The Green Party's Radical Common Sense
By Scott McLarty
Germany and other European countries have a thriving multiparty political culture. The U.S. used to have one too. In 1916, five parties were seated in Congress.
In his Washington Post article “In Europe, the Green Party is a force. In the U.S., it’s irrelevant. Here’s why,” Per Urlaub, associate professor of German studies at the University of Texas, contends that “the American electoral system is heavily weighted against small political parties.”
He’s right. Alternative parties must wrestle with ballot-access laws, enacted since 1916 by Democratic and Republican legislators in many states, that privilege major-party candidates and hinder others. In some states, alternative parties are effectively banned from participation.
When alternative parties do get on the ballot, their candidates often face the “spoiler” accusation. The supposed spoiler effect can be eliminated by replacing the prevailing “first past the post” system with “ranked choice,” which allows people to rank their preferences.
Reforms like ranked choice voting (RCV) and proportional representation — which gave Germany and other European countries their multiparty legislatures — are considered radical here, even though they grant voters greater power and more options.
Greens have urged such reforms for years, but Democrats and Republicans prefer to maintain their exclusive hold. A chance for RCV in California died in early October with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s veto.
The major parties solidified their grip in 1988, when the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) seized control of the debates from the League of Women Voters. Contrary to its “nonpartisan” label, the CPD is run by Democratic and Republican representatives for the benefit of their own candidates. The League has called the CPD debates a “fraud on the American voter.”
The CPD adopted its poll-based criteria to determine participation in the debates after the 1998 gubernatorial election in Minnesota. Independent candidate Jesse Ventura was dismissed as “not viable,” with a tiny percentage in the polls until he was allowed to participate in a debate. His poll numbers shot up and he went on to win.
When the CPD witnessed what happened in Minnesota, it raised the requirement to 15 percent in the polls in 2000 to spare Al Gore and George W. Bush from facing Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan in the debates.
The CPD’s rules aren’t meant to bar “unviable” candidates, they’re designed to keep alternative-party candidates from becoming viable.
There’s nothing inevitable about having only two parties. We don’t have a two-party system, we have a two-party racket.
Voters are aware they’ve been cheated. Their frustration is evident in polls showing they favor more options than two on Election Day, and the high disapproval ratings for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Radical? Only in the U.S.
Per Urlaub’s main complaint about the U.S. Green Party is its “radicalism.” In fact, the U.S. has a long history of radical alternative-party ideas.
Abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the eight-hour workday, worker benefits, public schools, unemployment compensation, the minimum wage, child labor laws, direct election of senators, Social Security, civil rights for blacks and other disenfranchised peoples — all were first represented in the electoral forum by alternative parties.
Marginalization of minor parties in the late 20th century is an unmentioned reason for the shift to the right in both major parties and the disappearance of big progressive ideas.
Obamacare isn’t a big progressive idea. It’s a repackaging of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s individual mandate proposal and RomneyCare, implemented by then-governor Mitt Romney, a Republican, from Massachusetts. It was drafted by Democrats with the participation of insurance-industry representatives.
Greens support a single-payer health care program, so that Americans can have the guaranteed medical care enjoyed by citizens of every other democratic developed nation. Only in the U.S. is universal health care dismissed as radical and unrealistic.
Urlaub never mentions what makes the U.S. Green Party radical. He does, however, cite projects for conversion to clean, renewable energy that are implemented in Europe and advocated by presidential nominee Jill Stein and other Green candidates in the “Green New Deal,” which aims for freedom from fossil fuels by 2030.
Global warming was nearly absent from the three Clinton-Trump debates, even after Hurricane Matthew pounded Haiti and the Southern states.
Young people will live with the consequences of rule by two parties awash in corporate money and influence. Millennials face an era of deteriorating quality of life, increasing personal debt, exported jobs, eroded rights and freedoms, lawless militarism, and social breakdown as the planet heats up.Urlaub advises us that “climate change, dwindling energy resources and growing human and economic costs from natural disasters will do more to promote ecological consciousness and political change in mainstream America than the radical rhetoric of the Green Party.”
Greens say we can’t wait for the severest effects of global warming before taking action to prevent them — and changing the political landscape to enable such action.
As with the climate crisis, radical measures are often exactly what we need.
In 2004, Green Mayor Jason West of New Paltz, N.Y., inspired by the Green Party’s support for LGBT equality, solemnized the weddings of same-sex couples — and was prosecuted. Nine years later, Hillary Clinton joined the rest of the civilized world and endorsed same-sex marriage.
In Richmond, Calif., Green Mayor Gayle McLaughlin used eminent domain to keep residents with underwater mortgages in their homes. McLaughlin infuriated the foreclosing banks — whose predatory lending and trading in toxic securities crashed the economy in 2008.
What Urlaub calls radicalism is progressive leadership. Greens know very well that compromise and collaboration are often necessary in public office, but one doesn’t march into battle armed with capitulations.
The Green New Deal is a vision in the tradition of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Johnson’s Great Society. The Democratic Party has abandoned such visions, especially since the Clintons led it to the right in the early 1990s.
Donald Trump’s vision for America is frightening. Hillary Clinton’s vision is “I’m not Trump.” She doesn’t even bother to promise hope or change. The Green Party says we can do better.
Scott McLarty is media coordinator for the Green Party of the United States. He lives in Washington, D.C.