The Greens in 2020 Elections and Beyond

Howie Hawkins

January 15, 2021

Greens knew from the start that 2020 would be a tough year for their presidential ticket. The election would be a referendum on Trump. For most progressives, Anybody But Trump would do.

Our campaign believed that an ecosocialist program is needed for real solutions to the life-or-death issues of climate, inequality, racism, and war. We believed that the way to defeat the Trump Republicans was for the left to put forward its own program and not rely on the Democrats’ pallid centrism, which would not speak to the economic and social anxieties that the Trump far-right has been mobilizing around with racist and conspiracy scapegoating.

Bernie Sanders did advance a set of popular progressive reforms in the Democratic primaries, but once the corporate Democrats closed ranks to defeat him, he too lined up behind Biden’s vapid incrementalism. The progressive left stopped raising its demands in order to unconditionally support Biden, who repeatedly boasted that he beat the socialists and their demands like Medicare for All. “Biden stiff-arms the left — which holds its fire” is how the headline of the Washington Post article on the first Trump-Biden debate aptly characterized Biden’s relationship to progressive Democrats.

Instead of campaigning for progressive demands, prominent progressive personalities focused their efforts on attacking the Green campaign as “spoilers” in a series of open letters (e.g., safe states, environmentalists, no states) in progressive online publications, very few of which would print our responses (safe states, environmentalists, no states).

Despite this unfavorable dynamic, we ran to build an independent ecosocialist alternative and for the same practical reasons Greens have run presidential tickets since 1996: to win state ballot lines, advance policy demands, and recruit new Greens.

The Green vote is coming it at something over 400,000 votes, or 0.3%, once the write-in votes in the states that report them are counted in. Though the prevailing lesser-evil dynamic was the biggest factor, the Green vote was also suppressed by limited ballot access. The greens were on only 30 state ballots, down from 45 in 2016, due to the difficulties of petitioning during the pandemic and successful Democratic legal challenges to Green ballot access in Montana, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

The Green presidential vote failed to meet the threshold for continued ballot access in six states — Massachusetts, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, and Utah — dropping the Greens from 21 to 15 state ballot lines. The Greens should be able to recover those ballot lines without too much trouble except in New York, where New York’s ballot access requirements are now the most difficult in the nation. New York Democrats rammed through a third party suppression law under the cover of the Covid-19 pandemic, attached to the state budget bill in April.

The policies our Green campaign advanced — including a full-strength Green New Deal, a fracking ban, Medicare for All, a Job Guarantee, and reprioritizing federal spending from militarism to social and environmental protections — were not debated except when Trump tried to pin them on Biden and Biden ran away from them. Our campaign was blanked out by the progressive media as well as corporate media more than any Green presidential campaign to date.

Our campaign did recruit thousands of new supporters mainly through social media. The biggest cohort of new supporters is young people in their teens and twenties. They are urging us to keep campaigning for our program. Some of the videos about our campaign that these young supporters posted on Tik Tok have been viewed by millions. As they have told us in their messages during and since the election, they want to fight with us for their futures against climate change, racial injustice, and bleak educational and economic opportunities.

The media coverage was all about Trump, as it has been since Trump first announced in June 2015. Trump’s latest tweet or utterance generated outrage from Democrats and the liberal media and cheerleading from Republicans and the conservative media. Our campaign could not get a word in edgewise in the media. The issue was Trump. Biden was Not Trump. He was not the champion of any policy. His message was “national unity” and “restoring the soul of the nation.”

While that message won Biden the presidency thanks to narrow margins in half a dozen swing states, it did not yield the anticipated Democratic sweep of the House, Senate, and state governments. It wasn’t only the Greens that had a bad election. So did Democratic centrists and progressives. The prospects for even the Democrats’ modest reform agenda under the next administration are dim.

The Larger Dynamic Determines Green Outcomes

The larger dynamic of presidential races has always determined how the Green and independent left tickets have done in recent decades far more than the candidates, message, and organization. The highest and lowest results from those campaigns have all been marginal to the contest between the two capitalist parties.

The 2020 Green vote is not as low as David Cobb in 2004 (119,859 votes, 0.1%) or Cynthia McKinney in 2008 (161,797 votes, 0.1%). On the other hand, it is a step down from 2016, when Jill Stein received 1,457,216 votes, or 1.1%, under the very different dynamic of an open seat against the two most unpopular major party candidates in polling history.

