Which Way Forward for the Green Party?
At the 2005 Annual National Meeting in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Green Party arrived at a fork in the road. The delegates voted down resolutions offered by Greens for Democracy and Independence (GDI) designed to ensure proportional representation inside the party, national delegates accountable to the expressed will of the membership, and political independence from the two corporate parties. These votes fly in the face of everything that the Green Party’s platform and membership stand for.
As Maryland senatorial candidate and Green Party member Kevin Zeese rightly points out, “the overwhelming majority of Greens support real democracy -- based on the principle of one person-one vote -- and want the Green Party to stand for something different than the Democrats or Republicans.”
“The Tulsa decisions exacerbate the already growing rift in the party. The ramifications of these decisions must be reversed if the Greens are to truly challenge the corporate parties. This can only happen if Greens across the country are willing to fight to take back their party. Only an uprising by the membership will reinvigorate the Green Party,” added Zeese.
At Tulsa, two currents came into conflict over the future of the Party -- an assertive, radical wing embodied by the Greens for Democracy and Independence (GDI) and a passive, liberal wing led by David Cobb and others closely tied to the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA).
GDI argues that the Green Party must become the political expression of living social movements to challenge the corporate duopoly at the ballot box, and can only be successful in this endeavor by conducting its affairs, setting policies, and nominating candidates from a standpoint of complete independence from corporate-sponsored parties, policies, and candidates. GDI came into being to resolve the political and organizational crises that wreaked havoc in the Green Party during and after the 2004 election and threaten to sideline the Green Party as a progressive electoral force in the national political arena.
Divisions form during the 2004 presidential nominating process
These crises originated in the period leading up to the nomination of Green Presidential candidate David Cobb, who argued for a “safe states” strategy in battleground states during the 2004 election campaign. This tactic was viewed by many Greens as a backhanded way of adopting a political strategy of sustaining the centrist Democratic Party in order to defeat Bush, at the expense of Green Party interests. Cobb’s eventual running mate, Pat LaMarche, had spent the primary season arguing for complete abstention from the Presidential race.
Cobb’s strategy enjoyed only minority support in the Green party, but his forces were able to win the Green Party nomination by rallying leaders of the small state parties, who had a disproportionate number of delegates allotted to them, and convincing several delegates to change their assigned positions and vote against the expressed will of their state party’s membership. Based on successful manipulation of this undemocratic process, Cobb won the nomination and official support for his lesser-evil strategy without the consent or interest of the grassroots party members and Green-leaning progressive voters. But the Green membership and potential Green-leaning voters quickly registered their disapproval as the Cobb campaign could attract sufficient petitioning volunteers and signatories to get on the ballot in only 28 states, 22 of which held pre-existing ballot lines.
The Cobb campaign for president garnered less than 120,000 votes, or about 1/3 of the registered Greens in the country, and less than 4% of the Green Party’s previous national tally. As a result of this disastrous showing, Green Parties in seven of the twenty two states with Green Party ballot lines lost them, which resulted in those states’ election boards purging computers of Green Party membership databases and terminating party enrollment rights. The enhanced vote totals, success of local candidacies, and membership increases Cobb and his promoters had assured the Green Party would derive from the “good will” the lesser-evil approach would engender in the wider progressive community failed to materialize. Despite accommodating the “Anybody But Bush” forces and the high-profile position Cobb and the Green Party took in the ballot challenges and recounts in Ohio and elsewhere, Green Party membership declined, local candidacies declined sharply in numbers and vote totals, and the party continues to teeter on the brink of bankruptcy.
Since the election, the division between GDI supporters and the liberal wing of the national Green Party has become more apparent and more severe. It has been exacerbated by the arrival of a new political action group rising from the ashes of the Dean and Kucinich Campaigns, and the easy willingness of the failed “lesser evil” Greens to stay their liberal-accommodating course through pathways provided and funded by Democrats, serving as a wedge to widen the rift.
Under the leadership of David Cobb and his supporters in the weeks following the election debacle, and continuing to the present, many in the liberal wing aligned themselves with the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), whose stated aim is to transform the Democratic Party from within through a policy of encouraging progressives to think “realistically” about the immutability of the two-party system and apply their energies inside the Democratic Party rather than through third-party challengers like the Greens. David Cobb has appeared on many PDA panels as an “Alliance Partner” and Cobb ally Medea Benjamin, of Global Exchange and Code Pink, wrote a glowing fundraising letter for the PDA which was disseminated in Green Party circles.
