MILWAUKEE - The Green Party aspires to govern the United States of America, but the speaker's platform at its June 24-27 convention in Milwaukee did not display an American flag. Instead, at the left of the platform stood a flag depicting the planet Earth. At the right was a flag with red and white stripes-but instead of the field of stars, the broken cross of the '60s-era peace symbol.
Unlike what is usually seen at the Republican and Democratic conventions, the Greens wore few funny hats. Delegates included lots of aging women in peasant dresses, elderly men in tie-dye T-shirts, and younger men in suits with their long hair pulled back in ponytails. Whiffs of incense and marijuana hung in the air of the Hyatt Regency, the surprisingly posh convention hotel. Still, these delegates were intense, not boisterous, and celebrating as Democrats and Republicans are at their conventions. Instead of "spontaneous demonstrations" at the Green Party convention, the delegates shouted and heckled. Some did carry signs: "Profit from Marijuana Farms, not Oil," "Victory for the Insurgents in Iraq."
Outside the auditorium in the Midwest Center were tables with signs and pamphlets promoting an array of causes. The Socialists had a table, as did pro-Palestinian activists and a pro-marijuana interest group that recommended, "Vote Hemp."
Close to 800 delegates showed up from 48 states. Whereas the major party conventions are big shows with a pre-determined outcome, the Greens were conducting more of an old-school political convention, where delegates actually thrash out policy and select a nominee not already decided by primary elections.
The Greens in their convention did what other parties do: They put together and ratified a platform (anti-war, pro-abortion, anti-corporation); held caucuses (the "lavender" Green caucus for gays, a brand-new black caucus); and delivered and listened to countless speeches ("America is the enemy of the peoples of the world!").
But for all of its nuttiness, the two major political parties took this unconventional convention very seriously. The big question was whether the delegates would endorse Ralph Nader, their nominee in the last election who this year is running as an independent. If the party were to endorse Mr. Nader, he could gain access to 22 state ballots where the Green Party has become a recognized political presence, possibly draining enough votes from John Kerry to reelect George W. Bush.
The contentious debate over whether to endorse Mr. Nader was also symptomatic of deeper issues, reflecting the direction and the strategy of the new American left.
The Greens, as a political movement, began in Australia in 1970 as an organization of anti-nuclear and environmental activists. The Green Party soon spread to Europe, where under the parliamentary system that favors small parties it soon became a potent political force. In Europe, Greens hold key legislative seats, mayoral and city council offices, and cabinet positions.
With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the Greens have become an alternative "progressive" movement. With Marxism widely discredited, the Greens are offering a radical ideology based on environmentalism rather than conventionally socialist economics. While the European Greens are definitely leftists -- and would be indistinguishable from the socialist parties on many issues -- some major differences are clear.
European socialists have their base in labor unions. They resist closing aging factories. Greens, though, make environmentalist issues their priority. They favor closing factories that cause pollution, and urging workers to do something more environmentally correct.
In Europe, Green Parties are leading the opposition to embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning. But not because they are pro-life; they aren't. (Greens nearly always support abortion and other measures that would lower human populations.) Greens are enormously suspicious of technology, which in the Frankenstein-like case of making medicine from unborn children leads them to a position with which pro-lifers can agree.
But in the American Green Party platform, stem-cell research is not even mentioned. Lorna Salzman, who ran unsuccessfully for the Green presidential nomination, complained that "the U.S. Green Party is the only Green Party in the world that has not made environmental issues the center." She told reporters that the war in Iraq is less important than "the war on the Earth," and that in our environmental policies, "we are committing terrorism against ourselves." Environmentalism, she says, should be the basis for the social-justice issues. For American Greens, she implies, the reverse is the case: "Social justice" is the basis for environmental issues.
One prominent Green Party leader, Peter Camejo, does not disguise his Marxism: He calls himself a "watermelon," green on the outside, but red on the inside. Author of a pamphlet titled "How to Make a Revolution," Mr. Camejo says, "I have the same views I've always had in my life." In 1976, he was the presidential candidate for the Socialist Worker's Party, a Trotskyite organization committed to sparking a communist revolution in the United States. Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, called him one of the "10 most dangerous" people in the state.
