Spoiling the Party?

Denunciations of Minnesota’s Green Party have appeared all over the
national alternative press this election season, as pundits who
normally aim their rhetorical firepower at right-wingers and
corporate criminals are up in arms that the state’s growing band of
Greens is fielding a candidate against progressive champion Paul
Wellstone in an extremely tight Senate race. Pointing to the role
Ralph Nader’s Green candidacy played in sending George W. Bush to
the White House, magazines from the leftist Nation to the
liberal American Prospect worry that this latest experiment
in political purity could tip the U.S. Senate to the
Republicans.

Despite a moving appeal from Nader’s two-time running mate Winona
LaDuke to not challenge Wellstone, delegates at the party’s May
convention nominated Native American activist Ed ‘Eagle Man’ McGaa
for the Senate seat. For many Greens, Wellstone’s support of a bill
authorizing President Bush’s war on terrorism was a major
issue-although a largely symbolic one, since the measure passed
with only one dissenting vote. But as The Alternet News
Service
(June 3, 2002) and The Progressive (July 2002)
point out, McGaa does not even share the Greens’ views about the
war. ‘As a Korean War vet,’ reports The Progressive‘s
political editor Ruth Conniff, ‘he says he believes constructive
military intervention is sometimes warranted.’

McGaa is not considered a particularly strong or sophisticated
candidate, a view reinforced by his suggestion that Wellstone might
not survive the election due to his health. Wellstone announced
earlier this year that he has a mild form of multiple sclerosis,
but on the campaign trail this year he displays the same fire that
fueled his stunning 1990 upset of two-term Republican Rudy
Boschwitz. But this time Wellstone is the two-termer fighting to
win back some people’s trust after overriding a 1990 campaign
promise to serve no more than two terms.

This is the biggest obstacle he faces in the race against
Republican nominee Norm Coleman, a newly minted right-winger who
defected from Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party while
serving as mayor of St. Paul. Coleman is a formidable campaigner,
and polls this summer showed him and Wellstone in a statistical
dead heat with McGaa pulling a significant 3 percent of the
vote.

Wellstone’s reelection is important to hopes of turning back George
Bush’s conservative onslaught-and not just because of his
near-perfect progressive voting record and pivotal position in a
deadlocked Senate. Through 12 years in the Senate and many more as
an activist, Wellstone has pioneered a style of politics with
lessons for any progressive who wishes to someday be part of a
political majority in America. He brings a spirit of populism to
electoral politics, emphasizing economic and environmental issues
in a way that appeals beyond the usual liberal circles: to
veterans’ groups, to voters in farm country, blue-collar suburbs,
and mining and lumber and factory towns.

‘Virtually alone among Senate Democrats,’ writes The
Nation
‘s Washington correspondent, John Nichols (May 27, 2002),
‘Wellstone sees himself not just as a member of Congress but as a
member of a movement. He . . . organized family-farm rallies in
Washington, marches with striking hotel workers.’ A recent poll
shows Wellstone’s support coming not just from reliably liberal
voters in Minneapolis and St. Paul but also from nonmetropolitan
counties, where he leads Coleman by eight points. Coleman, however,
enjoys enormous support in the Twin Cities’ affluent suburbs.

‘Wellstone is the single most effective proponent of lower-case
g green politics in America,’ declares Harold Meyerson in
The American Prospect (July 1, 2001). Minnesota Greens
defend their decision to run against him as a necessary step toward
their goal of becoming a viable alternative to the two major
parties, which they view as not much different on most of the key
issues.

As much as I agree with the Green Party on most issues (and truth
be told, I played a role in convening the first public meeting of
what would become the Minnesota Greens, but soon returned to the
DFL fold, largely because of Wellstone), I seriously question their
strategy. Why don’t Greens in Minnesota and elsewhere concentrate
on elections where they can make a difference in some way other
than being a spoiler?

Last fall, for instance, two Greens were elected to the Minneapolis
City Council and another serves on the city council in Duluth. In
neighboring Wisconsin, Greens claim a city council member in
Milwaukee, three county commissioners in and around Superior, and
three county commissioners and three city council members in
Madison. Around the country 146 Greens hold elected office in 20
states, including the mayors of Santa Monica and Menlo Park,
California, and city council members in San Francisco and Berkeley;
Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut; Laramie, Wyoming; Santa Fe,
New Mexico; Missoula, Montana; Boulder, Colorado; Salem, Oregon;
Cocoa Beach, Florida; and Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

Greens have been able to exert a positive influence on national
politics in countries that have proportional representation voting
systems. With 10 or even 5 percent of the vote, Greens in Germany,
Sweden, and elsewhere have attained genuine political power by
working with mainstream parties. But under the confines of
America’s winner-take-all election system, Greens will often find
themselves knocking off worthy progressives and handing power over
to conservatives who despise the Green political agenda. Remember
that in Great Britain, which bequeathed us our antiquated electoral
system, Margaret Thatcher dismantled a half-century’s worth of
social reforms without ever gaining more than 44 percent of the
vote, thanks to competing parties on the left.

But let’s be honest: Democrats can’t shirk their own role in
creating the Green opposition. Often, Greens are correct in saying
that there’s not much difference between the two major parties. If
the party of FDR and RFK had remained welcome to progressive ideas,
rather than becoming a me-too chorus to Republicans’ slavish
devotion to corporations, then the Greens would not be in a
position to make trouble. Adding to the problem is Democrats’
resistance to electoral reforms such as fusion voting-an innovation
adopted in seven states where people have the choice to vote for
the same candidate on different party tickets. Fusion voting
directly addresses the third-party spoiler issue by allowing
independent-minded voters to support a favored candidate even if
they want to register disagreement with that candidate’s party.

Under this system, Paul Wellstone, could run as both a Democrat and
a Green. A strong showing on the Green Party ticket would send a
message to Democrats about how many Wellstone supporters are
seeking something more than politics-as-usual. Or let’s say a
conservative Democrat won the Minnesota party’s Senate nomination.
Then Greens could run their own progressive candidate. This is the
strategy behind the new Working Families Party in New York State.
In Minnesota, however, Democrats opposed a recent fusion voting
initiative. So if Paul Wellstone loses his Senate seat in November,
Democrats should look in the mirror as well as at the Greens when
they’re seeking people to blame.

Working to establish proportional representation (New Zealand made
the switch a few years back, and even the U.K. has taken some small
steps in that direction), fusion voting, and other electoral
reforms ought to be the number-one strategic goal of American
Greens-well ahead of challenging progressive Democrats like Paul
Wellstone. It would be a shame if the rise of Green politics in
America led to right-wing domination of national politics for
another generation.

Jay Walljasper is editor of Utne Reader.

When (and where) is it okay for Green candidates to run against
Democrats? Discuss Green politics in the Currents forum at
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