German Historical Institute Conference on

“The Origins of Green Parties in Global Perspective”, May 26,
2004

 

The State of the Green Party in the United States

by Dean Myerson

August of 2004 was the
twentieth anniversary for Greens in the United States. It was in a college
in St. Paul, Minnesota
in the month of August, 2004, that a diverse group of activists first met to
discuss how to create a Green movement in the United
States
, based on what they had seen in Europe.
And to choose the 10 Key Values – an extension of the 4 Pillars used in Europe – as their defining credo.

But American Greens
weren’t much in the mood for celebrating. After years of strong growth and an
increase in visibility, the general election campaign of 2004 created numerous
challenges for the Greens. Greg Gerritt, national secretary of the Green Party
of the United States,
described the year as the “perfect storm” for American Greens, where almost
anything that could that could happen to make our political lives more
difficult, had happened.

And yet, the future does
not necessarily look bleak. Challenges remain, but the core vitality of the
Greens has always been at its grassroots level. Divisions and arguments at the
national level do not always impact, or even get noticed that much, by Greens
running local races. That vitality is not only still there, but shows many
promises.

The Storm

But first, a few words on
that storm. A significant factor in the growth of the Green Party in the U.S. in recent
years was undoubtedly Ralph Nader’s candidacies for the office of President and
related support for the Green Party. In 2000 in particular, Nader ran an
energetic campaign with broad support from Greens. Not only were historic
divisions in the Greens mostly set aside for that campaign, but the resultant
growth pushed the Greens past those divisions. 2001 saw American Greens more
unified than ever before.

The late 1990’s had seen
steady growth with the development of the Association of State Green Parties
(ASGP), an umbrella organization for state Green parties, but not itself
legally structured as a national political party. The ASGP, which I served as
Secretary of from 1997 to 1999, represented over 30 state Green parties as the
1990’s ended, and had developed the core of what would become the Green Party
of the United States (GPUS).

The 2000 campaign and the years
immediately following used that foundation to create strong growth. These years
saw the formation of the GPUS, the opening of a headquarters in Washington, DC,
the development of a strong fundraising operation, and most importantly, a
rapidly increasing list of Green campaigns and elected officials. The Green
Party spread to almost every state in the country.

Nader’s eventual departure
as the most visible and well-known Green spokesperson, whether through
retirement or other means, was bound to be a challenge. But when Nader decided
to run an independent campaign, it made the process far more difficult. U.S. election
law essentially forces competition on political players whether they want it or
not. Formal coalitions are not allowed, so the only way for Greens to support
Nader once he decided to go independent was to not run their own candidate.
This was a choice many Greens could not support.

Clearly there are many
factors that led Nader not to seek the Green Party’s nomination. Greens
continue to debate these and it is unlikely there will ever be a clear answer.
Nader complained of the Green Party’s convention schedule, and its lack of
unanimity in supporting his strategy. Even that strategy was unclear. While he
claimed that he wanted to “open a second front” in the effort to defeat
President Bush, many questioned whether his actual strategy would have that
effect, and many of his supporters in the Green Party strongly criticized any
claim that we should care which major party candidate would win.

Some Nader supporters
claim that too many Greens would not stand equally against both Democratic and
Republican candidates, and some Greens did clearly call for support for Democratic
candidate John Kerry over President Bush. Nader said he wanted to create an
historic coalition of forces opposed to the two main parties, and some Greens
embraced this strategy.

Nomination vs. Endorsement

Those who opposed having
the Green Party support Nader focused mostly on his request only to be endorsed
by the Green Party, not nominated. He made this difference clear in a 24 March,
2004 letter to the Green Party, which stated in part, “I am running as an
Independent and am not seeking nor accepting the Green Party nomination.
If you do not choose a presidential candidate in Milwaukee, I would welcome your endorsement.”

The difference between
nomination and endorsement is that in the United States, where elections and
ballots are determined independently in each state, an endorsed Nader would not
necessarily appear as a Green candidate in every state where that was legally
possible, as he did in 2000 when the Green Party nominated him. A nominated
candidate is committed to run on the Green line where ever that is possible.

While some who did not
support an endorsement for Nader wanted to support Kerry, far more stated that
they wanted a Green candidate for Green ballot lines at the nominating
convention. In the same March letter, Nader only said he would decide which Green
ballot lines he would accept after receiving the endorsement. While some Greens
were willing to take the chance that he would accept their state’s ballot line,
others wanted a commitment before offering any such support.

