An Open Letter to Greens Across the United States

July 24th, 2014 by Phil Leave a reply »

I’ve been involved with the Green Party for 14 years. I’ve been co-chair of the Green National Committee, long-time chair of my state party, and a multi-time candidate for public office. I’m now an elected member of my Local School Council.

I’ve put a lot of time in. I won’t dwell on what all has been involved, but it’s been a lot. I’ve done it because I’ve believed in the Green Party as the apparatus for the kind of change I think our communities, our states, our country, and our planet need.

I’m a father now. There are a lot more demands on my time. So it would be easy for people to dismiss what I’m saying here as fatigue, or burnout, or whatever else.

The bottom line is, I don’t want to do it anymore.

I’m tired of losing, but that’s not really the issue. I’m sick of the constant struggle just to be a recognized legal entity, but that’s not really it either.

I don’t want to do it anymore because I’m sick and tired of the party itself. The complacency, the disrespect, the utter refusal to change: I simply don’t believe that the Green Party, as currently constituted, can be the apparatus for change I’ve long maintained it will be.

I do believe the party can change. I believe the concept is solid and I believe there are a lot of other alienated people at the edges, people who would welcome an opportunity to reinvest themselves if the party presented a space where things could actually be accomplished, and where work was treated with respect.

But as time has gone on, it seems the party has moved further away. And I can’t keep dealing with it. It’s been too stressful for too long with far too little to show for it. Losing is no fun. But it’s even worse when we keep undermining ourselves. For all of the hard work that so many of us have put in, it’s clearer than ever that we can’t continue the way we’ve been going and ever expect success.

The Green Party has a choice right now: evolve or dissolve.

I know that sounds over-the-top, but hear me out:

If the best we can hope to be is an anti-corporate version of the Libertarians, then to continue would be an act of delusion. Is our goal to save the planet, or is our goal to feel good about ourselves because we’re participating in something which is ostensibly about saving the planet? It’s not that feeling good is a bad thing. But if what we’re doing is largely for show, and we’re more interested in maintaining a club, then let’s be honest about it.

I’ve struggled in recent weeks trying to write this. On the one hand, if I write too much, people won’t read it. But if I write too little, then there’s not enough substance and it’s easier to brush it aside. If I use examples of behavior and actions I’ve seen in the party, the discussion will focus on what I’m saying about other people, and it’ll be easy to dismiss everything as my having an axe to grind. But if I don’t use examples, then it’s going to be hard for a lot of people to understand what I’m talking about.

In the end, I’ve decided to make it a little long, but not as long as it could be, and to not talk about any specific people. If the potential is there for things to change, then I need to approach it in terms that a former national party co-chair who presumably has built up respect over the last 14 years will be listened to without having to point fingers.

Here are several of what I feel are our gravest problems:

The Meeting Culture. Meetings are the places where people should come together to talk about the work they have been doing, and what work should be done next. Attending a meeting is not the same thing as doing work. But we as a party glorify the meeting, and disdain the actual work. Democracy takes work. Democracy is not simply the act of making decisions – that is only one component. Some aspects of process are very loose, while others are very strict, and it all comes off as very arbitrary – and highly alienating to new people. We make a huge deal out of trying to get new people to show up, and then make them sit through highly tedious things, like crafting the perfect sentence in a bylaws change. It is not somehow egalitarian or democratic to include everyone in everything and in the process make them sit through everything. It is alienating, and it drives people away. That can’t be what we mean by Grassroots Democracy!

The Way We Treat Members. Our members are gold. But we treat them like crap. When people don’t show up for meetings, it’s like that’s somehow a black mark against them. Here in Illinois, for years, when people would donate money, they wouldn’t even so much as get an email of acknowledgement back. No, we’re not going to have thousands of Green Party members show up and participate in every petition drive. We need to make it a lot easier for them to participate a little, though. We have to stop making them sit through painful meetings just to be part of what’s happening. We have to stop treating people who say they’re willing to help a little like potential super-volunteers who within a month of first showing up for a meeting will wind up nominated for some ill-defined party office.

