Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Thoughts on the Politics of Blue and Green

A couple of months ago I attended a meeting of people who identified themselves as Green Party members and Democratic Party members here in Humboldt County. The idea was to explore ways the two groups could work together.

We introduced ourselves and talked briefly about how we got to where we were politically. As I recall, many of the Greens spoke of being part of other movements that failed, such as socialist parties, before gravitating to the Greens. The Democrats often spoke of family and community loyalties in past generations of Democrats.

I was invited as a Democrat. I don't go to many meetings nor work in many groups anymore, so group dynamics are always interesting. I talked about my background as a third generation Democrat, who as a teenager worked for John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, went to his Inauguration and shook his hand, and a couple of years later returned for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which is what that famous 1962 civil rights march was called. I said I worked registering voters for the Democratic party in support of Lyndon Johnson, and marched against Johnson, including at the Pentagon in 1968, pretty much short-circuiting what could very well have been a political future in my home area of western Pennsylvania.

Maybe I didn't get to say all of that, but I did mention that I supported Robert Kennedy in 1968 and still consider myself a Robert Kennedy Democrat. It was interesting how emotional I felt in support of this identity, in that company. For the truth of the matter is that in terms of many basic beliefs and political positions, I could have just as well been on the Green side. For instance, I believe that the overriding issue of our times is global heating, the climate crisis. Much of my work has been in environmentalism on one level or another. I wrote the video script for "Voices of Humboldt County: Cumulative Impact," which the Humboldt Watershed Council has used as an organizing tool and as a potent weapon in court cases involving Maxxam and their repulsive logging practices. I designed and put together the "official" web site for the late Paul Shepard, one of the most important ecological thinkers of his generation.

My work since I've been in Humboldt County has been mostly involved in the arts and with or for local American Indian organizations. I used my one contact very highly placed within the Clinton Administration exactly once in 8 years: to advocate for a pardon for Leonard Peltier. So obviously, I am not proud of everything the Clinton administration did, or didn't do.

But identifying yourself on one side or the other inevitably makes you an advocate for your side. So I was looking at the Greens from the perspective of a third generation Democrat (the first that I know of being my father's father, who I knew only as an old man who lived in his own basement, retired from the coal mines with black lung; the second was my father, who held a few minor township offices in addition to his regular job as a salesman. He was on the county Democratic committee for many years, so I remember the piles of pink "specimen ballots" distributed to Democrats to take to the polls; I used the backs of the extras to draw my cartoon panels on.)

So from this perspective, one of the places the Greens are ideologically vulnerable is class. There is insufficient attention paid to the working class and the poor in their ideology; moreover, when they oppose Democrats who have at least some institutional memory of being a party of the working class and minorities, they sever that last lifeline, however frayed. That's why at this meeting I quoted Harry Hopkins, FDR's chief advisor, who advocated programs to help those in need as well as programs to foster economic growth in the Depression. "People don't eat in the long term," Hopkins said. "They eat every day."

This got a laugh but the next Green to speak said that he also worried about the long term, which of course is also what I believe. I worry about life on earth as we know it surviving the 21st century. The future is one of my political concerns.

So this is the problem and the opportunity of dividing this way. Issues at least get raised. But you tend to get locked into a particular point of view that doesn't necessarily even represent what you really believe, at least not totally.

What I do think is that Humboldt County in particular has a great opportunity for what I've seen elsewhere called a blue-green coalition: blue collar and environmentalists. For after all, the facts about the extractive industries as well as other economic and non-economic, community and family interdependencies with the environment, should favor such coalitions.

Instead, the ruling class has managed to pit blues against greens on issues of jobs especially, but also by playing to class prejudices on both sides. It's a political tragedy, with vast consequences.

Such a coalition requires a search for a common language, which will require much soul-searching on the part of individuals and groups of both hues. And here in Humboldt we also have the great advantage of indigenous Native communities, elders and activists. Native groups and environmentalists have worked together on some issues, and have opposed each other on others. There is great skepticism among Native activists I've met about how much environmentalists understand about their point of view. (This goes double for attitudes towards the frequent soft-green allies among the New Agers.)

One notable item from this first meeting was that nobody was very interested in hashing over the 2000 election. In part, this was a kind of denial, for I noticed that it kept coming up in the discussion of other issues. In part I'm sure it was a genuine impulse to move on.

