
4. Strategy, part 1: Why not Progressive Democrats?
Many progressive Americans seek to realize a progressive agenda by “taking over the Democratic Party”. They have met a hostile response from the Democratic Party leadership, which feels entitled to their votes but refuses to implement their ideas. Indeed, the Democratic Party depends on the votes of progressives who view it as the lesser evil, but it also depends on funding from the same corporatist elites who fund the Republican Party. The best fundraisers rise to the top in both parties, and as the Democratic Party has steadily been infiltrated and taken over by corporatists, it has abandoned its social democratic New Deal legacy for the neoliberal ideology of the economic elite. The conservative movement took over the Republican Party, true, but that movement was created by the economic elite to further the corporatist agenda. Conservatives were welcomed into the Republican tent, while progressives who attempt a similar takeover of the Democratic Party are not welcomed by the party’s gatekeepers, but fought tooth and nail until they either submit to being pawns for their leaders’ agenda or surrender.
On the lower rungs of power, progressive Democrats are tolerated by their party’s leadership because they help to propagate the illusion that progressives have a voice in the national Democratic Party’s agenda. As long as progressives don’t rock the boat, turn a blind eye to the corruption and hypocrisy of their colleagues, and refrain from challenging the corporatist-militarist bipartisan consensus, they remain useful to their party as tokens who can be used to reassure the base that the Democrats are “the party of the people” and that they can “take back the party” as easily as the Republican Party was “taken over” by its conservative base. This pretense quickly crumbles when progressive Democrats step outside their assigned role: the Democratic leadership’s machinations to exclude Dennis Kucinich from primary debates in 2008 is just one example of many.
At the grassroots level where most of us abide, the favored tactic of progressive Democrats is the primary challenge. This strategy is based on the assumption that ideas, not advertising budgets and political cronyism, determine the winners of Democratic primaries. Realistically, corporatist Democrats have a huge advantage over progressive challengers in terms of financial and party support. While progressives may challenge a handful of the worst Democrats in each cycle – only to see the party leaders rally behind the likes of Blanche Lincoln and Arlen Specter – the majority of corporatist Democrats cruise to primary wins and easy election in gerrymandered districts. Progressives’ participation in Democratic primaries, though rarely successful, still serves to legitimize a process that by its very structure is heavily stacked in favor of the corporatist agenda.
When progressive Democrat primary challenges succeed, what do progressive Democrats accomplish once in power?
The congressional progressive caucus, though it has 83 nominal members, has resolutely failed to advance a progressive agenda. Like so many progressive Democratic voters, progressive Democratic legislators can always be counted on to put party before principle. For example, during the healthcare debate, liberal Democratic groups asked members of the CPC to pledge that they would only vote for a health care bill that included a public option. Many took the pledge, and if they had held their ground, any health care bill with a chance of passing would have to include the popular public option. However, after it became clear that the Democratic leadership had bargained away the public option behind closed doors, the same Democratic groups began pressuring Democratic legislators to support the president’s bill – an unpopular “compromise” bill that gave away the farm to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, despite the fact that the bill did not need a single Republican vote to pass. The lone Democrat who attempted to salvage progressive influence by sticking to the public option pledge was assailed by his own party and abandoned by self-styled progressive Democrats.
At a point when Democratic control in Washington was at its high water mark, “progressive” Democrats in Congress not only gave away all their power to influence the health care bill, they showed how easily they will roll over for the Democratic Party leadership in the future.
A less publicized but no less salient example of the failure of “progressive” Democrats in Congress to advance the progressive agenda came in 2009, when the House of Representatives had a chance to cut off funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 51 Democrats in the House voted against a $97 billion war supplemental bill that was expected to pass easily. Yet when the bill came back with $5 billion tacked on for the International Monetary Fund and Republicans decided to vote against the bill in symbolic opposition, progressive Democrats suddenly had a chance to actually defeat the bill and cut off war funding. When the bill actually had a chance of failing, only 32 House Democrats voted against it; the rest changed their votes to ensure that the war machine kept rolling.
As Glenn Greenwald ably described in his absolute-must-read article “The Democratic Party’s Deceitful Game”, the modern Democratic Party consistently pretends to support any progressive legislation that its voters want, until they have the opportunity to actually pass such legislation. When that time comes, the Democrats always resort to a litany of tricks and excuses to convince progressive voters that they tried their best, while they quietly continue the agenda of their corporatist and militarist funders uninterrupted.
