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“The Democrats are worthless”: An interview with Howie Hawkins

Gregor Baszak

Platypus Review 126 | May 2020

Gregor Baszak of the Platypus Affiliated Society conducted an interview with Howie Hawkins, co-founder of the Green Party of the United States. Hawkins is currently running for the Green Party nomination for president. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Gregor Baszak: What do you hope for by running for president on a third-party ticket?

Howie Hawkins: The very practical thing we’re aiming for is to get more ballot lines and retain the ballot lines we have for the Green Party. 2020 is going to be very difficult because the “anybody but Trump” sentiment is very strong.

But we’re saying that the way we’re going to build a Left is from the bottom up. In two senses: one, electing people to local office, and then state legislatures, and then Congress. Once we have a caucus in Congress, we’re going to run a presidential candidate that’ll be taken seriously by the public and the media. Two, we’ve got to build on the working class that votes in low numbers. The major parties basically compete for the middle class strata and for money from the very rich. But the working class is AWOL. In other words, we want to broaden our base in the working class. So, we hope to make advances on those two fronts and be prepared to start electing thousands of people to local office through the 2020s.

We are also trying to bring issues into the debate that are not being discussed or are being distorted. For example, I’ve been saying there are life-or-death issues that we have to be talking about: most importantly, the climate crisis. I was the first candidate in this country to call for a Green New Deal. I’ve got an ecosocialist Green New Deal budget, and the way I look at it, Trump calls climate change a hoax, but the Democrats act as if it’s a hoax. None of them have a serious program, except Bernie Sanders, and it’s still short in our view because his timeline is getting to zero greenhouse gas emissions and a hundred percent clean energy by 2050. We’ve been saying 2030. It’s been the signature issue for the Green Party for a long time. And then the Democrats picked up the Green New Deal without acknowledgment, they took the brand, and they diluted the content. The non-binding resolution to Congress that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey proposed dropped the ban on fracking and new fossil fuel infrastructure. If we allow that infrastructure to be built and they keep fracking the hell out of the country, we’re going to be burning fossil fuels for decades, and the planet will be cooked. They also dropped the phase out of nuclear power, and cutting the military budget to fund the Green New Deal, and they extended the deadline to 2050. Now, to Bernie’s credit, he brought back the ban on fracking and new fossil fuel infrastructure and the phase out of nuclear power, and he talks about cutting the military budget without providing numbers. Bernie is serious, but he’s not sufficient in our view, and the rest of the Democrats are worthless.

GB: If you think that Bernie Sanders’ views on the Green New Deal go further than those of many Democrats, why did you run against him? Why didn’t you endorse him?

HH: The Democratic Party lets Bernie give speeches, but the corporate Democrats make the decisions. We can see that with the Green New Deal: as watered down as the non-binding resolution is, Pelosi didn’t even let the House vote on it. And then the Senate got to vote on it because Mitch McConnell wanted to make the Democrats who are running for president get on the record. But Chuck Schumer said it’s a trick, vote present. And all the Democrats obediently voted present, except for four of them who voted with the Republicans against the Green New Deal.

So, we need an independent Left. The progressives in the Democratic Party should welcome us because we give them some leverage since the Democrats can’t take the votes of progressives for granted. They have to move our way or they’re going to lose votes to the independent Left. So, that’s why we need to be running. If we just fold up our tents and go silent, there won’t be a Left.

GB: Many recent Green Party candidates like Ralph Nader and Jill Stein have been accused of being “spoiler candidates.” If you ask Democrats, Nader and Stein are responsible for elevating George W. Bush and Donald Trump to the presidency. How do you respond?

HH: We have a racist electoral system based on the Electoral College that goes back to slavery, which gave the slaveowners in the South disproportionate power. Today, whites, who can be mobilized around a racist and nationalist agenda, have disproportionate power in the Electoral College. Bush and Trump lost the popular vote. But instead of going after the Electoral College and calling for a national popular vote, which we’d like to see by ranked choice voting, they pick on the Greens.

