Borgen and Government and Being Green

January 22nd, 2016 by Phil Leave a reply »

Over the past weekend I finished watching the final season of Borgen. For those of you unfamiliar, Borgen is the Danish word for Government, and the show is three seasons long focusing on how Danish government – and media – function. It might sound like a snoozer from the description, but it’s among the best shows I’ve ever seen. I highly recommend it. (Yes, you have to deal with subtitles. The show is in Danish!)

Denmark has repeatedly been at or near the top of the list of places where people are happiest. It’s also a destination country for migrants who don’t look particularly Danish. The show dealt with that, with Denmark’s role in a broader global climate, and so forth. But it mostly dealt with how a fairly healthy multi-party democracy can function.

It’s hard to get into it in too much detail without spoiling big chunks of it, but it’s a non-spoiler to say that the central character is a Prime Minister from the Moderate Party, which in the context of imagined Danish politics is a “centrist” party, centrist in Denmark meaning something profoundly to the left of the Democrats in the U.S.

The parties represented in the government are, sort of from right to left: Freedom, New Right, Liberal, Moderate, Labor, Greens, Solidarity. It’s not really a precise right-to-left lineup, but it’s presented in a highly coherent way to a U.S. audience, and if you just understand that the main party of the right are the Liberals, whose policies are very similar to the Democrats in the U.S., then the alignments should fairly readily make sense.

If you get beyond the mutli-party dimensions and so forth, though, and compare it to our system – and of course recognizing this is all a fictionalized account – the main thing that stands out in terms of what’s presented is that government is supposed to be a place where people pursue policies, then build support around those policies, and then go get them passed if they can. There’s a process involved that is suspiciously like how one might expect representative democracy to have been conceptually intended to function.

Our own governments at most levels function nothing like that. Legislation is typically generated by fiat, money dictates the particulars of the language that gets pushed, and there is little to no working across party lines.

Even the “extreme” parties presented – the Freedom Party (which is sort of analogous to the Tea Party) and Solidarity (which I suppose is sort of analogous to some sort of Socialist formation) – are still involved in working across party lines and from time to time forming unusual alliances.

The “opposition” – which as the show opens up are the right-wing parties, as the Moderates lead a center-left coalition – are not presented as mere oppositionalists. They are involved in dialogue, often via the media. Nobody is so far at the edge that they’re reduced to pure oppositionalist screaming from the sidelines. It’s a mostly proportional system, therefore if you have enough support, you’ll get at least one MP.

Having watched the whole thing has given me a lot of reason to pause and consider what I have been doing over time and what might be possible given the structural problems with the system in the U.S. If we had a proportional system, the Greens might very well have been placing people in government over the last decade. But because we don’t have a proportional system, the Green Party is both formally marginalized (since it is not in government at all) and indirectly marginalized (people won’t get involved because it’s not in government) and then internally marginalized (because of its outsider status, outsiderism and oppositionalism become badges of honor, things to be cherished, which effectively precludes working with anyone in government ever, only reinforcing how marginal everything is.)

It is that oppositionalism – by which I mean a de facto policy of simply being opposed to the system because it is the system – and the way that it has manifested itself which I think explains a great deal of the long decline of the Green Party in the U.S. At one point I think more people involved were genuinely serious about being in government and working within government. But now I see that many people who have been involved in the party over time never really wanted to do anything like this. It’s much like some of the socialist formations in the U.S., perhaps most notably the ISO, in just being opposed to everything that’s actually happening. This in turn explains why there’s a lot of internal purity tests and so forth. And it also sort of demonstrates that a Green elected to an especially high government position would have a very hard time functioning, because he or she would be under attack from other Greens for ever trying to get anything done with anyone else.

I don’t consider what the Green Party has become to be tenable. The concept of the Green Party is still mostly right to me, but so much has gone wrong, and the denial is so thick, that it is extremely unlikely to be a formation which will actually meaningfully challenge the status quo. It’s not enough to me to stand on principle outside of everything which is going on. The planet does not get saved by people who choose to be on the sidelines.

I grant that what I’m saying sounds suspiciously like what people have said to me before, about how if you want to see policy change, you need to actually get somewhere where you can impact it, etc. That’s not lost on me. When I talk about “choosing to be on the sidelines” though, the distinction I’m drawing is between the party I’ve spent so long trying to build up into an actual player, and what I feel it is now, an entity where people no longer make serious attempts to recruit candidates – and worse, where nobody seems to be very bothered by the fact that there are almost no candidates. We haven’t had a single candidate for state legislature on the ballot in Illinois since 2010, and I feel like this is an extreme embarrassment, but most people who I would consider to be Green leaders just don’t see it that way.