Like many inside/outside formations such as the Working Families Party, however, the PDA exists to co-opt challenges into the Democratic Party, shepherd progressives into the left wing of the duopoly’s electoral pen, and reinforce the two party system and its consequences. If the AFL-CIO and mainstream civil rights groups -- heavily integrated into the Democratic Party and backed with millions of members and millions of dollars -- have failed to bring progress with this technique, the PDA with its meager forces stands no chance of succeeding. Instead the PDA will simply decapitate the Green Party’s attempt to build a challenge to the corporate duopoly. Many Greens and recalcitrant progressives believe this to be the real purpose of PDA, and the liberal wing’s new-found close association with the PDA has diluted the Green Party’s message, given “lesser evilism” an institutional foothold, and inflamed the growing conflicts over mission and methods in the Green Party.
Members of GDI have been fighting back to reaffirm the central mission of the Green Party as an independent political arm of progressive social movements. They have been the driving force in developing proposals to institute democratic reforms and assert the independence of the Green Party from the corporate parties. GDI has presented these proposals publicly on its website and at state party meetings, where they have won supermajority support from state parties in California, Florida, Vermont, and Utah, and unanimous support in New York.
Divisions Intensify in Tulsa
The Tulsa meeting was essentially a contest between the two wings of the party played out through the same undemocratic scheme that distorted the outcome of the 2004 Milwaukee Convention. Under this scheme California and New York control only about 16% of the Green National Committee (GNC), even though 65% of all registered Greens reside within these two states. The liberals have majority support based within the leadership of small state parties, many of them with active memberships of under 100 Greens, some with single digits, while GDI adherents hold wide majorities based in the states with the largest parties that, under current Green Party bylaws, are highly underrepresented in the national leadership. By process of this disproportionate allocation system, the liberals constitute as much as 75% of GNC representation, and through the Tulsa Convention controlled 100% of the executive power vested in the Steering Committee (now reduced to a still unassailable 89%) and a similar percentage of standing committee and working group positions. These allocations can only be altered by a 2/3-majority vote, and are thereby effectively self-sustaining.
Conflict between the two wings erupted early in the convention over which delegates to seat from Utah, a state where two groups claim to be the official Green Party. The original Utah Greens split into two factions in 2004 over which candidate -- Cobb or Nader -- to put on their state’s ballot line. The small Cobb-supporting wing was quickly officially recognized by the national steering committee as the sole representative of the Utah Greens in party affairs. By contrast, the Nader-supporting wing, 10 times the size of the Cobb-supporting wing, is recognized by the Utah Secretary of State as the official Green Party of Utah, but was barred from access to the national Green Party by internal executive fiat.
With both delegations asking to be seated and confusion reigning over recollections of what process had been applied to seat one faction over the other, the pro-GDI delegation from Florida proposed that each Utah group be allow to seat a single delegate and that they resolve to work out their disputed affiliation after the convention. The liberal wing of the Green National Committee (GNC), however, strongly opposed this proposal and the vote to seat one pro-GDI delegate was defeated 57 to 34 (with 4 abstentions). GDI forces saw the die had been cast, but the votes on the three GDI proposals would not be held until the next evening.
Following this telling skirmish, speeches by Peter Camejo and David Cobb laid out very different visions and strategies for the future of the party.
Camejo stressed the significance of building the Green Party as the political expression of mass social movements and argued for the importance of promoting debate and encouraging many political tendencies to exist within the party. He even went so far as to apologize to David Cobb for any misstatements he may have made about him during the campaign. Finally, Camejo called upon the Green Party to stand up to the Democrats and argued its independent challenge to the two party system is “the spirit of the future.”
During his speech Cobb repeated several of Camejo’s points, but then emphasized an exclusionary message. Instead of inviting debate, Cobb condemned what he called “sectarianism” -- his label for anyone who opposed his safe states strategy, or believed in building a left wing of the party -- and did not accept or even acknowledge Camejo’s olive branch. In answer to a question after his speech about critical reviews of Green Party performance, authored by prominent Greens, that have appeared periodically in the online progressive magazine CounterPunch, Cobb assailed these articles and denounced CounterPunch editor Alexander Cockburn, saying that he “represents why the sectarian left has failed.” The not-so-subtle message was that the Green Party should exclude the Left, continue to support Democrats in their election campaigns, and suppress dissent.
Key leaders of the liberal wing of the GNC made their support for Cobb’s position clear after the speeches. “I’m not willing to define us as a party independent of the corporate parties,” Illinois delegate Phil Huckleberry, who heads the Presidential Campaign Search Committee and co-authored the 2004 Convention Rules, declared. “I did not join the Green Party to fight against Democrats and Republicans…We are more than an independent party; we are a Green Party.” Similarly, Jody Haug, Green Party Co-Chair and delegate from the state of Washington, declared her opposition to independence from the two corporate parties by arguing “we should not paint ourselves into a corner.”
