Tom MacMillan: The Green Party’s Political Independence Problem



As a rule, large capitalists are Republicans and small capitalists are Democrats, but workingmen must remember that they are all capitalists, and that the many small ones, like the fewer large ones, are all politically supporting their class interests, and this is always and everywhere the capitalist class” – renown labor leader and Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs (1900)

The Green Party asserts that it is the largest independent political organization on the Left in the United States and it does have a long history of successfully achieving ballot access. The Green Party’s presidential nominee, Jill Stein, will appear on 44 state presidential ballots in November. By comparison, the next most successful Leftist presidential campaign is only on 8 ballots. Whereas the party’s size is not in dispute, its claims to political independence are much more tenuous. The Greens have a long history of working with the Democratic Party on both the state and national level. Most people, including an amazing group of activists coming of age with the 2016 election, see little hope in electoral activism. This is primarily due to the domination of the Democratic Party and the deference most established left activists give it. If the Left in the United States is to be successful in using electoral politics to engage people in the struggle to build another world, it must commit itself fully to the project of independence from capital and capitalist political parties. Political independence is about power; working within the Democratic Party is about weakness. The Green Party can either be a party for the working class majority or it can continue to exist as a party for the reformist middle class. Either way, radical values are on the rise and many are demanding action; we need a nationally organized and politically independent party to fight for the interests of the working class. To be effective, the Left must be more than an adjunct to the Democratic Party. The Greens, as the Left’s largest contingent, must make clear that workers, students and others fed up with the current state of affairs will not work within the capitalist system. Instead it must build an independent pro-worker base or be displaced by those who will.

The Green Party’s appearance as a major political movement began with the 2000 presidential election and their nomination of consumer activist Ralph Nader. After gaining the support of much of the Left that had previously supported Democrats, including celebrities, academics, certain labor unions, and even a host of newspapers and socialist organizations, Nader gained access to 43 state ballots and nearly 2.9 million votes by challenging George W. Bush and Al Gore. It was the first time since 1948 that a politically independent Leftist had topped 2% in a presidential election. Nader’s campaign established the Green Party as the major force on the electoral Left, but the Green Party itself was still in its infancy. In fact, the Green Party of the United States did not even form until after Nader’s presidential run. By directly challenging the entrenched two-party status quo and the hegemony of big business, Ralph Nader’s campaign tapped into the seething discontent felt by many in the U.S. in the neoliberal era.

From 1996 until 2001, what is now called the Green Party of the United States was an association of state parties with little internal cohesion. The GPUS, while a unified political party at the national level, has retained this overtly decentralized organizational strategy to present day. Because the party is not centrally organized and membership is not accountable to other state parties, all decision-making power outside of a national platform, is made at the state level. This state-centric approach, which may appear democratic, is actually a major hindrance. It allows local activists with significantly different visions of the party to make important decisions independent of national oversight, seriously undermining the organization’s credibility and its claims to political independence. Because of the decentralized organizational structure, reforming the Green Party is a nearly impossible task. It means fighting for control of dozens of state parties that are unlikely to give power back to a centralized organization.

In 2004, a strong majority of those involved in the Green Party’s presidential nomination process strongly favored nominating Ralph Nader once again. However, Nader did not devote much time to the Green Party in the years between the 2000 and 2004 elections, and did not formally enter the race for the Party’s nomination at their 2004 convention. Overriding the will of its membership, the 2004 GPUS convention instead nominated Texas attorney David Cobb. Cobb supported a “safe states” strategy which sought to build the Green Party but only challenge the capitalist parties in states in which either George W. Bush or John Kerry were purportedly assured to win, whereas now independent Nader sought to challenge the system in every state as he had as the previous Green nominee. Cobb and the Green Party’s internalization of the “spoiler” myth sacrificed the party’s momentum and instead sought to swing the election in favor of the Democrat. While the politically independent Nader easily won far more votes than Cobb, a divided and confused electoral left saw all of the gains from the 2000 election reversed. Thereafter, the electoral left sat in relative obscurity for almost a decade.

