No Easy Victories
It is a basic tenet of successful organizing that you need to win victories in order to hold the allegiance of a critical mass of supporters and keep your organization together. But it is also true, as African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral said, that if we are to be credible, we must "tell no lies, claim no easy victories."
I thought about Cabral's words after being out today collecting signatures to get likely Green Party Presidential nominee Cynthia McKinney on the ballot in New Jersey. I did pretty well, compared to past petitioning experiences, getting a third or more of the people I approached to stop to talk with me and getting maybe half of those to sign.
The area where I petitioned brought me into contact with a racially mixed, predominantly working-class group of people. I talked to young people, African Americans and Latinos, seniors and middle-aged people.
Prior to petitioning, I wondered what the response would be. I generally enjoy this kind of work as a way to get a sense of how people at the grassroots are feeling about national politics and, specifically, about the Green Party or the idea of a third party alternative.
What I found was that there continues to be a lot of support for the right of third parties to be on the ballot, to campaign and to compete for votes. There were a few, but only a few, people who openly expressed disdain for what I was doing on ideological (Republican) or strategic (Democrat) grounds, although I am sure that a number who were non-responsive, who said they didn't have time to stop, fell into one of those categories.
I was pleased to find that perhaps 10-15% of those I talked with indicated positive support for the Green Party even though, here in the state of New Jersey, the Greens are not very strong or a consistently visible political force.
Overall, I came away from this experience reinforced in my belief that, if we had a truly democratic political system in the USA, one with proportional representation and fair election laws, practices and financing, a consistently progressive political party could do well, be a viable player.
But we don't have those things. As a result, those on the Left who have not given up on the third party cause, those who have not given themselves over completely to the Democratic Party, continue to struggle.
It is particularly difficult this year when it comes to third party Presidential politics given the emergence of the Obama campaign/movement/phenomenon. For even though Obama is in no way consistently progressive or strong on the issues, taking wrong or weak positions on many of them, the desire to get the Republicans out of the White House and the historic fact of Obama as the first African American Presidential nominee of either major party are clearly of major significance for many people.
Within this context, what can the Greens/Cynthia McKinney's Power to the People campaign, or the Ralph Nader/Matt Gonzalez campaign, hope to accomplish?
One thing, of course, is to hold up the banner of the need for an alternative to the two corporate-dominated parties of empire. This can help to prod those within the Obama campaign who are progressive to press him to take stronger positions. It will also help to some degree to keep hope alive for the many people who are completely turned off to two-party politics-as-usual.
Cynthia McKinney has spoken and written about the objective of getting 5% of the vote. Doing so would lead to millions of federal funds going to the Green Party for party-building and help to establish it in voters' minds as a viable entity. This is a good objective, certainly a stretch but within the realm of possibility, although competition from the Nader campaign will make it more difficult to reach. The best hope of doing so will be if McKinney and the Greens concentrate their resources and candidate visits in the 25-30 or so non-swing states that will be pretty much ignored by the Obama and McCain campaigns, especially come the fall.
Another important aspect of the McKinney effort is that it can help to strengthen multi-cultural working relationships and the cause of anti-racism. McKinney is both seeking the national Green Party nomination and working with activists of color, particularly African American activists, to involve them in her Power to the People coalition. She is also prioritizing issues of racism, within the context of an overall consistently progressive platform.
I don't know what the strategic objective is of the Nader campaign or what he intends to build. In a fund-raising letter sent out recently, the one thing Nader writes about along these lines is when he says his campaign is "laying the groundwork for creating Congress watchdog groups with full time staff, in Congressional districts, starting in 2009-to end corporate rule."
2008 will not be the year that the national progressive third party cause makes a big leap forward. Victories won will not come easily. But we will never get out from under the political stranglehold of our winner-take-all, corporate-dominated, two-parties-only political system unless we support third party alternatives that have shown mass support or the potential of it.
Ted Glick is active in the climate movement and has been involved in the progressive social change movement for 40 years. He can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003.