by David Baldwin
It has become proverbial, even a cliche, to observe that this nation is now fiercely divided politically. But how far back in history would one have to search to find anything like the partisan battlefield that Americans wake up to every day? The Vietnam era? The Great Depression? Try the decade immediately preceding the Civil War. In that age of political dissolution, both parties, the Democrats and the Whigs, stood helpless before a crisis—slavery—so divisive that the forces it unleashed severely wounded the former organization and smashed the latter one to splinters. That was also the era in which the Republican Party was born. Its vigor and uncompromising stance on the most important issue of the day attracted, among many others, an ambitious ex-congressman named Lincoln.
Today the “Party of Lincoln” stands morally bankrupt, its mantra
of “compassionate conservatism” swept away with the floods of Louisiana
and Mississippi. Its leaders and wise men (including Karl Rove) are under indictment
or under a cloud. The President’s approval ratings (which soared above
90 percent in the fall of 2001) have plummeted. Even before any Plamegate indictments,
the vice president, according to an August Harris poll, received a devastating
disapproval rating of 65 percent. The Democrats fare no better in the public
mind. Paralyzed by 9/11, disdaining any action that might even vaguely smack
of “disloyalty,” they languished in the President’s shadow
for nearly his entire first term. And, as their unwillingness to challenge his
first two Supreme Court appointments prove, they can’t escape it even
now. A near-total vacuum of ideas, of will, of basic integrity has thus enveloped
Washington, and politics loves a vacuum no more than Nature does.
Can the Greens, America’s most significant third party and only “peace
party,” fill this void? Like the newly-minted Republicans of the 1850s,
do they have the power to gather together the angry and the forsaken into an
electorally viable social force? The following facts should give the pundits
–Though still very small relative to its two main rivals, the Greens are
America’s fastest growing political party. Accurate overall statistics
are very difficult to come by. But a website that records Green voter registrations
claims that, between 1994 and 2004, such registrations, in the 22 states surveyed,
increased by nearly 250 percent.
–Despite the formidable barriers the system has set up against alternative
political movements, the Greens have been making solid progress with crossover
voters, winning local races all across the country.
–In recent years, two party leaders have made headlines. Matt Gonzalez
very nearly won the race for mayor of San Francisco in 2003. In the following
year, Jason West, mayor of the upstate New York town of New Paltz, led a powerful
assault on his state’s ban on marriage licenses for same-sex couples.
in the wings is a whole new generation of fresh and unconventional leaders,
like Farheen Hakeem, a 29-year-old former math teacher endorsed by the Green
Party. Ms. Hakeem recently won an impressive 14 percent of the vote in the runoff
primary for mayor of Minneapolis despite the fact that her best-known photo
shows her speaking into a bullhorn while wearing a hijab (traditional Muslim
head scarf) and a black T-shirt with the legend, “This is what a radical
Muslim feminist looks like.”
Logically, the current political situation should favor the Democrats, the so-called
opposition party. But as Granny D. recently pointed out, though it is the President
who has been savaged by critics for the crisis in New Orleans, Democratic politicians
had years to do right by the poor in that city and did not. The problems upon
which the media have begun to focus in recent months—economic injustice,
global warming, governmental corruption and, of course, the war—are among
the many issues on which the Greens have taken bold and often innovative positions.
These same issues are only nominally Democratic concerns, though, for the simple
reason that, dazzled by corporate money, the Democratic establishment (except
for a few maverick progressives) seems almost totally unconcerned with them.
would bring the Greens, at last, into the mainstream of American politics in
2006? Let’s imagine just one possible scenario. An Iraq combat veteran,
having turned against the war (somewhat like a more left-wing version of Ohio
Democrat Paul Hackett), joins the Green Party and runs for Congress. The mere
fact of this candidacy—a war hero campaigning against war and for radical
social change—proves newsworthy. With the attention thus generated, he
is able to shine a spotlight on the party's vision, values and candidates. Even
those voters who disagree with the Greens admire them for their energy, idealism
and commitment, qualities they find lacking in the two main parties. Some vote
Green in protest; some do so because they admire the party’s rejection
of corporate contributions; others because a particular candidate has captured
their imaginations. And since the bar of expectation has been set so tantalizingly
low, the party’s gains, modest by its rivals’ standards—the
mayoralty of two or three major cities, a substantial presence in a handful
of state legislatures, a governorship and that disputed congressional seat—stun
the political world and perhaps force the Democrats to rethink their shameful
betrayal of their progressive base. Yet even then, the punditocracy will claim
(rightly) that a few victories on Election Day do not a revolution make.
Consider the example of Barry Goldwater, however. In 1964, the conservative
Republican ran for President and was utterly crushed by Lyndon Johnson and his
party along with him. The wise men of the day decided that the liberal consensus
represented by Johnson had defeated forever the outmoded politics the Senator
supposedly symbolized. Yet Goldwater, it turned out, not Johnson, was the politician
of the future.
it took a decade and a half for the ideological trees planted by the man from
Arizona to reach maturity (Ronald Reagan began his career in politics as a Goldwater
campaigner), that forest has since towered over our public life for almost a
quarter century. Indeed, the Goldwater Era, as I call it (which outlasted the
lifetime of its namesake), has only just now ended, and the storms of recent
days, literal and figurative, have finally cleared enough political space to
plant a new ideology. Put another way, he proved that a movement, if it has
any potential at all, may temporarily achieve only a handful of electoral triumphs
or none at all, yet eventually prevail in the war of ideas. ||
David Baldwin is a New York-based freelance writer, peace activist and
Green Party member.