In 2000, Ralph Nader ran for an open seat against Al Gore, representing the corporate Clinton legacy, and George W. Bush, billing himself as a “compassionate conservative.” Even with his nearly universal name recognition as an accomplished progressive reformer, Nader’s best-ever Green result in 2000 was still only 2,882,955 votes, or 2.7%, from 44 state ballots.

The most difficult campaigns for the Greens have been running with an incumbent right-wing Republican in office, Bush in 2004 and Trump in 2020. Despite the unfavorable dynamic, the 2020 Green vote is in the middle range, hopefully reflecting modest growth in the committed independent left vote over the last decade.

The 2020 vote is comparable to the vote that Jill Stein received in 2012 (469,627 votes, 0.4%) running against Barack Obama, who had disappointed many progressives, and Mitt Romney, who presented himself as a moderate country-club Republican. Stein 2012 was on 37 ballots, compared to 30 ballot in 2020. The Green percent of the vote in states where its ticket was on the ballot in both 2016 and 2020 was higher in most states in 2020. This years results are also comparable in percentage to the vote (233,052 votes, 0.3%, from 30 ballots) for the 1980 campaign of environmental scientist Barry Commoner for the Citizens Party, which European Greens at the time considered America’s Green Party.

400,000 votes for an independent ecosocialist ticket is a base that can be built upon. However, a Green presidential ticket is unlikely to draw more than a small percentage of the vote until the Greens have become a major political force by electing thousands to municipal office and, on that foundation, to state legislatures and the House. The Greens have won over 1,200 elections over the years and currently have over 100 elected Greens in office. The Greens have proven they can win local races where the party’s community presence and canvassing count more than the money and media of major party candidates. When the Greens have built up their political strength from the bottom up and have a caucus in the House, a Green presidential ticket will draw more support.

A Tough Election for Progressive Democrats Too

The Greens may have had a tough election, but so did progressive Democrats. After supporting Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, progressives folded up their tents in the general election and relied on Biden’s cautious centrism to defeat Trump’s right-populist demagoguery. The overall results were almost identical to 2016. Biden squeaked by with narrow wins in half a dozen swing states. But while Trump himself was defeated, Trumpism came through the election stronger than ever with down-ballot wins, an 11 million increase in his total vote, and a demographically broader coalition.

The Democrats’ assumption that changing demographics, based on growing proportions of people of color, guarantees them growing victories was confounded by the results. Trump’s overall vote increased from 63 million in 2016 to 74 million in 2020. Trump gained support among women and people of color even after 5 years of misogynistic and racist rantings. Compared to 2016, Trump’s 2020 vote share rose 9% among Black women, 9% among Black men, 8% among Latino men, 5% among Latina women, and 2% among white women. The only group where Trump lost support was in his strongest base, white men, where his share fell 8%.

With the exit polls showing that the top issues for Trump voters were jobs and the economy, the absence of a clear economic message from Biden and the Democrats was a major weakness. The election results show that they cannot continue to take for granted high levels of support among women and people of color.

The projected blue wave to take over the U.S. Senate and state legislatures and increase the Democratic majority in the House did not materialize. It will now be difficult for Democrats to pass even their modest reforms in the next Congress. Republicans will be in charge of redistricting in 30 states, where they will have the power to gerrymander a reinforcement of their overrepresentation in legislative seats, compared to their popular votes, in state legislatures and the House for another decade.

Progressive Democrats contributed to these results by failing to make any demands on Biden. After the Democratic Party leadership closed ranks to defeat Bernie Sanders in the primaries, progressive Democrats closed ranks behind Biden. Instead of advancing progressive demands, progressive Democrats attacked the Green campaign that was still raising demands like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

The prominent public intellectuals arguing for this lesser-evil approach moved right from 2004, when they advocated a “Safe States Strategy” of voting for Kerry in swing states and Green in safe states, to “No States Strategy” of a Biden vote everywhere, even in states like California, Massachusetts and New York. where Biden had a consistent lead of 25%-30% in the polls the whole campaign.

A number of these prominent progressives called me to say that if I called for a Biden vote in the swing states, they would help build the Green Party after the election. But if I didn’t adopt a safe states strategy, they would call for a Biden vote in every state. Not only did I not agree with their strategy or appreciate their threats, I remembered the empty promises from these same people of helping the Green Party after it did take a safe states approach in 2004.

