Dear Howie Hawkins: Green Sense and Nonsense

[The following is a nearly verbatim transcript of Episode 52 of the podcast RevolutionZ. It is an open letter written to Howie Hawkins about Green electoral policy in 2020. I offer it here on ZNet in hopes either the audio or the print will spark discussion among Greens as we move toward their participation in presidential campaigning. The letter goes like this…]

Dear Howie,

I have known you for decades, mostly in passing, talking a bit at this or that event, seeing and learning from your work.

I have admired your activist energy, including tireless commitment, even tenacity, coupled with wise insight to inform and orient it, plus a willingness to assess differences in pursuit of still more insight.

You are a leading contender for the Green Party’s presidential candidacy in 2020. When I first heard that, I was hopeful for what it might mean for the election and for the Green Party going forward. Thus I eagerly read your recent essay, The Green Party Is Not the Democrats’ Problem .

The essay is clear and cogent, but, in my view, a strange combination of sense and nonsense. Sense about the nature of society, about the overarching electoral system, about the Democratic Party writ large, and much more. Nonsense about how a Green Party candidate ought to best run for president in 2020. And not just nonsense, honestly, but suicidal nonsense.

First, I should like to take a few paragraphs to summarize the “sense,” and to do so in your own words. I present it not only for its merit, but also to ward off misinterpretation of my concerns and to hopefully avoid your wasting time expending energy pointlessly defending what I already agree with.

You say “the assertion that the Green Party spoiled the 2000 and 2016 elections is a shallow explanation for the Democrats’ losses.” I agree. There was much else involved, so an exclusive focus on any one factor is incomplete or, as you say, shallow.

You say in 2000 “the Supreme Court…stopped the Florida recount”. I agree, though focusing only on that would also be shallow in that again much else was involved, but, still, your observation is true, of course. And I am guessing that because the Supreme Court could predictably be a factor again, you would oppose such a Supreme Court role in 2020. So would I.

You say “It wasn’t Jill Stein who elected Trump in 2016. It was many factors, including black voter suppression, Comey publicly reopening the Clinton email case a week before the election, $6 billion of free publicity for Trump from the commercial media, and a Clinton campaign that failed to get enough of its Democratic base out.” These were all factors, I agree, but your list is still a bit shallow since there were additional factors, including Jill Stein, and I would add Democratic Party inattention and outright hostility to working class grievances and Democratic Party deafness to workers’ hostility toward elitist liberals. And because each issue you mention could predictably be a factor again, I will guess you would favor removing, if possible, all such factors from playing a role in 2020. And I agree.

You say “In both cases, it was the Electoral College that gave the presidency to the loser of the popular vote.” And no doubt you would like that factor eliminated in 2020, and I agree, of course.

You say most Greens are furious at a Democratic party “that joins with Republicans to support domestic austerity and a bloated military budget and endless wars.” And I say, of course. I am furious too.

You say “The Green Party’s signature issue for the last decade, the Green New Deal science-based timeline would put the country on a World War II scale emergency footing to transform the economy to zero greenhouse gas emissions and 100% clean energy by 2030. No Democrat is campaigning for that program for averting mass climate carnage.” And I say the Green Party should be praised for that commitment. So, we have still more agreement, though I suspect Sanders and perhaps even Warren might get quite close to the same commitment, in the months to come.

You say, “Inequality…has been growing for 45 years under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Inequality kills. The life expectancy gap between America’s richest and poorest counties is now over 20 years. The exasperated former Democrats in the Green Party want to eliminate poverty and radically reduce inequality by finally enacting the Economic Bill of Rights that FDR proposed in his last two State of the Union addresses in 1944 and 1945. Those rights should include a job guarantee, a guaranteed income above poverty, affordable housing, improved Medicare for all, lifelong public education from pre-K through college, and a secure retirement.” And I say, all admirable, of course. I agree.

