The upcoming US Presidential Election is historic on many fronts. Besides the profoundly meaningful feat that the US will now have their first opportunity to elect a woman from one of the two major political parties, they will also have the chance to choose between two of the least popular presidential candidates in history. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump leave many Americans less than excited, if not straight up outraged. This has led many to look beyond Democratic and Republican choices towards third party candidates such as the Green Party’s Jill Stein and the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson, who to many Americans are becoming more attractive options. The media is increasingly covering the two; CNN has even given both of them a town hall special.

For many of us Greens in Europe, it is exciting to see the Green Party of the US (GPUS) get some attention and it is tempting to dream of a Green Surge in the US. Especially if we consider that the fractions within both major political parties are taking a serious toll on their functionality, which the public is understandably fatigued by. For Greens, a particularly interesting group comes from the supporters of former Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders, who have very publicly shown that they cannot stomach voting for the centrist Clinton.

It’s not as though there haven’t been serious Green Presidential races elsewhere in the past. This year’s near-election of Van Der Bellen in Austria or the Finnish Green candidate Pekka Haavisto making it into the second round of Presidential elections in 2012 proved that the Greens could compete against bigger, more traditional political parties and produce serious Presidential campaigns, even in systems where the executive leader is directly elected. Which begs the question, if some European countries came so close to electing a Green President, is it so crazy to think the US could as well?

The impenetrable US political presidential electoral system

The reality is, yes, it would be crazy. The US has made it structurally near impossible for third parties to have a chance at the White House. For many states, getting on the ballot alone is considered the only realistic victory for the Green Party. States have different laws regarding ballot access, a common one being that candidates must get enough signatures to be recognised as a legitimate political party and thus be eligible to be put on the ballot. As of September, 44 states will have the Green Party candidate Jill Stein on the ballot in November.

In electoral viability, even if the Greens were to be on every state’s Presidential ballot,there is no second round of voting for Presidential elections like in Austria, Finland, or France, so they would need to win outright by the electoral college [1], meaning gaining enough majorities in enough states, not just winning the popular vote, which would be a near impossible challenge. With nowhere near the resources to run a national campaign that would be comparable to those of the Republicans or Democrats, the Greens would really have to revolutionise how campaigns are done, or financed, to be a formidable opposition. Evidence from Bernie Sander’s campaign shows that even this is not enough.

It doesn’t take much to see that the US presidential system is not built to give a fair chance to third party candidates. Even if the other choices are as problematic as Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, their undesirability is no match for the systematic discrimination against third parties by the US presidential election process. Given these circumstances, the case for voting Green at the presidential level may just be too hard to make.

Building from the bottom up

That is why a very common critique of the Green Party of the US isn’t just that they have unrealistic policies, but also unrealistic political goals. Currently the GPUS only has local representatives, 117 in total, without a single elected representative in a state or national legislature. In the past, the Greens in total have had four state representatives, only two of which ran as Greens and the other two switching after being elected. Plenty of other candidates have run unsuccessfully in the GPUS’s 30-year history and the explanation of their defeats could be any number of factors which are beyond the scope of this article.  Regardless, in a country that has around 520,000 elected officials, getting beyond 117 seems like a reasonable goal.

Founded in 1984, the GPUS was the result of activists who felt disenchanted by the Reagan-era politics of the time and were looking for an alternative option to the ineffective Democratic Party. Taking inspiration from the Greens of West Germany, they created ‘10 Key Values,’ which still serve as their basis today. The Party went through the usual growing pains of a political party, with a split over a debate in whether or not it would require all state members to ask their members to pay a membership fee which lead to two Green Parties in the US which still exist today- the Green Party of the US (GPUS) and the Greens/Green Party of the USA (GPUSA). Stein’s party GPUS, still requires no membership fee from its members’, just like the Democratic and Republican Parties

The Green Party of the US’s highest level of fame came with the Presidential run of Ralph Nader who, in the 2000 Presidential election, received 2,883,000 votes nationwide (in comparison, Jill Stein received 470,000 in 2012). This was the election that after a long series of recounts in Florida, was ultimately won by George W. Bush. It is still a widespread belief that it was Nader voters who instead of voting for the Democrats took a rightful victory from Gore to Bush, which is simply unforgivable for many progressive voters in the US. Whether Nader gave Bush the election or not seems beyond the point. The fact that this idea from 16 years ago still resonates with the public, is (arguably) enough for Greens to readjust their strategy towards  winning seats at other levels of the government and regaining some of the public’s trust.

Yet it still seems that there are no resources nor mapping out of areas where Greens could stand a chance of being elected to some higher profile positions on the local and state levels. Instead, their visible communications still focus on Jill Stein and her Presidential race. There is no doubt that campaigning for the White House is a proven way to get very coveted and sought after national media and attention, with such considerable hype and buzz around it. It certainly worked for Donald Trump. But for actual political power, can that be built from the top down?