Paul Gilman, a Green Party member on the floor of the convention, told WORLD that he is also a Marxist, and that many members have come to the Green Party from what he termed the "sectarian left"; that is, the Communist Party and the various revolutionary cells of the '60s. Many veteran radicals didn't like the secrecy of those clandestine groups and didn't want to repeat the mistakes that made them ineffective. They are still working for socialism, but they see the Green agenda as one step toward that end.
Mr. Gilman spoke of two different strands in the Green Party when it comes to economic ideology. Some are socialists and some are what he called "small capitalists," favoring policies that purportedly support small businesses as opposed to big corporations. He said the Green Party has become a coalition of many "anti-establishment" groups with Marxist Greens a minority -- around 10 percent -- "but we are the smartest."
Ralph Nader chose not to run as a Green this time, as he did in 2000. Yet he wanted the party's endorsement. Nader spokesmen at the convention said that his plan was to form a coalition of independent voters and the small political parties. He managed the remarkable achievement of getting endorsed by the Reform Party, whose last nominee was the paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan. But the Reform Party is on only seven state ballots. The Green Party, thanks to Mr. Nader's good showing in the last election, is on 22.
In a bid to secure support from the Green Party rank-and-file, shortly before the party's convention Mr. Nader selected his vice-presidential running mate: Peter Camejo, the self-described watermelon. Mr. Camejo had been running for the Green Party presidential nomination, but now at the convention he served as the Nader faction's chief spokesman.
David Cobb, a long-time party activist now running for president, led the opposition to endorsing the Nader/Camejo ticket. He arrived with the most committed delegates but far from a majority.
As the Democrats and the Republicans do in their conventions, the Greens voted by a roll call of the states. As the delegates gathered around those vertical signs with their state's name, they announced their vote, complete with the traditional boosterism, in this case focusing on the state's leftist heritage: "The great state of Oklahoma, home of Woodie Guthrie, where Eugene V. Debs received the largest percentage of his votes in 1912 ... The great state of Washington, where we shut down the Global Trade Organization and showed the world what democracy looks like." The Texas delegation spoke in Spanish and called their state "Norté Mexico."
Looming behind the nomination decision, of course, was the knowledge that in the national election a vote for Mr. Nader would be a vote for President Bush. In the last election, Mr. Nader took 3 percent of the vote nationwide; if he had not been running, Al Gore would have won in New Hampshire and Florida, more than enough to make him president. In the current election, Democrats are desperate to keep Mr. Nader out of the race, just as Republicans would dearly love for him to take votes away from John Kerry.
Just as many Republicans have been supporting Mr. Nader's attempts to gain access to state ballots -- in Oregon, as many as 40 percent of those who signed his petitions were Republicans -- the Democrats are doing everything they can to stop him. Ms. Salzman, running for Green nomination as "the" environmentalist candidate, accused Mr. Cobb of being "a Trojan horse" for "armed Democrats trying to take over the Green Party."
The Greens emphatically do not like Mr. Kerry, despite his common experience with many of them as a peace activist during the Vietnam war. Even Mr. Cobb calls him a "militarist" and a "corporatist." Greens claim the Kerry solution to the Iraq war is to send even more troops, not get out in five weeks as Mr. Cobb is demanding. They say he is beholden to big-money "corporate interests" and he opposes nationalized health care and other Green priorities. As Mr. Camejo put it, "Kerry would just be more effective in implementing Bush's policies."
Still, the Greens do worry about a Green vote keeping President Bush in office. Mr. Cobb's plan was to call for party members to vote for him in "safe states" -- where the lead for either Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry was so great that a Green vote would not tip the balance either way -- but not in swing states like Florida, where a Green vote would help reelect the president. In the meantime, Mr. Cobb promised to build the party across the country by helping candidates in local and state elections.
For more radical Greens, though, this was an appalling cop-out. "The issue is not getting rid of Bush," said Mr. Camejo, "and replacing him with someone who will continue the policies of Bush." The more radical Greens demanded the right to vote for someone whom they could believe in, not just against what they view as the greater of two evils. Besides, Marxist Greens believe that capitalist oppression must increase so as to radicalize the masses, so they may see another Bush term as in their interest.
At any rate, the more radical Greens favored endorsing the ticket of Nader/Camejo. But they did not make it. Mr. Cobb won on the second ballot, and the strategy of not trawling for votes in the most hotly contested states is now the Green Party line.