Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein is not about to be elected president of the United States. She's the nominee of the fourth biggest political party in the US, and she's on the ballot in 44 states and DC in a year when people, especially young people, are looking for a non-Trump, non-Clinton option. But all that is only good for 2 or 3 percent in the most recent polls, a distant fourth behind Libertarian Gary Johnson.
It's almost as if—and I know this sounds crazy—Democrats and Republicans are the the only viable political parties in the US. But according to a poll from last year, 58 percent of Americans want to see a viable third party, so the Greens' poor showing might not be entirely the two-party systems' fault. Instead, it could be that Stein—like Johnson—is just kinda a lousy candidate. And that's not me talking. Important figures in international Green politics—a multifaceted leftist environmentalist movement—see a future for the American Green Party, but only if it ditches the likes of Stein.
"Some of the points that Jill Stein makes are delusional, I have to say," Balthasar Glättli, a Green Party member of the Swiss National Council, told me. If he were in the US, he said, "personally, I wouldn't vote Stein. I would vote Hillary."
European Green Party member Reinhard Bütikofer, who serves on the European Parliament from Germany, told me some of Stein's remarks that Clinton would be more likely to start a nuclear war than Trump left him feeling "really astonished." Bütikofer is a member of one of the parties that coordinate internationally with the US Greens via a loose affiliation known as the Global Greens, but he described an overall need for the American Green Party to get more sensible.
Glättli has a similar impression of US Greens, who are
known more for picketing
than for holding office or passing reforms into law. He said he sees them as "a rather do-it-yourself crop of people," whom he likens to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Having attended and organized similar protests—including
Occupy events in his own country
—Glättli knows what it's like to attend long, rambling meetings centered on tiny issues like whether or not to smoke at protests. "I spent hours in these kinds of meetings, but for me, a political party is something else," he said.
But Bütikofer acknowledges the temptation for members of marginal political parties to rattle cages for publicity. When he began as a member of the German Green Party in the 80s, he told me, "We were extremely confrontational and extremely controversial.
"We had to impress the general public with the very basic message that the issues that we were raising like antinuclear, climate change, environmental responsibility, social justice, gender issues, and so on were actually relevant," he continued. "At the time, when we advocated gender parity, for instance, people ridiculed us."
But eventually the German Greens, Bütikofer told me, "had to prove that we could not only raise issues that other people were ignoring, but that we could also contribute, in a practical sense to the solutions."
When the German Green party—a.k.a. Alliance 90—became a member of the ruling coalition in the mid 90s, contributing to practical solutions involved tough compromise. Joschka Fischer, who became foreign minister during 9/11 and the start of the war on terror, faced heavy criticism for involving Germany in the war in Afghanistan and cutting unemployment benefits.
But Alliance 90 has also won hard fights by sticking to its guns, Bütikofer insisted. "For instance, for over 35 years, we've been consistently fighting against nuclear. We've never said, 'Maybe some nuclear, or just certain nuclear technologies,'" he told me. And the Greens' hard-line stance eventually won out when Germany banned all nuclear power in 2011.
Such compromises are a long way off for Alliance 90's American counterparts. According to the list on its website, the Green Party has no officials at the national or even state levels—the most prominent Green elected official in the US is probably Cam Gordon, who sits on the Minneapolis City Council.
This summer, sex advice columnist and gay rights advocate Dan Savage declared that while he may be a lefty, he won't vote Green in a presidential election unless the Greens score some down-ballot victories first. "Where are the Green Party candidates for city councils? For county councils? For state legislatures? For state assessor? For state insurance commissioner? For governor? For fucking dogcatcher?" Savage said to a caller on his podcast. "I could see myself voting for a Green Party candidate for president in 25 years, after I've seen Green Party candidates getting elected to state legislatures, getting elected to governorships, getting elected to Congress."
Bütikofer more or less agrees with Savage. "If you want to advocate for solutions, you have to fight for majorities in the local city councils, municipal councils, states, and so on," he explained.
But to become a viable party, Bütikofer recalled that Alliance 90 had to "cooperate with progressive movements in the business sector, where people are adapting to new ways of doing business by promoting energy or resource efficiency." In other words, they ditched the megaphones, and, without sacrificing their core values, started talking and acting more like the politicians in the other parties.
Glättli suggests a small-scale approach at first. Greens, he thinks, can find a beloved patch of nature that local politicians aren't protecting, and get reforms passed, either through local political assemblies, or via ballot measure systems like California's to protect it. "You have the possibility to channel anger and resentment into politically meaningful action," he offered. This strategy was one key to winning support early on in Switzerland, he told me, because voters thought, Oh, finally someone is doing something substantial about the destruction of this land.
And Glättli told me the time may be finally right for a shift to the left in the US. "For the first time in quite some years, political positions are being discussed that we really do consider leftist political positions," he said. But not thanks to anyone in the Green Party. "It was mainly Bernie [Sanders] who brought this to the table."
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