Remember when politics used to be unscripted and fun? David Cobb, presidential nominee of the Green Party, is having fun this year. "I find it exhilarating," he says, notwithstanding the likelihood he will finish behind even independent Ralph Nader, the Green candidate in 2000. Cobb is a 41-year-old lawyer and community organizer who ran for Texas attorney general before moving to Humboldt County, Calif. -- ground zero for green-thinking politics. Cobb playfully ridicules campaign stereotypes with his biographical equivalent of being born in a log cabin.
"I'm proud to say I'm the only presidential candidate in this election who grew up in a house without a flush toilet," he declares. "I don't say that to get a pat on the head but to underscore that I grew up in poverty -- real poverty -- and my running mate [Pat LaMarche of Maine] grew up in a public housing project in Providence, Rhode Island. So when I rail against the corporate capitalist system that oppresses workers, I'm speaking from my own experience. I've seen it up close and personal."
In Houston, where Cobb came of age, he was a dishwasher, construction worker, deckhand on shrimp boats and waiter, working his way through college and law school. "The constant refrain is that Greens are nothing more than upper-middle-class environmentalists, but you know what, that's the Sierra Club, not the Green Party," he says. "The Green Party is actually composed of working-class people."
The Greens' sensibility is still countercultural, but they've become far more inclusive, recruiting union members and urban minorities while also talking about governing issues with less froth, more substance. Double the minimum wage to $10 an hour. Repeal the NAFTA and WTO agreements, also the Taft-Hartley Act. End poverty -- literally -- with a new system to guarantee "sustainable livelihoods" for all, worthy work and living wages, decentralized economics and politics, an economy transformed to sustain nature rather than destroy it. "There are no good-paying jobs on a dead planet," Cobb observes.
The electoral reality is that, without the celebrity of Ralph Nader on the ticket, the Green Party will likely finish in asterisk territory with other minor parties. Indeed, a rump group is out working for Nader instead of Cobb. That's OK with Green Party organizers, who demonstrated party control by nominating Cobb over Nader at the June convention. Their objective is long-term party-building, registering more members, recruiting more candidates for local offices, organizing more state parties. By those terms, they see themselves winning by growing this year, while Democrats and major media direct the heavy fire at Nader.
The Greens in 2004 do not say, as Nader did four years ago, that there's no difference between Democrats and Republicans -- just not enough difference. A provocative comparison of party positions on the Greens' Web site lists what Greens oppose and both major parties support: war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Patriot Act, Israeli occupation of the West Bank, corporate agriculture, corporate welfare, corporate rules for global trade, bank deregulation, increasing military spending, the death penalty. Greens support and Democrats and Republicans oppose: national health insurance, doubling the minimum wage, full public financing for candidates, strict controls on genetically modified organisms, the landmine-ban treaty, real action on global warming, a new legal doctrine of workers' rights for Americans, electoral reforms that create the political space for a multiparty democracy.
Indeed, reading their literature and listening to Cobb, it seems more that the Greens are co-opting Democrats than the other way around -- adopting reform convictions Democrats have abandoned. Cobb used to be a Democrat himself and was a campaign organizer for Jesse Jackson in 1988 and Jerry Brown in 1992. "That is actually the year I became so disgusted by the corporate money and realized the kind of progressive politics I wanted to do really couldn't be done by the Democratic Party, because the corporate money was like a cancer that had metastasized within that body," he says. "Even though there were great progressive Democrats, ultimately the money ruled the day." Most rank-and-file Democrats know this, he thinks, but don't know what to do about it. But, he says, "there is a growing awareness in a segment of the American population ... that we do not have a democracy in this country. Today, unelected, unaccountable CEOs are not just exercising power over us, they are literally ruling us. They are making the public policy decisions for us."
The radical edge in Green politics is small-d democratic -- the Greens' conviction that "grassroots democracy" and "community-based economics" are still possible in America, that "workplace democracy" is a smart fit with "ecological wisdom." Their textbook is Lawrence Goodwyn's history of the agrarian revolt, The Populist Moment, which describes how ordinary citizens in the 1880s built an autonomous, self-educating social movement to challenge the dominant culture.
Cobb believes the Greens are working on the early stages of movement-building. In 1996, when Cobb first got involved, the party had 40 elected officeholders and 10 organized state parties, only five of those recognized with a ballot line. By 2000, it had 21 state parties, 10 with ballot lines and 81 elected officials. Despite the hostile aftermath of 2000, when they were accused of tipping the election to Bush, Greens grew from 21 to 44 state organizations, 28 with ballot lines and 207 elected officials. If this keeps up, Democrats might want to check it out.
"Every time a progressive Democrat laments to me or wails or screams at me, I very calmly say, 'I appreciate where you're coming from, but you know what, we're going to keep doing what we're doing and we're growing,'" Cobb relates. "We are getting larger and stronger and better organized with every election cycle. If you really think that our growing strength is a problem, then the solution is to work together to change the voting system."
The future of Green power remains a fantasy until the legal barriers that face all minor parties are overcome -- the winner-take-all election system that leads citizens to vote for the lesser of two evils rather than someone who genuinely represents their views. Despite history and tradition, Cobb believes this will occur when major parties eventually feel threatened by their internal decay. "Principled liberals have clearly been sold out and lied to by the Democratic Party leadership, but so too have principled conservatives by the Republican leadership," he explains. As disgust deepens for the two-party duopoly and party faithful drop away, the pressure for instant-runoff voting and larger reforms will accelerate. San Francisco launches IRV City Council elections this fall.
What might the Democrats learn from the Green Party? The leadership is hopeless, Cobb believes, "like a huge statue -- but it's completely hollow, and only the corporate cash is keeping it upright." However, Cobb suggests, what rank-and-file Democrats "could crib from us is that they have a helluva lot more power than they realize -- if only they would exercise it. When you unleash the democratic spirit for individual members and encourage them to act autonomously and individually, it is nothing short of staggering."