This near-total collapse of prominent progressives into depending on the soft-right Democrats to defeat the hard-right Republicans reveals a profound loss of confidence that the left can win. In hoping to defeat Trumpian neofascism with the Democratic neoliberalism, they affirmed the policies that created the economic insecurities that fueled Trumpism in the first place. They have given up on a left that can defeat the right with a socialism that ends economic insecurities.

Democrats Fueled Republican Overperformance

Progressives thus reinforced Biden’s cautious centrism, while Trump energetically framed the campaign as a choice between jobs and public health — opening up the economy and getting people back to work with Trump vs. closing the economy to fight Covid-19 and losing jobs and businesses with Biden. The energy was with Trump’s followers. His campaign knocked on a million doors a week, while the Biden campaign stayed at home and counted on its money advantage to win the advertising air war and a blue wave. Trump’s base was on the streets in motorcades and rallies. Biden’s base was staying home.

Polling all year after the pandemic broke out showed that jobs and the economy were the top issues. Exit polls confirmed this, especially with Trump voters. Like Hillary Clinton in 2016, Biden ran without a progressive populist economic message. He could have pounded away at Trump and the Republicans for blocking a Covid relief package. He could have railed against the costs of health care and prescription drugs. He could have attacked corrupt tax breaks for big corporations and rich guys like Trump.

Hearing no clear economic message from Biden on the top issue of the campaign, many of those struggling or worried economically defaulted to Trump’s far-fetched boasting and promises about economy. They accepted or tolerated his strongman cultism and conspiracy-minded attacks on immigrants, people of color, China, intellectual elites, journalists with their “fake news,” and scientists with their climate and Covid “hoaxes.”

Having made no demands on Biden or independently campaigned for progressive reforms, progressive Democrats have no leverage in the Biden administration. Biden is stuffing his administration with deficit hawks and war hawks recycled from the Clinton and Obama administrations. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell is poised to to be the effective co-president, with a veto on Biden appointments and legislation.

Going forward, without solid majorities in both houses of Congress, the Biden Democrats are in no position to deliver a progressive economic alternatives like Medicare for All and public jobs for the unemployed, even if they wanted to. In any case, it is clear they don’t want to. Their big bloc of working-class voters of color may want to, but they are taken for granted because they are not going to exit in mass for the racist Republicans, though their support could continue to erode into political abstention or protest votes for Trumpist candidates.

The Democrats’ super-rich donors don’t want those progressive programs. Nor do the Democrats’ other big bloc of voters in the well-educated professional middle classes. Centrist Democratic messaging speaks to these people, who are socially liberal but fiscally conservative, i.e., not for generous spending on public schools, housing, transportation, or poverty relief for workers. They are for formal equality and meritocratic diversity at the top, but not the substantive equality of just outcomes for the masses.

Biden also failed miserably in countering Trump’s race war narrative. Trump used it to mobilize an expansion of white working-class voters (wrongly defined in exit polls as lacking a 4-year college degree). Alongside his tepid economic message, Biden’s racial justice message was equivocating at best, as he went out of his way to condemn the “violence” on the fringes of anti-police brutality demonstrations, called for increased federal funding for police, and made insensitive gaffes speaking to Black audiences. Trump’s racism was not countered by a righteous anti-racist message from Biden that might have motivated Black voters more than his “I’m not Trump.”.

With no credible economic or racial justice message, let alone legislative program, likely to come of out the early Biden administration, there’s fertile ground from Trumpism’s authoritarian, conspiratorial, and irrationalist explanations to grow, possibly led by someone not as ignorant, incompetent, and lazy as Donald Trump. Trump may be a martyr by the time the mid-terms come around, facing charges of bank, insurance, and tax fraud and money-laundering in New York. The right-wing media of Fox News, Newsmax, and 24/7 rightwing talk radio will continue to feed the sense of grievance and victimhood to the Trumpian base. 86% of Republicans believe the was stolen by Biden. 71% of Trump supporters do not view climate change as an important problem. 82% approve of Trump’s Covid response. Trump may have lost the election, but Trumpism is alive and well.

