The Intellectual Influences and Conflicts in the U.S. Green Party

by Lorna Salzman

Since its inception, the US Green party has portrayed itself as a radically new political force which seeks to fundamentally alter the way that politics is practiced in America. The evidence, however, indicates a different history. It is a history that shows minimal divergence, in theory, analysis and philosophy, from the various movements that have arisen in the US since the mid-1960s.

The major defect of progressive movements in the US has been the lack of grounding in an ecological paradigm and sensibility. The US Green party, contrary to public belief and expectations, has relegated environmental concerns and activism to the back burner and, instead, has chosen to identify itself with more traditional sectarian leftist ideologies, broadly defined as racial and social justice.

As a corollary to this, the US Green party as an organization has refrained from addressing or confronting the numerous transnational treaties and institutions that affect the global environment. These include, but are not limited to: the Kyoto Treaty, the biodiversity and bio-safety protocols, NAFTA , the WTO , the World Bank and IMF , and the G-8 meetings. It has no lobbying or public education function with regard to any of these or, indeed, any of the pressing global environmental problems such as biodiversity, global warming, the destruction of ocean fisheries, and the privatization of natural resources such as fresh water.

The US Green party has so far failed to take on responsibility for leadership on any of these issues. Nor has it managed to gain widespread acceptance as an alternative to the two major parties. As a result the public perceives it simply as a thorn in the side of the Democratic party and little else. This stands in stark contrast to green parties elsewhere in the world, who speak and act regularly and forcefully on important national and international issues and are looked to as defenders of the planet and its ecosystems.

While the party is officially only a few years old, its predecessor organizations date back to 1984. Since that time, the US Green party has been little more than a loose federation of independent autonomous state parties who come together every four years for the purpose of a national presidential campaign. In between, the Green party is largely absent from the public discourse on issues such as the environment and women's rights abroad, indeed, on nearly everything but the Iraq war. It seems incapable of developing the level of activism and leadership on specific issues which will attract new members and supporters, concentrating instead on professing its Ten Key Values and creating a general image as the "good guys" of American politics.

While the Green party contains many dedicated environmentalists, serious and far-reaching ecological discourse about the source of and solution to global ecological problems is almost entirely absent from the American intellectual community in general, as is the notion of an alternative ecological paradigm or model. Those within the Green party who do address these problems do so in a clear context of promoting socialism, thus allowing the public to associate the Green party with the far left.

That the American left addresses environmental issues for its own purposes-utilizing the usual anti-capitalist rhetoric-is generally not understood by the public at large. If such an approach were to be adopted by the Green party (as the left Greens intend), the Party would lose all hope of becoming a broad-based inclusive third party in American politics.

Earth Day 1970 was a pivotal event in the history of American environmentalism. It spurred millions of people to become informed, activated and committed to environmental action, and the result was a decade of important legislative, educational, institutional and administrative change and progress. Because of this massive public involvement, and the appearance of a broad environmental constituency that cut across class lines, important bodies of law were enacted with little dissent - including the country's most important federal laws regarding endangered species, clean air, clean water and occupational health and safety, which were signed into law by President Richard Nixon.

At the state and local level, environmental regulatory and management bodies were established to both enforce federal law and oversee key environmental concerns, such as wildlife management. At the same time the number of national, regional and local citizens groups rapidly expanded. Arguably the most successful of these was the anti-nuclear power movement, a collection of individuals and state and regional groups opposing the construction of nuclear power plants. This immense federation of groups succeeded in preventing the licensing of nuclear power plants from 1978 onward, overcoming a corrupt regulatory process and the efforts of self-interested nuclear scientists. An important catalyst for the "No Nukes" community was the annual Critical Mass conference in Washington DC, organized by Public Citizen, one of Ralph Nader's organizations.

