Right on cue, Salon and other leftist outlets have begun their handwringing and pre-emptive Nader-blaming over a possible Green Party run in 2004. Here’s the line: Nader unreasonably pushed his campaign through the 2000 election, creating an acrimonious rift withiin the American Left, and now the Dems are worried that he’ll do it again, siphoning off votes from the Democratic candidate and putting King George II in office for another four deadly years. Those who think otherwise are blind Green ideologues who can’t see the possibility of achieving their goals through the Democratic Party.
The problem with trying to adjudicate this debate is that both sides of it are acting like morons. The lefty Democrats because they are perpetually unable to honestly acknowledge the severe problems that the Democratic Party has faced since, well, always. Also because they are apparently constitutionally incapable of thinking of any strategy to form a Popular Front campaign against Bush except to whine and vilify Greens. Just think of the arrogance of the rhetoric coming out of their mouths: the assumption that Greens are siphoning off voters who belong, by right, to whatever jackass the Democratic leadership happens to pick; the notion that a messageless and meandering Democratic Party couldn’t possibly be to blame for its pathetic election returns over the last two election cycles; the dismissal of third party activitists as naive and idealistic simply for recognizing that, as a matter of hard-headed pragmatism, the chances of achieving significant leftist goals through the established power structure of the Democratic Party are very close to nil.
On the other hand, the Green Party shares a common disorder with much of the rest of the third party movement: their entire electoral strategy is a cockamaimey plan for wasted resources and eventual implosion. I think that building a strong Green Party is absolutely necessary if we are ever to get out from under the claws of the Republicratic Leviathan. Indeed, as an anarchist, I also think that building a strong Libertarian Party is absolutely necessary too, while we’re at it. But none of this can happen with the current stock set of third party campaign strategies. Based on their past few decades of behavior, one of two things can be concluded about third parties: either they being run as think tanks rather than political parties (issuing policy positions and maximizing fundraising to support office staff, rather than trying to win elections)—or else they are being run by a bunch of drunk baboons. Either they are rationally pursuing some goal other than electoral success, or else, they are irrationally throwing contributor money down the toilet. I don’t know which would be worse for the development of independent parties.
What I mean is this: every four years, the whole independent party movement—Greens, Libertarians, the Constitution Party, the Workers World Party, and everyone else, all get bunched up about the Presidential race. Fundraising appeals go out; money is thrown into advertisements; grassroots activist energy is poured out. The issues are predictable: trying to get a few news interviews, hiring professional petitioners to ensure ballot access, getting indignant over exclusion from the debates, putting out a few press releases that get published by a few papers, and going around the country to talk with local party activists. The goals are almost always unclear: candidates generally acknowledge they have no chance of winning, but they hope to get the message out. Ralph Nader, at least, had a relatively clear purpose in 2000: he wanted to get 5% to get federal funds for party-building. But that, too, failed, and even if it had succeeded, it’s unlikely it would have helped that much—one need only watch the decline and fall of the Reform Party over the past decade to see that funds mean nothing without a strong party structure in place, at the local level.
What I propose is this: independent parties, if they want to get anywhere, are going to have to completely write off the federal government for the next 15-20 years. They should encourage their base to vote strategically on life-or-death issues (abortion, war, civil liberties, etc.). Greens and Libertarians have built up an extensive base for fundraising and activist support; they need to turn that base more or less completely towards local and state-level races. Why? Because we can win local races now—with some basic planning, we can win them in a cakewalk. We can start winning state races within the next few election cycles. It’s only by winning these races that we will make winning the federal races possible.
Imagine if, for example, Ralph Nader could take his eyes off the Presidency for a moment, and run for Governor of California instead. Imagine if he used his celebrity, immense fundraising ability, and good name to recruit an unprecedented slate of Green candidates for state legislature, city council, and mayor. What might be achieved in a state with a strong Leftist contingency, an tradition of independent party activism, and a corrupt Democratic Party that only barely made it through an election cycle that should have been a cakewalk?