It’s not a serious response. We’re a much more minor factor than the Electoral College or the fact that they spend billions advertising these major party candidates. The Greens spend hundreds of thousands at best. We’re not the problem. The Democrats have got their own problems. If they get their own base out, they should defeat Trump in a landslide. They should worry about that. To pick on the Greens is a poor excuse for them.

Howie Hawkins

GB: When you ask many leftists about the viability of a third party in U.S. politics, you’ll often get the response that our electoral system gives third parties simply no chance. Given your own take on the Electoral College, how do you respond to this claim?

HH: The Electoral College affects presidential races. The Greens have elected hundreds of people to local office. The Socialist Party between 1900 and 1932 took over a lot of cities, with majorities in the council and the mayor. Our winner-take-all, first-past-the-post electoral system with single-member districts is an obstacle, but it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. Canada is first-past-the-post, but they have third parties that are viable. Mexico basically had a one-party system with a phony opposition, which changed. The same was true in Venezuela. In Great Britain you have the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Scottish Nationalists, who took over the Labour base. So, first-past-the-post is not an insurmountable obstacle.

I think the problem in this country is that since 1936 the Popular Front, when the Communists went into a coalition with the liberal bourgeoisie against the fascists, has been the dominant policy on the Left. However, since 1848 the traditional principle of socialist politics was class independence from the capitalists. The so-called “socialists” in this country have forgotten that. They don’t know that they’re continuing the Popular Front because they don’t study history. And when you’re in a Popular Front with the Democrats, you are the junior partner: they set the agenda, and you go out and knock on doors or make phone calls. You’re not a Left anymore; you’re just grunt workers for the corporate liberals and neoliberals.

GB: Many leftists fear that even on a local level, third-party alternatives will split the Left vote. What’s implied is that the Democrats are left-leaning and that you are going to empower right-wing Republicans to take the seat. This begs the question of why, since 1936, the American far left has held on to this belief that the Democratic Party is redeemable and generally sympathetic to their goals.

HH: Because they’re led by middle-class people that have an inflated sense of their influence. They’re treated with some respect; they go in and meet with their state legislator or Congressperson, and the Congressperson will listen politely and nod, and they think they’re making a difference, but you should look at the record. They haven’t made a difference. In fact, we’ve had this global military empire since World War II. On economic issues, the Democrats have moved to the right, after they stopped being the New Deal Democrats completely in the 1970s and became the New Democrats, the corporate Democrats.

Take the Iraq War. In 2004, many on the Left lined up behind John Kerry, who was pro-war. He said, I will prosecute the war better than Bush because I’m a military guy. He wanted a bigger troop surge than what Bush got. The biggest coalition, United for Peace and Justice, was “Against the Bush Agenda,” which is basically saying “vote for Kerry.” During the Vietnam War, the slogan was “Out Now.” And when McCarthy and Kennedy came forward and said “negotiations now,” the movement made the demand “Out Now” on the Democrats as well as the Republicans. So, that’s the difference. They’ve become captured basically by the Democrats and silenced as a Left.

On the idea that we’re going to split the vote: Because of gerrymandering, most districts are one-party districts. They’re either majority Democrat or majority Republican. And in most of those districts, the minority party doesn’t really try. In most districts, the Left can become the second party right away. If it’s a Republican district, we’ll beat the Democrats; if it’s a Democratic district, like my city of Syracuse, we’ll beat the Republicans. There are some competitive districts, granted, and that’s a case where winner-take-all is a problem. But we Greens are also the only ones promoting proportional representation legislative bodies and ranked-choice voting in executive offices.

GB: You like to claim that the Democrats and Republicans are memberless entities.[1] How do they even operate? What does political engagement within them mean for an average citizen?