But with the onset of Reaganism the picture changed drastically. Ironically, it was the very success and appeal of the environmental movement that brought such change in the form of a deliberate backlash against environmentalism and attempts to discredit established environmental groups and issues. Governments, corporations, developers and private special interests were fully aware of the power of environmentalism, and were highly concerned about the potential threats it posed to deeply entrenched economic interests. Environmentalism implied not just further regulations, controls, and restrictions on traditional business practices, but, when taken to its logical conclusion, pose a direct challenge to the very lifeblood of the US economy: endless untrammeled economic growth fueled by mass consumption and unfettered production. In other words, even before it became associated with various socialist ideals, environmentalism already presented a direct challenge to the very fundaments of capitalism.

Interestingly, many on the left shared similar suspicions of environmentalism, initially because they themselves were pro-growth, pro-technology, and pro-central planning in the mistaken belief that these were necessary for helping the poor and remedying economic injustice. As a result, mainstream environmentalism was the object of scathing attacks from the American left in the 1970s, and various leftists have continued to promote their race-and class-centered analyses to the present day. I have run across leftists and greens who unabashedly assert that environmental issues are relatively unimportant compared to those of social and economic justice, an attitude that reveals their ignorance of the common roots of these matters as well as of the fact that environmentalism subsumes all of their social justice concerns. Most recently, the left in the US and western Europe has refused to address the atrocities committed by Islamic fundamentalists, in the mistaken belief that they constitute a bulwark against US imperialism.

In many ways, the socialist left and neoliberal capitalists are two sides of the same coin. Rather than deferring to nature or an ecological model, both favor centralized planning, subsidies and incentives to select industries, and low energy and goods prices. Capitalists are intent on keeping consumer goods, energy and food cheap so as to stimulate higher consumption and accelerate economic growth; socialists are intent on low prices as a way of closing the gap between rich and poor, not understanding that full-cost pricing would be the fastest way to undermine capitalism (and protect the environment).

While the various elements of the American left-the liberal and progressive media, leftist academics, labor unions, and the left liberals in the Democratic party-may have hated Reaganism, they paid scant attention after the early 1980s to the growing ecological crises. A look at alternative media, whether centrist, progressive or far left, showed then and still shows an abysmal indifference to the palpable problems and planetary crises that have the potential to cause the most massive economic and social cataclysms since World War II . A quarter of a century ago, the renowned ecologist Raymond Dasmann, wrote: "We are already fighting World War III and I am sorry to say we are winning. It is the war against the earth". Neither the US Green Party nor the left greens have taken appropriate action to meet these crises. Ecology remains simply another item on the laundry list of traditional liberal and leftist concerns.

America's schools and universities have also played a role in relegating the environment to a second-tier issue. Mandatory courses in environmental studies, for example, are almost nonexistent. The mass media, which carefully avoid any kind of bad news unless it involves child molestation or serial killings, is also part of the problem. But the reason why traditional liberals have failed to support the Green party's electoral politics has nothing to do with environment. Rather, it is their core belief, adapted from the leftist viewpoint, that mass social movements, such as those supporting abortion or women's rights or peace, not electoral politics, are what create change. This helps account for their complete disinterest in the Green party, in proportional representation or in a multiparty democracy, as well as explaining their attacks on Ralph Nader's independent presidential candidacy. This disinterest has morphed into outright hostility at the temerity of Nader and the Green party in making intellectual and political space for themselves outside the traditional liberal political community-a space into which they have leapfrogged over the "paleoliberals" who are content with traditional liberal incrementalism. In short, the Green party and Ralph Nader are saying the system is fundamentally flawed, if not rotten to the core, and needs a complete overhaul.

The greens' overall indifference to the global ecological crisis reveals a generic failure of ecological analysis and a flawed understanding of the state of democracy in the US. For left liberals, such as those represented by The Nation magazine, it is enough to give knee-jerk support to the Democratic party, the almost indistinguishable corporate clone of the Republican party, because they do not see political parties or electoral politics as contributing to social change. One reads, with growing depression and anger, the writings of purported liberals and progressives, and looks in vain for the word democracy. Or even if the word is used, it is applied narrowly and selectively, in contexts like the Patriot Act which are hard to ignore. The sad fact is that few of these progressives really understand the true meaning of democracy, and even less do they understand what it means with regard to electoral politics. This constitutes a failure of both principle and imagination.

