from the pages of February 1995

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Greens and the Election

By Howie Hawkins

 

Greens defied a shift to the right in last November's elections by maintaining the offices and statewide ballot access they had, and by winning new seats and ballot access in new states. Well over a million votes were cast for 80 Green candidates.

Five Green candidates for statewide office received over 10 percent of the vote: Joni Whitmore for the at-large Alaska U.S. Representative (10 percent), Roberto Mondragon for Governor and Steven Schmidt for Lieutenant Governor in New Mexico (11 percent), Patricia Wolff for New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands (12 percent), and Lorenzo Garcia for New Mexico State Treasurer (33 percent, the most ever for a statewide third party candidate in over 50 years according to Richard Winger of Ballot Access News.)

Three statewide candidates received between 5 and 10 percent of the vote: Steve Kelly for the at-large Montana U.S. Representative (9 percent, running as an independent environmentalist supported by Greens), Jeff Johnson for Rhode Island Governor (6 percent) and Jonathan Carter for Maine Governor (7 percent, securing statewide ballot access for the Maine Green Party).

Four Green candidates received over 100,000 votes, with the most going to Margaret Garcia for California Secretary of State (289,302, or 4 percent, securing the California Green Party's ballot access for another four years).

Support for state legislative candidates varied from state to state: 2-8 percent in California, 4 percent in Wisconsin, 4-5 percent in New York, 5 percent in Rhode Island, 11 percent in Alaska, and 10-41 percent in Hawaii.

In local races, Greens picked up several new city council seats as well as electing more people to planning, school, and conservation boards, most of them in California.

One of the local races watched by Greens across the country was Keiko Bonk-Abramson's re-election bid for the Hawaii Council, the legislative body for the big island. Keiko represents the Kau district, which has the largest concentration of Native Hawaiians living a traditional way of life and is being promoted as a site for a "space port," which the Greens oppose. Keiko advocates a more locally-owned, self-reliant economy based on diversified agriculture and smaller scale forms of tourism that take advantage of ecological resources rather than destroy them. As a legislator, Keiko has led the opposition to several big developments. The Democratic Party outspent her 3 to 1 and attacked her personally, but Keiko beat the Democrat decisively, 60 to 40 percent.

 

Democrats Had It Coming

The Democrats today are barely discernible as a lesser evil after this last Democratic Congress and the first two years of the Clinton presidency. Environmentalists rate this Congress the worst in decades. NAFTA and deficit reduction shoved aside economic stimulus for job creation and the middle class tax cut. Clinton waffled on gay rights, Haiti, and civil rights with the shameful abandonment of Lani Guinier. Clinton's managed health care proposal was an insurance industry subsidy bill. And Cold War level military budgets and foreign interventions squandered a chance for peace conversion following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. The right could hardly have asked for more from Reagan or Bush.

Now, after the election, all signs are that the Democrats are going to adapt to the Republican Congress, not fight it. The only thing Clinton wants to fight are those aspects of the Republican program where their rhetoric threatens corporate interests, namely, deficit reduction and GATT. Clinton's deficit reduction program protects the superrich bondholders who want to insure that their renter income is not devalued by inflation. GATT is the global corporations' program for heightening competition in labor markets to drive down wages in the developed countries, while undermining national and local regulations by subjecting them to preemption as "non-tariff trade barriers" by the unaccountable bureaucracies of a World Trade Organization.

 

Middle America

Middle Americans -- those between the 50th and 80th income percentiles who are the bulk of voters -- have good reason to be angry. Eighty percent of Americans have lost ground economically since incomes peaked in 1973. The manufacturing wage is back to its 1965 level and the retail clerk's wage is back to its 1952 level. As the paper profits of financial speculation and mergers increasingly replace investments in real production and as expanding free trade exports manufacturing, workers who used to make over $500 a week in manufacturing are making $200 a week in retail and service jobs, if they are lucky enough to have full time work.

Furthermore, taxes have been shifted onto middle and low income workers and the poor by the shift of many funding responsibilities from the state and federal governments to county and municipal governments, which means increasing reliance on regressive property and sales taxes. Indeed, the retail clerks' average after taxes wage is back to the Great Depression levels of the 1930s.

But we are still a long way from the bottom. With free trade, the U.S. minimum wage of $4.25/hr is competing with the Haitian minimum wage of $.25/hr. and the U.S. military is in Haiti to insure that Aristide doesn't raise it as he proposed to do before he was overthrown in a U.S.-backed coup.

At the same time we are working longer hours at faster paces for less pay, productivity is up some 60 percent since 1973. We are producing more, but getting paid less.

So where is the wealth that workers are creating going? The incredible bipartisan message from the Repocrats and Demublicans alike is that it's going to those who are politically and economically weakest: immigrants, mothers and children receiving welfare, blacks, Latinos, Indians, gays, feminists, environmentalists, unions, and, of course, street criminals -- indeed, to everybody but those who are really bleeding the country dry: the superrich, the giant corporations, and the military.

