Greens Abandon Their Roots

October 26, 2002

The roots of the Green Party lie in a countercultural desire to opt out of the economy and culture of mainstream America.  Over the past three decades, veterans of political movements for environmental sanity and social justice sought to build alternatives to a culture based on capitalism and consumerism.  Greens wanted society to be guided instead by the principles of "ecological wisdom, social justice, grassroots democracy, and nonviolence."  The rallying cry became a call for "values-based politics".

Petra Kelly in 1982
Early Greens decided that a values-based political party seeking to create cultural change would have to be a membership organization.  They also recognized the perils of electoral politics – with its innate focus on personalities and its tradition of using the ends to justify the means.  For that reason, Greens called for a new kind of political party that would be continually tempered and sustained by values-based activism and extensively involved in countercultural education.  Petra Kelly (the German Green leader given primary credit for founding die Grünen) said that the Green Party would have "one hand in the legislature and two feet planted firmly in the movements."

Ralph Nader
This idealism lasted for many years in America, as state Green parties toiled in the obscurity of third party politics.  Then came Ralph Nader.  The Green Party was not ready for the growth and success that his candidacy sparked.

Major party status for the Green Party of Minnesota (GPMN) has imbued the party with unprecedented ambition, and it has encouraged an ignorance of history and a lack of foresight.  Minnesota Greens have focused their energy almost exclusively on electoral politics.  The party now favors "winnable" campaigns over educational ones, and there is very little activist base to its efforts.

Last December, the GPMN Coordinating Committee convinced the membership that major party status required the party to abandon its membership structure and hold open caucuses.  In March, caucus attendees were given voting rights without previous experience in the party and without attesting that they "shared

Ed McGaa
a commitment to the ten key values" (language from the old membership forms).  As a direct result of this decision, 215 of the 382 delegates to the statewide Endorsing Convention (56 percent) were new to the party.  This became a key factor in the endorsement of Ed "Eagle Man" McGaa for U.S. Senate.

Too many delegates at the Endorsing Convention were either ignorant of Green political philosophy or inexperienced with applying it to electoral politics.  So when McGaa began his convention speech with identity politics (defining himself by his race) by saying, "The Red road is the Green road," the collective reaction of the delegates seemed to be, "Ooh, he's so spiritual!" instead of, "Do all American Indians automatically share our values?"

Many Greens were subsequently horrified when their candidate continually boasted about his military experience, displayed ignorance about environmental issues like biotechnology or nuclear power, and ultimately represented the party about as well as Pat Buchanan.  Despite the anger that many Greens felt toward McGaa, this misrepresentation was actually not his fault, because McGaa had never lied about his views.  Instead, his endorsement was a symptom of the Green Party's abandonment of its principles.

Now the party is frantically trying to hold on to its major party status by receiving 5 percent of the vote in a statewide election – particularly in the races for Governor, Auditor, or Secretary of State.  But this effort ultimately does more harm than good.  Until the Green Party addresses its philosophical disarray, it will be primarily a vehicle for opportunists.  Major party status will continue to encourage unsustainable growth within an organization that is ironically supposed to value sustainability.

Guaranteed ballot access is also undermining the grassroots nature of Green Party campaigns.  In the past, the need to collect signatures to get on the ballot required Green candidates to have the early support of volunteers and extensive contact with the community through door-to-door canvassing.  Now anyone can become a "Green" candidate on the ballot by simply filing for office with a treasurer.  And with public matching funds, a campaign can even be run without many volunteers.

Most Green Party candidates are no longer part of a movement for cultural change.  Unrestrained populism is the new paradigm.  Values-based politics has turned into the values-speak marketing of piecemeal reform by a left-wing coalition.  But Minnesota already has such a coalition party that should be fulfilling that role – the DFL.  If the Green Party does not stand for an unwavering challenge to the dominant culture, then the naysayers are right – the party will only serve to splinter the Left.

Should voters seeking cultural change continue to support such foolishness?  My advice to Greens is to vote for the Ficus Tree in statewide races until their party returns to its roots.

Mark Knapp
2001 Green Party-Endorsed Candidate for Minneapolis City Council

An edited version of this essay also appeared on the web site of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  It was bumped from the paper edition by the sudden death of Senator Paul Wellstone.

Yes, I want to read more from Knappster.

No, get me outta here!  This is all giving me a headache.