My preference would be to see the party wake up and evolve and find a new coherent path which involves trying to function within the context of a highly dysfunctional government. The government badly needs more people involved who are sincere about trying to get positive things done, and I don’t just mean as elected officials. I’m also talking about “community leaders” here, people who actually interface with their aldermen and legislators and so forth. Unfortunately, my preference doesn’t seem to be shared by a sufficient number of people. We’re at the point now where I think on the whole people are more concerned with the Green Party being some kind of personal political safe place where they can feel good about standing for the right things, implicitly suggesting that they know they have no access to power, and – most importantly – through such an implicit suggestion, essentially conceding that they are in a certain sense okay with it all. I’m not saying that, ultimately, they really are okay with it all. But once you reach a place of helplessness, I suppose it means something to at least be able to hold on to the idea of being right.

Well, I’m not okay with it all. And so I have been trying to think through a different path. I don’t really like the idea that there are Democrats and then there are “Progressive Democrats” or “Independent Democrats” because I’ve seen too many times how people in one of those self-defining categories just serve to reinforce the dominant status quo through much of what they do. I also don’t much care for the concept of being an Independent, because it literally means not self-identifying with anything in particular.

There is also the old idea that there needs to be a Democratic equivalent of the Tea Party – not in terms of policy, but in terms of role relative to the party. I understand the thinking and I don’t think it should be totally dismissed. But the success of the Tea Party (which of course isn’t a party at all) has too much to do with money and how Tea Party types have been exploited along the way. I don’t think that’s the right model, although something which superficially looks similar might work. (I know some people would say, well, how about the Working Families Party? To that I say, what we need here is not a quasi front group.)

Without dwelling on it too much, there is a concept called “fusion” in some states, most notably New York, where a candidate can run on multiple ballot lines. This isn’t going to happen in the rest of the country, though. And it’s worth pointing out that the Green Party in New York has long been adamantly opposed to fusion.

One state that offers a variant on fusion, though, is Vermont. Vermont has a coherent, functional, state-level third party – the Progressive Party – which actually boasts several elected state legislators, and with which a certain U.S. Senator is closely aligned. Now, I already said that fusion isn’t arriving anywhere else. And Vermont is maybe not the very best place to look for a political model which can be used across the country. And yet…

When I was at the Left Politics forum in Chicago several months ago, which for me was mostly dispiriting, one thing which stood out was when one of the people from the Vermont Progressive Party talked about how the mechanics of how Bernie Sanders has run for office. I don’t fully understand the relevant Vermont laws here, but the concept as I understand it is that Bernie essentially runs in the Democratic primary, wins the Democratic nomination, but then declines it, and uses a separate mechanism to get on the ballot as an Independent. In this manner, he appears on the ballot as an Independent; there is technically no Democratic candidate; and there is technically no Progressive candidate. It’s a method that is simply not available in most states, but as the VPP representative explained it, the peculiarities of Vermont law allowed for a situation where Bernie could actually function as a nominal Independent, even while de facto being the Democratic candidate as well.

In turn, the reality is that Bernie Sanders has at least some kind of legitimate chance of winning the Democratic nomination for President, even though he is still regarded as a nominal Independent in Vermont. He had to do something to become a technical Democrat (though I’m not sure precisely what that action was), but as I’ve previously written about, there was no other real mechanism for someone like him to run for President anyway. And even if he ultimately fails – and the odds are still strongly against him, just no longer staggeringly so – I think he’s gotten far enough to prove that this was the right thing to do and the right way to do it, at least generally speaking. It is the aftermath of his campaign which will really tell how “right” this all has really been – if absolutely nothing comes of the campaign then what? – but I think to pre-conclude that his losing will consign the legacy of the campaign to the kind of irrelevance with which we now regard the likes of Dennis Kucinich is at this point somewhere between spiteful and ignorant.

Some of my erstwhile Green colleagues may be loathe to admit it, but circumstances have changed. There are sitting aldermen in Chicago today who we should be happy to stand with. There are candidates running as Democrats against Machine types here in Chicago who are eminently worthy of support. And to suggest that we should not be voting for them because they’re Democrats, when Greens are literally not running anyone at all for any such offices… I don’t see how such a position can be defended anymore. I am mindful here of Peter Camejo’s strident imploration to NEVER VOTE FOR THESE PEOPLE EVER AGAIN. But “these people” were different in 2004. Today, while I think the vast majority of elected officials who call themselves Democrats are somewhere on the spectrum from lousy to horrific, the reality is that a decent and maybe even a growing number are not. The electorate is evolving, even though it’s happening at a time where there is not a strong third party for the evolving electorate to identify with. Some people may deny that, but, as I’ve painfully found in recent years, Greens are especially good at denial.

