South Carolinian and Green Party supporter Kevin Alexander Gray has written a piece in this month’s Progressive Magazine on the conundrum facing those who want to support independent politics in a place where politics itself is so stunted.
The Progressive Magazine. October 2008 Issue.
MENTION TO SOMEONE that you’re thinking about voting for former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney or Ralph Nader and they’ll respond, “So, you’re voting for McCain!” Or they’ll say, “You’re wasting your vote.” And if you’re black and not planning on voting for Obama, you may be labeled a “hater” or an “Uncle Tom.” I know. I’ve been called those names. Poet Amiri Baraka, never one to be shy, has labeled all those not supporting Obama as “rascals.”
It doesn’t matter that McKinney is herself African American or that Rosa Clemente, her running mate on the Green Party ticket, is a hip-hop activist and an Afro-Puerto Rican. What matters, for most, is that Obama represents the first realistic chance for a black American to win the White House, and that he is better than McCain.
But should those be the overriding considerations?
While Obama is cosmetically attractive, he is still a status quo politician. What’s more, he has gone out of his way to disparage members of the African American community as a way to ingratiate himself with white voters. And he sometimes defends the same rightwing positions as his Republican counterpart, as when Obama supported Bush on the FISA bill and agreed with Scalia on the D.C. gun ban.
Aside from Obama’s limitations, there’s the question of movement politics. If we believe that the two party system rigs the electoral game, if we believe that corporate money contaminates both parties, and if we believe change comes from below, then why must we get in line behind Obama?
With these thoughts in mind, I went out to explore the McKinney candidacy. McKinney, who served as a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives for twelve years, left the Democratic Party last year to join the Greens. In Congress, she had one of the most progressive records. And as a Presidential candidate, she offers up a coherent agenda.
In her acceptance speech at the Green Party convention in Chicago on July 12, she denounced what she called “Democratic Party complicity” in “war crimes, torture, crimes against the peace” and “crimes against the Constitution, crimes against the American people, and crimes against the global community.” She said, “Those who delivered us into this mess cannot be trusted to get us out of it.” She told her supporters, “A Green vote is a peace vote,” and “A Green vote is a justice vote.”
Whether the subject was the Iraq War, or Afghanistan, or Katrina, or veterans’ rights, or Blackwater, or civil liberties, or the environment, or universal health care, or equal pay for equal work, or free college education, or the repeal of the Bush tax cuts, McKinney hit the progressive high notes. (But she was a little off key when she indulged the “9/11 truth” people.)
“We are in this to build a movement,” she said. “We are willing to struggle for as long as it takes to have our values prevail in public policy. A vote for the Green Party is a vote for the movement that will turn this country rightside up.”
McKinney’s platform resembles that of Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Representative who ran as the most progressive candidate in the Democratic primaries. Like Kucinich, McKinney wants an immediate end to all wars and occupations by U.S. forces, beginning in Iraq and Afghanistan; the orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops from the more than 100 countries around the world where they are stationed; Articles of Impeachment to be filed against Bush and several members of his Administration; and the creation of a Department of Peace. She would also like to see a number of other Bush initiatives repealed, like the Patriot Acts, the Secret Evidence Act, and the Military Commissions Act.
Like Obama, McKinney name-drops Martin Luther King a lot. But whereas Obama constantly utters King’s line about “the fierce urgency of now,” McKinney uses King in a different way. She says “the racial disparities that exist today are worse than at the time of the murder of King.” And she quotes King’s comment that the United States is the “greatest purveyor of violence on the planet,” saying that it is still true today.
McKinney also adopts positions that Obama won’t go near, such as: demanding reparations for African Americans, offering amnesty for all undocumented immigrants, ending “prisons for profit,” and calling off the “war on drugs.”
But having a shiny progressive platform does not guarantee progressive votes. I recall a rule of organizing in the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign: “Define your own win.” Reason being: If it’s about who has the most money, resources, access, etc., those going against the flow or those who are resource poor will always be sold short. Especially when the powerful set the rules and call the game.
Running was Shirley Chisholm’s win in 1972.
Jackson’s win was successfully advancing a progressive, multiracial, multi-issue agenda.
So what’s McKinney’s win?
She says the Greens want to pick up “5 percent of the national vote” in the coming election with the hope it “confers major party status” on them.