Some Greens, including the co-chair of the meeting, are apparently unrepentant about supporting Ralph Nader to the bitter end. Some (evidenced by discussions after the meeting) are shocked by how extreme the Bush administration is, and have realized that in important ways a Gore administration would be very much better, despite the "Bore or Gush" rhetoric of the Nader campaign. Some spoke of their "vote swapping" efforts, trading Nader votes in safe Gore states like California for Gore votes in more hotly contested states. They realized to some degree what a disaster Bush would be, prior to election day.

Before the meeting, attendees got an email copy of an article by a former Nader aide urging Nader not to run in 2004, which he apparently is intent on doing. This wasn't discussed either.

I wanted to discuss this issue, not because I wanted to argue that Nader cost Gore the election. I was thinking about the future. I said that on specific issues-the war in Iraq which was brewing even then, or California issues such as single-payer health care or state campaign finance like Arizona's-I'd be happy to work with anybody, regardless of what party they belonged to. But that I wasn't interested in entering into a coalition that did not recognize the realities of electoral politics.

Do you vote for the lesser of two evils, or make your vote a protest vote, to possibly influence future elections? I've gone through my own very painful process on this issue. When Robert Kennedy was killed in June 1968 I vowed I would not vote for a candidate who supported the Vietnam war. And I didn't. But I still found myself watching the late returns on television on election night, rooting for a Humphrey victory. Hubert Humphrey didn't seem to be the courageous visionary he once had been, but even then I knew that Richard Nixon was a functionally evil politician. And nobody, at least until Bush II, did as much damage to constitutional government as President Nixon.

I went through this process in every presidential campaign thereafter, mostly in the primaries. Do I support the best candidate, or the best candidate who has the best chance of winning the presidency?
I knew how corrupt and compromised the whole system, and the political dialogue was. Even in 1972, for awhile I went around wearing a campaign button for the Firesign Theatre's imaginary candidate George Papoon, whose slogan was "Not Insane." But eventually I advocated strongly for George McGovern, who even members of the national press felt had a chance of winning right up to the last week or so of the campaign. Despite the poll numbers, he drew large and enthusiastic crowds.

I supported Bill Clinton even in the primaries in 1992, because it was essential that a Democrat be elected, just to slow down and reverse at least some of the damage that a generation of mostly Republican administrations had done. Reagan had come close to destroying the federal government along with the untold suffering his policies caused.

I saw Clinton try to do the right things in his first term, and the kind and quality of vicious opposition this inspired. I was surprised by the vehemence also of people who had supported him and now were ready to castigate him as a failure, if not a traitor to the cause. I realized again how much of our collective unconscious we invest in a President (or presidential candidate). We project so much onto a person who is after all just a human being, that our disappointment is all but inevitable.

I think I became especially conscious of this because Bill Clinton and I are almost precisely the same age. In fact, he is about six weeks younger. Our first baby boomer president had some strange effects on other baby boomers. I remember one of the commentators on TV covering the Inaugural Parade, when the new President and Mrs. Clinton were walking part of the way. He mentioned that he and Clinton were about the same age. And now he's President of the United States, he said, and I'm...covering his parade.

Part of Clinton's problem with fellow baby boomers was that he was president and we weren't. I suppose we felt that there was still time, until he showed up. But there was another side to this identification. I remember talking about Clinton with people who were so disappointed in him, and then talking to a friend even closer in age to Clinton than me, who was working in state government. When we talked about Clinton, it was in terms of not only political realities but of what one person could reasonably do in one day's work. It seemed nearly a miracle anything got done at all. To us he wasn't only the symbol, the President. He was a guy like us with a job. A very tough job.

There was also a lot of class prejudice against Clinton in Washington. Class warfare of the Bush kind has been going on for a long time, and that's another reason that class has to become part of our political dialogue again.

But there are actions Clinton took and didn't take that are more than just disappointing. The human costs of the Iraq sanctions to the utterly innocent, the human costs of so-called welfare reform, are just the first that come to mind. Still, activists bear some of the blame, too. The civil rights progress of the mid 1960s happened because of the coexistence of strong pressure from outside government with an administration that was persuadable, and willing to take advantage of political opportunities this outside pressure created, even to the extent of taking political risks. (For don't forget that one cost of the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s was the end of the Solid South for the Democrats and the beginning of a new Republican stronghold, which the Kennedys and other Democrats knew would happen.)