The bipartisan politics of scapegoating is fueling an increasingly reactionary populist revolt in Middle America. But the volatility in Middle America, as well as the voting abstentions among low-income workers and the poor, presents an independent left with enormous opportunities. A left-wing populism, targeting corporate power, the parasitic superrich, and the imperialistic military-industrial complex, could win over Middle America as well as low-income sectors. Middle America is angry, but it is not on the whole as mean-spirited toward minorities, immigrants, and the poor as it is scared for its future and miseducated by the scapegoating politics of the establishment parties.

The fact that the Greens have been more successful in pulling votes from middle income than low income sectors is evidence for this hope that Middle America is not lost to right-wing reaction.

 

Ecological Populism

What we need is an ecological populism that advances an anti-elitist program of economic justice, political democratization and decentralization, and ecological reconstruction based on the conversion of the military-industrial complex to civilian production emphasizing ecological technologies to replace toxic technologies.

We need to educate the public on how the tax burden has been shifted on to the middle and lower income sectors and expose all the nonsense about a capital shortage. The rich are taking in a higher proportion of national income than ever before and are investing most of it in speculation and overseas, not in real production. We need to have mass distribution of educational pamphlets, with easy to understand bar graphs, showing who pays the taxes, how the corporate rich get the tax breaks, subsidies, and interest on the national debt, and how progressive tax reform advancing a truly graduated tax on income and wealth would benefit the overwhelming majority.

We need to take back the demand for democratic accountability. In reality, the so-called "Democratic Party" fears nothing more than democracy -- a system in which power is exercised by the people, the demos, rather than large corporations and vast government bureaucracies. In reality, the so-called "Republican Party" has complete contempt for republicanism -- a system in which power is a "public thing," res publica, rather than the preserve of privileged, socially-irresponsible private interests. These two wings of the official party share control of the political hierarchy, obediently defend the interests of the economic oligarchy, and dutifully authorize policies of social and ecological destruction that this system of political and economic power demands.

The time has come to raise Thomas Jefferson's call to "divide the counties into wards." Jefferson proposed incorporating the New England town meeting, the incubator of the American Revolution, into the constitutional structure of the American republic. The forms he proposed (disregarding the assumptions of the time about gender, race, and property limitations on political rights) are radically democratic. Jefferson called for incorporating grassroots citizens into the process of legislation and governance at every level.

By organizing the people into these grassroots legislative bodies, people will have more power and thus more incentive to be informed. Big money interests will be less able to manipulate centralized legislatures and bureaucracies. Initiative and referenda will be linked to real give-and-take discussion of facts and reasons in the citizens assemblies and thus less vulnerable to corporate special interest advertising.

We need to raise the cry for economic democracy as well. Market forces can be every bit as arbitrary, impersonal, and destructive as bureaucracies. Capitalism doesn't work for the vast majority or the environment. Make capitalism run on its record and the left-wing alternatives -- pro-worker labor law reforms, cooperatives, democratic public enterprise, participatory planning, essential services like health care and energy run as non-profit utilities -- begin to make sense.

 

The Militarizing of Domestic Policy

We need to dismantle the military-industrial complex together with its domestic policy twin, the fast-growing jail-industrial complex. The U.S. is spending about $280 billion this year on the military. That's as much as the rest of the world combined. But it is going to go up. The military's present mission is to have the capacity to fight two Gulf Wars at once, on opposite sides of the world, without allies. Clinton's bottom-up review suggested a five-year spending plan of $1.2 trillion, $130 billion less than Bush had projected. But now the General Accounting Office says Clinton's plan needs $150 billion more. So, with the Republican Congress in there now, look for new military spending authorizations that will jack up military spending past Bush's last projections.

Under Clinton's deficit reduction plan, any money added to the military budget must be subtracted from domestic programs. With the abandonment of the cities, the cuts in public housing, the reductions in welfare, and the absence of any job creation program for the unemployed, crime has remained high for twenty years -- not rising dramatically, but constantly much higher than any other industrial country. Street crime goes up when economic distress goes up and goes down when economic opportunity goes up. But the only domestic program the establishment parties want to maintain is the militarizing of domestic policy -- more cops and jails, longer sentences, no job training or rehabilitation programs for convicts, death penalty, youth curfews, erosion of Bill of Rights protections.

The U.S. now spends $80 billion a year on cops and jails. That's more than the military budget of any other country in the world. A jail-industrial complex has emerged alongside the military-industrial complex, with its own vested interests to which politicians now cater. Prison construction is the only growth industry left in many areas.

We need an independent left that will expose the insanity of these militarized spending priorities. Instead of cops and jails, we need jobs and justice. We need to abolish poverty, not the Bill of Rights. The U.S. could cut military spending 75 percent and still spend more than twice as much as the next biggest military powers. We could cut 90 percent and be among the biggest military powers.

 

Independent Politics: If Not Now, When?

