Why Our Green Parties Haven't Taken Off

Why Our Green Parties Haven't Taken Off

Black Agenda Report, May 30, 2018

The biggest thing it gets right is its adamant insistence on independence from the two ruling class parties. They know you cannot ride to freedom on Pharaoh's chariot. That’s vitally important. The best among them, like Howie Hawkins, the current Green candidate for NY governor have also preached for years that a sustainable Green Party has to be built on a dues-based membership, with all officers directly responsible to the members who pay those dues.

by Bruce Dixon

why our green parties don't grow
With most Americans agreeing with Greens on most issues, why doesn't the Green Party grow?


A solid majority of Americans polled want to see a third party compete with Republicans and Democrats. On a range of issues too, the public is well to the left of both the ruling class parties. So why hasn’t the Green Party taken off and made itself a contender? The answer is a mix of internal and external reasons.

The external reasons are easy to spot though immensely difficult to overcome. Republicans and Democrat have drafted laws in a third to half the states with the explicit intent of banning parties outside the ruling class consensus, banning third parties from appearing on ballots alongside their Democrat and Republican competitors. This is the purpose of petition drives and other requirements imposed upon third parties which they Dems and Repubs do not apply to themselves. Georgia for instance, requires about 62,000 signatures of registered voters for statewide candidates, and 18 to 22 thousand signatures to put a third party congressional candidate on the ballot. Texas, Indiana, Oklahoma and Illinois are a few of those with the highest such barriers, none of which apply to the establishment parties. Nothing like this exists anywhere else on the planet.

There are formidable barriers to media access as well, because all the mass media, the cable networks and the internet itself are the private property of billionaires and greedy corporations which are allowed to charge political parties and campaigns whatever they like for access to the eyes and ears of the public. This too is unique to the US. Many other countries like the UK allow candidates for public office free access to broadcast media.

And of course parties, campaigns and the careers of public officials are financed in large part by wealthy individuals and corporations, frequently anonymous ones, the same forces that run the Republican and Democratic parties.

The Green Party then, is required to run every race in ankle chains, deprived of media and funds to buy media, and legally barred from appearing on the ballot in large sections of the country by laws which have been enacted and upheld by courts for a century and more. And these are just the external factors.

The internal barriers to transforming the Greens into a mass party are equally daunting.

Greens don’t have an organizing methodology.

The Green Party subscribes to no particular organizing methodology or philosophy beyond the vague and wooly notion that political campaigns are in and of themselves the main, and perhaps the only vehicles for the organization of lasting political parties. This of course is false for multiple reasons, not least of them not the least of them that the ruling class parties are profoundly anti-democratic, with no transmission belts between the wishes of the rank and file and the shot callers at the top. It’s a lot easier to be a Repub or a Democrat. Corporate media literally tell rank and file Repubs and Democrats what their stands on issues ARE.

By contrast the Green Party aspires to internal democracy, to making its leaders accountable to dues paying members, and can rely neither on the generous support of billionaires and corporate entities, nor on access to corporate media. And while Greens have uncritically accepted the myth that taking part in electoral campaigns will win and organize a base, the Green Party’s vague and wooly politics actually inhibit attempts to do political education beyond the simple notion that there are bad people in office and electing good ones will make things better.

In most states, the law is that five or six people in a room can file the necessary papers, identify themselves as co-chairs, treasurer, secretary, whatever and constitute a state party. The Green Party’s national rules allow it to recognize parties that do this. But what if the first five or six people in the room, who are now your state party leadership don’t have a real political analysis of how things got to be this way or how they might be changed? More importantly what if they’re good people but not leaders of anything?

The answer is you get a state party composed of a handful, or at most a few dozen activists who wear themselves out but have no idea why their efforts don’t lead to a mass party. They adopt orphan candidates. They become defensive about their lack of success, and busy themselves with fruitless listserve discussions and debates.

By contrast, when unions – real from-the-bottom-up unions enter a workforce, as Jane McAlevey states in No Shortcuts: Organizing For Power in the New Gilded Age – they know not to make “leaders” out of the first few people who sign their petitions or express support for a union. Those first few people who come to you with radical sounding ideas are often outliers with no social following and no idea how to get one. They seek instead to identify and win over to the union’s cause those they call the “organic leaders”, people who are already looked up to in the social structure of the workplace, those to whom others come to for advice and counsel, the people who are and often would be leaders even if the union were not there at all. Win these over, train and retain them, union organizers have discovered, and you have the basis for a permanent organization with a chance at resisting the many pressures an employer can bring to bear. The McAlevey book contrasts the organizing methods of Alinsky-type outfits with unions run by leaders in bed with management, and with unions committed to standing bottom-up democracy, class struggle and standing with workers.

It’s the kind of useful comparison between what works and doesn’t work that more leftists should be tuned in to. Back in the 1930s heyday of the CIO and CPUSA, old William Z. Foster wrote a “how to organize” pamphlet, Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry. How does the Green Party expect to turn itself into a mass party without a few attempts at something similar, and a lot of comparisons and evaluation of what works, what doesn’t and why?

Lack of an organizing methodology leads Greens to embrace tokenism, and invite mischief.

When the clueless white leaders of ineffective state parties think about the roles and recruitment of people of color, the differently gendered and abled, they replicate their original error with tokenism. They make black or brown or LBGTQ “leaders” out of the first few of each of those groups in the room. In the name of addressing historic wrongs, the Green Party doubles down on this nonsense by making their black, brown and other tokens “caucus leaders” with extra votes on the party’s national committee. This is the philosophy behind the Green Party’s black caucus, its latinx, lavender, and womens caucus, and last year’s attempt to form a native american caucus out of two or three bodies, all with automatic votes on the the GP’s national committee.

