As the 2004 presidential election approaches, the pressure is mounting on advocates of independent politics to go ABB (Anybody But Bush), which in practice means supporting pro-war, pro-occupation, pro-corporation, pro-troop increase, pro-PATRIOT Act candidate John Kerry. Recently Left Hook’s Derek Seidman caught up with Howie Hawkins, a longtime activist-leader of the Green Party and an outspoken voice for the need to fully break from the Democrats and the practice of lesser-evilism. Howie currently lives in Syracuse, NY, and can be reached at email@example.com.
DS: Thanks for doing this interview Howie. I want to discuss the Green party—its current state and its prospects for the future—but before we get to that, let’s talk about the Democrats and lesser-evilism. In your article For a Green Presidential Campaign you write: “A Democrat might beat Bush. But no Democrat is going to beat Bushism.” Can you explain what you mean?
HH: No Democrat is going to beat Bushism because the Democratic Party leadership agrees with the core Bush policies, from tax cuts for the rich to the Patriot Act and the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The term “Bushism” is being used by liberals today the way they used “Reaganism” in the 1980s – as a way to try and scare us into supporting the Democrats. But just as the majority of Democrats in Congress voted in support of Reagan’s turn to neoliberal economic policies and the neoconservative post-Vietnam military build-up – and, in fact, supported the initiation of these policies under Carter – the majority of Democrats in Congress today are voting in support of Bush’s economic and military initiatives, which do not contradict but amplify Clinton’s economic and foreign policies.
Bushism turns out to be the Bipartisan Consensus behind neoliberal economic policies and neoconservative foreign policies. These are two sides of the program of corporate domination, with neoliberalism using economic means and neoconservatism enforcing the policies with military means.
It is true that there is a left fringe in the Democratic Party, represented consistently by only about 25 Representatives in Congress, who are indeed opposed to this Bipartisan Consensus. But these progressives are totally marginalized in the Democratic Party, defeated by their own Democratic Caucus in Congress on every issue. What is worse is that the Democratic leadership uses these progressives in Congress to put a progressive facade on the Democratic Party that they use to lure progressive voters into voting Democratic.
Worst of all is the fact that much of the popular base of voters for a progressive alternative not only buy into this progressive wrapping on a reactionary package, but they accept the self-defeating logic of voting for the lesser evil. The strategy of the supporting the lesser evil leads to supporting what you started out to oppose. Thus a lot of anti-war progressives went into the Democratic primaries hoping to nominate a peace candidate. But then the logic of lesser evilism led them to the Anybody But Bush position, which led them to pro-war candidate Kerry as the most “electable.” Thus lesser evilism led anti-war Democrats to support pro-war Kerry against the anti-war candidates Kucinich, Sharpton, and Dean, although Dean’s anti-war stance was more rhetorical than substantive.
The way to beat Bushism, which is to say the Bipartisan Consensus of both corporate-sponsored parties, is to build an independent party committed to a fundamental alternative. We can’t defeat war, repression, and economic austerity from the Republicans by supporting Democrats who also support war, repression, and economic austerity. That’s why I’m so committed to building an independent party on the Left like the Green Party.
DS: If we’re talking about beating “Bushism” in the sense you refer to above, then breaking out of the two-party system is one sure thing that’s on the agenda. However, the constraints that are placed on this effort are daunting: a one-round, winner-takes-all election discourages, one might say even prevents, the emergence of a third party (the “wasted vote” problem); a media that obediently assumes its crucial role of shaping the tempo of an election so as to exclude real challenges from the left; the overwhelming disadvantages we have in terms of funds and exposure; and the ability for the Democrats’ to posture as a party for working people. As a third party trying to breach the two-party system, how do you approach these obstacles?
HH: We can definitely overcome the structural barrier of winner-take-all elections to third parties. It has been done in the UK, Canada, Mexico, and other countries. The populists and socialists began to do it at the local and state level the 1890 to 1920 period and the Greens are beginning to do the same today.
The ruling class has always had the advantage in the mass media and funding, but we can overcome that with grassroots media and organization.