“Then we will have an official third party in this country,” McKinney said in Chicago, “and public policy that truly reflects our values.”
Yet 5 percent may be a tough nut to crack, given the party’s up and down performances in the past three Presidential elections.
As a Green candidate in 1996, Nader garnered 0.7 percent of the total. Four years later, he and the party increased their support three-fold, pulling in 2.74 percent of the total vote while receiving no electoral votes. In 2004, the Greens ran Texan David Cobb under a “safe states strategy.” Cobb appeared on twenty-eight of fifty-one ballots, down from the forty-four Green lines in 2000. The strategy supposedly focused its efforts on states that were traditionally “safely” won by the Democratic candidate, or “safely” won by the Republican candidate, so as not to run in swing states. This defensiveness was in reaction to the Nader-haters of 2000, who still blame Ralph for giving the country George Bush. Cobb got an infinitesimal 0.096 percent of the vote, while Nader as an Independent picked up 0.38 percent of the total.
This election season the Greens have abandoned the discredited “safe state strategy,” says Brent McMillan, political director of the party. McKinney and Clemente are on the ballot in thirty states, according to the Green Party.
The party’s national electoral history may prevent McKinney from being taken seriously by even the angriest of voters. “It seems that there’s no in-between game,” says longtime grassroots activist Brett Bursey of South Carolina. “The Greens pop up during an election season and that’s it.” He and others argue that the election-year “top-down approach” of choosing big-name candidates like Nader and McKinney rarely lends itself to the off-year followup that is needed to build an effective national party. “It will take more time than running doomed electoral campaigns that do little more than make the candidates and their few supporters feel superior,” says Bursey.
Bursey may have a point. The Greens have a dearth of campaign offices (local folk where I live in South Carolina don’t know how to get involved), and there are precious few grassroots volunteers outside of traditional Green “strongholds.” Obviously, money matters, and McKinney and the Greens have very little.
And the Obama candidacy is tricky for the Greens. “There are some Greens who won’t support a Green at the top of our ticket today, regardless of who that person is,” says Gregg Jocoy, of the South Carolina chapter. “White Greens don’t want to hurt Obama’s chances.”
Given these difficulties, the question once again arises: “Why bother?” To which Clemente replies, “People have to make some clear choices about which side are they on.” The goal, she says, is “building the new imperative.”
One can only hope that because McKinney and Clemente are raising important issues they’re not wasting their and others’ time.
But let me put a word in for being contrary, for refusing to go with flow, and for rejecting the choices we are given when we have that opportunity. Sometimes it is necessary to stand up and say, “I’m not with that.” Defying the corrupt two-party corporate system may be one of those times.
The choice is yours. And mine. And for me, it’s not an easy one.
Kevin Alexander Gray is a writer and activist living in South Carolina. He managed the 1988 presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson in the state. His forthcoming books are “Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics” and “The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.”
The South Carolina Democratic Party did not pay any attention to challenging Lindsey Graham in this year’s US Senate election. Apparently the cost of running a winning campaign combined with the enormous fundraising advantage Graham enjoys as an incumbent ruled out a serious contest in the state’s other national election this year.
This is fundamentally unserious, it indicates the extreme unhealthy state of the two major parties and democracy in general. When more than 90% of incumbents are returned to office, the position of challenger to a sitting U.S. Senator becomes essentially worthless. The role was not sought by a mainstream state Democrat like Inez Tannenbaum. Instead two outsiders entered the primary, probably only interested in the contest as a political platform for future organizing. One candidate was backed by the SC AFL-CIO, the other by a collection of political outsiders who ought not have been competitive.
When choosing between two underfunded candidates with similar sounding names, voters in the Democratic primary nearly split the vote. It seems unlikely that the majority of voters knew who they were voting for, given the virtual media blackout on the Senate race.
Robert M. ”Bob” Conley won the SC Democratic primary on June 10, 2008. At the time SCDP chairman Don Fowler said, “That’s the Democratic Party. We welcome anybody.” The writer of the AP article proved more prescient than Fowler:
“Democrats didn’t put much effort into recruiting a big-name candidate to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in November. Now, it’s possible their chosen politician will be tough for many in the party to support.”
Tough to support is an understatement. Conley was a member of the Horry County GOP Committee until he won the Democratic Primary. That in itself would not rule him out from being a DP candidate, but Conley is seriously out of step with the majority of DP voters.