I’ve fought and fought and fought over time to put the Green Party on the course I thought it should be on. Anyone who would try to belittle what I’m saying now by claiming I’m not pitching in or not working for the change I want to see is choosing to ignore what I’m saying and choosing to ignore my body of work over time. The Green Party I tried to build is clearly not possible at this time, and continuing to fight for it in the same old ways is the kind of repetition-as-stupidity that we have long tried to pillory Democratic voters for. Instead of perpetuating the fight, instead of continuing to put myself through the agony of horrible meetings, I will attempt to blaze a new path and lead by example.

It is time to accept that Greens will not be running a lot of candidates – and in so doing, to also accept that there may be people running as Democrats who are worthy of support. And, beyond that, to actually support them.

It is time to accept that a person can put themselves out as a Green and still work with people from other parties. We have to deal with legislators and aldermen and others. We have to deal with them as reasonable people, not grit our teeth through the process. We have to actually do things community leaders should be doing, like rallying people to contact those elected officials about important legislation, instead of blowing off such political work on the grounds that no Democrat (or Republican) would listen anyway. These people aren’t automatons. They will be responsive to their constituents about things that you might not otherwise expect. Let’s embrace that instead of dismissing that.

And beyond all that, I think the party itself should embrace these positions as well. For a very long time I have adamantly maintained that the Green Party should not be endorsing candidates in other party’s primaries. Well, I’ve changed my mind. If the Green Party has no intention of fielding a candidate for a given office, and if there is a particularly vital primary for that office which everyone knows is the de facto real election, then the truly appropriate thing to do is take a position. The best example at hand is the Cook County State’s Attorney’s race. Kim Foxx may or may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but we all know what Anita Alvarez is, and if the party is willing to take the position that Alvarez should resign, then it should be willing to take the position that people who are going to vote in the Democratic primary anyway should be voting for Foxx. That doesn’t mean that this should necessarily happen. Maybe closer examination of Foxx’s questionnaires reveals someone who isn’t truly worthy of an endorsement. My point is, narrowly, that the party should be willing to consider┬ásuch an endorsement. Maybe this doesn’t sound like so much of a stretch to some, but from me, it’s a huge break, and reflects a very different vantage point about the party.

In short, I no longer think it makes sense to talk about the Green Party in terms that it could or should be another major party. Maybe such a goal is realistic at some much later date. This may seem like a strange analogy, but I think one which kind of works is one involving the English Football Association. There are 20 Premier League teams, and then 20 teams in the Championship League, and then there is a League One, and then there is a League Two. It is very difficult to imagine most teams which are currently in League Two winding up in the Premier League at any point – they have nowhere near the financial resources, they play to much smaller crowds, the best players will always go sign somewhere else. But sometimes a squad can actually get promoted in a hurry. Bournemouth was almost relegated completely out of the Football League in 2009. Then in 2010 they were promoted from League Two to League One. Two years later, they were promoted from League One to the Championship League. Two years after that, they won the Championship League, and are now in the Premier League for the first time. A dynamic coach, a dynamic bunch of young players coming together, maybe some lucky breaks here and there… this sort of stuff can happen. But it can’t happen to an entity like the Green Party which is hardly doing anything at all. Resetting expectations does not mean resetting permanent expectations. But refusing to change anything means permanent irrelevance.

Still, it’s not an internal argument I’m likely to win. So as I said above, my choice is to lead by example instead. If there are candidates running as Democrats who are sincerely worthy of support, then they will have my support. I’m thinking here of people like Jac Charlier, running for 15th State Representative against an ultimate Machine Democrat in John D’Amico.

I’m sure all of this feels a long way afoot from my having started writing about a Danish television program. But inspiration can come in a lot of different ways. For me, the vital takeaway from Borgen is that things change when people get involved in processes which can lead to change. It may not always be clear which processes those are, but when it becomes obvious that what you’re doing is not affecting any change, then you need to evaluate what your principles actually are. If your desire is to a principled oppositionalist, then you and I simply don’t have that much in common. My desire is to be affect change in a principled way, and I refuse to accept that there is no way to do so.

I am a proud member of the Green Party, but I will no longer engage in internal actions which have no hope of accomplishing anything. One of the Ten Key Values is Personal and Global Responsibility, and I find nothing responsible about bashing one’s head endlessly into a wall. Those of us who are serious about affecting change, and who very well understand that societal change requires governmental change, and who further understand that the Green Party is not currently equipped to lead the way in affecting such governmental change, should join together to find a different path that exults the Ten Key Values. The Green Party can still play an important role, and may one day be again poised to play an even more important role. But we came together in the name of lofty ideals like Social Justice, Non-Violence, Ecological Wisdom, and Grassroots Democracy, not in the name of doing the same thing endlessly and hoping it would turn out different. To respect what the Green Party stands for requires that even if the party itself will not evolve, those of who self-identify Green will evolve nevertheless.


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