The biggest immediate obstacle is not the objective structural barriers of the two-party biases in the electoral system, campaign financing, and corporate media, but the subjective factor of the missing independent Left in the US. The other countries that have overcome these barriers to establish viable labor, socialist, and now green parties have had independent Lefts. After promising starts with the populist and socialists in the US, the Left here largely collapsed into the Democratic Party with the Popular Front policies of the 1930s. Inside the Democratic Party, the Left largely disappeared as a radical alternative distinguishable for Democratic Party liberalism. Since that turn to the Democrats in 1930s, the labor, civil rights, anti-war, women’s, environmental, and other popular movements lost their momentum when they began to rely on Democratic Party politicians instead of their own independent action and program. Inside the Democratic Party they entered into coalition as subordinate partners with the corporate power structure that dominates the Democratic Party. Movement leaders were co-opted with money and positions, but their constituencies have not made gains by relying on the Democrats who take their votes for granted.
That has begun to change with the emergence of the Green Party as a viable independent party on the Left. What the Green Party needs to do is keep running candidates with no fear of spoiling elections. Indeed, there is power in spoiling. It forces the Greens into the debate because they affect the outcome. Getting into the debate so people hear our policy proposals is half the battle. And if the Democrats and Greens keep spoiling elections for each other, it will force the Democrats to accept the Greens’ demands for instant runoff voting and, more importantly, proportional representation in legislative bodies.
But proportional representation is no panacea. In countries where proportional representation has enabled socialist and green parties to have consistent representation in legislative bodies and often the executive branch, the electoral successes have often led to careerism among socialist and green politicians that has compromised their politics. Most of the socialist parliamentary representatives in Europe voted for war in World War I rather than risk losing everything in a confrontation with the pro-war capitalist parties as the American Socialists did. The Greens in Germany were deradicalized as most of their membership was co-opted into paid government positions as elected officials or their staffs.
There are ways parties can counteract the problem of co-optation and careerism, such as requiring elected party members to give any portion of their government salary over that of a skilled worker to the party, barring members from holding positions as party officials and public officials at the same time, and the imperative mandate policy of binding party officials to membership decisions. Indeed, the early German Greens, fully aware of what had happened to the German Social Democrats, initially employed such policies.
But the best guarantor of keeping the party committed to its radical alternatives is strong extra-parliamentary movements that can drive the politics of the party that represents them. The Greens in Germany, for example, succumbed to careerism when the extra-parliamentary anti-missile, anti-nuclear, and other New Left-inspired social movements that initially propelled them into existence in the late 1970s subsided in the late 1980s.
Those extra-parliamentary movements are crucial for overcoming the biggest of all structural barriers we face: the extra-parliamentary power of capital and the military/intelligence apparatus of the state. Most of the power structure is not up for election. Ralph Nader could be elected president next November and the corporations and the military/intelligence apparatus would still hold most of the reins of power. Capital could go on a capital strike, wreck the economy, and blame Nader. If that failed to cow Nader or create enough popular disaffection with him, as a last resort the military/intelligence apparatus of the state could eliminate him like it has eliminated so many other heads of state and radical opposition leaders around the world. Think of the other September 11, the US-sponsored coup against the Allende government in Chile in 1973. In the end, the only power we have to overcome the extra-parliamentary power of capital and the state is our own extra-parliamentary direct action. In the end, we will have to take over direct administration of the economy and win over the ranks of the armed forces to carry through a radical change in society.
What that means for us today is that Greens and the rest of the independent Left need to be active in the extra-parliamentary movements as well as elections, and make the case for independent politics in the movements. Without an independent alternative, the Democrats take the movements for granted. And without the movements supporting an independent party, the party weakens and tends to accommodate itself to the existing power structure.
DS: Switching the subject a bit: some of the most promising developments for the Greens have occurred in California. You had the near-election of mayoral candidate Matt Gonzales in San Francisco, the impressive campaign of Peter Camejo for Governor—getting into the recall election debates was a huge feat—, and a real growth in support from sections of the population that one typically doesn’t see as a Green strongholds: working class blacks and Latinos. What are your thoughts on the progress and prospects for the Greens in California?