HH: An average citizen has no organized engagement because they don’t have members with rights. The state keeps your enrollment lists in 27 states, in the other 23 you go to the primary and just pick up whichever ballot you want. And all the state cares about is which primary you vote in. Of course, primary voters are not organized, they’re atomized. The real primary is the money primary before the voting primary. The candidates that the capitalists like get the money, and then they advertise to the atomized electorate. It’s basically selling Coke or Pepsi to the people.

So, our parties are not things you join and support with dues. They are things that you affiliate with. The real structure of the parties are basically shifting coalitions of candidate organizations. They’re like little businesses. They go out to the rich people and say “invest in us.” There’s a little market there, and some of them get invested in and so they’re considered prominent candidates and they get in the primary. That’s the real power structure in these parties. The average person gets to vote in a primary and can go out, make phone calls, knock on doors, and contribute money to candidates, but it’s not like you can go to the local meeting of the Democratic or Republican Party and talk about what our policies should be, what our platforms should be, what actions we should take to advance that platform, what candidates we should run. That doesn’t come from local meetings. There are nominal committees that state election laws set up, but they’re strictly campaign mobilization organizations. When elections come, they mobilize for their team, but they don’t set the policies or pick the candidates.

GB: How did a self-described socialist such as yourself end up in the Green Party? Historically, the connection was never that straight-forward.

HH: I had supported independent politics based in the working class for democracy, socialism, and ecology since the 60s. There was the Peace and Freedom Party in 1968. Then we had the People’s Party in ‘72 and ‘76 and the Citizens’ Party in 1980 with Barry Commoner, the most prominent environmental scientist. In 1984, after the German Greens entered the German parliament, everyone in this country thought, maybe that’s what we need. And I got invited to the first national organizing meeting for the Green Party because I had been involved and helped form the Clamshell Alliance, which is an antinuclear group that did occupations of the Seabrook nuclear power plant site. That spawned an antinuclear movement across the country. I’ve been involved ever since.

At that time, the Greens represented to me the political-electoral expression of the New Left, which wasn’t taking sides in the Cold War, which was addressing some of the newer issues, like environmentalism, feminism, peace, decolonization, in a better way than the Old Left.

I had to be persuaded. I looked at the early German Green program and said, this is just environmentalism, it’s no socialist critique of capitalism. But Murray Bookchin who had gone over there said, this is a new politics. There’s a radical wing, take another look. And then they adopted an economic program under the influence of the ecological socialists in Hamburg, and I said okay, at least some of them are talking about transcending capitalism. That’s how I got involved initially.

What we decided to do was instead of trying to build a party out of a presidential race, we came out of a meeting in 1984 planning to go out and organize local groups and federate from the bottom up and build a real base, which we did pretty well for about a decade.

There’ve been a lot of efforts to build a third party on the Left. There was a Labor Party effort, the Woman’s Party effort, there was a Black Party effort, and none of them survived, but the Greens did. And I think that’s because the Greens are needed, partly because we started at the local level. And the Democrats keep generating really pissed off former Democrats who come to the Greens because the Democrats really weren’t against the Iraq War, or they really weren’t on the right side of an environmental issue or a development issue in their city or police brutality or whatever the issue is. And so the Greens became a refuge for them. That’s why we’re still here.

GB: Were you involved at all in the Labor Party efforts in the mid-90s?

HH: I was a member. I knew Tony Mazzocchi from way before the Labor Party. As an antinuclear activist and then a Green, I worked with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers on the Just Transition, where you’d have a Superfund for Workers, so that as we shut down toxic oil, chemical, and atomic production facilities, we would make sure that the workers in those facilities would be able to transition to alternative work, so that their benefits and wages are maintained for up to five years.

I worked with Tony and people who were trying to link environmentalism and the labor movement going back to the 70s. Ralph Nader was one of those people. There was Richard Grossman who started a group called Environmentalists for Full Employment. So joining the Labor Party was a natural thing for me, since I thought that labor needs to declare its political independence, because they’re taken for granted by the Democrats.

