Tuesday, August 05, 2003

An Outline of a Realistic Green Party Electoral Strategy

(Full disclosure: I am a Democrat, though I voted for Nader in 2000. In 2004 I am supporting Howard Dean. Should Dean not win the nomination, like Dean himself, I will fully and enthusiastically support the Democratic Party's nominee - no matter who he or she is. I wish nothing more than for the environmental movement and progressives to have more voice in national politics. To that end, I welcome reasoned criticism of the following strategy.)

The Green party's national electoral strategy ensures that they will remain powerless in national politics and assist the Republican party in retaining and expanding their control of the Federal and State governments, undermining the very values and policies Greens seek to promote. The major mistake of the Green party is running candidates in races which they have no realistic possibility of winning. This wastes party resources and risks the Green party acting as spoiler by splitting the vote of the left, thereby generating antipathy from the Greens' natural constituents still within the Democratic party. In the short term, the current strategy of running candidates in any and all races for which candidates can be found might assist the growth of the Green party, but in the long term, it will assure the Green party's continued marginalization.

Two basic electoral facts are foundational to the political system of the United States and must underlie the national strategy of Greens as a third party. The first is that the Apportionment Act of 1842 and the 1967 Single Member District Mandate require single member (SM) electoral districts for Federal legislative districts. Secondly, such a districting rule with plurality or first past the post selection criteria invariably produces a coalitional two party system. This fact is the closest thing which the discipline of political science has to a natural law; it is called Duverger's Law. The Democrats and the GOP are not monolithic, they are broad coalitions encompassing as large a spectrum of political views as possible. The Green party is incapable of the compromise and ideological flexibility needed to become a coalitional party. The prospect held out by some of the Green party growing to supplant the Democratic party is simply a pipe dream. The Green party with its current strategy may have some success locally, in single issue politics, and in feeding ideas to the major coalitions which they then use to undermine the Green's voter base; nothing more.

These are the hard facts. The Green party can and should work to change or subvert these basic facts, but meanwhile, their national electoral strategy must work within these parameters if they want long-term success.

Several principles and strategies are strongly suggested by SMP districting and the coalitional two party system; selective and sequential competition, national coalition re-entry, leadership development, a focus on systemic electoral reform above finance reform, and the timing of a Green party Presidential candidate.

Selective Competition: The Green party, being small and lacking the resources of the major coalitional parties, should not waste resources and contributor funds on races that it cannot win. Not only does this run the risk of playing spoiler, easing the election of candidates diametrically opposed to Green values, but risks incurring the antipathy of otherwise sympathetic voters. Greens should only run candidates in local level races, where specific environmental and development issues favor Green candidates, when polling indicates possible success, and wherever alternative voting or districting systems exist which do not significantly disadvantage minority parties. Currently such alternative voting systems only exist in local and specialty districts. If one examines the races of the 552 Green candidates who ran in 2002, one finds that nearly all of those 74 who succeeded were running in multimember districts, in jurisdictions having non-SMP election laws, or in very small or specialized districts. These are the races in which Greens should concentrate their resources and for which they should aggressively recruit and run candidates now.

Sequential Competition: Greens should work to expand the electoral opportunities of the party by working their way up the Federal system lobbying for electoral reforms along the way. Begin by working for alternative voting and districting systems in more cities, counties, and specialty districts around the country. Then move up to the state level and open the state legislatures to voting and districting systems which allow third parties to compete. The purpose of these reforms is to open new offices to Green competition, to provide test-beds for electoral innovations, and build constituencies for electoral reforms at higher levels. The ultimate goal must be to repeal the Federal legislation mandating single member districts, pass something akin to HR1173 from the 1999-2000 session, and achieve judicial approval for states to experiment with alternate voting systems provided they do not reduce minority representation. Once states may freely to choose among alternatives to SMP districting in selection of State and Federal officials, then Greens can begin to compete in those races with a reasonable chance of success. Cynthia McKinney is certainly a wise choice for party leader, she understands the importance of systemic electoral reform to the vitality of American democracy and the success of the Greens, and is experienced enough, hopefully, to refuse to run for President on the Green ticket. These are long term goals, they will not be easy to achieve and that means that for a considerable amount of time Greens will be effectively locked out of State and Federal offices except in those unusual circumstances where the Green party has a reasonable probability of success even against in-built disadvantages.