HH: California may be the most fertile state for the Green alternative in the US. As a native Californian, I know that the political culture there is more far more open to independent alternatives than it is here in New York, where party identification remains strong by comparison, although it is steadily eroding here, too.
The Greens in California now have the opportunity to do what the Peace and Freedom Party in California tried to do in 1968 when the Independent Socialist Clubs and the Black Panther Party allied to bring the anti-war and black liberation movements together in the Peace and Freedom movement. I consider the Peace and Freedom Party effort back then to be the first attempt at what we call today Green politics, which gives political expression to the New Left that had been emerging since the 1950s. The New Left opposed both sides of the Cold War in which most of the Old Left had chosen sides. The New Left put more emphasis on direct action and challenged the tepid parliamentary reformism of the Western post-war socialist and communist parties. The New Left broadened the social base and concerns of the Left beyond what had become a narrow, economistic approach in the workers movement to include the so-called new social movements for decolonization, racial equality, nuclear disarmament, the environment and the liberation of women, youth, and gays. The 1968 Peace and Freedom platform was the first party that I am aware of to have a plank for ecology, not merely conservation.
The Peace and Freedom Party never consolidated this new coalition of forces, but the California Greens have gone much further with the Camejo and Gonzalez campaigns. African Americans, especially youth, voted for Camejo more than any other ethnic group. Latino organizations are moving toward the Green Party because it is the only party that takes a principled stand for immigrant rights. Low-income people voted disproportionately for Camejo. And as throughout the country, youth are registering in and voting for the California Green Party in disproportionate numbers, which bodes well for the future.
The Democrats are also helping to organize the Green Party. The Davis administration was a disaster in every respect. Schwarzenegger's election doesn’t represent a swing to the Right but an expression of absolute disgust with the Democrats. In San Francisco, the Democrats and Republicans were in open alliance against the Green candidate, Matt Gonzalez. It’s just become clearer to more and more people in California that the Greens are the alternative to both corporate parties
DS: I’m sure you’re aware of the stereotypical image most people have of a Green party member: a young, white, middle-class college student frustrated with mainstream liberalism. One of the concerns many folks on the Left have about the Greens are whether or not they are a party that has a base, or could develop a base, amongst the working class and people of color. What’s your assessment of the Greens in this arena, and what types of prospects do you see?
HH: Every sector of the ideological Left is over-represented by white, middle-class, college-educated people, including the Greens. One thing that distinguishes the Greens from most of the Left is its ability to draw in youth. And from my personal observation, Greens tend to be far more regular working people and less based in academia and the professions than most of the socialist groups with which I am familiar.
The stereotype of Greens as being all white and middle class has always been way overstated. There has always been leadership from people of color. The late Chippewa activist Walt Bressette founded the Lake Superior Greens in 1985 and got the first US Green elected in 1986, Frank Koehn to the Bayfield County board. The next Green elected was a black woman to the board of alders in New Haven, Connecticut in 1987. The majority of Green candidates we’ve had here in Syracuse over the last decade have been African American, Puerto Rican, and Mohawk. We’ve had national leadership from African American Greens who come out of SNCC, the Black Panther Party, and the National Black Independent Political Party. Black activists in the Massachusetts Rainbow Coalition and the DC Statehood Party led the efforts to merge with the then predominantly white Green parties in those states that have given us today’s Green Rainbow Party of Massachusetts and the DC Statehood Green Party.
The problem is that the people of color leftists in the Greens have usually been as politically marginal in their communities as the white leftists have been in theirs. The Greens have frequently done well politically and electorally in youthful, middle-class, college towns. I think the visibility of these successes is part of the reason for the stereotype of the Greens as all white and middle class. Another is that given the realities in terms of finances and flexibility on the job for days off, national meetings of the Greens are skewed even more than the base of the party toward older, more affluent, white members.
I think there is no question that the Greens can develop a strong working class base and a strong base in oppressed ethnic communities. Unlike most other countries where Greens developed on the left of Social Democracy, in the US there is no labor party. So the Greens could become the independent political expression for workers as well as the new social movements, a potentially majoritarian social base.
