A short history of the Green Party in the United States, 1984 to 2001
The Green Party in the U.S. exists today as an organized political party in most states. On the national level, those same state parties come together to form the Green Party of the United States.
But it was not always so. Thirty years ago, there were no state Green Parties. Instead, the nascent Green movement was in its early stages of self-definition and self-discovery—and there was no certainty that a Green political party would develop out of it.
To understand how a party grows out of a movement, means understanding its roots. For U.S. Greens, that involves many years of often contentious debate about organizing and focus, followed by testing those theories out in the real world:
• What would a values-based politics look like—and what should those values be?
• Will needed change occur through a transformation of the relationship between humans and the rest of nature (deep ecology), or between humans and each other (social ecology)?
• When is a movement ready to go into electoral politics? Who decides when its time, and on what level?
• What should be the relationship between the green movement and the Green Party? What would it mean for a political party to be accountable to a social movement? Can a political party be based in and accountable to social movements, and still operate effectively in the electoral arena?
• Can a political party practice Green values internally and externally—and operate successfully in a political system that isn’t very Green? What would it mean to participate in the system while seeking to transform it—and what are the risks of being corrupted by it? And how do Greens deal with hierarchy, authority, leadership and the need for money in politics?
Roots in the Bioregional Movement
In May 1984, with interest growing in a possible U.S. Green politics, David Haenke of the Ozark Area Community Congress convened a Green Movement Committee at the first North American Bio-regional Congress. Attendees approved a statement “concerning the formation of a Green political organization in the USA”, stating:
“It is essential that this organization have a bio-centric vision—one which puts the needs of all life forms at the center of decision-making … As individual bio-regionalists, we recognize the need for bio-regional principles and practices to be secured and protected, cooperatively and in a decentralized manner, through a Green political organization. Such an organization should focus on open, democratic planning and political action supportive of local and regional autonomy and interdependence as reflected in the bio-regional model.”
“To be effective, a Green political organization must originate from a broad base of support, from natural allies concerned with ecological politics and social justice, peace and non-violence, local and regional self-management and grassroots democracy. If the emerging Green political organization does indeed reflect these basic bio-regional concerns, we urge support from bio-regional groups and individuals from around the continent.”
From this initial gathering, a larger meeting was also planned for August 1984 in St Paul, MN, which would turn out to be the founding meeting of U.S. Greens.
Learning from Greens in Europe
At the same time bioregionalists gathered, the definitive early study of the West German Green Party—Green Politics: The Global Promise—was published.
Researched and written by Californians Charlene Spretnak and Fritjof Capra, the book provided deep insights into the challenges West German Greens faced as they sought to bring together various social movements and create an ‘anti-party’ party, that was capable of practicing Green values and winning seats in the German Parliament.
With a glowing endorsement “to American readers who want to know what is at the heart of alternative Green Party politics” by West German Green Party co-founder (and Member of German Parliament) Petra Kelly, Green Politics became an early primer for those seeking to start a Green Party in the United States, and inspired many to believe it was possible, even in the depths of the Reagan presidency.
The book also publicized to a U.S. audience the Four Pillars of the West German Greens, as a values-basis for their new party: “ökologisch”, “sozial”, “basisdemokratisch” and “gewaltfrei”—ecology, social justice, grassroots democracy and non-violence.
U.S. Greens are founded
On August 10–12, 1984 62 people met at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota and founded the first official national Green organization in the U.S—the Committees of Correspondence or CoC.
The three-day meeting included activists from peace, ecology and justice groups; veterans of the women’s, civil rights, and community movements; and farmers, community leaders, church activists and teachers. There were social ecologists, deep ecologists, eco-feminists, anarchists, socialists and more.
The organizing committee consisted of Spretnak, Haenke, Harry Boyte (long-time member of Democratic Socialists of America and author of The Backyard Revolution), Catherine Burton (founder of Earth Bank in Seattle), and Gloria Goldberg (Institute for Social Ecology). They invited 200 people from 27 issues areas along with some media.