Conley is endorsed by neoconfederates, and he is proud enough of the support to include youtube videos of these endorsements on his campaign website. Neoconfederates position themselves as small government isolationists. Support for the CSA as a social model is implicitly a position of apology for slavery and a carefully rebranded exposition of white nationalist extremism.
Whatever else his campaign may run on (and its taken on an isolationist foreign policy and a return to the gold standard), the association of Conley with the neoconfederates completely alienates the African-American South Carolinians who are a majority in the SCDP and without whom no Democratic victory is possible. Unquestionably, the majority of Conley’s voter’s were African-American citizens who would never have supported a Confederate apologist had they known who he was.
Democrats had the opportunity to run Michael Cone on the Working Families Party line, as he had previously been endorsed by that ballot-qualified party.
The South Carolina Working Families Party has declined to forward its nomination of Mr. Cone to the SC Electoral Commission, so Cone will not appear on the ballot. The SC WFP hasn’t updated its webpage to reflect the fact that none of its nominees won the DP primaries. Nor did they forward the nomination of Eugene Platt, who had been endorsed by the Green Party, and who is being opposed by the SCDP.
Conley’s support runs the gamut from neoconfederates to the fundamentalist religious right. He has been endorsed by the southern secessionists such the Southron Liberation News Service, Charleston radio host and local columnist the “Southern Avenger”, and by the Constitution Party’s presidential nominee, Pastor Chuck Baldwin.
The decision to roll over after the selection of Conley was hardly justified. Less than 1,500 votes separated Cone and Conley and a recount was necessary to determine the final result. By his own account, Conley raised and spent only $30,000 to the end of June. Cone raised less money but spent about as much, leaving his campaign with $9,500 debt. Conley apparently won the race based on chance rather than any substantive factors. Cone has removed his campaign website, but on the google cache of his Issues page, he defines himself as a Populist and endorses national health care. Cones’ issues page is otherwise light on specifics, something he may have been thinking of when he told AP reporter Jim Davenport that he wished he’d paid more attention to his opponent.
Cone could have campaigned on national health care, if nothing else, and might even have taken a reconciliation stand on immigration and distinguished himself from the exclusionary panic of Conley and the unworkable compromise of Graham. The failure to run even a token campaign against Graham on the WFP line is an acknowlegement that no candidate would have offered much an alternative to the Republican and a contempt for the political process.
No one doubts that Graham will win the election. He’s raised more than $10,000,000. The DP’s decision to throw the Senate election in SC concedes the political space of state’s other national election to apologists for slavery. The party would have formulated any kind of challenge to Graham, given is lackluster effort in the primary. It has turned the field of civil liberties and anti-war vote over the the right wing. The only possible reason for not contesting the election of two anti-immigrant, anti-health care candidacies would be because the SCDP would rather trust to the ignorance of the polity than contest the election.
Graham will be 90 years old in 2045. The SCDP is apparently willing for Graham to hit Strom Thurmond’s seniority before they spend the money necessary to seriously contest the election. Alternatively, they might admit that the political system is sick and needs serious reform to overcome the powers of incumbency – not likely considering how they sought to block third party candidacies while rolling over on the hijacking of their ballot line by right wing extremists.
== Further Reading ==
See Baldwin’s endorsement on Hunter’s radio show here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnK8pw2yyMg
Google Search for State Working Families Parties showing identical templates and language: http://www.google.com/search?q=Working+Families+Party+South+Carolina&rls=com.microsoft:*:IE-SearchBox&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&sourceid=ie7&rlz=1I7DKUS
SC Working Families Party: http://scwfp.org/endorsements.php
Individual donations to the Robert M. Conley campaign to June 23, 2008: http://query.nictusa.com/cgi-bin/can_ind/S8SC00126 (mostly from outside the state of SC)
Committee donations to Robert M. Conley campaign to June 27, 2008: http://query.nictusa.com/cgi-bin/com_rcvd/C00448845/ (single $5000 donation from the National Committee For An Effective Congress, a DP clearinghouse for funds. The donation belies the Wikipedia assertion that the NCEC “backs candidates who support freedom of choice, separation of church and state, gun control, equal rights, and environmental protection”. Conley opposes “abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, and amnesty for illegal immigrants…“. The NCEC uncritically backs the DP: http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/summary.php?ID=D000000146&Name=National+Cmte+for+an+Effective+Congress.