You add, “But Greens have more ambitious goals. …Our strategy is to build the party from the bottom up by electing thousands to municipal and county offices, state legislatures, and soon the House as we go into the 2020s.” And I certainly hope this grass roots works, and I agree it is a path worth trying, and I wish you were now electing thousands of local candidates, though I fear that the electoral policy difference that we have, that I will raise soon, may very seriously interfere with that.

So with all this agreement, you may wonder, why am I sending you an open letter that says you are offering not only sense, as above, but also nonsense? And even suicidal nonsense?

From here on, sadly, agreement dissipates. I even find myself astonished and angry. I want to be honest, but I also want to avoid devolving into useless and pointless name-calling. I will try.

You say, “To hold all other factors (contributing to recent Presidential victories) constant and focus on the Green Party as the deciding factor is a hypothetical that is a logical fallacy because it assumes away a factual reality: the Green Party is here to stay.” Well, I am sorry, but to me this argument makes no sense on two counts.

First, finding Green policy a factor in Republican victories in no way suggests the Green Party should disappear so saying the Green Party is here to stay literally has no bearing.

Second, you ignore that focusing on factors we can correct (for example, the role of the electoral college), and especially on factors that are within our reach to easily correct (for example, the Green Party role in contested states) is, in fact, good strategy.

You say “Although it is a constant refrain from Democratic leaders and commentators, the Green Party is not why the Democrats lost to Bush and Trump.” Well, it is not the only factor. I agree. But even if you believe it wasn’t a definitive factor – still, that would not prove that it won’t be this time. In any case, let’s take Trump and Clinton, more relevant to the present, and see how Green Party policy mattered.

If Clinton got Jill Stein’s Green votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, Clinton would have won the election. That is fact. Thus, the Green Party’s decision to run in those states, and to run hard there, saying, even, that there was little or no difference between Trump and Clinton (likely causing many to abstain, not just to vote for Stein), seems to me to be a factor worthy of being removed from contested state dynamics, just like the electoral college methodology is a factor worthy of being removed across all states.

The difference, of course, is that removing the Electoral College, a step that you favor, is quite hard and surely won’t happen by Election Day. On the other hand, removing Green campaigning in contested states is trivially easy and can certainly happen by election time. Indeed, if you get the Green Party nomination, and you favor that path, you could likely make it happen yourself.

I am guessing you will feel I have this all wrong because even if those who voted for Stein in the contested states hadn’t done so, they would have given no additional votes to Clinton. They would have abstained. I don’t how anyone could know that, but for the sake of argument let’s suppose it is correct.

If so, if these voters (who, remember, preferred Stein) did indeed erroneously believe that there is no difference between Trump and Clinton, surely to some degree that was a result of Green campaigning, during which Stein refused to acknowledge the special danger of Trump, insisted that while it would be bad if Trump won it would also be bad if Clinton won, and refused to state any preference.

Similarly, if these Stein voters did indeed erroneously believe that no harm could come from casting a vote for Stein in a close state in a close election, that also to some degree was surely a result of Green campaigning that insisted that Green voters bore no responsibility for the 2000 election result.

And finally, if these voters did indeed erroneously believe that it was immoral to contaminate themselves by voting for Clinton or for a Democrat, surely in part that too was encouraged by Green campaigning that treated voting as a feel-good activity (“vote your hopes, not your fears,”) as if fear of climate disaster, for example, shouldn’t be a motivator for political action.

None of we agree about, Howie, has any bearing on those observations. The Green approach that you recommend risks tipping this election to Trump. But, you do have more to say that potentially does bear on our difference. So let’s continue on to that.

You say, “The Green Party is not going back to the ‘safe states strategy’ that a faction of it attempted in 2004.” Meaning, you are not going back to an approach that forgoes running in contested states where Green votes could swing the outcome as happened in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan in 2016, leading to Trump’s electoral victory, and you are not going to run in only roughly 40 safe states where the outcome will be a foregone conclusion.

But why reject a safe states strategy?