The GDI Proposals
The real conflict broke out when GDI members presented their proposals to the National Committee. GDI’s strategy was to present a short overview of each proposal (since they had already been passed by several state parties and been discussed on the GNC’s list serve) and then allow delegates to provide comments, concerns and amendments.
The liberal wing, however, did not argue against the content of the proposals. Instead they relied on objections concerning bylaws, implementation, and procedural concerns. They also attempted to draw GDI supporters into accepting an alternative proposal from the DC Statehood Greens that would send the proposals to a committee without any political direction regarding democracy and independence, even though party bylaws forbid introduction for vote of new proposals without the mandatory three-week discussion period.
The GDI wing stood its ground and rejected this “compromise” as it would have nullified the basic principals of their proposals. After a long period of confusion -- during which the Steering Committee frequently left the room to caucus (without explanation) and anti-GDI forces led delegates in doing “The Wave” and singing “Oklahoma” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” -- the GNC defeated all three proposals by an average vote of 58 to 34 with 3 abstentions.
It was not lost on GDI members that the vote on their proposals mirrored the vote to seat both Utah delegations. It is obvious the divide in the leadership of the party is growing wider, and that the liberal wing -- which mostly represents the smaller state parties -- has gained the upper hand in the undemocratic setup of the national party.
While the Green National Committee defeated the GDI proposals, there can be no doubt that this decision expresses the minority view of grassroots Greens throughout America. Many Greens will be horrified by the travesty in Tulsa, while most will be kept in the dark. The test now for GDI is to determine how to rally the majority inside the party and appeal to activists outside the party to build a democratic alternative dedicated to challenging the corporate duopoly.
If the liberal wing is able to maintain its dominance of the party and orient the Greens towards subordinating themselves to the Democratic Party, the Green Party is likely to wither away like the New Party and other progressive alternatives before them.
The Future of GDI
The opportunity and responsibility for GDI members is immense. The Democrats continue to ratify the Bush administration’s program of deficit-financed corporatism, upward economic redistribution, and permanent war, thereby stoking frustration with the two-party system. The Democrats continue to support the occupation of Iraq and the renewal of the Patriot Act, gave the margin of victory for the passage of CAFTA in the Senate, and stand prepared to confirm the nomination of conservative activist John Roberts to the Supreme Court.
As a result, tens of millions of Americans -- workers, women, gays, Latinos, blacks, Muslims, the foreign-born, other oppressed populations -- now including mainstream anti-war advocates who are finally reaching the majority of the American public -- can find no electoral expression within the two major corporate parties for their demands and aspirations. Millions more have grown frustrated with the failure and consequences of the “lesser-evil” strategy of voting for the Democrats in 2004 and its impending resurgence behind the early card of centrist Democrat hopefuls for 2008. They are looking for an alternative. They think it was a mistake to suspend all progressive social movements and anti-war activities in order to mobilize the vote for Kerry, who opposed all of their interests. Ten months after the election those movements are still demobilized, although it is hoped that the demonstration against the war scheduled for September 24th will mark the return of mass social movements to the political landscape.
These millions of people and activists form a latent electoral force that GDI and supporting state Green Parties must connect with to renew the Green Party. Such a coalition offers the hope of galvanizing the Greens and the broader social movements to build a genuine third party rooted in this country’s excluded majority and its mass movements that will fight, not join or promote, the corporate parties.
The contest between the two visions of the Green party as expressed by the two wings of the GNC is not just a fight for the soul of the Green Party. It is a fight to win the hearts and minds of people to break with lesser evilism and build a no-holds-barred challenge to corporate politics. It is also a fight to maintain and expand social movements and their influence during election periods.
While the current undemocratic national committee of the Green Party is taking the PDA-paved off-ramp back to the Democratic Party, the Greens for Democracy and Independence are considering new ways to inspire individuals and state Green Parties to take the road of democracy and independence, and progress.
Ashley Smith, Cat Woods, James Marc Leas, and Steve Greenfield are State and National Committee delegates of the Green Parties of Vermont, California, and New York who attended the Tulsa meeting and are reporting first-hand. All consider themselves to be active participants in Greens for Democracy and Independence, and this report was prepared in conjunction with other GDI associates. The authors may be contacted through Steve Greenfield at firstname.lastname@example.org or 845-255-2516