The 2016 election represents another high water mark for a rebounding Green Party, but with it comes the party’s inconsistent relationship with political independence. At no time was this more striking than when the Oklahoma Green Party formally endorsed Bernie Sanders prior to the Democratic Party’s March 1 primary. Following Sanders win in Colorado, that state’s Green Party claimed Sanders victory as their own. The Colorado Greens even encouraged Sanders to “continue pushing the Democratic Party leftward”, and to join the Green Party when they gave up. Their statement adds to the confusion of voters seeking real change by implying that working within the Democratic Party may eventually bring about economic and social justice, when in fact that same strategy has been tried and failed by generations of leftists. In June, likely presidential nominee Jill Stein called on California Democrats and independents to “build a revolution” by voting in the Democratic primary for Bernie Sanders. While Stein has been able to build a successful one-time electoral coalition of Sanders-supporting Democrats and Greens through an appeal to support Sanders, this stunning lack of political independence has encouraged an “inside-outside” strategy that is both self-defeating and confusing to newly-radicalized voters.

Taking a cue from Stein’s high profile endorsement of Bernie Sanders, state parties took the matter even further. In Connecticut, a Green candidate for the Connecticut Legislature accepted the nomination of the state Democratic Party and will appear on the ballot for both parties. In perhaps the most egregious attack on the Green Party’s call for political independence, the South Carolina Green Party nominated nearly the entire Democratic Party slate for Congress and those Democrats will appear on both ballot lines in November. To be sure, some state Green parties take political independence seriously. For example, the Green Party of New York regularly struggles to fight off Democrats and Republicans who seek to use the Green ballot line to swing the election in favor of their party. However, because of the Green Party’s internal structure, this fight is squarely at the state-level, and Greens elsewhere, including those on the national committee, are helpless to alter these actions, though they do much to undermine the value of political independence. Just as trust in the two-party system is at an all-time low, some Greens engaged in electoral fusion to prop it up.

The Green Party’s claim to political independence is a dubious one, at best. The many public instances of outright support for Democratic Party candidates, from an informal endorsement of pro-Iraq War presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 through the nomination of South Carolina Democratic congressional candidates in 2016, undermine the Greens claims to opposition to the current economic and political order. While surely they are a separate organization outside of the Democratic and Republican parties, organizationally, the Greens have shown far too much willingness to enter into the Democratic Party’s internal politics.

If the Left is to rebuild itself into an important force in the United States, it’s unclear what role the Greens will have in that rebuilding. Greens, spurred by an influx of Leftists, may be able to reform their party internally and place it on solid footing by embracing the time-honored and proven methods of political organizing, such as establishing a national membership system and placing a stronger emphasis on party unity and internal democracy. Indeed, there is a movement voiced most notably by Howie Hawkins of New York to do just that. However, accomplishing that monumental task is unlikely and those who support political independence will likely need to leave the Green Party and join with other socialist groups to form a new political organization that will fight for a truly independent working class party. With Stein appearing likely to win an historic number of votes in the 2016 presidential election, the issue of political independence and the burgeoning Left has never been more important. If we are to translate the millions of people who are willing to cast their votes outside of the two party duopoly into actual political power, the debate around what a truly Leftist electoral movement looks like must begin.[The picture courtesy of the Bangor Daily News]

One thought on “Tom MacMillan: The Green Party’s Political Independence Problem

  1. GreenDemSoc

    I agree with MacMillan that the Green party should strive to become an explicitly pro-working class party rather than a refuge for disaffected leftist Democrats promoting a platform hard to distinguish from left Democrats. And part of what the Green Party needs to do to become such a party is to take an explicitly socialist stance on economic issues (eg in support of participatory autonomy for workers), thus sharply distinguishing them from Democrats on economic justice.

    As MacMillan notes, Hawkins and others have offered guidance regarding what sort of strategies we need to pursue in order to make a dent in the 2 party system and give working class people some representation in government.

    That said, MacMillan’s criticisms of GP being insufficiently independent of the Dems do not come off as credible. Certainly the 2004 debacle and the attitudes of some state parties towards Sanders deserve criticism. However it’s not fair to suggest that a few state parties expressing sincere solidarity with the Sanders campaign and its goals indicates a surrender of political independence. If anything, the GP apparatus faced major pressure this election season to compromise its independence (by say, nominating a Democrat or Sanders supporter as VP to try to pander to Sanders people), but was able to stand firm and not compromise our anti-imperialist principles.

    If these SPUSA types want a relevant socialist movement in the USA they should join the GP like other progressives and socialists (and sincere patriots in general) are doing presently.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *