Fw: Barrett - McChesney article
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Greens' future depends on passing IRV
We base this memo on three presuppositions. First, the United States desperately needs a viable progressive third party. Second, the Green Party has already demonstrated that it is the most promising third party project to emerge in the U.S. in the last fifty years, if not longer. Third, unless there is a crucial change in Green Party strategy, its prospects for success are very poor.
by Patrick S. Barrett and Robert W. McChesney
GreenPages, Vol 5, No.3
We base this memo on three presuppositions. First, the United States
desperately needs a viable progressive third party. Second, the Green
Party has already demonstrated that it is the most promising third party
project to emerge in the U.S. in the last fifty years, if not longer.
Third, unless there is a crucial change in Green Party strategy, its
prospects for success are very poor.
Indeed, without such a change, it will probably be a forgettable,
entirely marginal operation within a decade.
Points one and two are beyond dispute. This memo therefore deals with
the third presupposition, which may be more controversial. Why are the
Green Party's prospects so poor?
One reason is that despite the substantial headway it has made in just a
few short years, it has a long way to go before it develops into a
well-organized operation with the capacity to vie for political power.
Obviously, building such an organization would require long years of
sustained party-building efforts anywhere in the world. Unfortunately,
the US political context does not allow for the adoption of a gradual,
long-term party-building strategy. Even the most successful and
well-organized third parties of the past did not survive more than two
or three election cycles.
This is because all U.S. third party projects face a major structural
threat to their existence: the plurality, winner-take-all electoral
system. This electoral system "which killed previous third party
experiments" is no less forgiving today. In fact, in this latest
go-around, it has helped to create a perception among core progressive
constituencies that the Greens are simply immature protest voters with
no sense of the high stakes involved in electoral politics.
As a result, far too much of our time is wasted arguing about "wasted
votes," rather than organizing around progressive issues and building a
following that can contend for power. For far too many of the
constituencies Greens need to reach African-Americans, Latinos, women,
environmentalists, labor there is enough of a difference between
Democrats and Republicans that they are unwilling to take Greens
seriously. Now, we might adopt a "Screw you" attitude toward
progressives who fail to see the light and persist in voting Democratic,
but that would be self-defeating. Instead, it is our responsibility to
demonstrate to these voters that voting Green actually makes sense.
The problem is not merely that Greens spend a disproportionate amount of
time talking about the flaws in the "lesser of two evils" argument
rather than discussing the issues around which we wish to build. The
problem is that any vision for the future that has the Green Party
succeeding has to have many of the people currently voting Democratic
Right now, however, we are on the path not only to foreclosing that
possibility, but also to transforming those who should be our core
supporters into our sworn enemies. Indeed, among the Democratic
constituencies the Green Party would ultimately need to become a viable
electoral force, there are many who are enraged by the Greens' perceived
alliance with Republicans in dumping Democrats.
Therefore, when we do outreach, unless we are dealing with people
entirely alienated from the electoral system, we need to move beyond
calls to vote one's conscience and work instead to lower the strategic
risks of voting Green.
How can this be accomplished?
The solution is actually both quite simple and very realizable in the
near future: Instant-runoff voting (IRV). In some sense we are preaching
to the choir, for there is already strong support for IRV within the
Green Party. However, IRV must be transformed from something that is a
good idea and deserving of Green support into something that should be
at the very core, if not the cornerstone, of Green political strategy.
For the Greens, the benefits of IRV are potentially enormous. With the
spoiler effect eliminated, we would gain the support of millions of
disgruntled Democratic voters, who would feel free to abandon the
Democratic Party without any fear of electing the candidates whom they
most fear. We would also gain the space we need to engage in the kind of
long-term party-building effort that will enable us to contend for
power. Moreover, we would benefit from an increase in voter turnout,
especially among the millions of poor and working class voters who
currently abstain from voting due to the absence of viable candidates
that speak to their concerns. The Green Party would also shed its
current negative image, and the animosity that many Democratic Party
loyalists have toward Greens would be redirected toward their own party
leadership. Indeed, something of an alliance between the Greens and
progressive Democrats might result, as the emergence of a strong third
party may provide the latter the leverage they need to prevail against
their internal party rivals. The overall effect, in fact, might be to
pull the entire party spectrum to the left, the Republicans included.
The prospects for instituting IRV in the U.S. are very good. IRV faces
no constitutional obstacles and would not necessitate federal
legislation. Efforts to replace plurality elections with IRV in state
and federal races are already well underway in numerous states,
including Alaska, New Mexico, Vermont, Washington, and California.
Moreover, in March of this year, IRV was adopted by the city of San
Francisco, backed by a broad coalition headed by Greens and Democrats.
Support for IRV might grow on the basis of its appeal to democratic
principles alone. But it is more likely that its adoption will hinge
primarily on the strategic efforts of the Greens and other "third"
parties. This is the beauty of this strategy. The Greens do not need a
lot of power to effect a dramatic change in the rules of the political
game. With only a small following, we can turn the core problem of the
current electoral system (the spoiler effect) into a strategic advantage
by using it to force the adoption of IRV. In fact, the states where
efforts to pass IRV have gone the furthest are precisely those states
where a strong third party has created a spoiler effect by transforming
a perennial winner into a loser.
The Greens should therefore put IRV at the very center of our strategic
plans. We should fully embrace the role of spoiler, but at every
opportunity, publicly and emphatically link it to the strategic
objective of passing IRV legislation. Without any hesitation, Greens
should run candidates, in races where incumbents are running unopposed
or face very weak opposition. However, this is not where the real energy
and effort should be concentrated. For while we will no doubt gain some
needed attention by obtaining 35 percent of the vote in a race that
would otherwise be uncontested, we won't make any real headway in
advancing a reform of the electoral system. Instead, the most important
battleground will be those races where the outcome is in doubt and the
Greens can decide the election. Since the decision to institute IRV will
be undertaken by state legislatures, the primary target should be state
office-holders, particularly those who are in a position of power and
can influence the flow of legislation.
To repeat, we need to be very candid about this by making clear that
while we are spoilers, we are doing so with a very sound strategic, and
fundamentally democratic, aim in mind. Moreover, we need to reach out to
core progressive voting constituencies, explain to them what we are
hoping to accomplish, and educate them about IRV. We should encourage
organizations that represent these constituencies to push hard for IRV
themselves. Even if these groups dislike the Greens, they could use IRV
themselves to advance their interests. This will go a long way toward
demonstrating that the Greens are genuinely concerned about their
interests and working very deliberately to enable them to realize their
We also need to refrain from running candidates against certain
Democratic incumbents, including Dennis Kucinich, Jesse Jackson Jr.,
Paul Wellstone, and others. Whenever a Democrat falls into the gray
area, the wise course is not to run against her or him, except in rare
circumstances where that Democrat actually has the power to push through
IRV reforms but is unlikely to do so without pressure. Otherwise, pick
on the mainstream Democrats and the Republicans. While this is a more
controversial stance and may require convincing some Green supporters,
taking out these Democrats would do possibly irreparable damage to our
party-building efforts. Whatever one may think of Wellstone, for
example, he is no Al Gore, and if he or someone even more progressive
were to go down, we would be on the permanent defensive and any headway
we make with IRV among the progressive voting constituencies mentioned
above would be lost.
Finally, we need to work in concert with the Libertarians and any other
third party that is in the same boat as us. This is because the
Democrats do not control every state.
Taking out Democrats where they are in the minority will do little to
advance the cause of IRV, because they're not in a position to do much
about it. Thus, in states where the Republicans are in power, they too
need to be spoiled by a third party and the Greens are not in a position
to play that role. This is the lesson of Alaska, where the Libertarians
have succeeded in building Republican support for IRV and the Democrats
are opposed. The Greens should therefore convene a summit with the
Libertarians and Reform party to map out IRV strategy together. We all
sink or swim together. We all share the belief that if we open up our
electoral system and make it more responsive to voters' wishes, our
parties will prosper.
By explicitly making IRV the cornerstone of our political strategy, the
Greens can accomplish several objectives at once: Make a big splash by
becoming the champions of democratic reform; shed our negative image as
unsophisticated protest voters by linking our spoiling efforts to a
sound strategic objective; offer a solution that would appeal to
progressive voting constituencies and that could promote an alliance
between them and the Greens; implement a reform that could alter the
political playing field in a very fundamental way and in relatively
short order; and give the Green Party the space it requires to embark on
the long-term process of party-building.
IRV therefore presents the Greens with an opportunity to make history.
What we choose to do with this opportunity may well decide our own
political fate, and quite possibly that of the nation. This mission is
critical for the Greens, for without IRV, we don't see any route for
success in the visible future.
Patrick S. Barrett is Administrative Director of the A. E. Havens Center
for the Study of Social Structure and Social Change at the University of
Robert W. McChesney is a research professor in the Institute of
Communications Research and the Graduate School of Information and
Library Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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