GB: For a while it looked like the Labor Party might become one of the more viable opportunities for a third party split from the Democrats. A lot of it had to do with the labor disenchantment over Clinton’s adoption of New Democrat policies, NAFTA and so forth. The standard narrative that I’m familiar with explaining why the Labor Party ultimately failed was that there were internal disputes over running independent ballot lines or endorsing Democratic candidates. Is this correct, or are there other reasons why the Labor Party ultimately ended up evaporating?

HH: That’s right. They got affiliations from locals, labor councils, and even international unions based on the idea that we’re not going to run candidates. Mazzocchi would tell them, we’re not going to run until we can win. Richard Trumka, who’s now head of the AFL-CIO, affiliated with them, but he never wanted to challenge the Democrats. So that contradiction was built into the way they organized it. And of course, the other people who joined said, well, we’re a party, we should run our own candidates. That dispute became a big problem. Mazzocchi personally endorsed Ralph Nader in 2000, the Green Party candidate, which created a lot of controversy with some of the other union leaders. But then Tony got sick with pancreatic cancer and died. He was really the guy who had built the connections, and nobody could step in and fill his shoes, so it fell apart.

GB: Are there also disputes within the Green Party that running a Green Party candidate in potentially contested local elections might elevate a Republican to office? Or are the Greens set on maintaining their independence from the Democrats?

HH: We went through that in 2004 with Bush in office and the Iraq War. Some people put forward what they called safe states, which meant that we’d only run our presidential candidate in states where the outcome is known, so the Greens won’t “spoil” it. But in the battleground states, the swing states, we’d have a low-profile campaign. That didn’t work out so well, even for the people who advocated for safe states. They found that a state party that knocked itself out to get on the ballot expected you to come and campaign in their state.

What you have now is that if people believe that, they defect. We’ve had a lot of people go to the Sanders campaign in 2016. A lot of them came back and brought a lot of Sanders people with them because they were really disappointed that Sanders endorsed Clinton. And then in some cases, there was a young man in East LA who ran for Congress, Bernie Sanders urged him to, he ran as a Green and at the last minute Sanders endorsed the corporate Democrat who was the incumbent. So those people are not going back to the Democratic Party, since they’re really angry at Sanders too.

GB: Some might say that it was the function of Bernie Sanders all along to get young people to place their hopes in the Democrats...

HH: I think it’s true. My friend, the late Bruce Dixon used the sheepdog metaphor. Whether it was Bernie’s intention or not, that was the effect. And I think that was his intention.

His wife, Jane Sanders, spoke to the Left Forum in New York City in 2018 and told the audience in the opening plenary to register as Democrats. I stood in the back and gave it a thumbs down. She said, I know you’re not going to do that, but you should. He wanted that so that people would vote for him in the primaries this time. That’s been his function.

It’s a shame. I knew him in the 70s when he was a third-party candidate with the Liberty Union. I worked on his campaign and dropped leaflets for him. When he set up his Eugene Debs slideshow, I arranged showings of it. But then when he wanted to get into Congress after being mayor of Burlington, he got a deal with the Democrats in Vermont and basically said, don’t run a serious candidate against me as a Democrat, and I will make sure that progressives in Vermont won’t run in some of the races that you do want to win. They’ve had this deal going on. Bernie is nominally an independent, but in practice he’s functionally a Democrat. For example, in the last Senate election in 2018 when he got re-elected to the U.S. Senate, he was in the Democratic primary and then he declined the nomination. So he’s on the ballot as an independent, but there was no Democrat because he’d gotten their nomination too.

GB: Since Sanders dropped out of the race and endorsed Joe Biden, the Left has to plan for a post-Bernie future. Where do you see that to lie? Do you see that with figures like Ilhan Omar or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or do you see it lying elsewhere?

