Red ... Blue ... Green?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

For a big dose of third-party discourse, here’s a 90-minute video of their presidential debate from 2012, moderated by Larry King and featuring Jill Stein of the Green Party, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party, Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party, and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party—a few names you probably haven’t heard of:

A ton of reader email has come in regarding our discussion of third parties. Here are some of the best ones making the case for the Green Party, starting with reader Robert:

Like your reader Gary, I would also like to see increased coverage of the Green Party’s political platform from The Atlantic, and from media outlets in general. To preface, I am not an official member of the Green Party, and I caucused in support of Bernie Sanders during the WA state caucuses. I am currently deciding between voting for Hillary Clinton and Jill Stein in the November elections. (I don’t think Sanders is quite toast yet, but he is in the toaster and someone’s about to plunge the lever.)

I will put my main argument first: Mrs. Clinton is not offering a concrete or dramatic enough plan to combat climate change. We know that climate change is an existential threat with the potential to radically destabilize human society on a large scale; we know that our food production system is at great risk; we know fossil fuel energy companies have many federal politicians in their pockets; we know that the fight against our own polluting activities will require organization and mobilization on a scale never before seen the history of mammalian life on Earth. (In fact, this exact argument has been made in The Atlantic: “Why Solving Climate Change Will Be Like Mobilizing for War”).

The Green Party is the only party that makes environmental issues the overwhelming top priority that it needs to be for the next 100+ years. I know that national politicians in America right now are loath to touch any environmental issue with legislation due to the risk of obstructionism, but this is the single most important issue that humanity has ever faced, and likely will ever face.

On economic issues, the Green Party is likewise the only party offering meaningful solutions to solve wealth and income inequality and unequal access to opportunity for marginalized groups. While the Republicans are living off the teat of petroleum billionaires, the Democrats are seeking to further enrich the extremely wealthy global super-elite with opaque trade deals and further unregulated globalization.

Free trade is hardly a bad thing, but poorly regulated free trade is certainly a bad thing for many people involved: the American workers who are left with no job opportunities or social safety net, the citizens of developing countries whose then suffer from brutal pollution and work conditions, and the governments—and by extension the public—who cannot collect tax revenue due to enormous holes in international tax policies. Again, here the Green Party is vehemently against many of these aspects of these free trade agreements.

The Green Party is also built on a strong platform of inclusion and social justice. While the Democrats have a very strong record on the “identity politics” that reader Gary elaborated on, there will always be the specter of Bill Clinton’s neoliberal policies and Hillary’s flip-flopping on LGBTQ rights issues. In my region, the Democratic Party and Green Party both work very closely with tribal leaders on a wide range of issues; Republican officials don’t have an enviable record on this front, being the party of intentional obstruction and low-key racism.

My last point here is that the Green Party is outspoken on electoral reform, going so far as to advocate for alternative voting schema more akin to those used to elect the Bundestag in Germany: voting schema that don’t gravitate towards two polar opposite parties and that allow less dominant parties to participate in the political ecosystem.

Another reader, Evan, points a finger at the press:

The strength of the two-party system is a façade. The mainstream media is reluctant to recognize and give coverage to other factions, for many reasons, but the most obvious one is that our minds are designed to fit competing interests into a simple narrative: Red team v Blue team, Good v Bad, Us v Them (see the work of David Berreby, among others). It’s easy: Pick your side, your issues, your arguments, your facts, your made-up stats, and play the game. What could be more fun!

In reality, people have much more complicated clusters of ideas and positions on politics and policy, but the most time is given to the polemics (See Trump’s free media coverage).

Here’s the latest snapshot of how disgruntled Americans have become with the two-party system:

Read the full January 2016 report here

Peter Sloan argues along those lines:

Almost half of Americans don’t consider themselves Republican or Democrat. Why should we all be held hostage by these ossifying political bureaucracies of yesteryear? Why do they get to determine the boundaries of what is “possible”? Why do they get to decide who gets onstage at a debate? Why is ballot access so tilted in their favor?

When in a time of genuine, transcendent crisis and genuine, radical hope, the major parties put up two wholly insufficient options, it is the chance of a lifetime to tell them to go jump in the lake. I believe that Democracy is contingent upon individual voters voting in line with their genuine, personal interests. The system cannot reflect the needs of the people accurately otherwise.

So this November, I’ll be voting for the candidate whose platform I prefer, and that happens to be Jill Stein of the Green Party, who has a Green New Deal plan that does what is required to mitigate the climate crisis. I don’t think she will win, but I do think she can break through the 5% national popular vote barrier to receive federal funding in the future, and maybe get some news coverage, without threatening Clinton’s inevitable victory over Trump.

I think this cycle gives us an opportunity to have it both ways: Trump is so hilariously awful, the Democrats are nearly assured victory, so those of us who have big problems with the Democrats from the left (not just on climate but on finance and military interventionism and health care and education), and especially those of us who don’t live in “swing states,” can use our votes to keep the Democrats accountable: Move too far right, and you throw our votes away.

And if the Democrats choose to continue to move into the place abandoned by the GOP—the place of Reaganesque neoliberal corporatism—then there will simply have to emerge a new party to its left focused on structural democratic and social and environmental reforms. There is a wide space in American politics for such a party—one of Occupy, of #BlackLivesMatter, of radical environmentalists, of native communities. Bernie gave the Democrats the opportunity to become such a party this year. They rejected him, and they rejected us. We have other options.

Connie, on the other hand, thinks we should ignore the Greens:

What has the Green Party done to warrant additional media coverage? If Jill Stein had not tweeted one of the nastiest messages against Hillary Clinton on Mother’s Day, I think I would have happily gone through this election cycle without reading or hearing her name.