Progressive and Socialist Policies Are Popular

Angela Walker, Green Party 2020 vice-presidential candidate

Our campaign platform was far more popular than Biden’s and Trump’s. While Biden joined Trump in opposing all of the following measures, majorities joined us in supporting them.

Candidates who did run on policies like these did well. The Greens ran over 200 candidates in 2020 and elected at least 22. Two days after the election, corporate Democrats blamed progressives in their House caucus meeting for their poor results in the House, Senate, and state legislative elections. But the corporate Democrats were wrong. All 112 co-sponsors of Medicare for All won their races in Democratic-majority and swing districts alike, while several incumbent Democrats who opposed Medicare for All lost. Ninety-seven of 98 co-sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution won their races.

Progressive ballot initiatives won all across the country. In Florida, where Trump won by 372,000 votes, the $15 minimum wage won by 2,274,000 votes. Legalizing marijuana won in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota. Decriminalizing all drugs won in Oregon. Colorado passed paid family leave and rejected a ban on late-term abortions. Boulder, Colorado, passed the right to counsel for people facing eviction. Nebraska passed restrictions on payday lenders. Ranked-choice voting (RCV) passed in Alaska and five cities, including multi-seat RCV for proportional representation on the city council and school board of Albany, California.

Even as Democratic primary voters were choosing Biden over Sanders after Super Tuesday last March, exit polls showed majorities of primary voters supported Sanders’s signature issue, Medicare for All. Yet Sanders’s forces capitulated across the board in the statement coming out of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force in July on everything from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal and the fracking ban. In an interview with Ali Velshi on MSNBC, Sanders abandoned Medicare for All and accepted the task force recommendation of Medicare for 60 and up.

The paradoxical results of the election show an expanded vote and retained political strength for the Trump Republicans alongside good results for progressive candidates and ballot measures. The conclusion we draw is that Democratic Party centrism didn’t defeat the Trumpism but continued to enable it.

Green Party Suppression

While progressive Democratic pundits were dropping their demands in deference to Biden’s centrist messaging and focusing their fire on the Green “spoilers,” Democratic Party officials were attacking Green ballot access.

The Covid-19 pandemic made petitioning difficult. Many state parties and our campaign appealed to state governments and/or sued them for relief in the form of ballot placement based on previous ballot status, reduced signature requirements, and/or electronic signatures. We got relief from some states and won some relief lawsuits and lost others, but many of these appeals were not resolved until a week or two before the petitions were due. The ballot-access fights, together with 47 competitive Green primaries leading up to the July 11 nomination convention, meant that many state parties waited to start petitioning until deadlines were right on top of them.

Nonetheless, in several states where the Greens did get on the ballot, the Democrats then engaged in an aggressive campaign to knock us off the ballot, which succeeded in Montana, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. The votes on election boards and in the courts were strictly partisan, as Democratic hacks voted to knock us off the ballot and Republican hacks vote to keep us on, irregardless of the actual facts and the law. What other democratic country has their ruling parties administering their own elections instead of an independent nonpartisan agency? The Democrats’ challenges to Green ballot access were the most extensive party supression campaign since 2004, when the Democrats hired 52 law firms to file 29 frivolous and harassing lawsuits to block ballot access in 19 states against the independent ticket of Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo.

Meanwhile, the Democrats’ New York party-suppression bill tripled the number of votes the Green Party needed to stay on the ballot, doubled the frequency we have to meet that standard from every four years to every two years, and tripled the signature requirement to get back on the ballot — 45,000 signatures in a six-week window — and increased five-fold to 500 signatures the distribution requirement we have to meet in half of New York’s 27 congressional districts. After the election, both Governor Andrew Cuomo and state Democratic Party chair Jay Jacobs stated their satisfaction with elimination of parties from the ballot except for the fusion parties, the Working Families and Conservative parties, both of which routinely run Democrats and Republicans on their lines. Cuomo and Jacobs said the laws was desiged to keep them on the ballot.

The law was obviously aimed at the Green Party, which has won as much as 5% of the statewide vote running against Cuomo. New York’s elected “democratic socialist” Democrats have been silent about this change in the law and the elimination of the Green Party from the ballot. None of the progressive and socialist intellectuals who called for a Biden vote in New York have expressed any regrets about the Greens losing their ballot line.

