Howie Hawkins’ commentary on his 2020 campaign

This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Green Horizon Magazine:

CAMPAIGN EXIT INTERVIEW

By Howie Hawkins

Having completed my job as the Green Party’s 2020 presidential candidate, an exit interview might be helpful . . .

How do you assess the Green presidential vote in 2020?

Our 400,000+ votes for 0.3% of the total vote falls in the middle range of Green presidential results. That is pretty good considering that the larger political context and dynamic of this election was the most difficult we have ever faced. 2020 was a referendum on Trump. We competed with a militant lesser-evilism among progressives that was desperately willing to settle for any Democrat to replace Trump.

The larger political context of presidential races each year has always determined Green results far more than our candidates, message, or campaign execution. Greens generally do better when running against an incumbent Democrat who disappoints progressives than an incumbent Republican who scares progressives. Until the Greens are a major force in American politics and rooted in the political system with thousands elected to local offices and, on that foundation, to state legislatures and the US House, our presidential ticket will be like a cork bobbing in the sea of the larger political dynamic of that year. There are no shortcuts around building a mass-based party at the grassroots that can be our ship to steer our own way through these strong currents.

Some have suggested that running a celebrity is the shortcut to instant competitiveness. We have done that. We had an incomparable celebrity in 2000 with Ralph Nader. Nader had nearly universal name recognition and huge public favorability as an accomplished progressive reformer known as an advocate for the people. 2000 also had a more favorable two-party competition dynamic with Nader running for an open seat against Al Gore, the heir to eight years of Clinton centrism, and a not-yet-scary George W. Bush running as a “compassionate conservative.” Yet Nader still only received 2,882,955 votes for 2.7%. We got our second-best result in 2016 when there was also an open seat and the two major party candidates were the most unpopular in polling history. Jill Stein received 1,457,216 votes for 1.1% in 2016.

Our worst results were 0.1% in 2004 (119,859 votes) and 2008 (161,797 votes). 2004 was like 2020: progressives wanted any Democrat as the lesser evil to Bush. 2008 was also unfavorable because progressives were attracted to the prospect of electing the first African American president after eight years of Bush’s wars, his incompetent response to Katrina, and the 2008 financial crash. Greens did better in 2012 when many progressive voters were disappointed in Obama’s cautious centrism while the Romney ran as a not-so-scary traditional Republican. Jill Stein received 469,627 votes for 0.4% in 2012.

400,000+ votes is significantly higher than the Green ticket received in the unfavorable dynamics of 2004 and 2008 and close to the vote the Green ticket received under the more favorable dynamic of 2012. Given our limited ballot access in 2020–30 ballots, down from 45 in 2016 and 37 in 2012 — we can take heart that the hard-core Green vote has grown. It’s a base we can continue to build upon.

If the larger election dynamic is so overriding, should Greens keep running presidential tickets?

Even as a small party it is still important for the Greens to run a presidential ticket for practical political and party-building reasons: to advance our policy demands, to recruit new Greens, and to secure ballot lines.

Green presidential campaigns have been successful in pushing policy demands into the national dialogue. Nader popularized economic justice policies that would draw broad support for Bernie Sanders 15 years later, including Medicare for All, tuition-free public college, a higher minimum wage, and progressive tax reform. Stein made the Green New Deal the Green Party’s signature issue that is now debated in the political mainstream. While we were not able to give voice to our demands in the mass media in 2020, we did get millions of views on social media and added thousands to our lists of supporters, especially among young people.

Our lower vote lost us six of the 21 ballot lines we started the campaign with. We will be able to recover those ballot lines with the hard work of ballot petitioning. The harder work will be the year-round grassroots canvassing and issue campaigns that will enable Greens to become a major force in American politics by electing more local and then state and federal legislative candidates as we go into the 2020s.

