The Greens Need to Win More Than Symbolic Victories

Sam Dock Nov 11, 2014

In a recent article for Jacobin, Green Party Lieutenant Governor candidate Brian Jones argues that the party made substantial progress because the party’s improved showing this year allows the party to move over two positions on the ballot line from Row “F” to Row “D”.  I have a lot of respect for Jones as an activist, teacher, and artist (his performance of Marx in Soho is amazing), but I think this initial takeaway is weak and the Green Party and New York progressives need a better roadmap.

By polling at almost five percent statewide, Howie Hawkins, the Green Party's candidate for governor, did do well for the Greens. At the same time he added one more loss to his now 20-election long losing streak. Well-intentioned, Hawkins is a perpetual candidate who runs on a platform of saying the right thing, but with no aptitude for actually contesting power. Instead, he talks ballot access. In Jones's piece, after accurately criticizing Cuomo's craven disregard for working class New Yorkers, the focus shifts to ballot line access.  This may play well at a Green convention and among the party faithful, but they are not the results regular people care about. What political movement has ever won or flexed power because people in a voting booth were impressed with the party’s position on the ballot line?

What Elections Can Do

Electoral politics often get a bad rap on the left and not without reason. The political institutions in the country were designed to serve the capitalist class and to stifle radical possibilities. Nowadays, unless it is time to go to start another war, the government is now in permanent gridlock. Most activists know that political change which many of us want, will require social movements, large and chaotic as they can be, that will be much more powerful than any individual office. Yet even if we can't vote for the revolution, the choice between electoral campaigns and movement building is not an “either/or” proposition. For this reason, we can't lose sight of the two most important advantages electoral work allows.

First, it is the accepted platform of political conversation in the country. A candidate, especially one who might disrupt or win an election, has a real opportunity to discuss our values, share a vision, and create the necessary hope for change. All the more so for an elected official.

The best example for this is Kshama Sawant, Seattle's Socialist City Council member. Visitors to this year's Left Forum could be forgiven for mistaking Sawant for perhaps a big city mayor or a governor for how she was feted. This isn't a dig against her or the Socialist Alternative party: they've made important strides in upending the Seattle conversation about the value of blue-collar work and getting real increases in the local minimum wage. Seeing their victories with a single City council member causes most people to wonder what they could do with more.

Second, gaining some political power allows us to show what we will do if obtain higher offices. The case of Chokwe Lumumba should be instructive. A veteran of black nationalist movements including the Republic of New Afrika founded in 1968 with the goal of creating a black-majority nation in the Deep South, Lumumba last year became mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, the largest city in the state. What preceded his mayorship? For four years, he had served as a city council member representing poor and working class constituents. Instead of engaging in fire-breathing rhetoric or waving guns around while wearing a beret, as his opponent’s caricature of him would have had it, Lumumba’s steady work as a local legislator (and the disciplined political organizing by the Malcolm X Grassroots movement and other progressive and radical community organizations), set the stage for him to win executive power. His untimely death less than a year into his term does nothing to dull his lesson: for as both Lumumba and Sawant show, voters are people and people judge us by what we do, not just what we say. 

There will always be some who are drawn to what is right, but if the Greens want to become more than the "well, they're right, but they'll never win" party to a much larger, potentially sympathetic base, they need to not bray on about the silly victory of ballot line access "won" from losing statewide races, but to identify a dozen New York races, in the larger cities (NYC, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany) where the incumbent won by only a few percentage points and/or there is reason to believe that the candidates this time were especially weak. These races should be identified now, the Greens should run as close to full slates as they can muster in these areas. 80 percent of their resources, activist and financial, should be sunk into those races with a serious hope of winning. Get some feet in the door.

Unions And The Greens

People like winners and institutions are made up of people as well. Unions have a tough time with elections: Democrats treat labor like an ATM card up until election day, but then don't want to antagonize their other donor bases once in power. Meanwhile, activists wonder what needs to happen to get some of the purse strings opened up for candidates with honest working class politics. Organized labor is nothing if not strategic and they are not going to make endorsements, rally their members or cut checks to ensure the Greens have ballot line access next year. They give money to potential winners because they know they have to pay to play and they need a seat at the table for their members. Asking them to share dues taken out of a janitor or nurse aide's paycheck so the Greens can move over a row on the ballot is ridiculous.

A look across to another progressive third party might be helpful. New York’s Working Families Party gained a lot of attention for their role last year in turning a sharp corner on the post-Bloomberg election: Mayor Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate Letitia James, and Comptroller Scott Stringer all were endorsed by the Working Families Party in 2013. Pushing a strategy of electoral fusion, the WFP's pitch is essentially "vote for the candidates we endorse from the Democratic party and we'll move the Dems further to the left AND you won't be throwing your vote away." Celebrated after 2013's city races, they succumbed to political pressure and endorsed a decidedly unprogressive Governor Cuomo in 2014. Progressive stomachs churned and the WFP was battered in 2014. As The Nation's Richard Kim argued just before the election, his vote for Hawkins was not a full embrace of the Greens, but a "protest vote" against the WFP's endorsement of Cuomo. He's not the only one who voted this way, and nobody should mistake this conditional support for some sort of Green momentum.

Which brings us back to Brian Jones's piece on "Building Outside the Democratic Party," and I hope Jones and the Greens take these words in the spirit that they're given. The plight of the winless Greens and spineless WFP brings to mind the old challenge on ends and means: The Greens failure on the means of getting candidates elected is an empty strategy, the Working Families Party's endorsement of anti-working families candidates leads down a dead end. The Greens need to start winning seats.

Sam Dock is an independent political observer. He'd love to see Marx in Soho filmed in the style of Vanya on 42nd Street.

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