Beyond a Protest Party: What Will It Take for the Green Party to Start Winning?

Jill Stein speaks at the Green Party's presidential nominating convention in Houston, Texas, Saturday, August 6, 2016. (Photo: Candice Bernd)Jill Stein speaks at the Green Party’s presidential nominating convention in Houston, Texas, Saturday, August 6, 2016. (Photo: Candice Bernd)

Also see Truthout’s previous interviews with Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein:

There wasn’t fancy catering, blaring music or the release of thousands of balloons at the Green Party’s presidential nominating convention in Houston, Texas. Nor was there the presence of thousands of cops from dozens of state and federal agencies, or hundreds of cameras snapping photos as mainstream television reporters prepared outside for live standups.

Rather, one bored-looking campus security officer stood outside the University of Houston’s (UH) multipurpose room as the party’s media coordinators handwrote my press credentials and handed me the weekend’s schedule of events. One might not even know a convention for a political party was happening at the campus at all — many UH students I spoke to over the weekend didn’t.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

The Green Party is the fourth largest of the major US political parties, and operates without the backing of super PACs or billionaires. But the party’s funding lags far behind the third-largest party, the Libertarian Party, which has accepted more than $1 million in super-PAC contributions. For the Greens, such a low-key convention is typical. But there was one aspect of this year’s convention that wasn’t so typical — an influx of heartbroken, “Bernie or Bust” Sanders supporters.

In the first 24 hours after Sanders endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, the Green Party reported a rise in contributions of more than 1,000 percent — more than half of which came from first-time donors. While this may sound like a lot, the $80,000 in contributions actually received is comparable to what some city council candidates raise to run races in localities across the US. (To be sure, the party has raised hundreds of thousands more since then, but still has a considerable fundraising climb ahead.)

It became clear to me that “a whole new ball game” is just what the Greens — and the larger US body politic — need.

Still, the party is seeing a significant rise in support from disaffected Democrats, many of whom were on hand in Houston as the party officially nominated Jill Stein and internationally recognized human-rights activist, Ajamu Baraka, as the party’s presidential and vice-presidential nominees. Baraka is founding executive director of the US Human Rights Network and has served on the boards of Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights, among many other human rights organizations.

Dr. Cornell West endorsed Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka after the party's official roll-call vote nominating Stein on Saturday, August 6, 2016. West addressed issues of racism and racial injustice during his speech Saturday. That same day, a Black delegate was detained for 35 minutes by University of Houston campus police for Dr. Cornel West endorsed Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka after the party’s official roll-call vote nominating Stein on Saturday, August 6, 2016. West addressed issues of racism and racial injustice during his speech Saturday. That same day, a Black delegate was detained for 35 minutes by University of Houston campus police for “matching a description” of a suspect. (Photo: Candice Bernd)

“We have been hit by this storm, this whirlwind of support that basically started on the day that Bernie endorsed Hillary,” Stein told a group of reporters from mostly independent outlets at a press conference following her acceptance speech Saturday. “Suddenly, the floodgates opened in our fundraising. Unsolicited, money just started pouring in. So, in the last three weeks, we’ve actually raised as much money as we have in the entire year-and-a-half of the campaign until then. So it’s a whole new ball game.”

After what I witnessed inside the convention, where political disorganization and dysfunction were rife throughout the weekend, it became clear to me that “a whole new ball game” is just what the Greens — and the larger US body politic — need. It’s folks like former Sanders’ supporter Ed Higgins who are stepping up to help reshape the party from the inside out.

Higgins was the campaign director for “#DCtoDNC,” a march from Washington, DC, to the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia last month, “in protest of this false democracy, and in support for our rightful candidate for president, Bernie Sanders.” He cofounded the voter advocacy group, Election Justice USA, after experiencing problems with casting his own primary ballot in Arizona.

“We’re not ready to give up. We believe in what [Sanders] believes, and we’ve gone beyond him. This is way beyond Bernie Sanders. This is way beyond a political campaign,” Higgins told Truthout in the UH cafeteria. “We’re going to put all our support behind the Green Party, because in order to get past this two-party system, you need to have other parties in place. Until you have other parties in place that are actually powerful enough to circumvent the status quo, you’ll never get anywhere.”