Reflecting its ‘pre-party’ nature, the CoC was broadly formed to organize local Green groups and work toward creating a Green political organization in the U.S.
Attendees agreed that (a) an interim Inter-Regional Committee (IC) be established, made up of regional reps, who would be charged with encouraging multi-leveled movement building, including both local and regional groupings, in liaison with issue networks; (b) to establish a national information office in Minneapolis-St. Paul; and (c) to consider various forms of events that are mainly educational for local, regional or national gatherings.
What’s in a name?
Not surprisingly, the wide-ranging debate about ‘what it means to be Green?’ has played out in what U.S. Greens call themselves, starting in St. Paul, where the new Green organization was called the Committees of Correspondence, named after the Committees of Correspondence of the American Revolutionary War.
According to Spretnak, “most people [came] to the meeting expecting to use the word “Green” somewhere in the organization’s name. But in a heated argument, a few community organizers who work with minorities maintained that such a name would lose support, since “Green” connotes, in some communities, environmentalism as a middle-class concern that carries no commitment to social justice.
The meeting agreed that the local CoCs would have a great deal of autonomy and would be free to use “Green” in their names if they wished, which most of them did.
In 1989, the national Green Gathering changed the CoC name to the Green Committees of Correspondence (GCoC). Then reflecting a growing participation by Greens in electoral politics and an attempt to formally relate party and movement, the name was changed again in 1991, this time to the Greens/Green Party USA.
Creation of the Ten Key Values
What has mostly united U.S. Greens over the years has been the Ten Key Values.
The Ten Key Values were birthed at the St. Paul founding meeting, during a late Saturday night marathon session facilitated by then Los Angeles-based and later Eugene, OR activist Jeff Land (who would later co-host Green Gathering ’89), with primary contributions by Spretnak and Murray Bookchin of the New England Institute for Social Ecology.
According to Mark Satin, a journalist invited to cover the meeting (whose green-ish monthly newsletter News Options would become a must read in the late 1980s):
“About 50 of us were trying to think of a project that could help define us and put us on the political map. We were exhausted and sprawled all over the floor of a Macalester lounge —the conference had been intense! —but everyone sensed that something important could come out of Jeff’s workshop. What happened next was something I’ve experienced only a couple of times in my long life. A “collective brain” seemed to take hold, and we began working together as one… No single individual came up with the idea of a values statement; it just welled up from out of our intense discussion … Seamlessly, we began discussing what our own values or pillars might be. Someone began recording our suggestions on a large flip chart. Ten, 15, 20 suggestions went up on the chart with seemingly no end in sight.”
Satin added the idea of phrasing each value with a series of questions after each. Eventually a committee of Spretnak, Satin and Eleanor LeCain (coordinator of the Peace and Environmental Coalition) were charged with writing a draft Values Statement from the notes on butcher paper that had been taped on the wall, and reporting that back to the new IC for approval.
In a world before email, faxes and three-way phone calls, the three worked together over the next few months, and Satin also sought input from economist/ futurist Robert Theobald and attorney Gerald Goldfarb, both who were also in St. Paul. The eventual set of Ten Key Values they submitted, along with an accompanying set of questions for each, was approved by consensus by the IC in late 1984, and became a foundational basis for U.S. Greens going forward.
Yet it would not be long before the Left Green Network (LGN), formed in 1988, issued their own, this time with 14 Values. While the LGN statement did not displace the Ten Key Values, over time Greens in different states would adopt their own version of the Ten Key Values, most often modifying Post-patriarchal Values into Feminism and/or Gender Equity; Personal and Social Responsibility as Social Justice, and Future Focus to include Sustainability.