The Greens are doing all the things we do on the left to try to build alliances with workers and people of color. We support their movements, demonstrations, events. We invite them to participate in ours. We incorporate their demands into our platforms, from affirmative action to reparations, from living wages to labor law reform. Their caucuses are accorded a direct voice in the councils of the party.
But I think the most effective alliance-building tactic will be Green electoral successes. Grassroots workers and people of color are pragmatic. They may like the Green program, but don’t think the Greens have enough support and power to implement it. When they see the Greens becoming a viable force, they will support it. This is what is beginning to happen in California and in cities where the Greens now have council members.
DS: From my sense of things, it seems like there are two wings in the Green party: one wing that wants to use the party to pressure the Democrats to move leftward, and another wing that is intent on the need to break from the Democrats completely. Is this accurate? How do you assess the tensions within the Greens, and how will these affect the future?
HH: There aren’t too many Greens who see the role of the Green Party as a vehicle to pressure to the Democrats. Most of those who do usually soon return to the Democrats.
The debate today is between those who want to run an all-out presidential campaign and those who want a “safe states strategy” of refraining from campaigning in the swing states to help Kerry beat Bush. That latter group is not so much interested in pushing the Democrats as in deflecting the backlash from liberals against the Greens.
I think the Greens have to face the fact that as their electoral strength grows, what I call the professional liberals will counterattack. The professional liberals are the paid officers and staff of the unions, community organizations, environmental groups, women’s groups, civil rights groups, liberal think tanks. These people are tied by their social networks and career interests to Democratic administrations. Their professional peers are in Democratic administrations. Their grants and possible jobs in those administrations are at stake. They are naturally going to be the most vocal in opposition to the Greens. They will be the last progressives to break with the Democratic Party. The Greens should stop worrying about the professional liberals and focus on taking their message to the rank-and-file of the unions, the environmental groups, and so on, because the Democrats are not delivering anything to these people.
This tension will be with us for some time. It tends to be the Greens who are ex Democratic activists who seem most concerned with the backlash from their former allies inside the Democratic Party. But I am confident the Greens will maintain their commitment to political independence. That is the core reason for an independent Green Party, independent from the corporate sponsors of the Democrats and Republicans, as opposed to the fusion strategy of the now defunct New Party, now carried on by the Working Families Party in New York and Connecticut, which consciously seeks to organize the left wing of the Democratic Party.
This debate between all-out and safe states has crystallized now in the choice between endorsing Nader’s independent candidacy or nominating safe states advocate David Cobb. I think a Cobb nomination would really hurt the Green Party. It would send the message that the Greens are giving backhanded support to Kerry, who is now trying to out-Bush Bush on Iraq (send more troops) and jobs (bigger tax cuts for corporations). It would hurt the Green parties in the swing states which would have no campaign. And Cobb will get no national media coverage and no significant vote, relegating the Greens to the sidelines in the election.
Although I would have preferred that Nader run as a Green rather than an independent, endorsing his campaign is still the best option the Greens have this year. By being a visible and active force in his campaign, the Greens will still be able to use the campaign to recruit to the party. Nader will support Green candidates down the ticket. And Nader will force himself into the national debate, if only because he has enough support to “spoil” the election for Kerry, and that will change the whole debate in the election. On the two leading issues, Nader is clearly the alternative on Iraq (withdraw US troops) and jobs (public works, not tax cut incentives).
I’m highly skeptical of the conventional wisdom that Nader will get less votes in 2004 than 2000. People are rightly scared of Bush. But they should be scared of Kerry, too. As Kerry’s program becomes clearer, the peace movement and movements for economic justice should have a crisis of conscience. Nader’s program is the only real alternative for peace and justice. His candidacy could well take off in these circumstances. It would be a shame if the Greens were supporting a marginal candidate instead of Nader.
DS: I want to finish off on the subject of the Greens by asking you two things here: First, what are the most crucial weaknesses of the party that you see right now, and Two, what overall prospects and opportunities do you see on the horizon? What must the Greens do concretely in order to move forward?
