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Green and Not Heard

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The Green Party assembled in the counterintuitive location of San Francisco recently for its presidential debate, wherein ex-Dem Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney was joined by this cast of luminaries:

The other three candidates included Jared Ball, a hip-hop scholar and assistant professor of communications at Morgan State University in Baltimore; Kat Swift, a 34-year-old dread-locked activist from San Antonio who said she will "be just old enough to be president by the time of the next election"; and actor and filmmaker Jesse Johnson from West Virginia.

The debate was marked by vigorous agreement among all parties, along with hosannas from the assembled choir:

"I had hoped for a higher caliber of interaction on the issues," said [San Franciscan Mini] Kahlon. "There was a lot more cheerleading than I had expected. But I like the idea of a debate that doesn't only include Democrats and Republicans."

Ah, the idea. I like it too. The reality, not so much.

It is a legitimate and unfortunate problem in our two-party system that when both parties agree on an issue, it is effectively removed from the political discussion. Compounding the problem is the fact that many of those shared positions are execrable (see: drug war). Frustration is understandable.

The question, though, is how to re-open the issues. The Green strategy takes several wrong turns on that road. For one thing, it has become a kind of gutter that catches every issue swept off the American political roof -- anti-imperialism, anti-globalism, civil rights, identity politics, the drug war, slavery reparations, indigenous rights, and a variety of conspiracy theories. Some of this stuff I'm all for -- notably a sane drug policy and a much harder line on civil rights -- but some of it is economically daft and some of it is just wacky. It doesn't add up to a coherent critique.

The way to go, it seems to me, would be twofold. First, build the party at the local level (as the Greens have done in some cases), using critiques and programs that resonate with local voters. Get a grassroots thing going. Second, reign in the platform. Focus on a few big issues, the ones with most crossover appeal. Connect the grassroots with mainstream spokespeople -- people who come with pre-established credibility, who are familiar and comforting to the American people (think Sam Waterson). Let those spokespeople serve to legitimate these select issues (say, better drug policy), and use the grassroots to amplify the message. That might create some actual movement.

Instead, the whole project seems driven by a romantic notion of revolution, overthrowing the entire System in one massive uprising. Inspiring for a certain sort of person, maybe, but totally outside the realm of reasonable possibility.

Whatever. The point is, this tactic of throwing dreadlocked fruitloops into a totally quixotic national campaign is the worst of both worlds. It only serves to further delegitimize those issues that have a potential constituency outside the choir. Enthusiasm is no substitute for a realistic communications and power-building strategy.