The most radical change to the Ten Key Values however, came at the 2000 presidential nomination convention of the Association of State Green Party, where not only were some of the values modified and re-ordered as presented by the Green Platform committee, but the questions following each value were converted into assertions.
|Original Ten Key Values of CoC (adopted 1984)||Ten Key Values of GPUS (adopted 2000|
|Ecological Wisdom||Grassroots Democracy|
|Grassroots Democracy||Social Justice and Equal Opportunity|
|Personal and Social Responsibility||Ecological Wisdom|
|Community-Based Economics||Community-Based Economics and Economic Justice|
|Post-patriarchal Values||Feminism and Gender Equity|
|Respect for Diversity||Respect for Diversity|
|Global Responsibility||Personal and Global Responsibility|
|Future Focus||Future Focus and Sustainability|
In 2001, when the Global Greens were founded in Canberra, Australia and a Global Green Charter approved by consensus from Green Parties in 72 countries, the U.S. Green Ten Key Values were cited as one of the inspirational source documents behind the creation of the Charter.
Trying to put values into practice became the task of the first CoC clearinghouse, established in late 1984 in St. Paul with Harry Boyte. But these efforts were hampered by a division at the August 1984 founding meeting as to the clearinghouse’s role, with a division between those who favored coordinated decentralization and those favoring radical decentralization, to the degree that the clearinghouse only be a mail drop and information resource, but not an outreach vehicle.
At the December 1985 IC meeting in Kansas City, the decision was taken that both the IC and the clearinghouse should actively support organizing efforts through a number of services. The clearinghouse was moved to Kansas City where there was a local (the Prairie Greens) to actively support it. Dee Berry became the clearinghouse coordinator, with support from Ben Kjelshus, and she served in that role until 1989.
The IC Bulletin—published out of the clearinghouse—became a primary source of newspaper reprints of Green success stories around the country, and was sent to all the dues-paying Green locals within the CoC.
First National Green Gathering, 1987
The First National Green Gathering was held July 1987 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA and was entitled “Building the Green Movement—A National Conference for a New Politics.” The conference brochure stated
“We invite all Greens and activists in kindred social change movements to participate in this educational conference. We are not gathering to make decisions for the Green movement. Our purpose is education. It will be a chance for Greens and activists in kindred movements from across the land to meet, share perspectives, and learn from each other—and take what we learn back to our communities to put into practice.”
Over 600 were in attendance. Some of the creative tensions within the U.S. Green movement were visibly on display at the time—’party vs. movement’, ‘deep ecology vs. social ecology’ and ‘New Left vs. New Age.’
Featured speakers included Detroit-based social activist and feminist Grace Lee Boggs, Bookchin, Wisconsin Green co-founder Walt Bresette, New Hampshire Green and Clamshell Alliance organizer Guy Chichester, California Green Danny Moses from Sierra Club Books, Maine Green co-founder John Rensenbrink and eco-feminist Ynestra King. Workshops included a well-attended session on Independent Political Action.
Strategic Policy Approaches in Key Areas (SPAKA)
After the Amherst gathering, focus shifted to developing a set of policy approaches based upon the Key Values, which might further define and unite U.S. Greens.
Today we take for granted that there is a GPUS national platform. In the late 1980s, there was no such thing—only the Ten Key Values.
At the August 1987 IC meeting in Kansas City, Rensenbrink and Green Letter newsletter editor Margo Adair were selected principal coordinators of what would come to be called the SPAKA process—Strategic Policy Approaches in Key Areas.
“SPAKA was to create a participatory process to formulate a Green platform for the U.S.—to create an identity” as Adair and Rensenbrink explained. And why a participatory process? “Democracy is not about deciding if you support this or that person to do politics for you. True democracy is creating policy collectively.”
The first step was a call for topics, which went out to all the Green locals, and to many kindred organizations and individuals. Over the next two years, Green locals and others submitted 190 position papers—or SPAKAS—from the grassroots.
The Merrymeeting Greens of Maine, a Green local acting on behalf of the working group, reclassified them into 19 key issue areas. The 19 were Energy, Forest and Forestry, Life Forms, Materials Use and Waste Management, Water/Air, General Economic Analysis, Finance, Land Use, Politics, Social Justice, Eco-Philosophy, Spirituality, Education, Food and Agriculture, Health, Peace and Non-violence, Community, Organizing, and Strategy.
