Brent McMillan: ‘Overcoming the Crabs in a Bucket Syndrome’

From the Fall 2010 Green Pages. Related article from the Libertarians: LP: Wherefore the urge to purge?

by Brent McMillan, Green Party Executive Director

When one crab tries to crawl up out of a bucket of crabs, the other crabs will reach up and drag the escaping crab back down into the bucket.

I first heard this concept from Phil Nash, political consultant to Pat LaMarche when she ran for governor in Maine in 2006 on the Green Party ticket. (Some may remember Phil as part of the fundraising team who raised over $100,000 in one week to make the Ohio recount possible following the vote theft of 2004.) He was shocked by how often folks who called themselves Greens do the most to cripple our own campaigns. Who needs enemies when you have friends like these?

In April 2006, I had the opportunity to meet with a contingent of Austrian Greens who were visiting the U.S. They were preparing for their federal elections in 2010 and were shopping for possible consultants. They were also making a presentation at a political conference. Over lunch and they showed me what they were presenting at the conference.

They had been observing Green parties as they formed and developed throughout the world and had noticed a pattern that was consistent in their development. Many groups will have an initial core group that is successful in getting the organization up and running and may even enjoy some success for awhile, and then they hit a chasm.

In any organization one will generally find bridge builders, folks willing to reach out to like-minded groups. Sometimes it’s just a single issue, other times it’s far more than that. In order to get past this chasm the organization needs to reach out and build bridges with other groups. Those that do, continue to grow; those that don’t, die.

What often happens is that, as soon as the bridge builder starts to speak the language of the other group and tries to translate the Green message; the self-appointed purists in the original core group feel threatened and try to undermine the work of the bridge builder. “That’s not our message! Get ‘em!”

What the Austrian Greens had observed is that an organization either learns how to reach out to like-minded groups, become effective bridge builders and grow; or never build past the original core group and die.

The U.S. Social Forum, was a great opportunity to reach out to like-minded groups. Our potential partners may not agree with us on everything in our platform, but there are many things they do agree with us on.

To be an effective bridge builder, it is better to understand than to be understood.

So how do we become effective bridge builders?

It is important to listen and not be hasty to pass judgment on what we hear. Do the words that we are hearing even have the same meaning to us that they do to other people? Often the answer is no.

For example, I’ve learned from experience that when I talk with a traditional conservative and use the word “sustainable” he immediately shuts down. If I talk about “building resilient communities,” he stays right there with me in the conversation. From my standpoint we’re talking about the same thing, but from their perspective these are two very different subjects. Simply put, we lack a common lexicon.

Oh, I can hear it now—”isn’t it their responsibility to understand you?” I take the St. Francis approach: to be an effective bridge builder, it is better to understand than to be understood. Self righteousness can often be the character defect that stands in the way of being an effective bridge builder.

I have had the opportunity to be a part of the “Transpartisan” movement. Over the last few years I have attended several gatherings. Bipartisan is now less than the majority of American people; Transpartisan is the effort to include everyone: independents, third parties, even those who don’t vote.

In Transpartisan politics, maintain your identity, yes, but …take a seat at the table and help others to get there as well. If you have the opportunity to attend a transpartisan town hall meeting, do your self a favor and go.

I am on the Board of Advisors to the Transpartisan Alliance. Learn more about their work at:

…and how do we avoid being dragged down by crabs in the process?

One role I have found helpful is that of running interference. Think of a football game where someone has the ball and is running for the goal line. Without blockers there may be little chance of the runner making it to the goal line with out getting tackled. Often I have been either the one running with the ball, or the blocker running interference. As soon as someone goes after the one running with the ball I do the equivalent of waving my arms over my head saying, “Over here! Come after me. Pay no attention to that person running with the ball. I’m the one you want to come after.”

Sometimes the crabs needn’t be unproductive. Often they are scattered and just need to be focused.

Remember nothing pays big dividends like restraint of pen and tongue. For the most part, don’t engage; correct misstatements of fact, and then let it go. Let them have the last word.

5 thoughts on “Brent McMillan: ‘Overcoming the Crabs in a Bucket Syndrome’

  1. Melty

    Yes. Thanx for spotlighting the huge importance of choice of words. Some buzzwords go over like the Hindenburg, so sometimes ya gotta make up of your own. Cognizance of loaded words is key.

  2. pete healey

    An alternative translation of the “crab in the bucket” story is that , for ALL the crabs to get out of the bucket, at least ONE of them has to be strong enough to hang on to the edge of the bucket while others climb over his back and out of the bucket altogether. So if you’re hanging on to the edge of the bucket and someone grabs at your tail, hold tighter.

  3. Kimberly Wilder

    I don’t know where to begin, so I will say a little.

    Brent McMillan is not helpful as a leader.

    His elitism and arrogance have caused purges, if not initiated them.

    Yuck, yuck, yuck. Would rather learn from many other people beside Brent McMillan and former LaMarche folks.

    That’s it. Couldn’t stand by and watch the hypocritical grandstanding.

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