In 2020 we faced our most difficult circumstances to date with respect to ballot access, media access, and attacks from progressive influencers. Ballot petitioning was more difficult in the COVID pandemic. With the competitive primary, many state parties waited until the convention nomination on July 11 to start petitioning, which was too late in many states. The Democrats were more aggressive than ever before in challenging Green ballot petitions and succeeded in removing us from the ballot in Montana, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Political hacks in both parties voted on these cases on election commissions and court benches along partisan lines without regard for the facts and the law. What kind of democracy has the governing parties administering their own elections? We must demand elections be administered by a nonpartisan independent agency like other electoral democracies do.

The media blanked out the Green campaign to an unprecedented degree, not only the corporate media including NPR and PBS, but also the progressive media like Democracy Now!, Thom Hartman Program, The Nation, The Intercept, and Common Dreams. What little coverage we did get was slanted to portray the Greens as irresponsible spoilers for Biden or worse a “Republican op” as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow pontificated.

Progressive professors, pundits, and politicians who had endorsed Nader in 2000 continued their drift to the right in 2020. In 2004, they had demanded that the Greens adopt a Safe States Strategy of only voting Green in safe states. Now in 2020, in a series of Open Letters in progressive media (that would not print our rejoinders), they pushed a No States Strategy of voting for Biden everywhere.

This retreat to the right by progressive thought leaders reveals their profound lack of confidence in the viability of their professed socialist or progressive politics. They counseled people to rely on the neoliberal Democrats to defeat the neofascist Republicans. Neoliberal Democratic policies have created the economic hardships and apprehensions that have provided fertile ground for the neofascists to cultivate the growth of their movement with racist scapegoating and conspiracy mongering. Instead of fighting the far right with the left’s own program, progressive pundits supported the neoliberal wing of the two-party system of corporate rule.

What does Biden mean for the Greens and progressives in general?

Progressive Democrats got beaten as badly as the Greens in 2020. The Democrats underperformed in the US House and Senate and state legislatures. If as few as 21,462 Biden voters had gone for Trump in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, he would have been installed in the presidency again by the Electoral College even though he lost the popular vote by 7.1 million. After the corporate Democrats closed ranks to defeat Sanders, progressives closed ranks behind Biden. Progressives made no demands on Biden and didn’t raise progressive demands in their own voice. Biden ran an economically tone-deaf campaign like Clinton in 2016. With no progressive economic message coming from the Democrats, the field was left open for Trump’s pandering economic demagoguery. The economy was the top issue for voters (35%), especially those who voted for Trump (83%). One-third of voters making less than $50,000 voted for Trump. The results across the board were similar to 2016. The Democrats may have defeated Trump, but they did not defeat Trumpism, which is fully supported by one of the two major parties and well-entrenched in Congress, the state legislatures, and a presidential vote that grew by 11.2 million votes from 2016 to 2020.

Biden and the corporate Democratic leadership are blaming progressive Democrats for the party’s underperformance in 2020 as Biden stuffs his administration with deficit hawks and war hawks. Without solutions to the people’s pressing economic problems, Biden’s corporate centrism will lay the table for gains by reactionary Republicans in 2022 and 2024. Meanwhile, the climate is collapsing and the new nuclear arms race is accelerating. We need a viable Green Party now more than ever. Greens need to be ready to bring in progressives who become disappointed in Biden.

Greens have won over 1,200 elections over the years and currently have 110 elected to office; 22 were elected in 2020, highlighted by Emmanuel Estrada’s victory to become Mayor of Baldwin Park, just east of Los Angeles. Franca Muller Paz came in second with 36% in a three-way race for a Baltimore city council seat in a city where the council has been a one-party Democratic dictatorship for nearly 80 years. In another big city council race on the other side of the country, Jake Tonkel won 46% in a two-way race for San Jose city council. Moving up the ballot to the higher stakes US Senate races, Madelyn Hoffman received more votes than any Green candidate in a statewide vote in New Jersey ever except for Ralph Nader in 2000. Lisa Savage received a significant 5% for US Senate in Maine. These and other 2020 results for our down-ballot candidates give us reason to believe we can build the Green Party into a major party by building our political base from the bottom up.