With the SPAKA process underway, the chance to define what it means to be Green moved to the West Coast, with the Greening the West conference held in a redwood grove at the Jones Gulch YMCA camp in San Mateo County, California on September 30–October 2, 1988. The Northern California Greens, one of the regional affiliates of the Greens Committees of Correspondence, hosted it. The planning group was Bay Area Greens Moses, Greg Jan, Richard Gustafson and Jess Shoup.
More than 1,000 people attended. Speakers included Adair, Planet Drum editor Peter Berg, Sierra Club founder David Brower, Ecotopia author Ernest Callenbach, Capra, Deep Ecology author Bill Devall, eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television author Jerry Mander, Los Angeles Eco-Home founder Julia Russell, Spretnak, and eco-feminist Starhawk.
The conference featured a workshop entitled “Towards a Green Party of the West: Local and Regional Electoral Strategies”, which would turn out to be an early stepping-stone in the development of U.S. Green electoral politics.
Facilitated by Moses (who would be the California Green Lt. Governor candidate in 1994), some 150 people attended the workshop and moved ahead with forming Green Party of the West, ‘a network to facilitate campaigns for initiatives, referendums and local independent Green candidates.’ That network would grow and help form the nucleus for the founding of the Green Party of California 15 months later.
Second National Green Gathering, 1989
The Second National Green Gathering was held June 21–25, 1989 in Eugene, OR. Entitled ‘Green Program Gathering’, it centered upon the SPAKA process.
Each of the 19 issue areas identified by the Merrymeeting Greens had a working group focused on it in Eugene, synthesizing input. Concurrently, the Green CCoC local in Eugene produced a daily newspaper entitled Green Tidings, which reported on the Gathering, and contained a daily report on all changes in the issue areas, so all delegates could follow the process.
After three days input and revision within the working groups, the Saturday plenary session was devoted to reports from each, with decision-making reserved for Sunday. This provided one more chance to receive input and revise their documents, which many working groups did.
On Sunday, policy approaches in all policy areas either received consensus or at least 80 percent of delegates. Those approaches were then published in Green Letter and sent back to the locals for an additional year of review and more input, with final approval set for Green Gathering 1990 in Estes Park, CO. During this final year, political scientist professor Christa Slaton of Alabama became the SPAKA coordinator.
The main organizers of the Eugene Gathering were Lamb and Irene Diamond. The Gathering was attended by reporters from the LA Weekly, Mother Jones, New Age Journal, New Options, Pacific News Service, Pacifica Radio, Utne Reader, and Z Magazine.
The other major aspect of the Eugene Gathering was the focus on electoral strategy. There were well attended Strategy daytime workshops on Thursday and Friday, and highly attended and very lively nightly Left Green-sponsored marathon discussions and debates.
Signaling a growing commitment to electoral politics, after Eugene the GCoC Politics Working Group issued a statement encouraging Green electoral activity, but recommending that “Greens begin running candidates at the local level and only proceed to the state and then to the national level when there were a substantial number of Green officeholders at the level immediately below.” This led to the formation of the Working Group on Electoral Action at the October 1989 IC meeting in Washington, D.C. and then more boldly and controversially the formation of a national Green Party Organizing Committee (GPOC) at the March 1990 IC meeting in San Diego. There the 15 founding co-signers stated:
“The relationship of this new group to the IC and the GCoC was discussed and the following points were agreed upon: (1) That we consider ourselves a cooperating organization but autonomous from the IC and the GCoC and (2) We consider ourselves morally accountable to not only the GCoC but the entire Green Movement.”
At the same time this was going on, Greens in California officially embarked upon a two year voter registration drive that would see them register over 103,000 Greens by January 1992 and qualify for the statewide ballot; while in Alaska, Green Jim Sykes received 3.4 percent for Governor in November 1990, qualifying the Green Party there for ongoing ballot status as well.