Higgins worked to bring several local Green party candidates and Sanders’ supporters from across the US to the Houston convention. “We’re here to help the party,” he said. “They’ve been working on this a long time before we got here. They obviously know what they need, and if they don’t, we’re here to support them.” Higgins told Truthout he plans to travel the country to “be wherever they need me to be” to build the party.

The Green Party has now become the largest eco-socialist political party in the United States.

The enthusiasm of Higgins and other Sanders supporters is reviving the party at a crucial moment in its history. On Saturday, an overwhelming majority at the national convention voted to adopt the party’s platform in total, including Amendment 835, an official proclamation of the party’s belief that, “the old models of capitalism (private ownership of production) and state socialism (state ownership of production) are not ecologically sound, socially just, or democratic and that both contain built-in structures that advance injustices.”

With the adoption of Amendment 835, the Green Party has now become the largest eco-socialist political party in the United States, making the new energy and influx of material support coming in from Sanders’ supporters all the more paramount to the party’s future.

It’s also what makes the level of political disarray and organizational failure on display at the convention and within the party’s leadership committees all the more disheartening. The convention’s workshops and meetings were marked by a lackadaisical non-seriousness and New Age-style deficit of credibility.

“There are all too many delegates who are not in this room, and that needs to change. We need to take work seriously.”

A haphazard meeting of the party’s national committee on Friday seemed to exemplify some of the core defects resulting from the party leaders’ lack of discipline. Candidates for the party’s internal steering committee, which executes the party’s day-to-day administration and operations, protested a scheduled forum in which they were to present their case for a leadership position to national committee members. Shouting down the meeting’s main facilitator (a steering committee candidate herself), candidates said they were given no notice and had no time to prepare for the forum. Furthermore, they argued, not enough delegates were even present at the meeting, as many were attending other scheduled workshops.

After a vote to cancel the forum succeeded, Tom Yager, who co-chairs the party’s ballot access committee, briefed the national committee on the party’s state-by-state progress in getting Greens on their respective state ballots — but not before sharing a few “cathartic” admonishments of his own.

“There needs to be a change in the culture of the party,” Yager told the room. “We need a culture that thinks about fundraising. We need a culture that believes that this party can succeed, that is not OK with the way things are now. I appreciate all the national delegates who are here, but too few are… This is the most important national business of the party, and there are all too many delegates who are not in this room, and that needs to change. We need to take work seriously.”

When I spoke with Yager later, he drove the point home that the Greens are burning up the vast majority of their cash just to get on the ballot, leaving them little money to support candidates running local and national campaigns. (Thanks to his committee’s work, the Green Party expects Jill Stein to be on the ballot in all but three states this year by November 4.)

Yet, it’s this work — building the party’s state and national infrastructure so that it can run real campaigns — that is so critical to its perception by the larger public. An oft-repeated criticism of the Greens, articulated by the likes of Ben Jealous and others, is that people only hear about the party when they run a presidential candidate, and that the party isn’t invested in building from the bottom up, which is why it lacks any seats in Congress.

While many states’ ballot access rules require the party to run a presidential candidate, this predicament is not lost on party insiders. “We’re finding ourselves again in a situation in which we wait for a presidential campaign to happen, and find that we really don’t have structures in our state parties to support these things,” Andrea Mérida, a Green Party national co-chair and a state co-chair for Colorado, said during the national committee meeting. “I think it’s time for us in our state parties to go back and have some real soul-searching about what is effective, who is being effective.”

Despite being strapped for cash, the party is putting up candidates for local, state and national offices. Some at the congressional level even have a real shot at a seat. Matt Funiciello, a Green Party hopeful for New York’s 21st District, received more than 10.6 percent of the vote in 2014 when he ran against Republican Elise Stefanik and Democrat Aaron Woolf. He’s running again this year, riding a wave of populist anger in the presidential primary that could make his bid more tenable to voters.

