Why Green?

In 2002, I was a Green Party candidate for Congress in Indiana. Today’s post is the text of my nomination acceptance speech at the Indiana Green Party’s convention in August 2001. The reasons I gave for why our nation needed a strong Green Party that ran candidates for all offices from President on down are just as relevant in 2016 as they were 15 years ago. Clarifying comments have been added in brackets.

Why Green in 2002?

A year ago, we were in the midst of the Nader campaign, and even though a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, the 2000 election is an experience that I’ll never forget. What happened in that election is burned into my brain as if it happened yesterday. This was the first Presidential election in my lifetime where the winner clearly won by cheating, and where a progressive third party candidate so successfully aroused the passions of the masses. And never before has the Democratic candidate been so conservative or been such a totally inept politician. He couldn’t even win his home state, for crying out loud! He couldn’t even win West Virginia! When was the last time you ever heard of a Democrat [the incumbent Vice President in his case] not being able to win in West Virginia? And then when he lost Florida and, thus, the election, he didn’t much seem to care! He and Clinton couldn’t even be bothered to send down the Justice Department to investigate all those violations of the Voting Rights Act! He was too concerned about offending white voters to take a stand against institutionalized racism in Florida’s electoral system, even though it could have won him the election. And then Bush, having won the election thanks largely to the slap in the face to minority voters delivered by his brother’s electoral machine, having gotten away with appointing a racist attorney general thanks to the weak stand taken by Senate Democrats, offered African-Americans a consolation prize: Colin Powell, Roderick Paige, and Condolezza Rice. [These were high-ranking African-American members of Bush’s administration.]

This election was striking for demonstrating more clearly than any election I can recall what the majority of Democrats really stand for and, therefore, why there’s such a clear need for a progressive third party like the Greens that will stand for human needs, not corporate greed. We all remember how Nader and all of us who supported him were constantly hectored about how much better Gore was than Bush and how sorry we would be for costing Gore the election and putting Bush in office. We all remember the vicious, nasty personal attacks on Nader by prominent Democratic Party hacks like Barney Frank and Gloria Steinem. And then, even after it became obvious how blatantly voters’ basic rights had been violated in Florida and how many thousands of votes that had cost Gore, the blame-Nader chorus continued! “Look what you did, Ralph! Shame on you! You Green voters will be sorry!” Imagine the nerve it took, consider the staggering amount of hypocrisy involved, for Democratic politicians and media pundits to go out of their way to make sure Nader couldn’t be any threat to win by locking him out of the debates and attacking him continually in the media if he wasn’t just being ignored, and then turning around and getting mad at him for being in the race at all and giving people another choice! So, am I sorry? Hell no! Having a right-wing nincompoop for a President has its drawbacks, but the only thing I’m sorry about is that Ralph didn’t get a lot more votes.

I’m reminded in thinking about the nature of our political system of a Monty Python skit. Four Yorkshiremen are regaling each other with tales about how miserably wretched their childhoods were, and each tries to outdo the others. One of the things they discuss is what they had to eat for breakfast each morning. One says he had to drink cold tea without milk or sugar — or tea; the next one says he had to eat a piece of stale bread every morning; the third one says he had to eat a bowl of freezing cold gravel (why this is worse than eating boiling hot gravel is not readily apparent); and the fourth says he had to eat a lump of dry poison.

So on the first Tuesday in November every couple of years, diners all across America are invited to Democratic- and Republican-run restaurants for a meal. In most locales, these are the only two kinds of restaurants available. Their menu options consist of the fare I previously mentioned, with the Democratic restaurants mostly serving stale bread or cold gravel along with some tea but throwing in some poison here and there, and the Republican restaurants going a little heavier on the poison. Note that there actually is a difference between these menu options. Although it’s unappetizing, eating stale bread probably won’t kill you. And although it will cause your teeth to fall out and doesn’t have any nutritive value, eating cold gravel at least has the merit of not killing you right away, whereas you’re slightly more likely to get poisoned at a Republican-run restaurant.

And, of course, the response of most American diners to these invitations would be something like: “No thanks; I really don’t feel hungry today.” So, along come Ralph Nader and the Green Party, and they want to open up a chain of gourmet, ethnic vegetarian restaurants — Greens or something. The Democrats, of course, are horrified: “They want to offer diners food that is not only healthy and nutritious, but appetizing! How dare they! This is outrageous; they’re trying to steal OUR customers! We’ve got blacks, women, Jews, GLBT people, union members, environmentalists, all sorts of people who’ve been loyal stale bread eaters for decades, and these Greens have the gall to come in and try to entice them with tasty food. Who do they think they are?”