HH: The biggest weakness in the Greens today is at the local level. The Greens built up a national membership organization in the 1980s and early 1990s based on locals with paid memberships. As the Greens got more into electoral political and conformed to state election laws based on party registration, the locals have withered. What we need are strong networks of local Green political clubs that are paid membership organizations.
These kinds of locals will give the Green Party movement a stronger, consistent financial base and a way to engage rank-and-file Greens on a continuing basis between elections in political education and non-electoral campaigns and projects. A conscious base of activists organized in this way will sustain the movement through the ups and downs of Green political fortunes in the electoral arena. I’ve found that activists who have a local organization of friends and comrades and an ideological and historical perspective can sustain their activism for the long haul. Episodic campaigns, whether electoral or social movements, that do not lay down such local organizations may mobilize lots of people periodically, but do not provide people with the means of sustaining their participation over the long haul.
We’ve formed a national network, the Green Alliance, to help Greens organize local anti-capitalist Green political clubs. So the Green Alliance has a two-fold purpose of organizing locals and a left, anti-capitalist wing in the Greens. People interested in the Green Alliance can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Walt Sheasby at WSheasby@cs.com for more information.
DS: Can you leave us off by telling us a little bit about yourself—how you got involved with the Greens, what your main activities have been, etc. I know you’ve run for local office. What are the benefits of running a third party ticket on the local level as opposed to the national level?
HH: I’m a UPS truck unloader and active in Teamsters for a Democratic Union as well as the Green Party.
I got involved in the Greens at the first national Green organizing meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was invited because I was active in the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance. But actually I had been active in efforts to form an independent party of the Left since the Peace and Freedom Party registration drive for ballot status in California at the end of 1967 when I was a teenager. I was in the People’s Party in the 1970s and the Citizens Party in the 1980s before the Green Party. I’m a paid member of the Socialist and Labor parties and have been active in a series of coalition efforts to build independent politics since the Mass Party Organizing Committee, from which today’s Independent Progressive Politics Network descends.
So I’ve always been committed to independent politics since becoming politically active. One influence was the literature of the Independent Socialist Clubs, which I picked up during the Peace and Freedom registration drive. The other was Murray Bookchin’s essays on social ecology and anarchism that were circulating as pamphlets in the movement in the late 1960s, many of which were later collected in his Post-Scarcity Anarchism. Another Bookchin article, “Spring Offensives and Summer Vacations,” which came out about 1971, was particularly interesting because he made an anarchist case for engaging in local elections. He challenged the New Left to develop a sustained political project instead of episodic demonstrations and urged them get into local electoral politics with the goal of winning a majority to radical alternatives at the local level. I still think that approach is right one. So my politics have always been influenced by Third Camp socialism and Bookchin’s ecological anarchism.
I think the local level is the most important level for Green electoral politics. We can’t take over the state as it is and expect to carry forward a program of fundamental change, as I discussed above. State and federal legislators and executives are trapped by the private power of capital and the repressive military/intelligence apparatus. We can’t simple want to get into power. We have to have a perspective of restructuring power. And I think we can begin to prefigure that restructuring at the local level.
Municipalities in the US have substantial powers. We can re-write charters to establish direct, grassroots democracy in the form of neighborhood assemblies with mandated, recallable delegates to city councils, on the model of the Paris Commune. We can use municipal taxing, purchasing, granting, bonding, and eminent domain powers to socialize and democratize key sectors of the local economy. A confederation of municipalities can use these powers to jointly to deal with larger scales. Like workers councils, neighborhood assemblies have been thrown up by people in revolutions to make policies and administer them from below. I think our local electoral platform and action should prefigure that direct democracy. By building direct, grassroots political and economic democracy at the local municipal level, we are building direct action in its fullest form: direct democracy. It is a form a power that includes everyone who wants to participate and it is the kind of power we need to take on the corporate/military power structure.
So I think state and federal elections are useful for securing ballot lines for local elections, for recruiting party members, and for changing the terms of political debate in the country. But I think local elections and local Green governments are where we can begin to organize a popular counter-power to capitalism and the state.
Other Articles by Derek Seidman
Radical Continuity: An Interview with Paul Buhle