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The Value of Decentralization


A book review getting to the roots
By Rhoda Gilman, Green Party of Minnesota

Rick Whaley reflects on the Green Party’s past and the direction it has taken in a slim volume of collected essays, poetry, and artwork How Green Is The Green Party? Stories From The Margins, Beech River Books, 2007. The author, a long-time Milwaukee Green, identifies himself on the cover as “a Green founder.”


Whaley is best known for his work with the late Walt Bressette on the award-winning book Walleye Warriors (1994), an account of the struggle over Native Ameri can hunting and fishing rights in Wis con sin from l983 to 1992. Those were precisely the years in which the Green movement was taking shape throughout the country and especially in the Upper Midwest. Whaley’s orientation reflects this. It can best be summed up in a few quotations:

“If we don’t reach beyond narrow proletarian ideology and outdated rhetoric, Greens will only be the Left talking to the Left.”

“Green politics without Green living is soulless.”

“Native American spirituality, politics, and practice Ö are the germinating core of the Greens, in simple and profound ways.”

“Cities, no matter the form of government in a country, exist in a colonial relationship to rural areas, especially small farms and Native reserves and to wilderness (mineral, energy, water, and timber resources).”

My own history with the Greens in this region goes back as far as Rick Whaley’s. His words recall vivid memories of roots in alternative lifestyles and the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Biore gionalism, home schooling, ap propriate (read “Luddite”) technology, and intentional community were the watchwords of the day. For Whaley most of them still are. In his view the key Green Party value is decentralization.

It was a rich cultural seedbed, and today’s political Greens would do well to remember. We may need to re-learn some of its lessons. Ecologists then were already prophesying the current crises of global warming and peak oil, but almost no one was listening. Without access to mass media, politics seemed the only way to draw the country’s attention, so bioregional networks like the Lake Superior Greens, organized by Walt Bressette, were gradually turned into state political parties.

The change did not come without pain and conflictóbut it came. A national association of Green Parties (now the Green Party of the United States) was formed, and in 1996 the Greens nominated Ralph Nader as their first presidential candidate. The Native American influence that Whaley cites was still there, however. Nader’s running mate, Winona La Duke, is an Anishi nabe woman who had joined Bresette in proposing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would ensure the environmental rights of our descendants to the seventh generation.

Working within the electoral system not only required organization by electoral units, but also operation on political lines. Greens had to address current issues along with ideological principles and visionary hopes. Alliances had to be made and candidates cultivated. They had to convince voters that Greens were up to managing the business of government for everyone, not only for the counter-culture.

The wave of national politics crested with Nader’s campaign in 2000, which brought to the Green Party a new generation of young activists. Despite the retreating tide in the next years, the party continues to gain a beachhead in city councils, county commissions, and school boards across the country.

Greens have also become active in reclaiming city neighborhoods and in suburbs opposing developer-inspired sprawl. Decentralism has come full circle, but it now has a wholly different flavor from the lifestyle movement that Whaley recalls. Compact fluorescent bulbs have replaced getting off the power grid.

Political decentralism still, however, confronts what Whaley sees as a persistent red tinge in the Green Party. He implicitly accepts it when he concludes: “My counsel is that independent Greens should work with those candidates and activists who reciprocate respect on issues of concern and on community building. A sunflower can grow almost anywhere. But it still has to follow the sun.”

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