by Scott McLarty
Z Magazine June 2013
Bill McKibben says we don’t have time to challenge two-party rule and build an alternative like the Green Party. In reality, we don’t have time not to. Those of us who participated in the #ForwardOnClimate Rally against the tar-sands pipelines in Washington, DC on February 17, witnessed the environmental movement at its best and worst.
Tens of thousands turned out in freezing weather to demand that President Obama kill the proposal for the Keystone XL and Enbridge pipelines that, if approved, will route highly polluting crude oil from the Alberta tar sands through the U.S. The PR justification is that the oil will help meet domestic energy needs, but it’s evident, given the pipelines’ destination (Gulf and Maine coasts), that the oil is meant for export to enrich the fossil-fuel cartel. The State Department’s environmental review of the pipeline is being handled by the same experts who were earlier hired as consultants by TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline.
The movement was at its worst because speaker after speaker at the rally confirmed their allegiance to President Obama, to cheers from the crowd. The message that the President and Democratic leaders heard on February 17 was, “We hope you’ll say no to the pipelines, but if you don’t we still support you.” Which tells them that they risk nothing by greenlighting the pipeline.
Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and perhaps the most prominent writer on the global climate threat, agrees with a Time magazine soundbyte that the pipeline question might be the “Selma and Stonewall” of the movement to curb climate change and writes of his frustration with the Democratic Party in his essay “Is the Keystone XL Pipeline the “Stonewall” of the Climate Movement?” (TomDispatch, April 7, 2013).
President Obama has made it clear, despite assurances to the contrary, that global climate disruption is a backburner issue. He identifies “energy independence” as a top goal and promises to tap all available domestic (or at least North American) sources, which is why offshore drilling in U.S. coastal waters, hydrofracking, and mountaintop detonation mining continue, despite the damage they cause.
The president has also insisted on deletion of the 2C goal—keeping the world’s average temperature from rising more than two degrees Centigrade—from international climate-change negotiations and has secretly negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trade pact designed to serve corporate lobbies by overrriding environmental and labor protections. The climate crisis (like the TransPacific Partnership) was never mentioned during the Obama-Romney debates during the 2012 presidential race. It’s no secret that Democrats covet those generous Big Oil campaign checks.
The Democratic Party will not provide leadership against climate disruption. Democrats are continuing to slide to the right on most issues, tailoring their positions to satisfy corporate lobbies and donors. The same tendency explains the Obama administration’s plans to cut Social Security and Medicare, the failure to prosecute too-big-to-fail banks for their criminal recklessness, and the individual mandate on which Obamacare is based—a Republican scheme introduced by the rightwing Heritage Foundation.
McKibben wants to believe that, “taken as a whole, [Democrats are] better than the Republicans,” as if being not quite as awful as Mitt Romney or John Boehner is a virtue.
“Republicans are worse.” That’s the mantra of progressive and pro-environmental Democrats while their party marches the U.S. into the climate abyss a few steps behind the GOP. Republican climate-change denial and contempt for science enable Democratic politicians to claim they’re taking the lead on the crisis. In multi-party countries, such leadership would be recognized as an impediment to action just a few degrees removed from denial.
Progressives have fantasized for decades that they’ll pull the Democratic Party to the left some day. Instead, the Democratic Party has pulled progressives to the right. Barack Obama’s 2008 victory ended the antiwar movement, as anti-Bush peace activists acquiesced to an Obama foreign policy that incorporated the belligerent neo- con postures of the Bush-Cheney administration. Progressives cheered a Supreme Court decision upholding the individual mandate, which blesses the health insurance industry with a direct public subsidy.
Where are the massive public demonstrations against proposed Social Security and Medicare cuts, civilian-slaughtering drone warfare, erosion of civil liberties, prosecution of whistleblowers, Guantánamo, record-high incarceration rates in the prison- industrial complex, the TransPacific Partnership, privatization of the TVA, the corporate takeover of public education, continuing multi-billion dollar taxpayer subsidies to Wall Street banks? By refusing to consider an alternative to the corporate-money two-party choice, progressives have participated in the consolidation of capitalist oligarchy.