This is the situation that we Green candidates find ourselves in — we’re trying to offer voters a choice of candidates they actually find appealing, candidates who support things that are in their interest, like universal health care, federally funded maternity and paternity leave, government subsidies for solar and wind power rather than nuclear power and the oil industry, a minimum wage that people can actually live on, a military budget that isn’t a half dozen times the size of anyone else’s, and so on, and the Democrats act like there’s something wrong with that: “What do you mean voters should have more than two choices? What do you mean voters have a right to expect candidates on the ballot who actually agree with them on more than half of the issues and aren’t bought and paid for by multinational corporations? What do you mean there should be candidates for federal office who don’t support foreign and domestic policies that murder people on a daily basis? What’s wrong with you? What do you think this is, a democracy or something?”

In this recent election, that was the attitude even of some so-called progressive Democrats such as John Conyers and Paul Wellstone, who both urged Ralph to drop out of the race to help Gore win. These are not people who favor grassroots democracy, folks; this sort of “Aw, come on Ralph, don’t be a spoiler” mentality is the epitome of a top-down, authoritarian approach to politics, because what it says is that voters shouldn’t have the right to decide whether they’re going to vote for a “lesser evil” or for someone whose politics they actually like. When you think about what the political views of Democrats who have this “we hate spoilers” attitude really are, they don’t think America is or should be a democracy. They think it’s a peculiar form of monarchy in which two factions of royalty are entitled to support from anybody whose political views bear even the remotest similarity to theirs; we Greens are seen as infringing on the entitlement of Democratic royalty. And this is the way most Democratic Party leaders think, even many of the ones who seem to be progressive.

So when peaceful protesters at their party’s convention in Los Angeles were getting beaten over the head and teargassed by the police, that seemed to be fine with the vast majority of Democrats, if their silence was any indication. They were too busy pretending that Emperor Gore had some clothes on to pay attention to things like police brutality, and as far as they were concerned the American people had no right to protest the choices offered them by the two-party system. And where were all the Democratic Party fans of just plain old fair play, let alone democracy, when Ralph was being locked out of the Presidential debates, even out of the audience? And every time Gore made a dumb comment during the campaign, such as the time he said the death penalty was an effective deterrent, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop on the Democratic side of the aisle. “SHHHHHHHHH, don’t mention any of his shortcomings or call him on his mistakes, you don’t want to give the election to Bush, do you?”

And there was all this pretending that Vice President Gore was some sort of progressive; a lot of Democrats went on and on about what a great, progressive speech Gore gave at the convention. What ever happened to the idea that voters have a right to make informed choices in the voting booth? Didn’t these voters whom the Democrats were brainwashing into voting for Gore have the right to know that Gore supported a foreign policy in Iraq, Israel, and lots of other places that was costing people their lives? [Note: A month after this speech was given, Democrats in Congress voted almost unanimously to support war in Afghanistan, and a little over a year later, the majority of Democrats in the Senate including Hillary Clinton voted to support war in Iraq.] That it was Gore who talked Clinton into signing the Republican-designed welfare “reform” bill? That Gore was so in thrall to the pharmaceutical industry that he didn’t want AIDS patients in Africa to have access to cheap generic drugs? Or that, thanks to the lack of leadership from the Clinton/Gore administration, emissions contributing to global warming went up over 10% under their watch, or that economic inequality reached its highest point in history under Clinton/Gore?

Maybe the most amazing thing about the behavior of Democrats in this recent election was the way most of them just rolled over for the Republicans and let them cheat their way into the White House. When their colleagues from the Congressional Black Caucus were begging them to give them some support so there could be a discussion on the floor about the voting irregularities in Florida, where were the Democrats in the Senate? Where was that great progressive, Paul Wellstone — you know, the one that wanted Nader to drop out of the race, the one that voted, along with the overwhelming majority of his Democratic colleagues in Congress, in favor of Bill Clinton’s bombing of Yugoslavia?

I received an e-mail a few months ago from a local former Democratic City Council member, whom I know pretty well because he’s a fellow social psychologist, and it was mostly the predictable spiel about how my decision to run as a Green for Congress stood a good chance of spoiling the chances of whatever Democrat is running. In my reply, among other things, I said to him: I understand your concern about the “spoiler” problem (although I think you’re greatly exaggerating the likelihood of it happening), but if it’s that big a concern for Democrats, instead of telling Green candidates to stop running and deny voters the option of voting for us, why don’t you work with us to eliminate the spoiler problem? How about working with us to get rid of the laws that disenfranchise convicted felons that cost Gore and the Democrats more votes in Florida than all the other electoral problems in that state combined? There couldn’t be a clearer example of the continuing institutionalized racism of our society than the fact that these laws, born of the post-Reconstruction racist backlash of the late 1800s, still exist. How about working with us to abolish these laws? How about working with us to abolish the electoral college, enact instant runoff voting, and institute proportional representation? How about working with us to institute truly comprehensive campaign finance reform? Pretty much any of these major electoral reforms, had they been in place, would have won the Presidential election for Gore, and would have won a lot of races Democrats all over the country have lost over the years. How about working with us to register the unregistered, who demographically are exceedingly unlikely to turn into Republican voters? And how about running candidates whose politics will actually appeal to the majority of people who don’t currently vote? Imagine Democrats doing that! Well, I never heard back from him. I’ve heard very few Democrats talk about electoral reforms to eliminate the “spoiler” issue. Democrats don’t want to reform the electoral system in this way, because they like being able to scare people into voting for Democrats rather than third-party candidates.

