It’s Not Easy Being Green

Taking a little break here from blogging about writing — the election this week has kind of thrown me for a loop, emotionally. Being a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-take-care-of-business kind of guy, I asked myself, “What can I actually do to maybe improve the dreadful situation a tiny bit?”

Well, there’s the Green Party. They’re pretty much a joke, unfortunately. But I agree with most of their policy ideas. I have a lot more sympathy for them than for the hawkish, Wall-Street-crony Democrats. Is there any way I might be able to put some energy into the Green Party of California (GPCA) so that they have a chance to actually influence future elections or get bits of their agenda enacted into law?

On exploring the website of the California Greens, I sensed what I feel is a basic problem: There’s no leadership. Ordinary people don’t vote for policies or ideas so much — they vote for charismatic leaders. A political party needs dynamic leaders. The Greens’ shortage of leaders is, I think, by design. It’s a result of their guiding philosophy. They love the idea of “grassroots democracy.” They want everybody to have a voice in the decision-making process. While this is a noble ideal, it tends not to produce high-profile leaders.

It also tends to get in the way of effective organization. Getting progressives to work toward a common goal is like herding cats. They just want to stay home and grow organic vegetables. The right wing is better organized because their ideals call for regimentation. (Well, except for the ideal of “freedom.” But don’t ask them if that means being free to be an atheist, a homosexual, or an undocumented immigrant.) As I like to put it, “The fascists have all the good marching songs.” Sitting in a circle and singing “We Shall Overcome” is not, on the whole, very effective as an organizing strategy.

I emailed a couple of the — what shall we call them, functionaries? — on the GPCA website. In the email I said, “It seems to me that this would be an ideal time for the Green Party to get into high gear. The outrage is palpable! Recruiting new party registration and putting forward a progressive agenda — the time is now. Is the GPCA doing anything to mobilize, recruit, and start running qualified candidates for statewide office? Are there plans in the works? … If there’s to be any hope for the party in the future, the time to seize the initiative is now. Where can I learn about a Green Party power plan for 2017 and beyond?”

I got a prompt response from Mike Feinstein, one of the three spokespeople listed on the website. He asked if I’d like to talk on the phone. I said sure. This afternoon we had a nice 15-minute conversation.

The first thing to remark on, I suppose, is that one of the three spokespeople for the statewide party had time for a 15-minute chat with a total stranger who confessed (as I did) to being a former registered Green who had re-registered some years ago as a Democrat. I’m not sure whether this means he doesn’t have many duties, or whether it means they’re desperate to register anybody who shows the slightest interest. Or maybe he’s just extremely courteous and not many people ever get in touch with him about Party business. Take your pick.

He never addressed in any way the substance of the question I had asked in the email. I didn’t push him on it — I was just curious to hear what he had to say. What he did, primarily, was give me some insight into how difficult it is for the Green Party to get any electoral traction.

He pointed out that in places like Germany, where the Green Party does better, election results lead to what’s called proportional representation. That is, if a small party gets 5% of the vote, they get 5% of the seats in Parliament. This is quite different from the district-based winner-take-all system in the U.S.

He also mentioned that the Democratic Party views the Green Party as the enemy. They do things to push the Greens aside. I didn’t ask for specifics, but he did mention the 2003 mayor’s race in San Francisco, when Matt Gonzalez (Green) was narrowly defeated by Gavin Newsom (Democrat). Newsom is now, of course, our Lieutenant Governor. Winning the mayor’s race was an important stepping-stone for him. Feinstein (Mike, remember, not Dianne — probably no relation, though I didn’t ask) told me Bill Clinton was involved somehow in supporting Newsom. That doesn’t surprise me. That’s how big league politics works.

Today the Green Party boasts one mayor in California. He’s the mayor of a town called Marina, which has a population of about 20,000. That and half a dozen city council seats, also in marginal locations, are the Greens’ big electoral accomplishments. Also, their registered membership has declined steadily over the past 15 years, from 150,000 in 2003 to about 110,000 today. You’d think recruiting a few thousand disappointed and distressed Democrats would be a priority this week, but apparently it’s not.

At the end of the conversation, I was left with the impression that Mike was being defensive rather than proactive. He blamed the electoral system and the Democrats for the Green Party’s threadbare accomplishments. Of course these are huge factors — he’s not wrong — but blaming the system for your failures is not smart and it’s not effective. It’s a way of remaining a victim.

Another huge factor is the fact that the Greens don’t attract much in the way of financial support. They can’t run an efficient party organization, because it’s all volunteers. There’s no paid staff, and certainly no money for TV ads. This is probably an inevitable problem — but what are you going to do about it?

No fund-raising efforts are mentioned on the GPCA website, not even on the page describing the Finance Committee.

Those are our options, sports fans — a Democratic Party too mired in dysfunction to mount an effective challenge to a preposterous and dangerous demagogue, or a marginal party that entirely lacks leadership, vision, and money.

Color me disgusted.

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