Why did you and Angela Walker campaign as ecosocialists?

The most important reason is to put forward real solutions to the life-or-death issues of climate, poverty, racism, and war. We can’t solve our problems under capitalism. We need system change. We can frame the case for ecosocialism around the Four Pillars of Green politics.

Ecology: We will never reverse the pending planetary environmental collapse as long as we have a capitalist economy in which relentless growth is structured into the economy by the competition for profits. Capitalist firms must grow or die. This capitalist growth imperative is devouring the biosphere, cooking the planet, and destroying agricultural foundations of human survival. Ecological sustainability requires social ownership and democratic planning of the major systems of production in order to meet everyone’s basic needs within ecological limits.

We say ecological socialism because nineteenth and twentieth century socialism was focused on increasing production to end poverty. We now have more than enough productive capacity to end poverty. The problem now is equitably distributing production that is sufficient to meet basic needs and in a sustainable steady-state balance with the ecosphere.

Social Justice: We will never reverse extreme and growing economic inequality as long as capitalists exploit workers for profit and extract more unearned income as rent and interest. Capitalists pay workers a fixed wage and take the rest of the value workers’ labor creates as profit. Capitalists take more unearned income as rent and interest in excess of the costs of production due to their exclusive ownership of access to resources, such as land sites, natural resources, intellectual property, and market monopolies.

The injustices of racism and sexism are structured into capitalist exploitation of labor. Racism was invented by capitalists to divide and conquer African and European laborers as early capitalism grew by exploiting both slave and wage labor. The much older oppression of women was adapted to systematically pit male and female workers against each other. Replacing capitalism with the economic democracy of socialism is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for ending racism and sexism.

In an ecosocialist economy, public provision would cover public goods, such as infrastructure and utilities, and economic rights, such as health care, education, and a guaranteed income above poverty. Personal income would be equitably distributed because earned labor income — where workers receive the full value of their labor — would replace unearned capital income.

Nonviolence: We will never have a secure peace as long as capitalism’s competitive economic structure generates international conflicts and wars. Nuclear-armed capitalist states — including the US, Russia, and China — compete for resources, markets, cheap labor, and geopolitical military positioning. If we don’t replace capitalism’s nationalistic competition with socialism’s international cooperation, sooner or later these conflicts will end in nuclear annihilation.

Grassroots Democracy: We can’t have political democracy without the economic democracy of socialism. Progressive reforms will never be secure as long as the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a super-rich oligarchy. Their concentrated economic power translates into concentrated political power. They use that power to resist and roll back progressive reforms. Democracy needs socialism.

The other reason for campaigning as ecosocialists is that the Greens need to bring an ecosocialist perspective into the growing public discussion of socialism. Socialism used to be a conversation stopper. Over the last decade it has become a conversation starter. Gallup polls over the last decade show growing numbers view capitalism unfavorably and socialism favorably, with 39% of all adults now having a favorable view of socialism, including 51% of younger adults under 40.

The Gallup polls frame socialism as social programs, as New Deal liberalism based on economic growth and taxing the rich to fund the programs. It is not the classical socialism of common ownership and democratic administration of the economy. This New Deal liberalism exemplified by Bernie Sanders seeks to reform growth-driven capitalism, not replace it with a sustainable steady-state economy in balance with the environment. That is why the Greens need to bring the ecosocialist perspective to the new socialism discussion.

Why did your campaign emphasize the working class?

That’s where the votes are. Working people are nearly two-thirds of the electorate. They vote in relatively low proportions because they don’t feel the major parties know who they are, what they need, or care about them. The working class vote, which includes a majority of people of color and young people, are the future mass base of the Green Party in the US. The Greens have policies on economic justice, environmental protection, and clean government that appeal to working people.