On the local level, between 1985 and 1989 a total of 25 U.S. Greens ran for local office, mostly in rural Wisconsin, Massachusetts and in New Haven, CT, with seven elected. In 1990 alone, 21 Greens ran for office nationwide, with nine elected, including six in California, coinciding there with the new state party’s ballot drive.
Despite reservations by some in the GCoC about moving prematurely into the electoral arena, it appeared that an irreversible step towards electoral politics and state party building had been taken.
The Greens/Green Party USA
In response to the growing emphasis on electoral politics among U.S. Greens, the Greens/Green Party USA (G/GPUSA) was founded at the August 1991 Green Gathering in Elkins, WV, restructuring the Green Committees of Correspondence with the idea that the Green movement and Green Party would operate as part of a single organization.
A press conference was held in Washington, D.C. to announce the new organization, featuring Charles Betz (G/GPUSA Coordinating Committee member), New York Left Green Howie Hawkins and Joni Whitmore (Chair, Green Party of Alaska), as well as Hilda Mason of the D.C. Statehood Party, and was featured on C-SPAN.
But at the July 1992 Green Gathering held at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, MN, tensions surfaced over whether the new G/GPUSA structure fairly represented state Green Parties in voter registration states. For example, someone could be a Green Party member and have representation in their state party simply by registering Green in that state, but within the G/GPUSA, they would not have representation unless they also paid annual dues to the G/GPUSA, even if their state party was affiliated with the G/GPUSA and did not require dues itself.
The rift over this—along with the fact that more Greens were starting state parties (AZ, CA, HI and NM qualified in 1992 and ME in 1994) and thus seeing less value in the national organization—meant that attendance at Green Gatherings ’93 and ’94 began to drop.
Green Gathering ’95
Then in 1995, fresh off of electing Cris Moore to the Santa Fe City Council, and after receiving 10.4 percent for its 1994 Governor/Lt. Governor ticket of Roberto Mondragon/Steven Schmidt and 32.7 percent for its statewide Treasurer candidate Lorenzo Garcia, the New Mexico Green Party used its political capital to convene Green Gathering ’95, and bring together Greens from all factions to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
It was there that Schmidt, Jan and California Green co-founder Mike Feinstein held a workshop on the national poll they had conducted among U.S. Greens about the prospects of a Green presidential candidate in 1996, and presented their 40-State Green Organizing Plan. Seeking to build upon and export the ‘serious, credible, platform-based approach’ of the New Mexico Greens in 1994, they hoped to attract a national Green presidential candidate in 1996 and work toward a national Green Party.
The reasons to take this step, according to the proposal were many: “a recent Times Mirror poll showing 57 percent supported the idea of a third party; while other possible contenders for that role—the New Party and the Labor Party Advocates—hadn’t tried to organize nationally and, organizationally speaking, were relatively recent efforts. In contrast, the Greens had a ten-year history of activism and had already gained experience running candidates at the local, county and state level. If any political organization on the progressive Left was going to step into the vacuum created by the rightward shift of the Democrats, especially after the passage of both NAFTA and GATT under the Clinton administration, the Greens were most prepared.”
It was decided in Albuquerque that the Green Gathering ’96 would be in Los Angeles at UCLA. A few months later the Green Party of California (GPCA) passed a ‘receptive’ process to place a candidate on its March 1996 presidential primary ballot, should a suitable national candidate appear.
In mid-October 1995, Ralph Nader told the Chicago Tribune he was considering being on the California ballot, because of President Clinton’s vacillation on deregulatory measures covering securities fraud, telecommunications, legal services and welfare.
Seizing the moment, Feinstein, Jan and Nader aide Rob Hager began negotiating to make it happen. Nader didn’t want to self-declare and since the GPCA only had a receptive process, Feinstein and Jan drafted an invitation letter to Nader that would be signed by 45 progressive leaders from across the state, demonstrating a breadth of support to which Nader could then respond, which he did, freeing the GPCA to place him on its presidential primary ballot.