Some might think your answer would try to refute the argument that doing so could help Trump win again. Or, alternatively, some might think that your answer would try establish that Trump’s re-election would not matter all that much. “He isn’t that much worse.”

Those were Stein’s approaches, at least that I encountered, in 2016. But unlike Stein, and to your credit and her discredit, I doubt you would get so confused by the desire to get media attention and to rationalize your actions that you would make such irresponsible and patently false claims.

And, indeed, in your recent essay you instead claim a safe states strategy “couldn’t even be carried out. It alienated Greens in swing states who were working so hard to overcome onerous petitioning requirements to get the party on the ballot. Keeping the party on the ballot for the next election cycle for their local candidates depended on the Green presidential vote in many states. It became clear that safe states was dispiriting and demoralizing because the party didn’t take itself seriously enough to justify its existence independent of the Democrats. Few people, even in the safe states, wanted to waste their vote for a Green ticket that was more concerned with electing the Democratic ticket than advancing its own demands.”

Okay, this is a potentially relevant argument. But please note, you are claiming there is a price the Green Party has to pay for a safe states strategy. Okay, let’s take your word for that. Where is your argument that that price is so great that avoiding it outweighs the price everyone, including Greens, will pay for re-electing Trump?

I have no way to assess your assessment that Greens are so insular and ignorant that they would find it dispiriting to remove themselves as a factor that might abet global catastrophe via a Trump re-election. I also have no way to assess your related assessment – of morale and motivation. But I admit to finding it a quite sad picture of the mindset of Greens. If it is even a partial explanation of how Green voters think, I surely do hope your campaign, if you get the nod, will work hard to elevate a different conceptual calculus.

Even further, how could it make sense, even if I were to depressingly accept that Greens care only about the well being of the Green Party and not, say, the well being of all potential victims of a Trump re-election, to not remove from the election all factors within our reach significantly aiding Trump’s chances, such as Green’s campaigning in contested states, given that Trump out of office much less Sanders or Warren in office would not only benefit all humanity and a good part of the biosphere to boot, but also, of course, the Green Party?

I have to add, I have no hard evidence for it, but anecdotally I suspect a great many more potential Green Party members and voters were driven off by Stein’s and the Party’s callous and self-absorbed dismissal of the dangers of Trump than were inspired by it.

Well, on second thought, perhaps there is some evidence. Which grew more in the last four years, DSA or the Greens?

Also, I am no historian of Green Party history, but isn’t it the case that the Greens in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s were winning elections to city councils and other local offices across the country, consistent with the grass roots strategy advocate, but that for much of the past 20 years or so, they’ve largely abandoned local and state contests, devoting nearly all their attention to increasingly futile races for president? I know there are a few exceptions, including your own exemplary races for Senate and Governor in NY state, and especially the Greens’ successful mayoral races in politically important places like Richmond, CA, as well as less visible ones like New Paltz, NY. But how many Greens have used the hard-won ballot access you highlight to run for Congress or state legislature? In fact, hasn’t the massive focus on presidential elections, and in my estimate also the misconceived approach to them, marked a decline in prospects for the localist strategy you favor, not an advance for it?

You say, “Greens want to get Trump out as much as anybody” but how can you possibly think that is the case if Greens would vote for you, and not for Sanders, Warren, or any Democrat in a contested state knowing that doing so, and having the Party urge it, could mean Trump’s victory?

Howie, if in the run up to the 2020 election and for the whole campaign duration, you would, like Stein, campaign in contested states, knowing that you might be winning votes that would otherwise have gone to Sanders or to Warren or whoever, causing Trump to win the state and win the electoral college, how could you possibly think that that would evidence your wanting Trump to lose as much as anyone? Indeed, if you weren’t telling everyone who was a potential Green voter to instead vote for Trump’s opponent in contested states, and for you only in safe states, how could you say you want Trump to lose as much as anyone?