Responsibility and Accountability. One of our Ten Key Values is “Personal and Global Responsibility”. To me, one of the aspects of “personal responsibility” is that when you say you’re going to do something, you at least make some effort to do it. I’ve seen innumerable situations where people have signed on to be party officers or candidates or whatever else and have simply not done anything. And the party coddles this behavior! How many times have we heard the old chestnut that “Well, everybody’s just a volunteer….” It sends a terrible message to the people who are actually doing the work, and to officers who are really trying, when there is absolutely no culture of accountability. Worse, for years I have seen truly disruptive people be endlessly coddled for one reason or another, and I’ve seen a lot of people driven away because of it. A lot of it has to do with the party being incredibly conflict-averse, but I also think a lot of it has to do with a thorough misunderstanding of what Respect for Diversity means. Respect for Diversity does not mean that we are supposed to tolerate abusive behavior.

We Keep Getting Older. I know a lot of people don’t want to read this and will get upset, but this is something which absolutely has to be confronted. We have done a terrible job of attracting young people to the party, and when they come in, they are often made to feel very unwelcome. Now, I think we make almost all new people feel unwelcome. But for 14 years, I’ve particularly seen how younger people are disregarded, blown off, even insulted. I’m 37, and it’s inexcusable that I’m still one of the youngest people in the room when a meeting is held. The majority of the people in the room should be younger than me. I have been talking about this problem for a long time, and it never gets addressed, and I think one of the big reasons why is that young people threaten the Meeting Culture I talk about above. We’re also too white, too male, and too middle-class, and the Meeting Culture and other things I’m saying here speak to all that as well.

Too Few Candidates – Especially for Small Offices. The general public won’t take the party seriously so long as we run so few candidates. When we do run candidates, we disproportionately run for offices we can’t yet win, like Congress or statewide office. I’m not saying we shouldn’t run for Congress. But I am saying that when it’s the only thing we’re running for, it’s foolish. Here in Illinois, in 2014, we have zero candidates for County Board anywhere in the state, for the first time since we started running candidates. What this signals to voters, media, even our own members, is that when we run, we’re running for show, not running to win. You can’t hold interest that way. And small offices matter – if we had 10 times as many Greens elected to small municipal, school board, park board, library board, and similar offices – never mind if they’re nonpartisan – then our communities would be in better shape for it! Isn’t that why we’re doing this?

Territorialism. Rarely will I see people drive 10 miles over to the next town to help the only Green candidate running for office anywhere near them. At the same time, people have treated local chapters like fiefdoms, driving away other people in the area so that a small group can maintain “local control” over some swath of geography. This is all anathema to what the Green Party is supposed to be about. And yet I’ve often seen this behavior coddled as well. Tremendous deference is paid to people who have been around for a long time, whether they’re actively building the party or not. This ties in to both the Meeting Culture and our inability to attract and keep young people.

Obsession with Identity. This manifests itself in a lot of ways, but the main one is what I might call Beacon Syndrome. The idea is that the party is a shining beacon of light which will naturally attract people – and by corollary, if people aren’t coming, there must be something wrong with the platform, or the bylaws, or something else like that, so we spend countless hours and involve dozens if not hundreds of people to tweak some sentence or another. All of this is especially bad at the national level, where for many years we’ve had more committees focusing on internal affairs than on things like candidate support or external work.

Listservs. I’ve used listservs – majordomos, mailing lists, Yahoo! groups, whatever else you want to call them – for 20 years. I think they’re a terrific tool. But most Green Party listservs are horrible, absolutely repellant to most people who make the mistake of getting on them. A person can write a long, thoughtful message about an issue, and get a quick nasty response that complains about a single sentence, and then the discussion is magically over. The worst part is, this is our primary means of communication.

Bureaucracy. For a party which trumpets Grassroots Democracy as one of its four pillars, it’s sad to see that when this is put into practice, it’s often in the form of a flattened bureaucracy whereby if a single person expresses misgivings, a decision won’t be made. The party gives incredible negative power to people who don’t do work but are happy to show up for meetings and shoot down everyone else’s ideas, and then somehow calls the whole thing “democracy”. Bureaucracy is in particular the foe of competent administration. Minor decisions wind up being subject to “committee review” and so basic administrative things like maintaining membership lists don’t happen. This is closely related to a long-standing reticence to actually empowering individuals over a supposed fear that a person might become too powerful. One of the reasons people sign up for positions and don’t do anything is because they find themselves quickly hamstrung, unable to do anything because they have to conduct “business” on a listserv with 27 people “monitoring” but not actually helping!