Evidence from Green successes in Europe would predict probably not. When you look at the success of Austria’s Van der Bellen or Finland’s Haavisto, they did not come from strong presidential campaigns alone. Both the Austrian and Finnish Greens had elected officials at various levels of government for years and were either in opposition or in government before their nearly successful presidential runs. It was through building name recognition, gaining voters’ trust, expanding their professional capacities such as campaigning expertise, and finding a selection of viable candidates, that these parties gained more and more electoral success which allowed them to move to higher levels of government, whether it was regional, national, or European parliaments.

Comparing apples to oranges?

Of course it is inherently difficult, if not impossible, to compare electoral results from country to country if their political systems are different. It is unfair to expect that with just slightly different tactics the Greens could overturn the political system of the most powerful political machinery in the world. The US doesn’t have a representational parliament and currently, the number of third party candidates at any level of state or national level is seriously minimal. One reason why Bernie Sanders had so much name recognition already before his run for the Democratic candidacy is that he was the only Independent who identified as a Socialist in the House of Representatives, which was seen more as a novelty than a serious political tactic.

While it is not often that I would suggest borrowing the playbook of UK political parties, in the case of the Greens, there is a lot the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW) could teach the US Greens. On the legislative level, the UK has a similar winner-take-all—or, in British English, first-past-the-post  – system for their parliament, which leads to a nearly two party system with the two main parties dominating the media and using their existing power to keep in place a political system that discriminates against third parties. Further, unlike in France, where despite a system that favours the major parties a plurality of political parties is considered normal and healthy for democratic life and their legitimacy as political actors isn’t questioned, it is common in the UK and US today, for mainstream politicians to actively disdain efforts by small parties. To be even considered a legitimate political party is a challenge.

Despite the important difference in that there is no directly elected President in the UK, at the legislative level the systems still structurally discriminate against third parties and they too are endlessly fighting for electoral reform to give their party a fighting chance. Yet in the meantime,  the GPEW, unlike GPUS, have still been able to get representatives elected at various levels of government  greatly thanks to a well-planned strategy.

The GPEW too were once a fringe party  struggling to get any representatives in office. It wasn’t until they completely reorganized themselves in both communication and strategy that this changed. They started to emphasize their social policies, which helped them shed the image of being a single-issue party, which the GPUS has already done. They shifted their efforts to gaining representation at the local level, analysing where it would be possible and focusing there. It was at the local level that Caroline Lucas was first elected; she would later be elected as the first Green Member of the European Parliament, and then as the first Green Member of the UK Parliament. This is something that the GPUS seems to lack: instead of investing resources into getting Stein elected at the state level, they immediately put her up for the Presidential, although she didn’t have either the governing experience nor the support of fellow legislators that having political experience brings.

It was because of greater name recognition and trust in the party that GPEW was able to grow. Today they have three MEPs, one MP, one member of the House of Lords, and over 160 local representatives. To put it in perspective, this is more local councillors than the whole of the US, despite having one fifth of the population. Getting some well-planned congresspeople elected at state level or even national level could be a realistic goal for the GPUS, if they only made it their goal.

Going forward

As Green Party activists in Europe, we know that it can be difficult to campaign even in the best of times. Add in a system that makes your chances nearly impossible and it’s easy to be discouraged. But those of us on either side of the Atlantic can’t give up. We in Europe should strive to share our positive experiences in campaigning and strategising with our American colleagues. Simply put, we can neither write off the Green Party of the US nor blindly support it without any constructive criticism.

Of course, we all know already that there is no ‘one size fits all’ model for Green politics, and we should always take strides to avoid being pedantic and generalising. Yet we mustn’t neglect the need to look beyond our own national or European context, and we must make an effort to build a global Green movement. It is for this reason that there is an international network of Green Parties, the Global Greens, who on March 30 to April 1 2017 in Liverpool, England, will be hosting a Congress alongside the European Green Party. We owe it to ourselves to take this opportunity seriously, as a way to meet our fellow Green colleagues from across the world and have frank conversations about the realities of doing Green politics in any context. While a few days in Liverpool are certainly not enough to give GPUS a roadmap to Green political success, it is a start to the long, long journey ahead.


[1] The electoral college is a system where US voters vote state-by-state, with each state allocated a certain number of ‘electors’ based on their population. For the vast majority of states, it’s a winner-take-all system and the presidential candidate that wins a plurality of votes in a state wins all of that state’s electors. For example, during the 2012 election, in Florida President Obama won 50% of the vote compared to 49% for Mitt Romney, therefore Obama won all 29 of Florida’s electors.

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