While progressive Democratic politicians can be counted on for lip service to progressive ideals, they have a tendency to fall in line behind their leaders’ corporatist, militarist agenda while failing to achieve all but the tiniest crumbs of progress – which are often tacked on to bills sending billions in taxpayer funds to the economic and military elites. The function, if not necessarily the intent, of the progressive Democrat movement has been to keep progressives pouring their energy and resources into a party that has become fundamentally opposed to their worldview. At this point, voting for Democrats as the “lesser evil” only enables them to keep moving rightward with impunity, and ultimately only reinforces an increasingly unacceptable system. Voting for the lesser evil again and again out of fear has brought us exactly what we feared.
5. Strategy, part 2: Clean Money Politics
To be effective, progressives must first recognize and address the root cause of the American political class’ rightward march: corporate money in politics. Progressives should realize that corporate-funded politicians cannot and will not implement a progressive agenda, and having realized that, start organizing around public commitments to support only those candidates who refuse corporate money.
Public campaign financing is a goal worth pursuing, but progressives should not wait until public financing is established to adopt an aggressive strategy of supporting clean-money candidates and withholding support from corporate-sponsored candidates. In its early days, the conservative movement gained clout well beyond its numbers because conservative voters were willing to withhold their votes en masse from candidates who didn’t support their issues. If we are to reclaim politics for the people from the corporatists, progressives must be willing to do the same.
6. Strategy, part 3: Electoral Reform
The democracy gap will exist as long as the plurality-take-all voting system coerces Americans to vote for the lesser evil, and progressives will be particularly underrepresented while money continues to play a dominant role in elections. Fortunately, there are tried-and-true voting systems that allow voters to vote for the representation they truly want, and get it.
An improved system for single-winner elections that is already used in the United States is instant runoff voting, or IRV. With IRV, voters rank the candidates in the order they prefer them. If no candidate receives a majority of first preferences, then the last-place candidate is eliminated, and their first-place votes are transferred to those voters’ second preferences. This process continues until one candidate has a majority and is declared the winner. IRV eliminates the “spoiler dilemma”, where voters are afraid to vote their sincere preferences, lest they “split the vote” among candidates ideologically close to them and allow a candidate they oppose to win with less than a majority.
IRV is already in use in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and a number of other American cities. While both dominant parties publicly decry the “spoiler effect” and enact restrictive ballot access laws to keep competitors off the ballot, neither has shown any initiative in pushing for instant runoff voting. In places where IRV is used, it’s usually thanks to Greens, other independents, and voter’s rights groups like FairVote. Although voters who have used IRV report that they prefer it to plurality-take-all, even after being enacted it often faces opposition from establishment parties and corporate special interests, who feel – perhaps rightly – that IRV threatens their grip on power.
While any single-winner voting system leaves significant numbers of voters “wasting their votes” on candidates who win nothing, there is an improved system in widespread use in legislative elections around the world that allows all voters to vote for the representation they want and get it: proportional representation. With proportional representation, if 25% of voters vote for a certain party, that party gets 25% of the seats. Under the German system of proportional representation, voters cast a personal vote for their favorite local politician and a party vote for the party they agree with most; the resulting legislature combines local representation with proportional representation to achieve the maximum degree of accountability to voters. Once they receive their proportion of legislative seats, parties form a coalition that represents the majority and work out a compromise agenda to turn their electoral mandate into public policy. The legislature is, in effect, an ideological mirror of the voting public.
With proportional representation, voters don’t feel coerced to support the lesser evil, because they can vote for the representation they want and get it, as long as their preferred party has a modicum of support to pass the entrance threshold (3-5% in most systems). For example, the Australian Senate uses proportional representation. In Australia’s 2010 election, many voters who were dissatisfied with the ruling center-left Labor party voted for the Green Party, denying the center-right opposition a majority. The result was a Labor-Green coalition, while plurality-take-all voting would have given the center-right minority a legislative majority.
What if American progressives dissatisfied with the performance of the Democrats in government could vote for an independent progressive alternative – and get it?
