Day Two of the Green Party's 2009 National Meeting in Durham featured a forum on single-payer health care (though "forum" may be a stretch; the consensus was that single-payer is the best, and only, option) and press conferences introducing Green Party elected officials, and candidates, to the world.
But the real action happened in workshops, where local Green Party leaders, seated in N.C. Central University classroom chairs, licked the wounds of a contentious 2008 convention in Chicago, and pondered whether the Green Party had lost its relevance in the eyes of the public.
"As I look across this room, we're old," said George Martin, former co-chair of the Wisconsin Green Party and a founder of the Green Party Black Caucus. "Not to mention [a lack of] people of color."
Martin said the Green Party had lost its "feeder system" when Campus Greens, a national student organization, folded due to organizational mishaps, including tax trouble and having no official ties to the national party.
"We've got to go back to our roots, and we've got to go young," he said. "Let's get back to our basic organization. We are activists. We are activists because we weren't satisfied with the political system."
But recruiting young candidates and party members is worthless if the Greens can't keep them interested, Martin added.
"We're anal. We're boring. We're cliquish," he said of local party meetings.
Meanwhile, 2008 Green Party presidential candidate Kat Swift suggested "leadership development" training--"not in a corporatism sense, but in a Green Party Sense"--to teach potential leaders "what it means to operate in a Green Party political culture."
Despite dwindling Green Party voters and members, Swift argued, President Barack Obama's election presented hope for the party.
"People are now more aware the that the Democrats are like the Republicans," she said. "It was rhetoric."
Martin added: "It's our job to show he's not a president of peace, talking about being in Afghanistan for 18 years. That's our job to bring that stuff up. Those are opportunities for us."
John Rensenbrink, a founder of the Green Party and a former candidate for U.S. Senate, agreed.
"Where is the opposition now?" he said, referring to Democrats' control at the White House and in Congress. "It's got to be us. If it ain't us, it's not going to be anyone in this tyrannical country."
In an interview after the workshop, Rensenbrink compared the Green Party today to the momentum surrounding its 2000 convention in Denver, which he called "electrifying."
"We thought that we’d arisen as a major player, and it got to our heads," he said.
The last time Rensenbrink spoke to Ralph Nader, the party's 2000 nominee, was on the eve of Nader's announcement that he would not seek the party's nomination in 2004. Rensenbrink said he asked Nader to remain a Green. Instead, Nader asked for--but did not receive--the party's endorsement, leading to friction within the party.
“Nader wanted to shake up the Democrats, and he saw the Greens as an opportunity to do it," Rensenbrink said. “He missed his own symbolic importance of people who were registering Green because he was the candidate.”
After Nader's 2000 run, and the ensuing backlash from progressive Democrats, Rensenbrink said the party is "stuck with" running a presidential campaign.
"We’ve got to do it," he said, brushing aside criticism that the party steals votes from Democrats, or that the endeavor is too difficult due to ballot access laws.
Yet, Rensenbrink said the party now suffered from a "shocking absence of leadership," stemming in part from a non-centralized approach to politics and a "culture of powerlessness."
"We squelch leadership," he said. "The protester is so used to protesting that he'll end up protesting his own leader, without thinking, 'What’s that leader up against?'”
Rensenbrink suggested that the state parties pool their resources into two Congressional districts, to get a Green candidate elected to U.S. Congress. He also said the party should drill down to five core issues (currently, the party has ten "key values" and four "pillars" in its platform), and be able to argue their interconnectedness succinctly. (For example, the party should explain why preserving the environment can also preserve the economy, an argument Rensenbrink said has become easier to make with Obama's "Green jobs" mandate.)
“If we could help people see how their causes relate to other causes, and to seriously ask themselves, ‘Does your position on this issue contribute to the transformation of society?” then we have them—even if they don’t join our party," he said.
More on the single-payer health care forum, the Green candidates' press conference, and Day 3 of the Greens in Durham, to come.