The Green Imperative
The idea of a third-party alternative makes Bill McKibben fidget. He writes: “So what to do? The narrow window of opportunity that physics provides us makes me doubt that a third party will offer a fast enough answer to come to terms with our changing planet. The Green Party certainly offered the soundest platform in our last elections, and in Germany and Australia the Greens have been decisive in nudging coalition governments towards carbon commitments. But those are parliamentary systems. Here, so far, national third parties have been more likely to serve as spoilers than as wedges (though it’s been an enlightening pleasure to engage with New York’s Working Families Party, or the Progressives in Vermont).” (Confidential to Bill McKibben: The Working Families Party mostly endorses Democrats and gives them its ballot line, as allowed under New York’s fusion laws.)
Climate change is this century’s abolition crisis. Slavery couldn’t be abolished as long as two parties, Whigs and Democrats, held exclusive power. Just as the Republican Party of Lincoln was an imperative for the mid-1800s, the time is ripe at the beginning of the 21st century for a party that refuses corporate money, challenges corporate power, and dedicates itself to the health of the planet and the well-being, rights, and freedoms of “We the People.” The Green Party fills that description.
Can we count on lobbying and street activism to sway Democrats in the right direction? No. The corporate lobbies can always outspend the rest of us in campaign contributions. Rallies and demonstrations are necessary to express our sentiments publicly, but street activism is difficult to sustain.
The anti-globalization protests that began in Seattle in 1999 lasted a few years and fizzled. The antiwar movement ended with Obama’s inauguration, thanks to the belief by people who didn’t bother to read his platform that he’d be our Peace President. The movement ignited by Occupy Wall Street lost steam rapidly after the encampments were cleared, although many Occupiers have continued to advocate on behalf of homeowners facing foreclosure, assist people who lost homes because of Hurricane Sandy, and do other indispensable work.
These movements clarified the issues that they tackled, helping the public understand the damage caused by international trade cabals, military aggression, and deregulation of the financial sector. But they had very little effect on policy and legislation, because such movements too often translate into votes for the very Democrats responsible for what the movements are protesting against. The result of this paradox is that the Democratic Party has most unions, liberal advocacy and human rights organizations, environmental groups like the Sierra Club, and non-independent leftist parties like the Working Families Party in its pocket.
The Green Party, in contrast, represents the goals of these movements in a permanent national party that seeks to replace pro-globalization, pro-war, and pro-deregulation officials who hold office. The party has continued to grow incrementally, facing the usual ups and downs that come with national and local organizing.
The Green New Deal, introduced by New York gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins in 2010 and promoted by 2012 Green presidential nominee Jill Stein encapsulates the Green Party’s platform and offers a program for boosting employment and rebuilding the nation’s economy by addressing the climate crisis head-on. Millions of new jobs can be created through public-works projects and investment in new technologies, conservation, retrofitting communities, and expanding public transportation, all of which would drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Green New Deal includes Medicare For All and would strengthen Social Security.
The models for the Green New Deal are FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration, and other programs for public employment that put 15 million unemployed people to work during the Great Depression building public infrastructure, restoring soils and forests, and providing services like adult literacy education and cultural projects, including murals, music, theater, and historical documentation.
Greens insist that cutting at least $300 billion per year from military spending would free up funds to reinvest in such jobs and launch a rapid transition to carbon-free energy. They blame the deficit on reckless imperial ventures around the world, costly and unnecessary defense contracts, and tax cuts for the rich.
None of the Green New Deal proposals are possible under the wartime economy and warhawk military policies maintained by Democrats and Republicans, or under the bipartisan chopping-block mentality that’s meant to solve the budget deficit but will likely slow the economy even further. The Green New Deal doesn’t conform with the conventional wisdom, parroted by politicians and pundits, that shrinking government is the panacea. In reality, dismantling the environmental and social safety net doesn’t shrink government so much as enlarge the power of corporate bureaucracies.