So what has the social movement analysis meant to the Green party in particular, and to electoral politics in general? For starters, it has encouraged that divisiveness called "identity politics," where citizens are divided and subdivided from each other by gender, sexual identity, race, age and other trivial genotypic characteristics. They are no longer equal citizens; rather, they are members of a group that preaches group rights instead of individual rights. One could hardly find anything more divisive or open to exploitation by the enemies of progressives and the left, yet minorities and the left have embraced this devil's bargain. The US Green party is also guilty of placing too much faith in identity politics, allowing the establishment, for example, of identity caucuses while shunning the establishment of issue caucuses such as ecology.

Single-issue or pressure group politics, where special interests with their own agenda compete with one another for seats at the big table, are further examples of our democracy's ecological blind spot. Lacking a coherent social and political analysis, such groups merely seek privileges within the existing system through incremental reforms such as minimum wages, women's rights, and desegregation. To a certain extent, the system is able to accommodate such reforms without significantly jeopardizing the interests of elites. In contrast, ecologically oriented groups and movements, whose interests and objectives are clearly and fundamentally incompatible with the existing economic system of corporate globalization and growth, are vilified and marginalized.

While the Green party cannot be accused of practicing single issue politics, its focus on the issues of the day as defined by the media, such as the war in Iraq, distracts people from focusing on ecological issues, particularly global warming and climate change. The Green party's inability or outright refusal to become the leading political voice of ecological sanity-to put itself forward in the public arena as the bulwark against media and corporate propaganda-is puzzling and vexing. If the Green party does not make ecological issues the centerpiece of its philosophy and program, no one will. Why it resists a central ecological message is inexplicable but, again, suggests that the agenda and objectives of the US Green party are little different from the traditional liberal-centrist movements in this country, which may oppose NAFTA and the WTO , but have yet to question the neoliberal globalization model that rules the economy of just about every nation in the world.

Another intellectual influence on the Green party has been the New Age movement, which is loosely comprised of counterculture activists, animal rights groups, and those who believe that only individual moral and spiritual transformation, as opposed to institutional change, can revolutionize the current system. Their influence can be perceived in the green's obsession with molding or reforming human behavior and relationships, guided by a rigid political correctness that borders dangerously on a green form of authoritarianism.

Thus, those who transgress the arbitrary boundaries regarding freedom of speech must be reprimanded, punished and even expelled. My own defense of freedom of speech in the Green party's aspiring women's caucus, my criticism of a black former congresswoman, and most recently the objection to my use of the word "oriental," which some greens view as racist, are only the tip of the PC iceberg which, if left unchecked, will encourage uniformity and ultimately an insistence on obedience, a trend that has already reared its ugly head in the women's caucus.

The tension between those who see the party as a movement or a "movement-party", promoting issues of social change through traditional pressure group and direct action politics, with electoral politics as a by-product rather than an end in itself, and those who see an electoral party independent of outside organizations and special interests, even when these are progressive and hold similar values and objectives to those of the Green party, remains unresolved. A more appropriate model for the Green party might be one in which electoral politics is shaped and beholden to the enrolled party members and to existing election law; one in which the Party articulates policies that demonstrate its commitment to green principles and programs. In this way, it would operate in much the same way as European green parties do in vying for public support. If this happens, it goes without saying that the US Green party must place the survival of the planet and its ecosystems at the center of their philosophy and programs. Anything less would simply mean treading water as the ocean level rises and risks betraying the broad pro-environmental constituency that the Green party has yet to seriously address.

Finally, the 2004 election, in which Ralph Nader for the third time played a key role in national political alignments, has revealed an incipient divide within the Party: between those who profess and promote green principles but only up to the point where green politics actually threatens the strength and position of the Democratic party; and those who see such appeasement as the beginning of an irreversible slide into oblivion for the Green party and the prospect of a multiparty system. This divide, between the "right wing" and "left wing" of the party, and how it plays out over the coming years may well determine if the Green party can survive, let alone thrive in the oppressive duopoly system so assiduously supported by the "paleoliberals."