National Coalition Re-entry: The Green party can only be effective in influencing states' and national policies by forming a coalition with one of the major parties. The natural choice is the Democratic party, as much of the Green party's platform is attractive to Democratic constituents. Greens will have to compromise and accept less than optimal outcomes. In return, Greens gain influence within the Democratic party and the mainstreaming of many of their goals. Only by coming back into the Democratic party for purposes of supporting candidates in State and Federal races in which Greens are not competitive, can Greens hope to achieve at least some of their policy goals. By actively manipulating their party registration status, Greens can also have a disproportionate impact upon the primary process of the Democratic party. A fairly small minority of party members vote in primaries allowing Greens to promote their own Democrat labeled candidates and the most palatable candidates of the field into general elections.

Leadership Development: By concentrating only on running for offices they can win, Greens will build a cadre of candidates for eventual higher office. The frank truth is that many of the candidates Greens field for higher elective office simply haven't the experience or the exposure to win even if they were running on a major party ticket. The DLC has succeeded in becoming a power in the Democratic party by intensive leadership development and careful coordination of moderate and rightist candidates' messages and fundraising efforts. Such an effort can and should be reproduced on the left of the party and the Greens should be a part of that structure. The formation of a Progressive Democrats Council should be inclusive of all the elements of the national left, including Green party members. From such a position within the Democratic party, Greens can join with progressive Democrats for fundraising, platform formation, and strategy for increasing the influence of the left in the Democratic party. In states in which the ballot laws will allow it, Greens could even run Green-Democrat faction candidates. For some of the most creative and energetic elements of the left to abandon the major coalition of the Left is irresponsible and ultimately self-defeating. The Greens' leadership must forge a meaningful alliance with Progressive Democrats if they wish to have any national influence, so long as federal laws mandating SM districts remain in place. Only by building the number of Green office holders can the Green party truly grow. Funding for candidates, incumbency and experience, demonstrating the superiority of Green solutions to the public, and real expansion of the Green electorate - the things that truly build a party - come only from holding office, not from running for it futilely. Currently, Greens can only substantially increase the number and importance of officeholders in their ranks from within the Democratic party. Greens have made gains in recent years that look impressive in terms of percentage growth, but the numbers are very small nonetheless. Of the thousands of elective offices in the United States, Greens hold but 175. The vast majority of these are city, county, and school board officials. The Green party will never be a national party of any influence unless the 'glass ceiling' keeping Greens out of state and Federal offices is broken. The easiest way to do this is through the Democratic coalition. Once Greens and Green beholden officeholders break the ceiling the task of dismantling the laws which really exclude third parties truly begins.

Systemic Reform above Finance Reform: Ballot access laws and campaign finance have been the focus of Green efforts, but these are minor annoyances of the electoral system for third parties. The Greens' top national priority must be systemic electoral reform. Given the number of contestable races available to Greens, finance reform and public financing benefits the two major parties much more than it does the Greens. Besides, equal access to financing will not equalize electoral outcomes for Greens. Greens should focus on reforms which open as many offices as possible to Green competition through electoral reforms which allow third parties to compete effectively for offices from a minority position. Preferential voting, proportional voting, multimember districts, instant runoff, cumulative voting, and other such systems can help minority parties to capture offices; these must be the election reform foci of the Green party if they are ever to have a place in government separate from the coalitions.

Timing of a Green President: Running a Green President has considerable advantages: gaining 5% will make national ballot access easier, running a Presidential candidate presents a unique opportunity to present the Green platform to the public, increase public awareness and grow the Green party. It also has a major drawback: though many Greens will dismiss their concerns as misplaced, many Greens or those who might otherwise vote Green are very concerned about spoiling for the GOP in close races. This could be a serious problem with the Presidential electoral college's system of winner-take-all whole-state districts. It has also been problematic in state races such as the 1994 New Mexico Gubernatorial race. It has led many to vote strategically and to vote swap in order to avoid the problem. Many suggest that Green votes in narrowly contested states such as New Hampshire or Florida may have cost Gore the 2000 race and put Bush in office. Given that only a few hundred to a few thousand votes are involved it is hard to completely dismiss the contention. Regardless, the last three years have put the lie to any assertion that there is no difference between the coalitions, or least between a President Bush and a theoretical President Gore. Any Green who suggests that their values and policy goals would not have been better served by Gore than by Bush is simply deluding himself.

Do Greens want this to happen again? Some don't care; they see the fate of the Green party as completely separate from that of the Democratic party. These Greens are either ignorant of the arguments I have made here, or think these arguments are wrong. I can only reiterate my firm belief that the Green party does more harm than good to it's long term prospects by operating completely independent of the Democratic party until such a time when systemic electoral reform allows Greens to be competitive in State and Federal elections.