McKibben invokes the canard that alternative parties “spoil” elections. The spoiler accusation has been used over and over as propaganda to discredit the Green Party and other alternative parties. Exhibit A is the 2000 election, in which Ralph Nader’s Green campaign allegedly prevented Al Gore from winning.
The accusation falls apart if you look at what really happened in 2000: State Republican officials worked with a firm called ChoicePoint to invalidate the voting rights of thousands of Floridians (most of them black), far more than the few hundred votes for Nader that allegedly gave George W. Bush his Florida victory. Gore and Democratic leaders called for a recount in only three counties and discouraged people from coming to Florida to help investigate election irregularities. A politically biased Supreme Court resolved the standoff.
Not one Democratic Senator challenged Bush’s “victory” when Congress confirmed the results. Furthermore, the number of Democratic voters who voted for Bush in 2000 was four times the number who voted for Nader. In order to blame Nader and the Green Party, you have to believe that it’s excusable for a major party to obstruct voters and steal elections, but it’s not okay for a smaller party to participate fair and square.
Would Gore have won if Nader hadn’t entered the race and “siphoned” away votes? It’s impossible to say, because participation by alternative parties can change the entire dynamic of an election. (The “siphoning” claim is based on the peculiar assumption that the Democratic Party has a prior purchase on people’s votes and that a voter’s decision to vote for another party’s candidate represents a case of theft by the other party.)
Bill McKibben wishes for “some way to make a third party truly viable.” Those honestly concerned about the spoiler factor should demand reforms like Instant Runoff Voting and Proportional Representation to replace our anti-democratic winner-take-all at-large voting system. They should support public financing for campaigns to end the corruption of elections thanks to the financial clout of powerful corporations and individuals. Greens have sought such reforms for years, but few Democrats have shown interest.
Spoiler Panic is a ruse to make people believe that alternatives like the Green Party aren’t legitimate. It’s meant to fool people into believing that a two-party limit is natural and inevitable and must never be challenged.
There’s nothing natural or inevitable about two parties. Patently unfair ballot access rules have been enacted by Democratic and Republican officials in many states to privilege their own candidates and obstruct others. They should be repealed.
Perpetual two-party rule ensures that Democratic politicians can always take progressive and pro-environmental votes for granted. In this century of global climate disruption, ending two-party rule is an imperative—an emergency, according to Bill McKibben”s admonitions about the dwindling time we have left for effective action.
Harper’s editor Thomas Frank, in a November 2012 interview in Salon.com, asserts that President Obama has rendered the left impotent and marginalized. He mentions the third- party spoiler factor, but adds that “third-party movements once were not futile in this country. A hundred years ago, there was a sort of vibrant tradition of third-party movements.. [Y]ou could bring back a really lively third-party tradition, but it would take the two parties agreeing to end their monopoly. You know what would be awesome? A social movement that called for that. I don’t know what you would call it; not representative democracy in the European sense, but something other than the two-party monopoly.”
What Will It Take?
What will it take for Bill McKibben and Thomas Frank to recognize the Green Party as an engine for the end of two-party rule and an alternative to more oligarchy, war, erosion of civil liberties and workers’ protections, deepening student debt, shredding of the safety net, and disregard for climate change? What will it take to spark the anti-two-party movement that Frank hopes for? What will it take for a voters’ revolt?
What will Bill McKibben and others who participated in the February 17 rally do if Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline? If it’s a watershed like Selma and Stonewall, will a new direction be taken? What will they do even if he disapproves the pipeline, in light of other environmental policies and the likelihood of an alternative plan for the pipeline?
Climate change is not just a scientific crisis, it’s a political dilemma that threatens to plunge the world into conflict, chaos, and suffering, as McKibben warns in his TomDispatch essay. We should be disturbed that the corporate sector is concentrating its power, pressing for privatization of resources and deregulation, as the effects of climate change mount. Democratic and Republican party leaders are cooperating. It’s time to change the political landscape.
Scott McLarty is media coordinator for the Green Party of the United States. He lives in Washington, DC.