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A Golden Green Gamble
Greens and the Expansion of American Democracy
by José M. Tirado
July 3, 2004

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The recent decision by the Green Party National Convention to choose David Cobb as their Presidential candidate is both a golden opportunity and a golden Green gamble. By nominating Cobb, Greens have signaled their intent to build the Party up a bit more slowly, away from the harsh glare of the (mainly misleading) mainstream media attention given Ralph Nader. Mr. Nader, who helped put Greens on the electoral map during his Presidential runs in 1996, (though he merely lent his name to that year’s exercise) and his more vigorous run in 2000, opted out of the Green nominating process this year and, as everyone now knows, is seeking an Independent candidacy. Whatever one thinks of Nader, were it not for his instant name recognition and tireless exposure of the woeful state of American political life, the Greens would probably be nowhere near the almost half-million strong Party they are now.

So first of all, thanks Ralph, for helping us get us this far. Now, it’s up to us to move on.

Second, we must accept that as a result, we have absolutely no one on the national “stage” who could really be President any time soon. David Cobb is an intelligent, articulate spokesman for the Greens and can probably relate to the average working man or woman far more than anyone presently running but we must be honest here, he won’t be President this year, or anytime soon. That may be tough to hear but it’s true and so we should relax, recognizing openly what everybody around us knows already, we’re not ready yet. (We could however get Ralph Nader elected Senator from Connecticut, where he lives. Imagine that! He could pledge to just do it for one term if he likes and during that time progressives would have one of the best advocates for progressive ideals we’ve ever had.) We might not have “Presidential material”, but we certainly have qualified leaders who could sit in the House or Senate and argue for our causes. For example, California Greens Medea Benjamin, Peter Camejo (now Nader´s VP running mate) and Matt Gonzalez, or national leaders like Cobb, Lorna Salzman or Manning Marable can go toe-to-toe with any Democrat or Republican I can think of, anywhere, anytime.

We also have plenty of other people who are smart enough, experienced enough and who have enough media savvy (an unfortunate part of American politics) to win mayoral, city council, planning commission and most visibly, Congressional (and that includes the U.S. Senate) races. And if we don’t get our act together and get some of our people in political office soon, we won’t deserve the dust bin we will be consigned to when history is written by the victors who always beat us up at the polls. (Remember, parties that don’t win, don’t last).

Thirdly, now that our most famous celebrity isn’t running, we should definitely continue the daily, state by state, town by town task of helping our communities be more environmentally safer, more hospitable to all its inhabitants, our institutions more responsive to democratic input and our economic system more equitably constructed. Here, Cobb can be of invaluable assistance. His tireless travel schedule and impassioned commitment to the Green Party paid off well by earning the respect of many Greens who had wanted Nader again. He also gave non-Greens a chance to hear a different voice, something the saturated-with-negative-Nader-stories general public could appreciate.

But most importantly we should now shift our emphasis to demanding a radical restructuring of our electoral system. Considering the fact that Al Gore was chosen by over half a million more voters than George Bush, and the growing uneasiness around electronic voting and attempts to end paper trail ballots, the American public is ready to hear this message. That is, we should demand all elected Green officials to focus on what I am now convinced should be our overall number one priority: major electoral reform.

Specifically we should be vigorously advocating a Proportional Representative (PR) system of electing state and federal Representatives and an Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) system for executive positions like President and Senator. These are not new ideas, but it’s time we united our camps, energies, goals and focus for the one thing that will guarantee our ability to get elected in the future and that will open up American democracy like it hasn’t been for years. (Here in Europe, Green parties are refocusing their efforts presenting themselves as forward-looking, small “d” democrats who fight not just for the environment but for the people who live there. They can do this partly because most of their systems already have some kind of PR in place.)

Too much attention has recently been given to IRV where voters could declare their preferences by ranking choices with the aggregate votes of a second or third choice tallied upward should no one win an outright majority. This system would make it clear that someone like Al Gore would have won as the natural first choice of Gore supporters but the likely second choice of Ralph Nader supporters. It would thus enable independent and third-party voters to register their preference, (thus its often referred to as “preferential voting”) letting the winner know just who put them there. This is said to weaken the “spoiler” effect of minor parties because, as in this example, Gore’s rise would be obviously dependent on those voters who preferred someone else but still voted against George Bush.

It remains however, part of a winner-take-all approach, in which the parties that currently enjoy electoral advantages (Democrats and Republicans) would really have to do little or nothing to change and minor party candidates still wouldn’t ´t get elected. (Think about it: so what if the major parties know who I prefer? If we can never get that person in, what difference does it make?) It is this problem that remains the biggest obstacle to third parties in general and really representative democracy more specifically.