But in the 90s, activists relaxed a bit too much, in my view. Environmentalism in particular got flabby and institutional. Instead of using radical activism as energy and threat, the established environmental movement got bogged down in technical lobbying and basically in waiting for the Clinton-Gore administration to do stuff.
Clinton needed more visible pressure from the left, to begin to counter or at least challenge the power of corporate lobbying.

On the other hand, Clinton did stem the destructive tide in many areas. There were lots of environmental victories along with compromises. For someone who was fighting for his life most of his eight years, he and his administration left the country in far better shape that it was when they took office.

Then came the election of 2000, and the eventual Supreme Court coup. At this moment it is difficult to exaggerate the folly and the evil being perpetrated by the Bush administration in just about every way imaginable. Damage is being done that even with luck could not be undone for many years. We have two more years before the next presidential election.

So the point I was trying to make to that mixed group was this: I'm not interested in assigning relative blame for Bush to Nader draining key votes in Florida versus Gore's campaign mistakes or how fed up many Americans are with the whole system, or more sinister scenarios. What does concern me is 2004, and the lessons learned or not learned. The reality is that Ralph Nader is not going to be elected President in 2004, nor is any candidate the Green Party is likely to nominate. The reality is that the election in practical terms is about hiring somebody to be president, and by the day of decision there are only two candidates for the job. You choose one or you choose the other.

The time to build a new party is long before election day. The place to build it is on the local level. Sure, a presidential candidate with enormous media appeal might beat the two party candidates---and just who might that be? Jesse Ventura?

I want to hear Greens say, we were wrong to support Nader to the bitter end in 2000, because it at least helped make Bush possible, and we won't make that mistake again.

Then I can work with them. Despite the institutional confusion and in-fighting apparently occurring within the Green party on whatever state or regional or national or international levels.

I can work with them anyway, on individual issues-or so I thought until a recent event which in fact prompted this column. I attended an "Education Summit" at Humboldt State recently. It was mostly about alternative education, and I found the sessions I attended stimulating, thought-provoking and even exciting, and I felt everybody was on the right track, as well as having their hearts in the right place.

Just outside the main assembly room on the last day of the conference there was a table. On it was a petition for a single-payer, government funded health insurance system in California. I moved towards the table to sign the petition. But then I saw some more literature on the table. One sign said something to the effect of "Reasons why the Republicans and Democrats are the Same." It was a Green Party table.

Despite the commonalities fostered by the current system of campaign contributions, lobbying and corporate power, I don't believe the Republican and Democrats are the same. They don't support the same policies, or appoint the same judges, and they come from different constituencies. The differences in some aspects may be marginal, but that margin makes a very big difference, if you're interested in, say, a woman's right to choose, some limits on the rapacity inflicted on the natural world, and decisions on when and how and why to go to war or not.

To say they are the same may help convince people to support the Green party. But on every level, this turns out to help Republicans win elections. One Republican candidate here in Humboldt County was quite open about pitting a Green against a Democrat in order to split the vote.

I voted for a couple of Green candidates myself in local elections. But to do so on a national level is profoundly self-destructive. To do so even on intermediate levels is risky, because there is no real reliable Green party structure to back anybody up. Not in the way that there is a Democratic party infrastructure, as well as a tradition that can be appealed to.

To say there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats is personally insulting as well as foolishly inaccurate. In 2003 it tells me the judgment of these people can't be trusted. I wound up avoiding that table like the plague. I didn't sign the petition. I'll make my views known to my representatives, who at the moment are all Democrats, in other ways.

I'm probably not going back to those meetings of Greens and Dems. I'm not a Democratic party insider anyway. No Democrat here has hired me for anything, and I'm not economically able to volunteer much time, especially for activities my presence doesn't enhance in ways as possibly valuable as, say, what I'm doing right now. There will come a time, however, when licking envelopes and making phone calls for free will be more useful than writing for free. I've done that since I was 14, and I'll probably do it again in 2004. And it won't be at Green party headquarters.

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