Truth be told, this is not a particularly successful stretch for the Greens. The party did twice elect Gayle McLaughlin mayor of Richmond, a northern California city of about 110,000, and were it not for term limits she might well be mayor there still. But McLaughlin, reelected to the city council following her mayoral stint, actually switched her registration to No Party Preference earlier this year in order to be eligible to vote for Sanders in the California primary. She has yet to switch back, although perhaps she will in time. But across the bay in San Francisco, where the party has in the past elected several members to the School Board and Board of Supervisors, one of whom came within five points of being elected mayor, we find none of those individuals currently in the Green Party and little reason to expect them to rejoin any time soon.
Still, the party does claim 139 officeholders nationwide (69 of them in California). Many of them hold positions with which most people may be unfamiliar — library boards, constables, and such — and there appears to be only one Green mayor in the entire country, a single county supervisor, and no state legislators at all. So the party’s footprint is modest, yet it is real — the Green label clearly does retain some meaning as a signifier of a point of view distinct from that expected of the average Democrat (and obviously from that of the typical Republican). Equally clear, however, is that almost all Green successes come in non-partisan elections where there is less chance that voting for the Green candidate you want the most will get you the Republican office-holder you want the least. And nowhere are the potential consequences of a perverse outcome greater than in a presidential race.
Coming into this election, hard core Greens argued that this would be their moment, due to the unprecedented unpopularity of the major party candidates. But while many potential Green voters probably agreed with the characterization of the race as a corporate Democrat running against a corporate Republican, most obviously felt that this characterization did not say everything, and that a Trump presidency was so obviously more undesirable as to force them to vote for Clinton. The result was that, despite running against the two candidates with the lowest favorable ratings since polling on this question started, Jill Stein got only 1.05 percent of the vote — and still some have accused her of having tipped the election to Trump.
Sure, there will be some who play this as a triumph of sorts — since Stein got only 0.36 in 2012, she has nearly tripled her vote this year — but that would seem to be clutching at straws. Of course, we do know that the idea of the perfect third party of the future dies hard — at one San Francisco post-election event only one of five speakers thought the Sanders campaign even worth mentioning, while another called for the creation of a new party — one that presumably would transcend all the limitations of the actually existing Green Party. Yet the fact remains that no “third party” presidential candidate of the left has won so much as 3 percent of the vote in over a hundred years. And with the influence of Bernie Sanders seemingly still growing as a result of his decision to seek the presidency as a Democrat, there seems little reason to expect a party realignment in the foreseeable future. Looking back, we may well conclude that Jill Stein’s most important role in this presidential election was not her own candidacy but her efforts to force recounts in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states that gave Trump his Electoral College win by a cumulative margin of little more than 100,000 votes.
Could the Greens survive and even thrive as a strictly local party? Perhaps — Canada does provide a nearby example of voters frequently supporting one party in local elections and another in national. But what does seem clear is that the Greens will not thrive as a presidential party. If Jill Stein wants to run, let her enter the Democratic primaries — I might vote for her.
Tom Gallagher is a Bernie Sanders delegate elected from California’s 12th Congressional District. He is the author of “The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes on the Military Industrial Complex.”