Our current electoral system is filled with undemocratic components (including the Electoral College) that guarantee weak voter interest and increase the possibility of manipulation. But if Greens came full out in favor of using IRV only on executive type positions (President and Senators again) then its symbolic value could be retained while the more comprehensive PR (Proportional Representation) system could be vigorously advocated to expand democracy, as for example, a simple 5% in the vote would translate into 5% of the seats available in any district. Thus the 49% of Americans who voted for someone who didn’t win would still be entitled to 49% of representation. Fair enough, right? If PR were in place, we could see a majority of Americans returning to electoral politics, as they would find finally someone who represented their interests directly. Imagine the effect a Green rallying cry of “Expand American democracy now!” would have.

For years American voters have been voting with their feet: on election day a majority keep them propped up on living room tables since their choices in the voting booth are almost uniformly dull, uninspired and lacking in significant differences. If we can gather ourselves together and push for a PR system, while simultaneously electing at local, State and where possible, national levels, representatives who will publicly advocate for such a system, then we will be contributing a positive, forward looking advancement that most democracies already have in place and several are presently changing towards. We will be seen as the party that represents not only a commitment to a cleaner, more protected macro environment in which we all live in but to the opening up of our democracy to the interests of all its citizens.

By vigorously advocating for PR, we will be showing the American people that only Greens challenge this entrenched system that is designed to keep Americans disinterested and uninvolved. We will be the ones advocating the expansion of democracy day in and day out until all Americans feel invested and all are represented.

Imagine one possible configuration of Congress 5 years after the establishment of PR. My guess is that the 435 member House of Representatives might look something like this:

174 Democratic Party (40%)

109 Republican Party (25%)

65 Green Party (15%)

44 Libertarian Party (10%)

22 Constitution or Reform Party (5%)

21 Independent or Other Party (5%)

These numbers are based on my assumption that should other parties be given a fair chance to participate in governance, a larger chunk of Republicans would opt out (versus Democrats) and move to the Libertarian, Reform or other parties. But the great thing is, it doesn’t really matter because these numbers would regularly change, with a probable base of 20-40% (at least for awhile) regularly voting either Republican or Democrat each and the rest divided by those who are organized well with a track record (Greens) and those who might more represent trends or tendencies held within one of the major parties (Libertarian or Reform). Either way, more Americans would feel represented because more Americans would be represented and thus voting rates would increase above our pathetically low present numbers (barely 50% of those eligible bother to vote-even during Presidential elections-the lowest of “advanced” democracies).

Only lastly do I believe we should attempt to woo progressives from elsewhere to our cause. Why? Because it distracts us too much from developing our own talent and our own style. It is an open secret that many progressive Democrats are attuned to Green values yet considers opting out of the Dems as political suicide, particularly given our present electoral system. (Remedied by suggestion number three above). And there are a great many progressives who I believe would make a fine contribution to the Green movement: Dennis Kucinich, Jim Hightower, Cynthia McKinney and Dennis Rivera, among others. But by pinning our hopes on their moving to us, we delay our own need to move closer to the electorate. (Again, Cobb can contribute a lot during this campaign and beyond on this issue.) Desperately pulling in a suitor has never earned the respect of any potential mate, it doesn’t in the political realm either.

Remember: It’s not our ideas that are the problem; it’s the fact that with the system presently in place, the people who hold those ideas can’t get elected.

We can do better. In fact, by Greens leading the way on Proportional Representation (and Instant Runoff Voting), we would be bringing in other parties, parties we might end up competing with. But that’s what democracy should look like, a representative sampling of all groups in the country competing on an even playing field for the votes of the electorate. By advocating a dramatic expansion of democracy through Proportional Representation, we would open the gates for greater citizen involvement, a deeper interest in politics and a more responsive group of elected officials. Isn’t that a strategy we can all support? By going with David Cobb, Greens are taking a gamble, but this time, with the right ideas and commitment, demanding that he push an expanded democracy as his top priority, it’s a gamble that can pay off in dividends that can forever transform our democracy into a better one for all.

Rev. José M. Tirado is a poet, writer, former Green Party member from California, and Shin Buddhist priest. He was also a union president at Warner Bros. Pictures, co-founder of the Latino Writers Group, charter-chair of the Colorado Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement (BASE) and long time activist in the Engaged Buddhism movement. He currently lives in Iceland with his family and welcomes correspondence. He can be reached at