Like making the first five people in the room your state officers, this rarely works well. The token leaders of the caucuses, who get automatic votes on the Green Party’s national committee are NOT responsible for following their own bylaws or for contributing any specific or defined work to the party. The black caucus for instance has such sloppily drawn membership requirements that they actually exclude anybody not registered Green or “nonpartisan” despite the fact that in 18 states the laws permit you to do neither. Caucus bylaws also require annual election of officers at the party’s annual meeting including notice and voting arrangements for caucus members not present at the meeting to vote. It’s been at least five, and perhaps seven or eight years since the black caucus even made a pretense of providing for votes by mail, and the current alleged chair of the black caucus recently declared he is under no obligation to reveal to the party who the members of the supposed caucus (which ‘elected’ and may ‘elect’ him again) are, or how many are actually in his “caucus.”

It’s a hot mess, and a formula that invites all manner of malicious opportunism like the disruption at the Greens 2017 annual meeting.

Greens lack political clarity.

The Green Party lacks political clarity about the nature of American society and empire. Lots of rank and file as well as leading Greens including a near majority of the current national steering committee identity themselves as socialists. But many others vehemently reject the s-word and anything connected with it as alien to their green-ness. At the 2015 Green annual meeting even Jill Stein who claims to be a socialist privately if not publicly pointedly refused to identify either capitalism as the cause of our woes or socialism as the likely cure, to the disappointment of many.

When pressed to offer even the vaguest outline of what transforming American politics might look like, the best Stein offer during her campaign was that if a large fraction of those affected by student loan debt, lack of affordable medical care, those messed over by the housing crash, those ill-served by money in politics, the people menaced rather than protected by police, suffering from gentrification, environmental degradation and so on voted for her and other Greens they’d win. As analysis goes, that’s on a par with “there are bad people in office, and if we elect good ones we’ll get better results.” It doesn’t explain how the changes we say we want will ever happen.

It’s perfectly OK for Democrats and Republicans to be politically unclear to their voting base, or to deploy surrogates who don’t hesitate to tell audiences whatever they might want to hear. Base voters of the ruling class parties are only there to turn out election day and go home. It’s not a model that Greens can or should emulate.

Greens imagine they can self-organize with methods similar to those of Republicans and Democrats, and that only electoral campaigns will build a party.

They don’t take into account that Democrats and Republicans are granted ballot and media access by default. Even in states where Greens aren’t banned from the ballot by law, lack of access to media makes it impossible to do what the ruling class parties do, even if they wanted to. And they probably shouldn’t want that anyway. In the Democratic and Republican parties there is no transmission belt between the wishes of voters, or even of campaign workers, and the policies enacted by the party’s candidates once they win office. Democrats and Republicans will welcome you to make phone calls, to canvass and the like, but there’s no mechanism to translate your views into policy. They are not internally small d democratic organizations, they use mass media to tell their followers what to think. If you’re a Democrat you watch MSNBC or CNN to find out what you think, and if you’re a Republican you watch Fox News or one of the Sinclair Broadcasting channels for your marching instructions.

Campaigns don’t necessarily build lasting parties either. Campaigns are short-term mobilizations aimed at turning out a vote election day. Campaign funds are legally segregated from party funds. Hillary Clinton raised a lot more in 2016 than her party, and Jill Stein raised something like eight times what the Green Party did in the 2016 election cycle, so in practice the candidates have far more to say about what the party does than party officials do. Before I became a Green I was a Democrat in Denial in Chicago, working in something like two dozen campaigns and nominally nonpartisan voter registration drives over a quarter century. In better than half of these we imagined we were laying the groundwork for a permanent, sustainable grassroots political organization. A couple actually lasted a year or two. Most dissolved as soon as the campaign was over. If progressive campaigns and candidates built permanent organizations there would be a lot more of these in existence.

The Green Party does get many important things right.

The biggest thing it gets right is its adamant insistence on independence from the two ruling class parties. They know you cannot ride to freedom on Pharaoh's chariot. That’s vitally important. The best among them, like Howie Hawkins, the current Green candidate for NY governor have also preached for years that a sustainable Green Party has to be built on a dues-based membership, with all officers directly responsible to the members who pay those dues.

The Green Party is also entirely correct in its consistent opposition to empire, to gentrification, destroying and despoiling the environment, and to an entire range of disastrous neoliberal policies which neither Democrats nor Republicans can denounce because their parties are ultimately controlled by their ruling class funders. But the party’s vague politics, its insistence on tokenism and lack of an organizing methodology make me wonder more and more whether it actually can be transformed into a class-conscious revolutionary party with the vision and resourcefulness to actually organize a mass following and struggle for power in this country.

The fact that there are a lot more people voting for Democrats and Republicans than for Greens, and that Green parties have not grown more than they have is NOT proof that Greens are deluded or hopelessly incompetent. What the Greens aim to do is incomparably more difficult than anything the apparatchiks of ruling class parties do. I've been a Democratic party operative. I know. Will the Green Party manage to transform itself into a revolutionary party? Maybe, maybe not. We'll see. 

If not, I hope to be alive and active long enough to take part in whatever party formation – and yes we DO need a revolutionary party – comes next. The lessons of the Green Party, like those of progressives who struggled to transform the Democratic party ever since the Popular Front of 1936 led most of the US into that hole, will be remembered and learned from, not forgotten and wasted.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor of Black Agenda Report, and still a member of the GA Green Party’s state committee. He lives and works near Marietta GA and can be reached via email at [email protected] .

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