Democratic commentary out of Pennsylvania is congratulating itself for suppressing the Green Party, saying it is why Biden won those states and also saying Greens “robbed” votes from Democrats who lost to Republicans down ballot .

Republican voter suppression through voter-roll purges, onerous ID requirements, insufficient polling resources in communities of color, and so forth is despicable. Less recognized is the Democrats’ voter suppression through party suppression. Running for offices is the fullest expression of First Amendment rights to free speech and press and to petition the government for redress of grievances. Party-suppression is the mark of an authoritarian regime.

Green Socialist Movement Building

Howie Hawkins, Green Party 2020 presidential candidate

After reflection on this election, we remain as convinced as we have ever been that the lesser=evil approach only enables the greater evil. The best way to defeat the hard right is with an independent green socialist movement, program, and party. It is politically ineffective to defer to the corporate warhawks of the Democratic Party to defeat the hard right, and the Democrats themselves are a danger to peace, economic security, and ecological sustainability that must be defeated as well.

The Green Party adopted a plank in its platform in 2016 committing the party to an “ecological socialism.” That decision has not been without controversy, and an anti-socialist rearguard remains vocal in the party. But Angela Walker and I ran as open socialists and decisively won Green Party primaries. That’s a good indication that the majority of Greens support an ecosocialist approach.

Angela and I have filed with the Federal Election Commission to continue our candidate committee for the next election cycle, so that we can continue to raise and spend money in support of green socialist organizing. Whether we run again is a decision that will be deferred until after the 2022 elections. For now, our focus is working with our campaign supporters to promote left solidarity in building a mass party of the green and socialist left.

We want to help strengthen local Green parties around a year-round organizing program to build a mass base as opposed to periodic mobilizations of the existing base. We will continue to raise our national demands for the ecosocialist Green New Deal, the Economic Bill of Rights, and so forth, but we see many more possibilities to win reforms in the next few years at the local and state level, where we want to help candidates and issue movements run effective campaigns. We will participate in the growing movement for ranked-choice voting (RCV) at the local, state, and federal levels, particularly for RCV from multi-member districts to create proportional representation in legislative bodies. We will also campaign for replacing the Electoral College with a ranked-choice national popular vote for president. We will engage in popular education on ecosocialist principles and policies.

We are also recommending that the Green Party become a mass-membership party of individual dues-paying members, like every other Green Party in the world. The U.S. Green Party has been hampered by its structure as a federation of state parties. Exactly who is represented by state party delegates to the national committee and convention varies widely from state to state and is hard to ascertain in some. In many states, party registrants and supporters are largely isolated from the party organization and its issue and election campaigns. This structure has made grassroots participation, leadership accountability, fundraising, and effective organizing weak. The party needs to become a party of dues-paying members who are represented in the national party in proportion to their membership in their states.

The future base of a mass party of the green and socialist left are the people who tend to vote in smaller numbers. They are disproportionately working-class, people of color, and young. We believe most of them are alienated, not apathetic. They don’t believe the politicians of the major parties know their issues or care about them. They are not going to be reached through the mass media that excludes independent left voices. Reaching them will require year-round organizing by local parties, where this base knows the local party activists personally as people who are consistently active on the issues that concern them. If a mass party of the green and socialist left is to grow into a major force in American politics, it will have to built from the bottom up through local parties, candidates, and issue campaigns.

Comments
  • Adam Hefty says:

    Relatively minor point: You write, “The 2020 Green vote is not as low as David Cobb in 2004 (119,859 votes, 0.1%) or Cynthia McKinney in 2008 (161,797 votes, 0.1%).” This is true, but it ignores the fact that they were running not only against major party candidates, but also against Nader, running as an independent, who pulled more votes than the Green candidate did in both of those elections. Overall, the left third party vote will be around 0.30%-0.36% in 2020, which is the weakest result since 1992. (See https://solidarity-us.org/progelect/)

    I agree with you that the primary reason for poor results in 2020 was the larger dynamic of the race being seen as a referendum on Trump.

    • The fact that the Greens chose Cobb and then McKinney over Nader is not a minor point in explaining the larger dynamic is 2004 and 2008. I debated with myself going into that but decided going into more detail on those years or others wasn’t necessary to make the point about the larger political context being the most important factor in determining the Green results. I had not before seen the interesting historical chart you linked to, which provides more data for that point.

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