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Debating the future of the Green Party

Review by Todd Chretien | September 15, 2006 | Page 9

Independent Politics: The Green Party Strategy Debate, Howie Hawkins, ed. Haymarket Books, 2006, 280 pages, $16.

JUST IN time for the 2006 mid-term elections, Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate from New York, Howie Hawkins, has edited a book that is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the past and the potential future of the party.

Hawkins writes an extensive introduction tracing not only the history of the Green Party, but also the role of the Democratic Party in co-opting and derailing forces as diverse as the Populists, the Socialist and Communist Parties and the Black Panther Party.

On the heels of the Battle in Seattle in November of 1999, which flowed from disgust with eight years of Clinton's Democratic administration, Ralph Nader's decision to run for president in 2000 galvanized a wide layer of liberal and radical activists and catapulted the Green Party from obscurity into the national spotlight.

The excitement of "Seattle going to the polls" was real, and Nader racked up 2.7 million votes, the best showing for a left-wing campaign since socialist Eugene Debs ran for president in 1920 while serving time in prison for opposition to the First World War.

After Bush stole the election in Florida in 2000, some Nader supporters, like Michael Moore, immediately began to run away from Nader, accepting the idea that Greens should only run if they didn't hurt Democratic candidates' chances.

However, the real rout in the Green Party began after September 11. Bush's invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq led most of the leadership of the Green Party and Nader's most prominent supporters to see supporting whatever Democrat emerged as the front-runner against Bush in 2004 as their main political objective.

As the "Anybody But Bush" hysteria swept over most of the left, this group grew to include the majority of the Green Party steering committee, Ted Glick, Medea Benjamin, the editors of the Nation magazine, Norman Solomon, David Cobb and many others.

Most of the Green Party leadership united around Cobb's idea of running a "safe" or "strategic-states strategy," which entailed nominating an unknown candidate (Cobb himself) and only campaigning in states where the election was not seriously contested. Cobb himself clearly articulated this as a means by which to avoid confronting the Democrats, or as he put it in a press release before the 2004 Green Party Milwaukee Convention, "this will not piss off millions of potential Green Party voters."

Green Party candidate for California Secretary of State Forrest Hill details how Cobb and his supporters used the obscure delegate selection rules at the Milwaukee convention, which privileged small states with hardly any Green Party members over large states, to grab the nomination.

Having secured the nomination through questionable means, Cobb then fought against a "unity proposal" by Peter Camejo which would have allowed each state to allocate its ballot line to either Cobb or Nader, depending on what the majority of party members in each state decided. A minority in the Green Party leadership grouped around Camejo, Donna Warren and Hawkins himself, as well as independents like Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair and some socialists, like the International Socialist Organization, argued against supporting the Democrats.

Hawkins takes us through this debate with essays from many of the key people on both sides, with previously unpublished letters from Nader, and the Green Party steering committee, as well as contributions from Glick, Solomon, Matt Gonzalez, Joshua Frank and Camejo.

Rachel Odes, who coordinated the Camejo half of the Nader 2004 ticket, also summarizes the arguments made by anti-Nader commentators such as Ronnie Dugger and Eric Alterman, who refused to allow their essays to be published as part of the book.

In the end, the vicious anti-Nader campaign (the Democrats spent $10 million to keep him off the ballot) and the open or backhanded support for John Kerry by many former Nader supporters meant that Nader gained only 20 percent of his 2000 vote, or just under 500,000 votes. Cobb got only 100,000 votes, polling just 20,000 in California, where Nader had received 400,000 in 2000.

But getting as few votes as possible so as to not "piss off" the Democrats was his aim, so he considered the campaign a great success, as he explains in an essay entitled, "Resurgence: The Green Party's Remarkable Transformation," which reveals how out of touch with reality he has become.

Unfortunately, Cobb and the lesser-evil wing of the Green Party have done lasting damage to the party's potential future as a genuine alternative to the two-party system. Green Party voter registration is down in California from a high of 165,000 in 2003 to just over 140,000 today.

Worse, in too many places, small cliques of lesser-evil Greens control the party apparatus, steering it away from potential new, young members as well as antiwar and immigrant rights activists. For instance, in San Francisco, 10 members of the Green Party's local leadership were able to block an endorsement of Peter Camejo for governor this year, even though 3,000 Greens in San Francisco voted for him in the party primary in June. And in Oakland, the Green Party voted to endorse Ron Dellums for mayor, even though he is part of the Democratic Party establishment.

There are still thousands of Greens, and many thousands more who are sick of the Democrats, who agree with Hawkins when he says, "the Greens should forget what the professional liberals say about spoiling elections for the Democrats...The task of the Greens is to organize [the people who are fed up] into an independent party and movement, not deliver them once again to a Democratic Party that stands opposed to their demands."

Whether that is still possible within the framework of the Green Party, or whether the Democrats have once again succeeded in destroying an opponent to their left, will be decided in the run-up to the 2008 elections. This book is an important contribution to setting the record straight, and preparing for that fight.

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