So Nader’s decision not to
seek the nomination, and thus not campaign for it, left a void which was filled
by the eventual nominee, David Cobb (the author was on David Cobb’s campaign
committee and was his treasurer). While Cobb clearly never had the resources or
name recognition of Nader, he did travel the country relentlessly,
participating in local and state campaign events and debates, which were mostly
skipped by Nader and his eventual Vice Presidential nominee, Peter Camejo.

Cobb had entered the race
for the nomination the previous fall, with one goal being to influence the type
of campaign the assumed nominee, Nader, might run. At first, the effort was
minimal, but when Nader send an earlier letter to the Green Party just before
Christmas, stating that he would not seek the Green Party nomination, the Cobb
campaign picked up momentum, as many Greens who were not interested in an independent
campaign decided to support Cobb.

State Green Parties had
scheduled conventions, primaries and caucuses starting in January of 2004 to
choose their delegates for the nominating convention. As Nader pulled further
from the Green Party, Cobb’s campaign gained more energy, and started to
collect a larger number of delegates.

Cobb arrived at the Milwaukee convention with
less than a majority of delegates, but nonetheless with a strong lead. Nader’s
choice of popular California Green Peter Camejo as his Vice Presidential
candidate five days before the convention energized Nader supporters, but it
was too late in the process and many delegates had already been chosen.
Camejo’s attempts to win an endorsement for Nader included too many attacks on
Cobb for some Greens, and a late proposal for a dual endorsement of both
campaigns did not gain support from delegates. Cobb and his Vice Presidential
candidate, Patricia LaMarche from Maine,
won the nomination on the second ballot.

Thus the Green Party faced
the situation in which they were running a low-resource campaign on essentially
the same issues as Ralph Nader’s campaign. This undercut the fundraising and
attention the campaign would have gotten and resulted in it appearing on ballots
in only 28 states.

There were two additional
factors in this perfect storm. First was the so called “ABB” effect, an acronym
for “Anybody but Bush.” This syndrome resulted in many progressives and Greens
supporting John Kerry in a desire to defeat President Bush, despite Kerry’s
support for the war in Iraq
and refusal to call for a withdrawal of troops, as both Cobb and Nader did. Secondly,
there was the political challenge following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Voters
do not tend to take a chance on something new when they are afraid for their
safety. In an atmosphere of fear and war, challengers to the President, and
particularly Greens, had a difficult political environment.

Divisions and Accusations

If these challenges were
not enough, the debate between the nomination of David Cobb and LaMarche and
the endorsement of Nader and Camejo descended into deep divisions and charges.
Accusations that the convention was rigged or that the Rules Committee was
packed with Cobb supporters were spread on the internet and in radio broadcasts,
particularly by Camejo, who claimed support from most Greens. Some Cobb
supporters claimed that Nader had done nothing to build the Green Party since
2000 and had deserted it for his proposed alliance of third parties.

As a result of these
differences, two Green state parties, in Vermont
and Utah, did
not place the Cobb/LaMarche ticket on their ballots. Nader/Camejo was on the
ballot in both states as independents. In some states where the Cobb/LaMarche
ticket was on the ballot, support from the rank and file was not strong. But
that support varied and some states offered strong support. Nevertheless, the
accusations poisoned the political atmosphere within the GPUS during much of
the campaign.

Results of the Campaigns

As it turned out, Both
Cobb/LaMarche and Nader/Camejo had disappointing vote totals. Nader received
just over 400,000 votes, or about one third of a percent, while Cobb got just
over 100,000 votes, or about one tenth of a percent. The total for both
candidates votes was less than the number of votes Nader received in 1996, when
he “stood” for office, rather than “running,” as he has since described it.

While the Cobb campaign’s
vote total was not impressive, it received numerous testaments from Green
chapters and local Green candidates as to how his candidacy and travels helped
them. Other Greens saw the Cobb/LaMarche as a non-issue or even a detriment,
particularly where their local candidates felt they needed progressive
Democratic votes, or where the candidates names were simply too unknown to be
considered of value. It will take time to evaluate this campaign, but it is
unlikely all Greens will ever agree on it. It was the first time that the Green
Party had run its own national campaign, and it was done under the most trying of
conditions.

But such efforts often
lead to opportunities later, and there is no better example than the Ohio recount project. On
November 9, one week after the election, David Cobb called for a recount in Ohio. By mid-morning the
next day, over $10,000 dollars had been donated to the Cobb campaign via credit
cards on the website. And the campaign had not even asked for the money. Over
the following week, $200,000 was raised in support of the recount, which
requires a $113,000 fee, and of efforts to monitor the recount.