My criticisms of the Green party are not meant to disparage the hard work and diligence of those who share a commitment to green values. Rather, they are offered as a critique of the tendencies and factions within the Party, which, if not checked, could well turn it into a green Moral Majority, a self-righteous cult bordering on the religious, in which the Ten Key Values evolve into Ten Key Commandments. Of one thing I am certain: a values-based movement is unlikely to be inclusive, diverse or tolerant. Fundamentalist Islam has made this clear. The Ten Key Values, or any Green doctrine, are not scripture or revelation; nor are dissent and criticism heretical.

I have not addressed the historical American political structure that has squeezed the US Green party into a narrow track and killed off the possibility of alternative political views or organizations and structures. In earlier times there were multiple parties in the US. Although a few small parties continue to challenge the Democrats and Republicans, their potential constituencies are limited in number and their electoral participation tends to be limited to a small number of states. They do not, therefore, provoke the wrath of the major parties, and particularly of the Democrats, to the same extent as the Green party. This leads me to the conclusion that the Green party is indeed offering a genuinely different choice and that it may well represent the last best hope of restoring the democracy that America's founders intended. That it contains the seeds of a revolution towards democracy and ecology is evidenced by the outrage it continues to provoke in the Democratic party. By this measure, at least, the Green party must be doing something right.

But-and it is a big but-the Green party faces several internal challenges, the first of which is intellectual discourse itself. No amount of committed on-the-street activism can substitute for a core philosophy that itself takes its meaning from nature, the planet and its ecosystems. A movement that bases itself on arbitrary, even if admirable, a priori political or sectarian ideologies is simply saying: "put Us in charge instead of Them. Our ideas are superior and based on ultimate Truth." This is moralism writ large. It advances no cause beyond that of the narrow in-group, and has no place in the public space we call electoral politics any more than organized traditional religion does.

Most importantly, the Green party does not understand that environmentalism is a social justice movement, one that is arguably an order of magnitude more powerful in its long-term social implications than any other movement today. Nor do greens understand the indissoluble bond between ecology and social justice, a bond that says: those things that threaten our freedom also threaten our survival. Indeed, properly defined, ecology is the only extant philosophy of survival.

By broadening its core philosophy and objectives, the Green party will necessarily begin appealing to new and broader constituencies. Most of us favor this but not all. There are still those who regard the Green party as being the representative of only minorities, the poor, the oppressed and the powerless. Anyone who does not fit into one of those categories is therefore not worthy of attention. The fact that tens of millions of "politically incorrect" Americans-small business owners and entrepreneurs, farmers, ranchers, artists, hunters and fishermen, meat eaters, white ethnic urban communities-are themselves as victimized by our system as blacks, women and gays apparently counts for little in the mentality of some greens, especially those on the sectarian left. Nothing will spell defeat for the Green party faster than a conscious decision to ignore these other sectors of society.

If the Green party is to become the Second party in the US, it must go beyond those it deems its "natural allies", to these other constituencies, using a far broader critique than that purveyed by the traditional left and liberals. Such a critique would stress the traditional concerns of all Americans - concerns and issues that have been co-opted by the right and the neo-conservatives: home rule, family, community, self-sufficiency, personal liberty, basic freedoms, conservative but socially just economic principles, and all those things which were once considered universal in our society until neo-liberal greed and identity politics pre-empted them. If the US Green party takes back these principles, and encases them in an ecological vision and model, it may indeed have a bright green future.

(Published in: Green Parties: Reflections on the First Three Decades, by the Heinrich Boll Foundation, in cooperation with the German Historical Institute, 2006, and based on a 2004 conference entitled "The Origins of Green Parties in Global Perspective", organized by Boll and GHI in Washington DC in May 2004).

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.