Let me put my question another way. It is election night 2020. The vote tallies are in. Which way would you feel better? Trump wins and you get 250,000 votes across the contested states, more than enough for Sanders, Warren, or whoever to have won? Or, Trump loses and you get no votes in the contested states, but a bunch extra in the other states due to having more time for your campaigning there?

You say, “my advice to Democrats is to stop worrying about the Green Party and focus on getting your own base out.” I agree on the importance of Democrats grtting their base out, of course. Starting with nominating Sanders, or, at worst, Warren.

But what about, oh, say, me, or other serious leftists, feminists, anti-racists, socialists, and, indeed green activists, who see the historic danger that is a Trump re-election, and, for that matter, see the historic advance that would be a Sanders election – and who see what Green electoral policy meant in contested states in 2016, and what it might mean in 2020?

Suppose the Green Party candidate and Party apparatus behave like last time. Suppose they not only seek votes in contested states but even foolishly defend doing so on grounds there is no difference between Trump and Sanders, Warren, or even Biden, if it depressingly comes to him running. Or suppose they offer the less foolish but still suicidal and oddly insular grounds that because of the narrow political horizon of Green Party members it would be demoralizing to “do the right thing” because some ballot lines would be lost – as if winning ballot lines has, in the past 20 years, been so positive in impact that it would make the slightest sense to think that winning a few more this time would outweigh the horror of enduring four more years of Trump.

In those eventualities should someone like me, and many others, just look the other way, smile, and make believe all is well with Green policy? Or should we call the behavior delusionally self-serving and overtly callous in hopes of diminishing its sway?

You ask, “So why are we running a presidential ticket in 2020 if our strategy is to build the party from the bottom up?” You answer, “Because Greens need ballot lines to run local candidates. Securing ballot lines for the next election cycle is affected by the petition signatures and/or votes for our presidential ticket in 40 of the states.”

I admit I don’t know how this works. But I will take your word for it that there is a price to pay for not running in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other contested states. My advice to Greens would be to notice there is an infinitely bigger price that millions and even billions of people will pay for Trump winning. A price which the positive prospects for the Greens of some additional ballot lines to pursue some local offices (even against 20 years of evidence that suggests that doing so is not a very likely outcome), wouldn’t even remotely begin to offset.

You say “Greens don’t spoil elections. We improve them. We advance solutions that otherwise won’t get raised. We are running out of time on the climate crisis, inequality, and nuclear weapons. Greens will be damned if we wait for the Democrats. Real solutions can’t wait.”

Real solutions require Trump out of office. Real solutions will become far more probable with Sanders or Warren in office. And real solutions will become somewhat more probable even with the likes of Biden in office. And, in any event, there is absolutely nothing about a safe states strategy that would prevent Greens from advancing solutions of merit, including in contested states.

Howie, to conclude, if you are running against Sanders after the summer, are you really going to argue we shouldn’t vote for Sanders in contested states not just to end Trumpism but also to enact all kinds of important changes including Sanders urging and facilitating grass roots activism and thereby advancing Green program – as compared to voting for you in contested states so that the Green Party has an extra ballot line that it may or may not utilize productively while it suffers from a re-elected Trump crushing Green aspirations and more importantly humanity’s prospects?

I offer this open letter, Howie, in hopes of prodding discussion of the issues raised.


  1. avatar
    Paul D January 6, 2020 4:59 am 

    I was once an active Green Party member and very active in the Green presidential campaigns. I spent as much of my free time as I could – collecting ballot access petition signatures since the 2000 election.- under Pennsylvania’s until-2016 onerous ballot access rules. I also voted for the Green candidate every presidential election except for 2004 and 2016. In those elections, Pennsylvania ended up being closely contested and the priority became defeating Bush in 2004 and Trump in 2016.