This is significantly more
than was raised in the entire campaign over the preceding year. With Kerry
mostly ignoring the complaints of election irregularities and discrepancies
between the exit polls and election returns, the field was wide open for David
Cobb to seize the initiative, and seize it he did. Most of the donations seemed
to have come from angry Democrats, and this could be monitored on their website
discussion forums. How this will all turn out cannot be guessed now, but it is a
key opportunity to bring attention and growth to the Green Party as this
difficult year comes to a close.

An even bigger unknown is what
the impact will be of Nader’s campaign. This article is being written just days
after the election, and there has been little comment from his supporters as to
how they perceive its impacts. Some Greens wonder if Nader will try to make his
Populist Party, previously just a vehicle for ballot access in three states, a
real and active party. Most Nader supporters do not favor this, but some do want
it to happen.

Will Nader run again? Will
all of his Green supporters all come back to the Green Party? Some never left,
continuing to support other Green campaigns and working with the Green Party
organization. But some Nader supporters were bitter and publicly questioned
their continuing participation in the Green Party. It will take some months to
see how these divisions heal, or whether they heal at all.

2004 had the worst vote
total for non-major party presidential candidates in nearly twenty years. The
intensity of the Bush-Kerry race drew many progressives back to the Democratic
fold. Now that Kerry has lost, and that third party and independent candidates
played no role in that loss, we will have to see what the impact will be on the
Green Party. One possibility is that frustrated Democratic progressives will
desert that party and get involved with the Greens. Another is that they will
just focus once again on winning the presidential race in 2008 or in helping
Democrats take one or both houses of Congress in the midterm elections in 2006.

But this may be determined
by the Democratic strategy. If Democrats decide that the way to do that is to
move further to the right, they will not likely bring many progressives with
them. Many of those people were solidly anti-war, and supported Kerry despite
his support for the Iraq War and occupation. How many of them would follow the
Democrats further to the right is an open question.

But it is not determined
solely by what the Democrats do. Progressives need to believe that the Green
Party has a real chance to affect the system if significant numbers of them are
to offer serious support to the Green Party and stick with the Green Party in
difficult times. The Green Party needs to demonstrate that it survived the 2004
storm as a viable party to bring them in.

Below the National Level - The Challenge in Maine

At the local level, out of
view of the presidential race handicappers, there were over 300 Green
candidates running for office, and some of these races were quite exciting and
important. With over 50 candidates running for the U.S. House of
Representative, and over a hundred running for state legislature, Greens were
moving forward despite the storm. One of the most interesting cases was in Maine.

In Maine, Rep. John Eder was the only Green
holding office in a state legislature as the 2004 election season unfolded. He
won in 2002 with a full 67% of the vote against a powerful Democrat, but with
no Republican in the race. Eder’s district was in the Maine’s
largest city, Portland, in the West
End
district with many young voters and in which other Greens had
contested the office in three consecutive races. With only 3000 voters in the
district, candidates can run very personal campaigns and meet their
constituents. Also, Maine
has a financing system in which qualifying candidates receive campaign funds
and do not fundraise from individuals. All of this favors the personal style of
campaigns that Greens thrive in.

But the Democrats who control
the Maine
government did not welcome the newcomer. In the United States, district boundaries
are adjusted every ten years for population shifts, and the party in power
controls this redistricting process, using it to shape the districts to its own
advantage. In most cases, there are no checks and balances on this partisan
redistricting process.

After Eder’s
victory in 2000, Democrats shifted his district’s boundaries so that he didn’t
even live in it any longer. And the constituents he had developed a close
relationship with in his 2002 victory were now in a new district. Maine Greens
responded by recruiting 23 candidates for the state house. Not only did all of
these candidates represent a new challenge to the Democrats in power, but it
would force Democrats to spread their anti-Green effort and possibly help
protect John Eder from the full force of their wrath. Because of the campaign
financing system mentioned above, Democrats could not employ a huge television
advertising campaign against the Green candidates.

Despite strenuous efforts
to defeat him by the Democratic Party, including smear tactics, Eder was reelected convincingly. In a 3-way race with
both a Democrat and Republican, Eder received
an absolute majority of votes and outdistanced the Democratic candidate, who
also was an incumbent, since the redistricting resulted in two incumbents
challenging each other. While no other Greens were elected to the state house
in Maine,
some did quite well, with three receiving over 35% of the vote. In a newspaper
article in Portland, Maine,
after the election, the defeated Democratic incumbent acknowledged that Maine
Greens are becoming a force in Portland
politics by focusing on a party-building strategy.

