Interview by Peter Annear and Sally Low
Despite difficulties faced by some of the older Green parties such as Germany's Die Grünen, around the world there is strong interest in green politics as a genuine alternative. ROSS MIRKARIMI works for the Arms Control Research Centre in San Francisco and is also international relations secretary for the Green Party of the USA. In Prague on his way to an international environmental conference in Brussels, he spoke with PETER ANNEAR and SALLY LOW about the successes and problems of building the US Greens.
The party was founded in St Paul, Minnesota, in 1984, when a group of academics drafted a platform of 10 key values based on the four pillars of the German Greens. A headquarters, called Correspondence in the tradition of the underground clearing house of the American Revolution, was established in Kansas City, and more than 200 green groups blossomed across the country between 1985 and 1990.
With 100,000 on the rolls and up to 15,000 active members, the party is strongest in New England, the Midwest, and on the west coast.
Following conferences and other work to develop policies in most areas "from forestation to foreign policy", a rounded Green platform under the name Strategic and Key Area Approaches was adopted at the party's September 1990 conference.
"At the conference we discovered growing restlessness with the academic side of the Green Party among the activists", Mirkarimi said. "In different communities around the country we decided it was time to advance to the electoral front" and so build on successes in city and local, mostly non-partisan, elections in San Diego, upstate New York, Vermont and Minnesota, where Greens have already won positions.
Alaska's Green candidate for governor in 1990 garnered almost 4% of the vote, sufficient to officially register as a political party, the first Greens in the US to do so.
In the same elections, in the 19th District of southern California (which includes Ronald Reagan's area), where rules required the Greens candidate to run as an independent, the party scored 1.5% against a long-term Republican. Independents have never done well in the US, but the party's aim was "to galvanise more interest in the Greens in the area, which is incredibly conservative".
Green consciousness was also one of the gains of the Nuclear Free Campaign, which succeeded in putting on the ballot in northern California a referendum to strengthen the state's anti-nuclear laws, including restrictions on nuclear waste transport. When the same referendum in Oakland won 55% of the vote, the federal government simply pre-empted the law on the grounds that it conflicted with federal transport laws.
Three big initiatives in California — Big Green, Forests Forever (the protection of the ancient redwoods and cessation of clear-cutting), and a nuclear free zone campaign — also allowed the green movement to demonstrate "our acumen and our strength against the big corporations. We were able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars and to expose their corruption and deceit."
Now in California they are campaigning to become the second officially registered Green party in the US. To do so, they must sign up 80,000 registered voters as Green. With 30,000 already signed up, the party has until January 6, 1992, to complete the registration. Success here could start a trend: "California is seen as a sort of weathervane for new politics".
"Once we qualify in California, we will try to run candidates in visible spots, but it's my hope that we don't aim too high, because I am afraid we may just replicate the experiences of other third parties who have aimed for president or for the Senate and have exhausted all their talents and their grassroots activists and blown their whole infrastructure."
That was one of the problems, Mirkarimi thinks, with the Rainbow Coalition formed around Jesse Jackson's presidential bid. There was too much emphasis on the electoral campaign and not enough on the grassroots. "Jesse Jackson broke my heart", he said. "Many people who came out of the Rainbow Coalition are working in the Greens." He does not believe it will be possible to resurrect the Rainbow for the 1992 elections.
Various groups are now vying for third-party status. The National Organisation for Women has investigated the idea of an amalgamation with the Greens and the revamped Peace and Freedom to form a new third party. "This coincides with Green philosophy", Mirkarimi said. "We would very much like to see a third party in the US led by women. Of course, the strategy will take six to 10 years to come together.
"It would be nice to see people had more than just the choice between the evil of two lessers", he quipped, in reference to the Democrats and Republicans.
The Greens will need to score some quick success after the California registration campaign. "Most people who have registered as Green are Democrats and will want to register back as Democrats if we do not prove ourselves to be strong. By registering Green, they can't vote for what they consider good Democrat candidates in the presidential primaries."
As a result of the Gulf War, people are very disillusioned with the major parties, with the Democrats in particular, who have been paralysed. "It's not that they don't have a good jockey at the moment; they don't even have a horse."
But the Democrats will try to win back the green vote, as in Germany, where "the Social Democrats and even the Christian Democrats are beginning to look very eco-chic. They adopt the right phraseology, and people are not yet taking two steps further to ask if the talk is actually being carried out. Naturally it's not."
To dispel the single-issue image and marry the questions of social justice and the environment is a high priority, according to Mirkarimi. This means taking up a range of social questions. In particular, energy and health, vulnerable areas for both Republicans and Democrats, should be a focus for Greens in the US and elsewhere, said Mirkarimi.
Since the Gulf War, under the slogan of ending dependence on Kuwaiti oil, the power companies have opened a new offensive in favour of nuclear power. After an unofficial 14-year moratorium, "it's time for the anti-nukes to get their badges and T-shirts out again".
Californian women members of the Greens have begun a campaign to allow the abortion pill RU486 to be manufactured in that state.
It is not certain that Black and Hispanic communities will ever call themselves green, said Mirkarimi, but issues clearly overlap when, for example, many suffer effects of toxic wastes from the military bases that are generally built in minority areas. This sort of environmental problem very quickly becomes an economic one.
Native Americans, whose philosophy is very close to the Greens', and who have often been forced to live near uranium mines, face problems that are crucial to the Green agenda, including the need for suitable welfare and education services.
International trade is also an issue, including the establishment of a free trade zone between the US and Mexico. "We are just going to kill Mexico, and Mexico is inviting it. And Central and Eastern Europe will also get killed in the process of trying to become part of the market economy while not having strict rules and
regulations on how to balance their trade."
It is too arrogant of the US green movement to say it is "neither left nor right but out in front", because it has not yet earned the right to do so, said Mirkarimi. Now many US left groups are also "going through different incarnations to try to find a way to present themselves with a new face, as a fresh alternative".
Vermont socialist governor Bernie Sanders is sympathetic to the Greens. Although the Vermont Greens could not wholeheartedly support his economic platform, which they considered was not sensitive enough to the environment, they endorsed him in the hope he would become more open to discussion of the environmental and economic platforms.
In Vermont a strong green coalition includes left-greens who are influenced by "ecological guru Murray Bulchin. The Institute for Social Ecology has produced a lot of well-meaning and intelligent literature examining ways to unite left politics with an environmental platform, though with mixed results."
Internecine disputes torpedoed the German Greens, in Mirkarimi's opinion, although he still holds hope for their revival. "Now we too are grappling with how to build a party with such a diversity of opinion. There are people in the US who do not want to go into electoral politics at all, and there are people who believe our time has come.
"As we grow, we are somehow being divorced from the grassroots; it's the mechanism of accountability that worries me the most. There are too many people interested in being stars too quickly by jumping on the great band wagon of greening. I have no prescription except that we are trying very calmly to deal with it."