Nineteen ninety-six was a year that found more and more Americans dissatisfied with the political status quo. It also was the most successful year ever for the Green Party. A record sixteen Greens were elected on the local level, including the first-ever Green City Council majority in the US (in Arcata, California). On the national level, the presidential campaign of Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke accelerated the growth of the Green Party as an organization, as well as in the consciousness of the general public. What led to this success and how did the Greens take advantage of the historical moment that ‘96 presented?
To start with, there was an increased general receptivity for a new party in‘96, with polls suggesting at least 62% of voters wanted one. In addition, the rightward shift of the Democrats created specific room for a progressive party like the Greens. But in addition to these contextual factors, there also needed to be a strategy to take advantage of these opportunities, particularly given the strong two-party bias of the US winner-take-all electoral system.
The Greens’ strategy has always been a long-term one: first, build a foundation through local electoral work, growing out of community-based, issue-oriented activism. Second, contest only selected state and national offices, preferably where the party already has a base of support. Third, while running to win within the current electoral system, work to change it to proportional representation. Fourth, as an integral part of all of the above, stress the Green Party’s ‘ten key values’: ecology, social justice, grassroots democracy, non-violence, community-based economics, decentralization, respect for diversity, feminism/post-patriarchy, personal & global responsibility and sustainability/future focus.
The Greens’ strategy paid off in ‘96. After twelve years of organizing, US Greens have a significant grassroots base in many communities. The 16 victories on the local level were no accident, bringing to 42 the number of Greens who currently hold elected office in the US.
On the presidential level, the Nader/LaDuke candidacy complimented the Greens local organizing, accelerating the growth of the Green Party faster than a local-only strategy would have. Nader/LaDuke communicated a pro-democracy, anti-corporate message, providing the only progressive alternative to Clinton/Dole. Their candidacy in turn led to the development of several new state Green parties, and many existing ones became stronger. The campaign also provided the first-ever opportunity for Greens to coordinate nationally on a common electoral project, proving to be an invaluable, maturing experience for the growing movement.
Yet even this was not all the story. Despite the enormous difficulties ‘third party’ candidates face within the US ‘winner-take-all’ electoral system, in several partisan county and state legislative races, as well as in a US Senate race, Greens actually finished second ahead of either the Democrats or Republicans. And, in terms of electoral reform, Greens in San Francisco succeeded in getting proportional representation (PR) on the ballot for a public vote (for use by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors). While the measure did not pass, the Greens were able to do enough education in only a three month campaign in one of the country’s major cities to receive 44% the first time out, providing valuable experience with which to apply to future PR campaigns in other cities across the country.
Taken as a whole, 1996 suggests the Greens have advanced a long way as a political force. There appears to be a genuinely significant base among the general electorate for Green ideas, and the Greens have demonstrated that they not only have good ideas, but also a viable strategy to win elections and build a movement.