But a good message is not enough. We can’t just preach the message and expect it to win over people who don’t know us or trust us. We have to build personal relationships with the people we want to organize. Most working-class non-voters are alienated from politics, not apathetic. Our local parties need to be systematically engaged in year-round “deep canvassing” conversations with working people where they live and work, listening to their concerns, building relationships, supporting their struggles, and linking their concerns to the Green policy platform.

When working people know who the Greens in their communities are, when they see us consistently active on the issues that concern them, then they will see the Green Party as their party. We need to be more than activists who just mobilize our existing base. We need to become organizers who are strategically building a broader mass base, a majoritarian base, in our cities and towns.

Does the middle class have a role in this strategy?

Absolutely. We want to unite the many against the few: the working and middle classes against the capitalist ruling class.

This question came up during the Green primaries when I called for a COVID relief policy that cancelled rent and mortgage payments while the federal government paid the rents and mortgages for the duration of the emergency. Some of my opponents argued that, as socialists, we should just cancel rent and mortgage payments and let the businesses that depend on those payments fend for themselves.

That simple-minded “socialist” policy would have driven many businesses out of business — small landlords, community banks and credit unions that hold mortgages, and other small businesses and self-employed trades people that service rental properties. That would have driven the economy into a deeper depression with more lost businesses, lost jobs, and lost consumer demand. The private equity sharks from BlackRock, Blackstone, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley, which have become the nation’s biggest landlords after buying up distressed property on the cheap since the Great Recession, would further concentrate their ownership of rental housing.

The class structure is more complicated than just workers vs. capitalists. The US has large and diverse middle classes that include about one-third of the population, ranging from small business people, farmers, and self-employed trades people to supervisors, technicians, scientists, and other professionals in the upper-middle strata of the corporate hierarchies now prevalent in the public and non-profit as well as private sectors. The class structure is further complicated by the fact that many working class people have both labor income and capital income from small rental properties and pensions and other financial investments.

Karl Marx was clear about the politics of class alliances even if some of today’s “socialists” are not. As he wrote in an 1868 letter to Engels, “the petty-bourgeoisie can maintain a revolutionary attitude toward the bourgeoisie only as long as the proletariat stands behind it” (Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: Volume 2, The Politics of Social Classes, p. 302).

A “socialist” demand that would have pushed the mom-and-pop landlords into alliance with predatory real estate speculators like BlackRock and big rich landlords like Donald Trump and Jared Kushner in order to get the rental income they need to survive is a good way to lose the class struggle.

A serious ecosocialist politics needs programs to help the struggling middle classes, including:
• protections for locally-owned small businesses against monopolizing national chains;
• technical and financial support for worker and consumer cooperatives that democratize management, equitably distribute co-op income according to contribution, and anchor ownership in local communities;
• public power, banking, broadband, and transportation utilities that provide efficient public avenues for private commerce by small business;
• public services like universal health care and child care that take those items off small business budgets.

We need a Green New Deal for agriculture and rural reconstruction. It would replace corporatized and chemicalized agribusiness with agroecology by family farmers. It would outlaw absentee-owned corporate farming. It would give farmers access to their own farms through a new homestead act. It would subsidize farmers’ transition back to organic agriculture. It would guarantee a living income above the costs of production through parity pricing for all agricultural commodities. It would build a stable diversified rural economy with green manufacturing in regional cities and towns using local farm products.

It is politically crucial that the Greens provide a constructive program for the old middle classes based in small businesses, self-employment, farms, and rural America if we are going to defeat neofascist reaction. The far-right messaging machine explains middle-class people’s economic adversities and worries with racist, anti-immigrant, and conspiracy delusions that cultivate victimhood, resentment, anti-scientific irrationalism, and Republican votes. The Democrats have no counter-narrative and program. They have consistently supported the big banks and corporations, particularly the agribusiness monopolies that have gutted the economies of rural America. This rural devastation will continue with Biden’s appointment of big ag lobbyist Tom Vilsack for a second stint as Secretary of Agriculture. The Greens can win over many in rural America with a Green New Deal for agriculture.

A co-editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a Green movement activist for almost thirty years.