If that tweet personifies her and the Green Party, I am happy to and proudly ignore both. Great way to get noticed, JS! You are no different than Trump or Sanders: all bark but no realistic solutions (at least that I have read).

One more reader for now, Paul:

Thank you for raising this important topic. I think the reason a “green party,” or any party campaigning on “labor policies,” would fail is that it has no constituency. If it did have a constituency, it would be natural for the Democrats to talk up pro-labor policies. Democrats talk up identify politics because they do have a constituency. Dislikers of Democrats talk up the Democrats’ abandonment of labor issues because they enjoy calling Democrats (or the left) hypocrites: Wealthy people using the votes of poorer people to obtain what wealthy people want.

While America has a working class, it doesn’t have a constituency for working-class issues. This is because laborers are anti-labor. This 2012 article in The Guardian sums it up pretty well. White working-class folks do not like policies intended to help them. Folks continue to study why, but possible reasons appear to be:

  1. Dislike of the idea that they need help (minorities—who see how unfair life is—can appreciate help from the government. White folks, being in the majority, think that the system is fair—because we see it’s a white folks system. )
  2. Dislike what they see as the corrosive affects of government assistance on friends and neighbors. As that Guardian article points out, the greater folks in an area are dependent upon the government (the more aid they get), the greater that working-class white folks reject such government programs. Interviews with these working folks reveal that they are horrified by the seeming drop in the independence and good character of friends and neighbors once they become dependent upon government aid. (As a liberal myself—and still a supporter of such government programs—I have to admit that their horror gives me pause, and I hope to read further studies of this horror).

In sum, white working-class folks vote for politicians who promise both less government and less taxes. Republicans already have a death grip on those issues. As liberals and Democrats, we don’t believe that less government and taxes is the best way to create the strongest Republic (at least I don’t).

Last thing: Democrats certainly should push labor-friendly policies once in office ($15 minimum wage!). We should keep our heart. But “Greenies” should recognize that Democrats lose votes when they try to keep their heart.  Democrats still need to put the most effort into those policies that will continue to get Democrats elected. Labor friendly policies send the votes of white laborers to the opposition.

If you see holes in that last argument and want to fill them, drop us an email. Update: Ask and you shall receive—and less than two hours after posting. Here’s Peter LaVenia responding to Paul:

I’ll preface this submission by saying that I am the co-chair of the Green Party of New York, and I have a PhD in Political Science from the University at Albany, SUNY.

It’s odd to read someone like Paul write that the United States may have a working class, but no constituency for working-class issues. This is summarily false. There are consistent studies that show large majorities of Americans support working-class issues: massive job creation programs like the (Green) New Deal, increasing the minimum wage to a living wage, Medicare-for-all (single-payer health care), affordable housing and rent control, and increased spending on education(to name just a few).

The contradiction Paul raises is one addressed by the author Thomas Frank in his seminal work What’s The Matter With Kansas?, in which he examines why a state known for backing Populists and Democrats became known for electing increasingly conservative Republicans to office. Frank’s conclusion—one he shares with many who have analyzed this phenomenon—is that the Democratic establishment largely abandoned the industrial working class in the U.S. and joined forces with the Republican Party to promote policies that eviscerated American manufacturing, labor unions, and the majority of gains made by the class militancy of labor during the New Deal era. Wall Street and the 1%—what was once more honestly called the ruling class—have gained at the expense of workers. New Democrat third-way triangulation under Bill Clinton attacked workers with NAFTA and continued the slicing of social welfare programs begun under Reagan.

Workers aren’t stupid; they realize quite clearly that the Democratic officials may occasionally mouth words of support for labor, but their policies have destroyed swathes of the country and left behind shattered communities. Candidates like Hillary Clinton support coups like the one in Honduras that have led to labor union organizers murdered by government death squads; at home it’s simply a matter of making it easier for companies to flee from the U.S. to peripheral dictatorships where sweatshop labor, and life, is cheap.

Many, many decades ago, workers had vibrant Socialist and Communist parties here in the United States—third parties!—that ran candidates, published their own papers, had working-class clubs, and built a culture, a consciousness about what it meant to be working class, and what that meant for working-class politics. People debated seriously the idea of what an economy built and run democratically by the working class would look like and how to get there.

These things served as an antidote to vicious right-wing propaganda; Democratic and Republicans worked together during the late 1940s and early 1950s to dismantle those parties and that working-class consciousness. Is it any wonder that in the absence of vibrant left-wing (socialist, communist, anarchist) media and culture, combined with the absolute abandonment by the Democratic Party, many workers have drifted into the right-wing, pro-business echo chamber that is our media and politics?

As a Green (and a socialist, Marxist, thinker and activist), I don’t believe the Democratic Party establishment has any interest in cultivating the working class, or working-class issues. That would jeopardize the income stream of their donors. The political scientist Thomas Ferguson has pointed out time and again that parties build their policy agendas based on what donors, not voters, want.

Yet that working class is there. The support given to Occupy in 2011 (until it was crushed largely by Democratic big-city mayors working in concert with the Obama regime) and the extreme fear it generated in the 1% shows there is a large amount of room for working-class issues and militancy. The Green Party is trying to build a real working-class labor party in the U.S. for the first time in many decades, and in doing so help build a new working-class politics and culture. Ballot access laws and our plurality voting system make it difficult, and they need to be reformed—which is exactly why the establishment parties fight so hard against doing so.

A vote for a Green (or another third party) is, however, the only non-wasted vote a person can make this November. Anything else is simply electing a different face to represent the interests of the wealthy, not the workers.