7. Why the Green Party?
The Green Party is both movement and party, both global and grassroots – a global party based on shared commitments to nonviolence, social justice, grassroots democracy, and ecological wisdom that has inspired people around the world to organize in their communities. In the United States, the Green Party’s key values also include decentralization, community-based economics, respect for diversity, gender equity, global and personal responsibility, and future focus. It’s hard to imagine a progressive who would disagree that public policy based on these values is exactly what we need in this day and age.
For the various movements that have been pouring their energy into the Democratic Party and getting little in return but a combination of excuses and disrespect, the Green Party’s platform is like a breath of fresh air after years of imprisonment. The labor, environmental, peace, women’s rights, LGBT, immigrant, minority, and civil liberties movements, as well as all Americans who want to return government to the service of the people – all would be much better represented by the Green Party than by either the Democrats or the Republicans.
Green candidates pledge not to accept contributions from corporations, their PACs or their lobbyists, meaning that when Greens are elected, they are beholden only to the voters. Because Greens recognize the fundamental contradiction between their worldview and the corporatists’, they police their own party for behavior that could lead to conflicts of interest. Progressives would do well to build a party that is independent of corporatist influence, rather than try to take over a party that is not only infested thoroughly with corporatist influence, but has shown much more willingness to fight progressives than to compromise with them.
The Green Party is not only interested in winning power for itself – Greens want to win power for Americans by democratizing our obsolete, insular political system. Greens support electoral reforms such as instant runoff voting, proportional representation, independent redistricting, and abolition of the electoral college; campaign finance reforms like public campaign financing, free airtime for all ballot-qualified candidates, and abolition of corporate personhood; ballot access reform to overturn laws that place an unreasonable burden on citizens’ right to run for office; and other needed reforms such as expansion of initiative and referendum, open debates, and fully verifiable voting systems.
Voting Green accomplishes a number of things for progressives. It shows that you are party of a growing progressive bloc that will vote only for candidates who refuse corporate money, and that you refuse to let your vote be taken for granted by the corporatist, militarist duopoly. It shows that you support democratic reforms to America’s broken political system, and that you will no longer be complicit in a system that gives voters the illusion of choice in return for the myth of consent. It also exposes the critical flaws in our electoral system and creates the opportunity to raise awareness of alternatives. Most importantly, by voting Green you help to build a party that offers real hope and real solutions, not only for the deep-seated problems of American politics, but for the whole range of problems that face humankind and the planet that is our only home.
For the Green Party to succeed in the United States, it is imperative that Greens build from the grassroots up, which means community organizing and campaigns at the local level, where Greens can and do win. At the same time, campaigns for federal and statewide office have been more successful than lower-level campaigns at raising awareness for Green Party positions and building the party. In fact, many states require the Green Party to get a certain percentage of the vote in statewide or federal races, or to register a certain number of voters statewide, in order to retain the ballot access that makes local success possible. Even those progressives who don’t support the Green Party at present should realize the vital importance of allying with Greens to push for electoral reform, campaign finance reform, open debates, and repeal of restrictive and discriminatory ballot access laws.
In 2010, the Green Party is running several hundred candidates. Many Americans will have the option to vote for Greens at the top of the ticket, but less will see Greens in down-ticket races. However, this year has more Greens running competitive campaigns in state legislative races than in recent memory, which is a promising development indeed. In the present moment, Greens are focused on maximizing their vote totals, winning local races, and earning ballot access. After Election Day 2010, progressives should seize the moment by building Green Party locals, recruiting candidates for strategic races, and organizing a true party of the people from the grassroots up.
At this trying moment in American history, we must not forget the rich tradition of independent progressive politics that has done so much good for our country. We can thank independent progressives working outside the dominant two-party system for the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, child labor laws, the right to unionize, the minimum wage, social security, and many more of the greatest achievements of American history. True, these ideas were often co-opted by the political establishment to prevent more radical change; but if the dominant parties are willing to co-opt the Green Party’s sweeping program of democratic reform, neither Greens nor their progressive allies will object.
The time has come for progressive Americans to shake off their confusion and paralysis and start building the Green Party into a bridge from the world we have to the better world we know is possible. Success will not come quickly or easily, but with enough passion and perseverance, success will be ours. All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.