Nationwide Results

Across the country, the most
well-known Green officeholder, Matt Gonzales, President of the San Francisco
City/County Council, did not seek reelection. But another Green, Ross
Mirkarimi, ran for his seat and won. In Washington,
DC
, Greens won a half dozen
small-scale races for neighborhood councils that advise the city council. While
not powerful or prominent, it is a good building strategy.

Overall, while some
results are still pending, Greens probably increased their officeholder count
by 10-15% (to about 235) and even increased registration-based membership by a
few percent. While this does not constitute huge growth, to have any growth in
a year like 2004 is an achievement for any alternative party in the United States.

The year also saw strong
slates of candidates in South Carolina and
possible new Green Parties in West Virginia
and South Dakota,
two states that still had no active Green Party.

Green Strategy

Greens face a number of
decisions. Those who tended to support Nader also tend to believe that the weak
and conditioned support the Green Party receives from progressives does not
form a viable basis for Green Party growth. They are less interested in drawing
disaffected Democrats into the Green Party than they are in recruiting the
millions of Americans who don’t vote at all. Because these people probably have
no loyalty to the Democratic Party, it is believed that they would be more
reliable Green Party supporters once recruited. While no Greens are opposed to
this, nobody can say for sure how to achieve it. Some Greens are calling for a
more formal policy of not supporting Democratic candidates in any way, and this
will be a key debate over the next year. Others call for an effort to recruit
disaffected Democrats who supported Kerry in 2004 despite his policies on the
Iraq War.

There may be debates on
Green Party process and structure. There are claims that the formula for
representation at the nominating convention and within the party is not
adequately representative, and changes may be proposed. As well, two member state
Green Parties declined to place the Cobb/LaMarche ticket on their ballots. All
affiliated state parties agree to support the national candidates, but what
action should now be taken, either against those state parties, or more
generally about the definition of such support, also will be debated.

At the resource level,
Green Party fundraising at the national level has declined over the last two
years. The party is struggling to meet basic expenses and needs to revitalize
itself. The growth in fundraising in 2001 and 2002 resulted significantly from
outreach to progressives who were not committed Greens. When many supported
Kerry in 2004, their contributions declined. As well, those whose support was
based on the relationship with Ralph Nader also withheld contributions, though
this impact was much smaller than the loss of donations from Kerry supporters
according to conversations between these donors and Green Party fundraisers.

The Foundation of the Green Party

Despite these challenges,
the Green Party has a more solid foundation than some observers realize. The
hundreds of local officeholders and local chapters, dozens of active state
parties, as well as the international network of Green Parties, do provide a
reservoir of resilience in difficult times. Even if divisiveness in the
national party does not subside, many state parties will still be able to
function and grow, though difficulties in the national party would likely
retard development of the Green Party in places where it is very weak now.

Almost all Greens believe
that electoral reform is key to the continued growth of the Green Party. The
implementation of Instant Runoff Voting in San Francisco this year, as well as
solid voting victories to implement it in Ferndale, Michigan and Burlington,
Vermont, are positive signs that its use may spread.

In my own area of Washington, DC,
the local candidates did fairly well, and Greens are already planning to form a
permanent Campaign Committee and to hold meetings to analyze our results from the
election and plan for future campaigns by holding educational retreats on how
to run campaigns. The lack of a large voting total for the Cobb/LaMarche ticket
has not demoralized Greens, who realize more than most Americans, that creating
a viable political party is more dependent on local efforts than presidential
campaigns, even if they can serve a valuable role.

It is true historically
that most alternative political parties in the United States only peak once. Any
prominence they receive is not usually repeated if they decline after a good
showing and there is a tendency for a long, slow decline. This is what happened
to the People’s (Populist) Party after their peak in the mid-1890’s, and they
are usually the party Greens most identify with in U.S. history.

But since the
establishment in the United States
shows no sign of acknowledging the fiasco in Iraq, the threat of global warming,
or the declining economic status of so many Americans in the current economy,
many Greens believe there are still bright prospects for the party because
Green Party issues have not declined in importance. One interesting
contradiction from the 2004 election: while President Bush won Florida fairly strongly,
an initiative to increase the minimum wage that was opposed by Governor Bush
won overwhelmingly. The United
States
is not so conservative as some
analysts claim; they just need a political party to appeal directly to those
needs.