I will agree with my Democratic Party psychologist colleague about one thing: At least for now, we Greens who are running for federal office are definitely in an underdog role. I don’t think it’s impossible for us to win — Jesse Ventura showed that it’s possible for underdogs to win — but it won’t be an easy task for me to unseat the local Gore clone, Baron Hill. So let me just close by giving you a few reasons why it’s important for us to run for these offices regardless of our chances.

First of all, to castigate third-party candidates for “spoiling” Democrats’ election stands causality on its head. It’s voters who decide elections, not candidates. We didn’t stand in voting booths across America with guns last November and say “vote for Ralph Nader or else.” Voters vote for whomever they choose. And to argue that we’re spoiling elections by being on the ballot rather than performing a public service by offering voters higher-quality choices is factually incorrect. If the difference between the Democrat and the Republican really is big (a rare event, but it does happen), if it really is a close race, and if the polls show the Green candidate a distant third, most progressive voters are going to vote for the Democrat instead of for us. Even if the difference between the major party candidates really isn’t that large, as I would argue was the case in last year’s Presidential election, most progressive voters are going to go major party if it’s close. That’s just reality right now. The magnitude of the “spoiler” problem is greatly exaggerated by the Democrats for one simple reason: Most of them don’t want the Green Party or anyone who challenges the corporate-dominated duopoly to be successful.

Secondly, although of course we do want to win elections, there are good reasons to run electoral campaigns even if we don’t win. When we run campaigns for high office, we raise the visibility of issues and policy options that mainstream politicians generally ignore. Bringing up possibilities such as national health insurance, a living wage, and a sane military budget, and educating the public about the fact that such things are realities in other places, puts such options in the public mind and on the public agenda, and thus over time will raise the public’s expectations. As people come to demand more of politicians, mainstream parties will have to adjust. Otherwise, they’ll eventually start losing more and more votes to us or some other third party to their left.

Moreover, by raising critiques of their politics that other Democrats generally won’t, we expose mainstream Democrats for who they really are. And, as William Blum points out in his new book Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, what mainstream politicians are, regardless of party, is people who act like psychopathic killers. What else can you say about people who vote to send military aid to governments that torture and murder people, who vote for wars that involve dropping bombs in the middle of crowded cities and using depleted uranium munitions, who have supported the most Draconian economic sanctions in history against Iraq, who oppose poor African nations’ efforts to manufacture affordable generic drugs for their skyrocketing numbers of people infected with HIV, who seemingly couldn’t care less about global environmental devastation, who support global economic policies that guarantee that billions of people will continue to be forced to live on less than $2 a day, and who express absolutely no remorse for any of this? Whether they’re certifiable sociopaths or are just products of a deranged political culture, the fact is that our mainstream politicians and corporate executives act like sociopaths, and this needs to be exposed; running for federal office is a good way to accomplish that. So, in electoral politics, it really is true that it’s just as important how we play the game as whether we win or lose. If we play the game in such a way that we raise important issues and possibilities, raise people’s aspirations, and expose the remorseless malfeasance of those who run our society, we’re accomplishing something vitally important.

Finally, it’s important to have a long-term horizon about politics, and it’s important to have big aspirations. In the grand scheme of things, whether a right-wing Republican or a conservative (or even liberal) Democrat gets elected to federal office is far less important than whether during the next ten or twenty years we build a strong progressive grassroots political movement, both inside and outside electoral politics. The way I see it, the fact that the policies Bush is pursuing right now are somewhat more reactionary than the ones Gore would have pursued is offset quite a bit by the fact that his politics are so out of touch with those of ordinary Americans, let alone people in other countries, that he’s pissing people off everywhere. Political movements benefit from lightning rods like Bush, especially when they’re arrogant, stupid, and politically clumsy.

And let’s face it: We can survive four years of Bush. We can survive having the White House occupied by a former oil industry executive [Dick Cheney] for four years, instead of just being extremely friendly to it as it would have been if Gore had been elected. But what kind of world will our descendants live in if we have 100 more years of economic neoliberalism — globalization, privatization, downsizing, social program cuts, and all the environmental destruction and human misery that goes along with it? Can modern society even survive another 100 years of having the world run by multinational corporations, of having economic decisions dominated by the profit motive rather than the needs of human beings and the ecosystems we inhabit? I don’t think it can. So even if it means the “greater evil” is going to occasionally win elections, aspiring to something better for our society than electing corporate-owned Democrats — aspiring to a society where human needs rather than the profit motive govern political and economic decisions — is a matter of survival. Resigning ourselves to lesser-evilism election after election amounts to abandoning hope for the world’s future. Let’s keep hope alive! Thank you!