Nader ultimately appeared on the general election ballot in twenty-two states and received 685,297 votes, or 0.7 percent of all votes cast. He ran a limited campaign with a self-imposed campaign spending limit of $5,000 (which allowed him to avoid being subject to the obligation to file campaign finance statements with the FEC) and chose Winona LaDuke as his vice-presidential candidate. The two were nominated at the first ever Green presidential nominating convention, held in Los Angeles at UCLA on August 20, 1996. There each state party who placed Nader on the ballot told their story, followed by a two hour and twenty minute acceptance speech by Nader. The speech was broadcast on C-SPAN and Pacifica Radio —the first time U.S. Greens ever had that kind of national exposure.
Association of State Green Parties
The Nader ’96 campaign clearly accelerated the development of Green state parties, with many new ballot lines as a result, while a record 24 Greens won elections in 1996 out of 82 candidates nationwide, and the world’s first Green City Council majority was elected in Arcata, CA.
In the aftermath, 62 Greens from 30 states gathered in Middleburg, VA over the weekend of November 16–17, 1996 to found the Association of State Green Parties (ASGP). The meeting was held at the historic Glen-Ora Farm where John Kennedy had his weekend retreats in his administration’s early days.
Green Parties from 13 states were the ASGP founding members, and approved an initial set of bylaws that set out the organization’s purpose: to assist in the development of State Green Parties and create a legally structured national Green Party. The founding meeting also established a national newsletter Green Pages, which carries forward today as the newspaper of the GPUS.
The concept of the ASGP as an organization of sovereign state parties originally came out of the 1991 national Greens Gathering, where a committee was tasked with examining what an eventual Green Party might look like. The committee produced a report with contributions from six authors, among them Greg Gerritt from Maine (who was also the first U.S, Green to run for State Legislature in 1986). Gerritt’s suggestion was not received favorably within the G/GPUSA, but it was supported by those involved in the establishment of the Green Politics Network a year later, many of whom then played a key founding role in Middleburg in 1996.
From 1997 to 1999, as new state Green Parties continued to form, a highly competitive environment between the ASGP and the G/GPUSA began to develop in terms of whom would affiliate with which organization.
In December 1999, Feinstein and Hawkins met during a state meeting of the Green Party of New York State in New Paltz and crafted a plan to create a single national Green Party from among the ASGP and G/GPUSA by Earth Day, April 2000, with the timing to take advantage of the 2000 presidential campaign. The plan found quick support within the ASGP, but not within the Greens/GPUSA in time for Earth Day.
Instead it was the ASGP that nominated Nader and LaDuke at its June 23-25, 2000 convention in Denver. The convention officially approved a national platform as a basis for the campaign, and the pair appeared on 44 state ballots in November 2000 and received 2,883,105 votes, 2.7 percent of all votes cast. This strong showing further accelerated the development of more state Green Parties, and solidified the electoral orientation of the Green Party movement overall, with a record 282 Greens running and 46 elected in 2000 elections, including a second Green City Council majority, this time in Sebastopol, CA.
As for Green unity, Feinstein/Hawkins was revisited and further negotiated in October 2000. Renamed the Boston Agreement (because it was negotiated in Boston in the days before the first 2000 presidential debate), the Agreement was approved by the ASGP at its December 2000 meeting in Hiawasee, GA, but did not pass at the July 2001 G/GPUSA Congress. This caused a schism in membership among the G/ GPUSA from which it never recovered.
Green Party of the United States
At its own July 2001 meeting in Santa Barbara, the ASGP voted to change its name to the Green Party of the United States (GPUS) and apply for recognition of National Committee status by the FEC, which it was granted later that year and has retained ever since.
Almost all the key organizers of the G/ GPUSA eventually became involved in the new GPUS through their state parties, leading to a single national Green Party, committed to electoral politics, since that time.