Amateurism. In the past I’ve tried to emphasize the need to be professional, and what I’ve found is that the word has such a negative connotation to so many people that they just won’t listen. So I’ll approach it from the other direction: We have to stop acting like we don’t know what we’re doing. Voters want to vote for people who they think can actually handle the position. But we have a bad tendency to field candidates who will do things like not return phone calls or questionnaires. This hurts us way more than it would hurt one of the corporate parties, because they can just disown a particularly poor candidate. Another issue is that a lot of our websites look like they were made 10 years ago (they were) and were last updated six years ago (they were). It makes us look really bad.

And this is me being brief! This only scratches the surface of the problems I’ve seen over the last 14 years.

The point is that there are many, many problems, and there has been very little willingness to deal with any of this. For all of the work that so many people have put in over time, we institutionally have little to show. Our national party’s budget is less than that of a decently-run neighborhood organization in Chicago, most state parties don’t even have budgets, and most local chapters don’t even maintain treasuries. We’ve gotten some good people elected, like Gayle McLaughlin in Richmond, California, but almost all of our successes have been in nonpartisan elections and our officeholder number has been fairly flat for years.

I could say “Things can’t continue like this!!” but the reality is that they absolutely can. Just look at the Libertarian Party. It is absolutely possible to maintain as a marginal entity which every so often generates a little bit of excitement in a couple of states. But is that really what we’re here for?

I can imagine a lot of pot/kettle arguments in response right now. I’m not going to claim that I haven’t been part of many of these problems. We all have been, to some extent or another. It is in large part because I have been around for so long and have come to recognize many of my own shortcomings that I have the vantage point from which to articulate all of this.

Here is a very short list of improvements which could happen immediately:

* Stop holding so many annual business meetings. Conduct most “major party business” (like bylaws changes and internal elections) by email or web.

* Hold more informal gatherings – small events that will include people rather than alienate them. We need to build relationships with each other!

* Make a concerted national effort to help build campus organizations.

* Any party official who does not actually do anything: You need to resign. Today. Please.

* Start treating rank and file members like cherished assets.

* Make a national priority of running candidates for small offices – especially school boards.

My hope is that as people read this, if they agree with 90% of it, they’ll focus on the 90% they agree with and not the 10% they disagree with (which is another common problem in the party – focusing on our disagreements and not coming together on everything we do agree with.) I hope that I hear back from people around the country who agree that things need to change, and that many of them will take action within their state parties and local groups.

What we have been working for has been too important for it to either burn out or fade away. But if it has to be one or the other, then let it burn out, and let’s rebuild from the ashes. If we refuse to evolve, then we should just dissolve.

Evolution can mean a lot of different things. I don’t really want to try and lay out a comprehensive blueprint and say it all has to be the way I say – that’s never going to fly. The thing is, I don’t think the list of improvements I offer above are likely to stir controversy. I think almost everyone will agree with almost all of them. (I can offer a lot of other suggestions as well – ones which wouldn’t be so universally accepted! But I want to focus here on changes which I think will unite the vast majority of Greens, and quickly.)

If the Green Party can truly be a vehicle for change, then we have to be the change we want to see. We have to be effective, respectful, and hard-working. If we can’t be those things, then there are a great many positive things that we can go out and do in and for the world, and it’ll be time to move on to something else.

Personally, if I’m going to talk the talk, I’m going to walk the walk. If we have not begun to address our cultural issues by the end of the year, then I will move on. I am willing to try new approaches, but I am not willing to just keep hacking through the same problems to such little effect. I don’t see how people can take what I’m writing here seriously unless I’m serious about being willing to leave.

And I think other people need to speak up and say so as well. I think we need an outpouring of sentiment from across the country that we must evolve, and if we don’t, a lot of us are prepared to move on.

Let’s be blunt here: The planet is under attack, and will continue to be under attack. Whether it’s through war or privatization or deprivation of services or whatever other instrument, people’s lives and livelihoods are under constant threat. I have maintained for years that the Green Party can, and must, be a primary vehicle for change. But I need to see a lot happen to continue to believe it, and I know I’m far from alone.

So I’m asking that you contact me. You can email me at phil.huckelberry – at – gmail.com. Or find me on Facebook. I would like to hear from up and down Illinois and from all across the country. In turn I’d like for us to collectively take that outpouring of sentiment and use it to make things happen.

The tired, spent, long-time party activist in me absolutely needs to see things change. The eternal optimist in me, though, is the one who wrote all of this, believing that there are enough people out there who agree that we can see this evolution through. Prove me right, friends!

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