Likewise, Arn Menconi, a two-term county commissioner, is running for a Colorado Senate seat, and is likely to get a boost as his Democratic opponent, Michael Bennet, is a superdelegate who supported Clinton in a state where Sanders won the primary by close to 20 points. “The reason I’m running is because our country is dedicated to endless war… and because Americans are not being represented [by the two dominant parties],” Menconi told reporters during the convention, saying he was formerly a Democrat who switched parties after seeing how the party was influenced by special interest groups.

A politics oriented around symbolic protest campaigns was an open secret at the Greens’ convention in Houston.

Margaret Flowers, who co-chaired the Green Party’s presidential nominating convention in Houston, is running for a Senate seat from Maryland and acknowledges that she has an uphill battle against her opponent, Chris Van Hollen, who has raised millions this cycle to keep his seat. While Flowers told Truthout that she recognizes her campaign is “a heavy lift,” she is hopeful Green Party congressional candidates can continue to build the party from below, and help alleviate the perception that the party only runs presidential candidates.

“I think when the party was first formed… people ran, knowing most of the time they weren’t going to win. People were more, kind of, putting their names on there and running, but not really fighting as hard maybe, to win. I know that that can’t be a blanket statement because there were definitely people out there that were running to win and won their races, and made a big difference,” Flowers says. “But I think that we’re starting to see more and more people getting serious about building the infrastructure locally to support candidates … honing their skills in running and really just running to win in all of these races.”

The lack of focus on building the party’s infrastructure only serves to compound a feeling of mass demoralization.

With dialogue from Green Party candidates about electoral campaigns as a means of “elevating discourse” and “providing an alternative” on the ballot, a politics oriented around symbolic protest campaigns was an open secret at the Greens’ convention in Houston. That’s why it seems that help from disaffected Sanders supporters is so sorely needed to shift a party that has for so long merely waged symbolic protest campaigns to one with the discipline to mount serious bids for elected office.

While many Sanders supporters threw their weight behind organizing to elect down-ballot Democrats after “The People’s Summit” in Chicago, the way Flowers sees it, those supporters will have to come over to the Greens eventually, because a real progressive takeover of the Democratic Party has never succeeded, and isn’t likely to now.

But — even while bearing in mind the real, material disadvantages at which the party operates, such as its paltry cash flow, and what Stein refers to as a near total “media blackout” on her campaign (a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by the Greens last week to open up the presidential debates) — the lack of focus on building the party’s infrastructure only serves to compound a feeling of mass demoralization at a time when the need for a robust and unapologetically progressive third party could not be clearer. According to The New York Times, only 9 percent of Americans supported either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the primaries, and another poll conducted in May showed that more than 90 percent of US voters lack confidence in the US political system.

The Greens’ nomination of Stein at the top of their ticket serves largely the same purpose as it did when they nominated her in 2012 — a symbolic one.

Personally, though, while I still identify with the values the Stein-Baraka ticket represents, seeing the Green Party’s political impotence close up only magnifies my discouragement about electoral politics, including third-party politics. Unlike so many other politicians, rather than simply posturing about her radical politics and positions on climate change, Stein has actually walked the walk. She showed up in 2012, for instance, and was arrested for resupplying my friends and allies occupying trees in East Texas during the blockade of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. She showed up again in my frontline community in Denton last year to see the impacts of urban fracking on the Barnett Shale and to speak with my neighbors about the state legislature’s overturn of their vote to ban fracking within city limits. Stein is a candidate who hasn’t written off solidly red states like mine, as many in the Democratic Party have, and she is one who has earnestly listened to our plight.

But ultimately, it will be up to millennials, especially Sanders supporters cast aside by the Democrats, to determine the future of what is now a distinctly eco-socialist party with a Stein-Baraka ticket that will likely be on the ballot in nearly every state this November. The party’s political infrastructure can be molded and refined with the right skills emphasizing messaging, political branding and harnessing engagement on- and offline — skills young “Bernie or Bust” Sanders supporters can bring to the table.

Still, the Greens’ nomination of Stein at the top of their ticket serves largely the same purpose as it did when they nominated her in 2012 — a symbolic one. That reality is why many downtrodden US voters are opting to simply stay home this November, while others are redirecting their energies into direct action campaigns to take their own power back in ways that don’t rely on any authority or candidate for representation.