We need a left that will bring these perspectives into the public arena, including the electoral arena. If the modest advances of the Greens next to the beating the Democrats took in the last election tell us anything, it is that the left should start running against the Democratic Party instead of trying to work through it. Liberalism is dead. The globalization of the capitalist economy, due to its heightened competition, is undermining all the ameliorative reforms that softened the harshness of capitalism in the industrialized countries. Capitalists can't afford decent wages and benefits and compete in the global economy. The center is collapsing along with the polarization of economic outcomes and the demise of the middle-income working class. Either the left strikes out on its own with a relevant program for a radical redistribution of wealth, income, and power, or it condemns itself to irrelevancy defending a corporate liberalism that has no political-economic basis anymore.

Fusion foments confusion. The left needs to be independent, not collaborating in elections with the same politicians we are fighting on the issues the rest of the year. How can an independent left party credibly claim to be an alternative if it is collaborating in the re-election of members of the party we claim to be the alternative to? Fusion just confuses an independent left party's message.

Proportional representation is something we can propose with reasonable chances of success in local elections. And once we win proportional representation, people will be able vote their hopes instead of their fears. Lesser evil voting disappears because a vote for first choice will no longer be perceived as a vote for the worst evil. Being 5-10 percent spoilers can be our wedge in to proportional representation. From there our support should increase as people vote their hopes, our votes and legitimacy grow, and our analysis and program reach more people. Gaining a foothold in municipalities, where we can more effectively wage grassroots campaigns against the corporate-backed parties, can be the foundation for then challenging state and federal power.

As the Republicans take over Congress, we need to be building a movement for a broad, nonsectarian, independent left party. The key elements in such a project would be:

  1. Build local organizations, precinct by precinct. Identify supporters in each small area who will distribute leaflets, register voters, organize community meetings, mobilize their neighbors for events, and do so year-round, not just during election campaigns.
  2. Register the unregistered. Mobilize the registered who don't vote. This is the biggest chunk of the electorate, mainly those with incomes below the 50th percentile. Now they have reason to register because there is an alternative that speaks to their needs.
  3. Multiply independent left candidacies at the local level. Instead of the 100 or 200 independent left candidacies we had in 1994, we should have 1,000 or 2,000 in 1995. Some on the left counsel us to wait for a moment before launching candidacies. But why can't independent candidacies be part of the actions that catalyze a movement? We will not present an alternative for America if we can't get out and talk to the people. Elections campaigns give us a platform on which to speak. Of course, the more coherent and consistent our message is across hundreds of local races, the more effective we will be, which is why we need the fourth key element.
  4. Link up these local independent left parties into a national independent left party, controlled from the bottom up by its local chapters. This is the hardest step.

Some people on the left deny the need for a national party. Just let each state and locality do its own thing and communicate informally with each other, and, they say, willy nilly, a national consensus and coordination will spontaneously emerge. I've been hearing that since the 1960s, and what I've seen is that without a national organization to facilitate the flow of information, personal contacts, joint actions, and the development of a common identity, local efforts usually do not survive the first downturn in local fortunes because they feel isolated and helpless. It is absolutely necessary to develop a national organization because to have systemic impact, we need to pool our resources and coordinate our actions in order to project a clear alternative analysis of what is wrong and a program of what to do about it. We need a national (and international organization) through which we can discuss, develop, and decide on our analysis and programs in a democratic manner.

Democracy is crucial. The collapse of the Rainbow Coalition as a potentially independent party is worth remembering. Jackson didn't want to be accountable to its membership, so he shut the membership out of decision-making by centralizing control after the 1988 election. Before the left jumps on this bandwagon again as Jackson contemplates another presidential bid inside and/or outside the Democratic Party, we should remember that our real power to make changes lies in the self-activity of masses of people, not the election of a few personalities. An independent presidential campaign in 1996 would be a means of massive popular education, a stimulus to local organizing, and a vehicle for building unity on the left. If we start now in early 1995, we could do this. But the movement must control the candidate, not the other way around.

Our biggest obstacle is our self-defeating rivalries on the left. Now that the Soviet Union is gone, much of the old Marxist family tree is beginning to forget ancient splits and rethink the basics together, which is good. But the New Left groups have been no better than the Old Left. The Greens are fragmented nationally, with various rival organizations and networks, state parties, and personalities competing for leadership and attention. These struggles have had too little to do with politics and too much to do with ego. They have caused many Greens to despair of having an effective national organization and to just stick to their local work. The National People's Progressive Network was set up as a network for organizations who share a commitment to building an independent left party. But some of the key organizations have chosen to stay out of the network. There are real issues at stake in the divisions on the left. But all of us would benefit from some level of operational unity around our many areas of agreement while we continue to discuss the differences.

If the left doesn't develop unity around some basic agreements of analysis, program, and strategy and work together on that basis, we will have only ourselves to blame. The bipartisan policies of establishment parties will bring us continued imperialism abroad, growing economic polarization and social repression at home, and an accelerated military-industrial destruction of the environment. Millions are ready for a progressive alternative to this madness. And if we don't find operational unity, the right is going to roll right over us.