Jill Stein, the Greens and the two-party system

May 3, 2016

SEVERAL READERS responded to my article "Translating the Bern internationally", and here I offer a few brief replies.

Michael Engel points to the Green Party's relative weakness as a national political force, but his explanation comes up short. First and foremost, he fails to show why the Greens declined after the high water mark of Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential campaign, where he won 2,882,995 votes in 2000, or 2.7 percent of the vote. It had little to do with the party being "inept."

Rather, as I've written previously, the Democratic Party conducted a scorched-earth attack against the Greens, designed to destroy the party or, failing that, domesticate it as a "safe-state" tail on the Democratic donkey. As a result, many party members and leading figures defected from the Greens and got out the vote for Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

The left wing of the Greens refused to surrender and has honorably defended the principle of building an alternative to the two-party system ever since, if not without wobbles and setbacks. Jill Stein's campaign won 469,501 votes in 2012, tripling the party's vote from 2008. Her campaign this year will reach tens of thousands of Sanders supporters looking for an alternative to falling in line behind Hillary Clinton. If the left of the Green Party had not stood its ground in 2004 and after, the U.S. left as a whole would be weaker today.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

As for the Greens being "solidly white," Ralph Nader is Lebanese-American, and he chose well-known Native American activist Winona LaDuke as his running mate in 2000, and Latino Green leaders Peter Camejo and Matt Gonzalez in 2004 and 2008, respectively.

Jill Stein's campaign is fully committed to fighting racism in all forms, and she has demonstrated a determination to go far beyond the environmental struggles that animated the party at its founding. The party's activist core must become more multiracial, but Stein's campaign is pointing in the right direction.

Engel also suggests that socialists should ignore national elections and focus instead on local or (perhaps) state contests. This echoes the strategy adopted by the right wing of the Green Party after 2000. Essentially, this section of the party wanted to avoid acting as a "spoiler" for powerful state or national Democrats.

But no radical third party will ever build up a core of confident and experienced organizers if it leaves foreign policy in the hands of the two mainstream parties. Simply put, there is no way to argue for more money for education or health care or climate justice if you don't simultaneously demand the closure of oversees U.S. military bases, the cutoff of foreign aid to states such as Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Colombia, and an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the Middle East...for starters.

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FOR HIS part, Joaquin Bustelo rightly emphasizes the limits of what he calls "bourgeois-democratic imperialist electoral farces." Elections in the U.S. are anything but "free and fair." But he then proceeds to argue out of both sides of his mouth.

First, he asserts that the U.S. electoral system is so corrupt that to participate in any way, even by running an independent left-wing campaign against the two parties, is to objectively support the system--to be "merely decorative," as he puts it.

This sounds very radical, but is hardly a novel approach. Frederick Engels long ago challenged this line of thought:

For us abstentionism [from elections] is impossible...we seek the abolition of classes. What is the means of achieving it? The political domination of the proletariat...revolution is the supreme act of politics; whoever wants it must also want the means, political action, which prepares for it, which gives the workers the education for revolution and without which the workers will always be duped.

Bustelo is, of course, familiar with Engels, so he pre-emptively protests that he is "not for an anarchist position of abstaining from bourgeois elections." But if it walks like a duck...

Bustelo next summersaults from the left bank of the electoral "cesspool" over to the swampy ground to the right. He tells us that "issues like how to relate to the Sanders campaign are tactical questions," not to be confused with principles. Does this mean he would approve of working "inside" Sanders' Democratic Party campaign? Bustelo doesn't say.

Given that he is writing to criticize my explicit contention that remaining outside the Democratic Party is, in fact, an important principle guiding revolutionary socialist practice, I can only assume that he intends to throw this into question by claiming the whole question is "merely" tactics.

Finally, thanks to Phil Gasper for noticing my error about how many Socialist Party members were elected to Congress. I'm sure Phil will join me in encouraging everyone to learn more about the Socialist Party and its greatest leader, Eugene V. Debs, who certainly maintained a principled opposition to the two-party system. I'd suggest starting with Elizabeth Schulte's review of his views for Socialist Worker, and then picking up a copy of Ray Ginger's great biography The Bending Cross.
Todd Chretien, Oakland, California

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