I think the results could be stunning. Why?
- Local and state level races very often go uncontested—allowing independent party candidates to enter into two-way races, rather than three-way races.
- Local and state level races are covered by local media, which offers far more opportunities for free coverage and affordable advertising than the national media.
- Winning local and state races builds up a critical mass of name recognition and experienced candidates.
- Winning local races allows us to take immediate action on the issues that impact people’s everyday life: getting rid of urban-sprawl-creating zoning regulations, calling the police off of their pursuit of the war on people who use drugs, making sure the police are sensitive and responsive to violence against women, cutting down on cronyism and corporate welfare, and so on.
- Winning state races allows us to take immediate and serious action on nearly every issue that matters to us: reforming laws on violence against women, ensuring abortion rights and abortion access, abolishing drug laws, ending the death penalty, ending corporate welfare… need I go on? The vast bulk of these programs are implemented not at the federal level, but rather at the state level. Trying to make serious progress on them by running a Presidential candidate every four years is a fool’s game.
- Finally, winning state-level elections is what will make a robust independent party movement possible. Why? Because the state governments are the jackpot for ballot access, Instant Runoff Voting, term limits, initiatives and referenda, and nearly every other sort of political reform that is necessary to pry the democratic process out of the hands of the two-party oligarchy.
Now, in all this, I don’t mean that significant victories won’t be possible before some time decades in the future—when they happen, they tend to happen quickly, seemingly out of nowhere. But if they do end up being possible, they will only become possible as an unforseen consequence of the groundwork we lay between now and then. So I’d like to propose some guidelines for Lefties and Libertarians over the next few election cycles.
- Forget about the federal: vote strategically. In fact, don’t even bother nominating Presidential or Senatorial candidates at all if there aren’t compelling ballot-access reasons to do so.
- Focus on the legislature, not the executive: these races are very often unopposed, but ultimately promise a lot more power to bring about democratic reforms than gubernatorial or Presidential victories.
- Blitz the local media: Get your name and message out through every means possible—letters to the editor, local TV appearances, local press coverage, billboards, guerilla media, and so on.
- Work with frustrated two-party voters: Find issues where there is a distinctive message that will draw two-party voters–for example, the war on drugs or the death penalty.
- Build resilient, activist local parties: They’re the only way you can eventually build a strong, democratic national movement.
And now that I have lectured the Greens and Libertarians, allow me to say a bit about what lefty Democrats, in particular, owe us if they expect to get anywhere.
- Stop vilifying Greens: many people of good conscience had perfectly good reasons to be disgusted with the Democratic ticket in 2000. Trying to browbeat them back into the party is not an effective way to build a good, hope-based relationship with your party base.
- Get back to the issues: voters expect a clear message and a clear distinction between the two candidates. If you make the 2004 race a referendum on abortion, the environment, the economy, civil rights, etc., then the Democrats will win. They represent the majority position on these issues. Bill Clinton came from nowhere in 1992 to win precisely because he knew this, precisely because he had a clear and hopeful message rather than mealy-mouthed meandering, Republican imitation, and fear-mongering (Bill C. had plenty of all of those too, but he won in spite of them, not because of them).
- Work together with independent parties, instead of trying to keep them out: trying to prevent spoiler debacles by throwing independent party candidates off the ballot, excluding them from the debates, bullying their supporters, and so on only makes you look sleazy and debases the democratic process. Instead, work with them to open the process up and pass constructive measures that will prevent such conflicts from happening in the future. In particular: Democrats, for the love of God, stop whining about Greens and start supporting Instant Runoff Voting. If your goal is to change things rather than to clutch every scrap of incumbent governmental power that you can, this is the only long-term hope for your success.
The bottom line, I think, is this. It is long past time to stop forming our circular Leftist firing squads. It’s time to start finding constructive and creative ways of working together, and getting smart about how we can actually start achieving our goals.