Right now the nation is very evenly divided between the Democrats and the GOP. This close divide runs through our entire governmental system, the margins in the House and Senate represent a shift of less than 1/10th of 1 percent of actual voters. One third of state legislatures are also divided very closely. The same holds for the number of Governorships and other important state offices held by each major party. The entire outcome of the 2000 Presidential election eventually came down to just one Supreme Court Justice's vote. Were the Far Right of the GOP to cleave off the GOP to seek its goals without compromise under these circumstances, they would fatally weaken the GOP and doom their own chances to achieve any of their agenda. It would be political suicide. Yet this is essentially what the Greens advocate for the Progressive Left. By splitting off the most progressive elements of the Democratic electorate, they are helping to move the party further right, marginalizing their own policies among the electorate, and weakening the Democratic party.

The Democratic coalition will, of course, recover from the blow. It will seek voters elsewhere to compensate; unfortunately, it may seek them to the right, or it may just wait to outgrow the problem by natural increase. The great secret which Karl Rove doesn't wish you to know is that the GOP's demographics are heading south, while the Democrats' are growing quickly. The GOP, especially its Far Right, is a rearguard action by a shrinking and ever more marginalized and desperate demographic; their current influence is a last gasp and the final chapter, not the beginning of a new order. Still, in the short term, maybe 10-20 years, the Greens abandonment of the Left coalition is very damaging to the goals of Progressives, and most especially to the environment. GOP governance can do a lot of damage to the planet in that period of time and to our prospect of recovering from the damage we have already done. That damage to Progressive interests is enabled and abetted in part by Greens' insistence on running a Presidential campaign.

The modern Presidency is both uniquely powerful and uniquely dependent. The President has undeniable powers which make the office the center of national politics more often than not, but the President relies heavily upon his party. His party's officials in Congress, in Governorships, and in state legislatures across the country, support and empower the President in indispensable ways. Even if the Greens were to pull off a miracle and win the Presidency, they haven't a single seat in Congress, a single Governor, and only one seat in a state legislature anywhere in the nation. A Green President could be impeached for any trumped-up reason on his first day in office and no Green could defend him. He could not pass law, he would be completely at the mercy of the Congress, the states would thumb their noses at him with impunity. A Green President is useless to the nation and useless to Greens. So if the office is useless, why run a candidate? For the benefits I outlined earlier? That isn't a run, that's a stunt, and one that is harmful to Green values and policies. Let us imagine that Greens succeed in getting 5% of the vote in the 2004 Presidential election. What will they gain? Automatic access to the ballot for hundreds of offices of which they have no hope of winning more than one or two. It is a completely phyrric victory. With the party's avowal that it would run a Presidential candidate, the party only demonstrates a complete lack of strategic thinking. Had the Green leadership a real desire to serve the true interests of their constituency, and not just to stubbornly thumb their nose at critics, they would reach an accommodation with the Democratic candidates for their support and endorsement in exchange for consideration on appointments to critical administrative posts such as the EPA, FDA, Interior Secretary, OSHA and others. Instead of utilizing the political assets they have, they throw them away on a futile stunt to gain ballot access.

There is no purpose in seeking ballot access until one can win those State and Federal offices. Because of the current electoral system Greens cannot hope to win any but a tiny number of those offices. Until Greens can not only win, but have in fact won a very large number of those offices at both the State and Federal level, there is no point in running a President. Only when the Green's entire electoral reform program has been successful and Greens have captured a significant portion of political power is there any point in electing a Green President. The obsession of the Green party's leadership with the running of President harms the party and its most deeply treasured values and goals for no benefit other than pure publicity, most of it negative. If Greens insist on running a Presidential candidate they should ballot in only one state, but campaign nationwide to spread their message. The state the Green Presidential candidate should actually run in is California. Greens have had the most electoral success there but it is unlikely Greens would act as a spoiler. California could likely even absorb swaps from around the country

There are better, more constructive, ways to grow the Green party than running Presidential candidates; ones which do not harm the long term prospects of the Greens in America and which do not put GOP candidates like George W. Bush into the Presidency. If you truly believe that the Green party has a future, and if you truly love the ideas and values of the Green party, you must demand that the strategy of the Green party conform to the electoral realities of the United States, not to the utopian theories of a cadre leaders whose plans are grandiose, impractical, and self-defeating.

Greens need an alliance with the Democratic Party. Working through and with the coalition they can achieve needed policy and political gains now, and begin to clear the path to true power, instead of dreaming of the day, far off and speculative, when the Democratic party will wither and die. Greens will wander in the wilderness without power or influence for a very long time if they take that path. Who knows, they might enjoy the journey - at least until the GOP authorizes clear-cutting of the forest along the path, strip mining of the mountains above it, and damming of the valley surrounding it. By supporting Democratic Presidential and Congressional candidates, they will help to reinvigorate the left of the party and reap the rewards of political influence in a national coalition now.

Copyleft, 2003, Michael David Bryan

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