Are the Greens Ready For Prime Time?
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Minnesota can be considered a veritable mecca for insurgent third parties. Its governor is maverick independent Jesse Ventura. Its own Democratic Party is an outgrowth of the Farmer-Labor Party. No surprise, then, that its Green Party is one of the best organized in the country.
After winning more than 5 percent of the state vote in the 2000 presidential election, the Minnesota Greens now qualify for major ballot status. Taking advantage of the public financing provisions available as a result, the party could snag as much as $250,000 to run its gubernatorial candidate this fall. Other Greens will compete for other statewide offices and for state legislative seats. Already Greens sit on the Minneapolis and Duluth city councils. For those seeking alternatives to a two-party system ever more beholden to special interests, the news coming from the northern plains this elections cycle could have been welcome.
Could have been. But unfortunately, when hundreds of Minnesota Greens met for their state nominating convention two weeks ago, they took a precipitous lunge toward political suicide. By more than a two-thirds margin, the Minnesota Green Party endorsed a candidate to run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone -- arguably the most liberal, the most "Green-ish" member of the U.S. Senate. Wellstone is already engaged in a touch-and-go fight for his political survival. The White House is pouring in support for his conservative rival, Norm Coleman, as the Bushies hunger to retire the obstreperously liberal Wellstone and to simultaneously win back the Senate for the GOP. It is an election in which every vote counts, and even a relatively small Green vote could tip the scales in favor of Coleman.
A Green running against Wellstone has little in common with Ralph Nader's presidential run in the 2000 elections. Greens and other progressives opposed Al Gore because he was too timid on core issues of social justice. By running Nader in the 2000 elections, the Greens had a chance to qualify for millions of dollars in public matching funds, build up their state and local party organizations and inflict some well-deserved and corrective pain on a national Democratic Party that continued to drift rightward.
But what's this got to do with Wellstone? The former college professor is about as liberal as you can get within the Democratic Party. In the 2000 primary Wellstone also opposed Gore, stumping for (and often outshining) candidate Bill Bradley. Unlike Gore (but like the Greens), Wellstone has fought for single-payer health care. He has opposed his own party on the drug war and intervention in Colombia. He faced tear gas and rubber bullets as he marched alongside the Greens against the World Trade Organization's blueprint for corporate globalization in the 1999 "Battle in Seattle." His labor record is impeccable. His environmental record is, well, a lush green.
With all this in mind, the Greens' 2000 vice presidential candidate, Winona LaDuke, sent an open letter to the Minnesota party convention passionately urging it not to endorse a candidate against Wellstone. But LaDuke's plea was pushed aside and her fellow Greens chose a Native American, writer Ed "Eagle Man" McGaa, to run against Wellstone.
Apparently Wellstone's unpardonable sin was to have supported the U.S. military action after Sept. 11 and to have voted, along with 98 other senators, for the USA Patriot Act.
But here comes the really troubling part of this story. Green candidate McGaa, a veteran of both Korea and Vietnam, says he also supported a military response to last year's attacks and that he opposes the Green Party's plank on the war against terrorism.
In other words, the Greens -- in the name of principle -- are risking the defeat of the greenest member of the Senate by running a candidate who agrees with Wellstone on what the party evidently thinks is the make-or-break issue. Talk about not being ready for prime time.
As a backlash against this silly move builds, the Greens are now scrambling to explain away the mess. Some say they "had" to endorse McGaa, otherwise anyone off the street could have paid the filing fees and wound up on the Green primary ballot -- and ultimately run as the Green candidate in the final election. But McGaa himself, with little prior visibility among the Greens, seems to have been chosen on the spot and with virtually no serious scrutiny. Within hours of his endorsement by the Greens, McGaa made a series of confusing and intemperate public statements that revealed him to be anything but a reflective student of political strategy. When asked by the Progressive magazine if he was concerned about being a spoiler against Wellstone, McGaa said: "I'm an American Indian. We're not as analytical as you folks are. We observe and go forth with our life ... We're less materialistic."
Among those Minnesota Greens who wanted to stay out of the Wellstone race was Brian Kaller, co-editor of his party's state newspaper. But even Kaller said McGaa's politically correct credentials proved irresistible. "McGaa was not familiar to a majority [of the delegates]," he said. "But there were at least some people from the Native American community there who ... vouched for him. And while we are all pro-union, McGaa [was] a union worker. We are all in favor of peace, but he's a Korean and Vietnam war veteran who has also spoken out for peace. He is a member of a historically disenfranchised people. He's a feminist. And an environmentalist." For many Greens, Kaller said, McGaa is simply a "dream candidate."
The Minnesota situation is not, unfortunately, an anomaly in Green politics. Since their emergence in Germany 30 years ago, the party has always had a strain of fundamentalists, known as "fundis,"who are allergic to political compromise and seek a politically pure party, despite the electoral consequences.
Opposing them have been the "realos," the more pragmatic faction that argues that politics is the art of building coalitions. The success of this approach can be seen in the current "red-green" alliance of Social Democrats and Greens that governs the German Federal Republic.
In a place like Germany, both factions can easily coexist within the Greens. In a proportional representation system, where even small minor parties can win parliamentary seats, a viable argument can be made to keep the party small but pure.
But how can the "fundi" strategy -- as symbolized by the selection of McGaa to go against Wellstone -- sustain itself in the winner-take-all American electoral system? A Green Party that refuses to build bridges with allies outside of its own confines is destined to doom -- as so many previous third-party upstarts learned. The Minnesota Greens should have gone ahead and run their own candidates for governor and the Legislature and then have joined in the grass-roots effort to keep their natural ally, Wellstone, in the U.S. Senate. They would have maintained their own identity and maybe even have built up the party by winning grateful converts among pro-Wellstone Democrats. Now, instead, they must campaign for McGaa.
When asked whether he's worried that spoiling Wellstone's reelection could backfire on the Minnesota Greens and wind up spoiling their own future, Kaller said: "The short answer is yes. It's a tough question, one we are going to have to grapple with."
Kaller is only half right. A tough question it is. But it's one that should have been grappled with thoughtfully and fully before Ed "Eagle Man" McGaa was flung into the race. The Minnesota Greens had a good chance to build a model third party. If they don't reverse their recent action, they will be opting instead for a circus.
Marc Cooper is a contributing editor to the Nation and editor-at-large for L.A. Weekly.