HH: When push comes to shove, these younger members of Congress line up with Pelosi. We had a primary. I was the candidate for governor in New York in 2018, and DSA and the liberals got behind a woman named Cynthia Nixon who was an actress who supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in 2016. I think they were star struck. She got beat by Governor Andrew Cuomo by about 2:1, which is basically what the Democratic Party is in New York. One third progressives and two thirds regular Democrats who’ll vote for the establishment inside the Democratic Party. Immediately after the primary was over, Ocasio-Cortez went on CNN and endorsed Cuomo and all the Democrats. Cuomo is a corporate Democrat if ever there was one.

Of course, I was in the race, and so we asked DSA to consider endorsing us. Instead of having that debate, they had a debate on whether or not to have a debate on endorsing me. The result was not to even have the discussion.

Some people within the DSA and Jacobin say there’s a contradiction between the progressive Democrats and the corporate Democrats, and at some point there’s going to be a dirty break, as they call it. I’ve been hearing that since the 60s.

GB: Why does the Left think that its potential for recruitment lies exclusively among Democrats? Why not go fishing in Republican waters? After all, the majority of private sector union workers voted for Trump in 2016. So, that’s where the working class is now.

HH: It was white workers and not too many black or Latino voters who voted for Trump. But most of the Left leadership consists of middle-class, college-educated folks with middle-class jobs. They don’t know working-class people, and they don’t have organizations that actually go out and talk to those people and organize them, not just mobilize them. You have to have a context in which you can have those discussions. And it’s not going to happen over Twitter or Facebook. It’s not going to happen over your online mobilization scheme like MoveOn. You have to bring people into the discussion and let them talk about how they see things. You don’t go out and say, we got the answers, now join us. You go out and listen and see what’s on people’s minds and how you can help them and build relationships and trust, and then you can start talking about the politics. That’s long-term organizing and it has to be done at the grassroots level. That’s disappearing in this digital age because it’s just easy to sit at home and put stuff out on Facebook and Twitter. But the problem is that you’re not reaching the people you want to be organizing if you’re on the Left, which is the working class.

GB: Let’s imagine an alternative reality in which third-party socialist alternatives to the Democrat–Republican establishment succeed. There’s a viable possibility for a socialist takeover of the United States, not of the Bernie Sanders kind, but the Howie Hawkins one. How would you go about reorganizing the U.S. economy? And how does an internationalist program figure in this future?

HH: The centerpiece of my campaign is an ecosocialist Green New Deal, including $100 billion for a global Green New Deal because our interests don’t stop at the border. If the Gulf States and Russia keep selling oil and China keeps burning coal, the planet’s going to heat up and even if we do everything right in our country we’re still going to be in deep trouble. So that’s an issue.

What we would do is we would start the Green New Deal and then offer other countries to make the transition out of the fossil age into the solar age, and we’d have a big public sector producing machinery to do that. For example, going from coke ovens to electric arc furnaces to produce steel. Or a cement that does not rely on calcium carbonate, which releases carbon into the environment, and it’s five to eight percent of the carbon footprint. So we’d substitute these new technologies and help other countries do it because it’s in our interest.

In our trade agreements we would level up wages and labor and environmental standards rather than allow these global corporations to knock them down in secretive trade tribunals.

We also have a new nuclear arms race that the United States helped initiate with the nuclear modernization program by getting out of these arms control treaties, and now we have got hypersonic strategic nukes, six times faster than the older ones. It’s more than a hair trigger alert. You launch in anticipation so that you don’t get wiped out in a first strike. We also have more tactical nukes and conventional forces. These are not problems you can solve in one nation state. They’re international problems. And they’re life-or-death issues.| P

[1] Howie Hawkins, “Beyond Social Democracy: popular assemblies, confederal democracy, and internationalism,” Platypus Review 90. Available online at: <https://platypus1917.org/2016/10/06/beyond-social-democracy-popular-assemblies-confederal-democracy-internationalism/>

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