    But now, I’m totally finished with the Greens – at least at the presidential election level. I was angry enough at Stein and others on the left rabidly attacking anyone (including Chomsky) who suggested voting strategically in contested states. But what really turned me against the Greens was after the 2016 election when the local Greens here in Pittsburgh went practically apoplectic over the Stein campaign’s decision to pursue a ballot recount in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Why? Becasue they despised Hillary Clinton at practically psychotic levels, and were happy with Trump being elected out of their infantile spite toward Clinton, that they were apparently happy with possible ballot counting fraud. So the accusations of “the Stein campaign supporting Hillary-Shillary” flew out

    Even today, they refuse to admit that a Clinton administration would have been at least incrementally better for the left than a Trump administration. But, as a federal employee in the US Dept of Labor, I have zero doubt that Clinton would have been better than the utter catastrophe that has been the capitalist industry hacks that Trump has installed throughout our agencies.

    The Green Party has a place at the local – and US Congressional elections – especially considering how so many House seats are filled practically uncontested. But to call their presidential runs “Quixotic” would be far too great a compliment becasue the man of La Mancha never damaged a single windmill, while the Green presidential runs in contested states is outright destructive.

  2. Kread January 6, 2020 2:25 am 

    This argument presumes that Sanders will be the nominee and that Greens will take votes away from him. I agree if this turns out to be the case, however, do you really think there is even a tiny chance of Sanders being the nominee? Do you think the corrupt Democratic party would let that happen?
    Progressives have to vote progressive candidates regardless of party if they have any chance of building a base and changing things in the future. Are you a progressive or a Democrat? Would you actually vote for a corrupt, fascist, war mongering corporate lackey like Biden, just because he has the nomination? Surely you can see that you would be getting the same thing, election after election. Is this not the history?

    • avatar
      Paul D January 6, 2020 5:14 am 

      I certainly would prefer Sanders or at worse, Warren running against Trump. But as Michael has pointed out the prospect of a second (and third and forth?) term of the neofascist Trump could be so catastrophic for billions, that even if the Democratic candidate is Buttigieg or Biden, leftist voters in closely contested states would be horribly irresponsible if they did not vote in a way that most effectively helps defeat Trump.

      But if you are fortunate enough to live in California, Alabama, or other uncontested state – vote for whoever you want.

    • Michael Albert January 7, 2020 9:14 pm 

      The argument offered doesn’t depend on Sanders winning the nomination, but of course I hope for that. If it is Biden – and of course one hopes it isn’t – the argument still holds. Biden elected would be vastly better than Trump re-elected not least because Trump re-elected would be an unprecedented catastrophe, not just business as usual.

      So we apparently disagree about that. But do you really think that I – and say, Chomsky, who has the same view – in case you don’t know much about me – could even remotely be conceived to be democratic party supporters and not progressive – simply for favoring an approach you reject? That was the way a great many folks supporting Stein fielded such concerns. And I would venture that the absurdity of that should make you wonder, what is propelling that stance.

      Look at it this way. I think that voting for Trump in a contested state would be contributing to climate and more general ecological catastrophe, labor horrors, immigration horrors, resurgent racist and sexist hate, and centralizing authoritarianism, perhaps putting literal survival at risk – all at levels well beyond anything that would accompany Biden. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t say of Stein, Hawkins, or you, say – that your proposing that people ignore that difference means you each literally favor all those horrible things. That would be nasty, ad hominem, and needless. Stain, Hawkins, and you could be ignorant of the full reality. You could believe something else, that I don’t. And so on. I would not need to jump to the conclusion that you are each a sadistic or suicidal purveyor of pain to disagree with you, just because I do happen to think a sadistic, suicidal, purveyor of pain would come to the same conclusion. So, why, I wonder, do you seem to feel a need to say that I – or anyone favoring a safe states approach – is a supporter of the Democratic Party and not progressive, to disagree with us?

      I would suggest that even aside from the actual issues in dispute, the reflex to attack like that, like you just did, and like Stein and many Greens often did years back, but like Hawkins has not done, and I suspect won’t do, might be worth assessing.

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