“The Green Party should not run for President and other state and national offices. It should run candidates for local office first, and then build up to higher level offices.” How often have I heard that? Many, many times, including recently after I posted the blog “Bernie Sanders and the Sheepdog Approach.”
I know the advice is well-intentioned, and it sounds reasonable and rational. The only problem is, it doesn’t work. Our political system is not reasonable and rational.
I’ll say this up front: blaming third parties for their weakness is like blaming poor people for their poverty. Sure, we make mistakes, some of them huge. But the system doesn’t cut us any slack — quite the reverse — unlike the slack it cuts the so-called winners of politics and society. Just a few examples of “slack” (in alphabetical order): air-time for your point-of-view, bail-outs, beneficial rulings, corporate welfare, favorable treatment, payback contracts, payback legislation, prejudice in your favor, subsidies both visible and behind-the-scenes. The list goes on.
TEN WAYS THE SYSTEM FIGHTS STARTING LOCAL
NOTE: When I say Democrats and Republicans I am talking about the PARTIES not the INDIVIDUALS, recognizing that the values and behaviors of the parties and the individuals are different. As a form of short-hand I’ll call the Democratic and Republican Parties the Titanics, and the other parties the Alternatives.
1. Electoral rules necessitate runs for higher office. Currently electoral laws keep Alternatives off the ballot in about half the states. State laws vary, and one typical way to maintain a ballot line and be a legitimate political party is to achieve a certain percentage of votes in a statewide race. In general, if an Alternative presidential campaign obtains one-time ballot access and then receives about 2% of total votes in the state, a new ballot line is created. Then Alternative candidates can run for offices from school board to sheriff to US congress. (For more details, see the end parts of Bruce Dixon’s sheepdogging articles, HERE and especially HERE.)
2. Local winners switch from Alternative to Titanic. The greatest and saddest example I know is San Francisco. In the 2000s the Green Party had the wonderful success of having six local office holders. However, five of them switched before taking the next step in their political careers. Matt Gonzalez switched to independent, while Jane Kim, John Rizzo, Christina Olague, and Ross Mirkarimi switched to the Titanics. Could the Green Party have done better in its support of the elected officials and candidates? Yes. Did the Titanics make them offers they couldn’t refuse? Yes.
As a matter of fact, after winning many lower level elections, Bernie Sanders switched from Alternative to Titanic to run for higher office. By the way, if you have it in you to run for local office as an Alternative, do not let any of this stop you. We need you.
3. They fight you just as hard at the local level. Speaking of Matt Gonzalez, as a Green Party candidate for mayor of San Francisco in 2003, he came within 5 percentage points of beating Gavin Newsom. Not only did Newsom outspend Gonzalez 6 to 1, but he brought in a powerhouse of Democratic notables to fight off the terrible threat of a major city having a Green mayor. I don’t think any city facing the terrible threat of a Republican takeover had these folks come to town: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Jesse Jackson.
4. They refuse to initiate important national and state policies. Probably by now everyone can come up with a pretty good list of national policies that Alternatives were the first to promote (abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, eight-hour workday, public schools, child labor laws, and programs like Social Security and Medicare). Only later did the Titanics get behind them. In my personal experience, I know for sure many people first heard about State Banks because of my 2010 Green Party run for Governor. Maybe that’s why they arrested me outside a gubernatorial debate. Or was it because I brought up Prop 13?
5. Major problems of the cities and counties can only be solved at the state and national level. Constrained by state and national laws, localities don’t even have the power they need to balance the budget. In California, cities are stuck with raising revenue by increasing parking fees and traffic tickets, and asking the voters to pass parcel taxes. Whether you own a mansion or a hut, you pay the same exact same dollar amount each year on the “parcel.” Prop 13 is the problem, and in 2010, Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman were not talking about keeping only the good parts of Prop 13 and reforming the bad parts that devastated California’s public schools and universities and other public goods.
6. Why not run as a Titanic to get elected and then implement needed solutions? As a Titanic, you have to toe the line, or you will be treated like an Alternative. And as a Titanic, you either take money from corporations and developers, or you benefit from corporate money flowing through the party (unless you’re in the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which runs slates of Greens and Democrats who pledge to take no corporate money, and who have beaten Chevron-backed candidates). You take money from corporations and you essentially work for them. You cannot turn your back on the boss and stay in office.
7. Voters and media focus on President, maybe Governor and Mayor. Many people’s relationship to politics begins and ends with President. There is some focus on Governor, on the Mayor’s office, as well as on Congress. There’s very little attention paid to the rest. By the way, I never want to discourage anybody from voting. My attitude is to use every bit of power we have toward creating a better world. Our voting is an important power, or else why would they keep trying to take it away? My advice to make voting quick and easy is to only vote for candidates who take no money from corporations and developers. That’s how you identify the candidates who are on your side, not the side of the 1%.
8. Alternative parties get attention and motivation through runs for higher office. Nader’s presidential runs starting in 1996 put the Green Party on the map, although there was a huge backlash. (I am working on a piece comparing Anti-Naderism and McCarthyism as to their effects of eliminating Alternatives and keeping us where the powers-that-be want us.) Jill Stein’s presidential campaigns have been a huge boost for Greens across the country. When the Green Party of California ran its first full statewide slate in 2002, Greens were questioning the wisdom of running statewide. At the same time, the local parties wanted us — I ran for State Controller — to come to town to help their locals gain some traction. The state party had seven hard-working volunteers. That’s not a bad thing.
9. People want to vote for values and policies they want. Sometimes when I was wavering about the wisdom — or personal comfort — of running for state office, people would implore me to run so they would have someone to vote for.
10. Bottom line: follow your heart. Take the path life leads you to. If your energy points you in a certain way, go there and hopefully you and your compadres won’t hold you back. There are lots of problems and lots of solutions, plenty of ways to use our own unique combination of gifts and wounds (let’s face it, our wounds help make us who we are) so that we can make a worthwhile contribution to a better world.
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What do you think? Did I miss some ways the system fights the idea of Alternatives running local and building up?