Especially in California, Greens Have Missed the Party

While the Green Party nominates a presidential candidate every four years as a publicity stunt, other politicians—Democrats and Republicans alike—have been steadily pursuing a green agenda in California. California cities are better off for it.

Read Time: 5 minutes

October 18, 2016, 6:00 AM PDT

By Josh Stephens @jrstephens310


Green Party

For all of its worthy goals and millions of potential supporters, the Green Party remains inept. | Amanda Capasso / Flickr

As unnerving as it must be to witness the presidential campaign of the Green Party from elsewhere in the country, it's downright bizarre to watch it from here in California. On the one hand, many, if not most, California voters share Green values. On the other hand, they've already voted for those values. They've just voted for a different party.

In a normal presidential election cycle, the nomination of a Green Party candidate would qualify as a hardly more than a well meaning publicity stunt. Given the stakes, I think we have to omit "well meaning" this time around.

Columnist Dan Savage recently published a series of scathing critiques (here, here) of the Green Party. They’re fun to read both for the acidity of Savage's sarcasm and for the depth of his indignation. He essentially says that the Green Party’s delusions of grandeur are almost as vast as those of Donald Trump. According to a blog post by party Chair Andrea Merida Cuellar, the Greens have won plenty of elections nationwide—president being only the most lofty—and the Greens hold exactly 116 of them.

Given that California is the country's largest state and, arguably, its greenest, you'd think that many of those offices would be in California. In fact, there are two: the mayor of the town of Marina and a school board member in Marin County. If you can't figure out how to win a Santa Cruz City Council race, do you really think you can figure out how to run the country?

As I contemplate the Greens' latest adventure, and the havoc that protest votes could wreak on our world this year, I consider that the Green Party isn't merely small-time. It's behind the times.

While the Green Party has been twiddling its thumbs, policymakers in California have been grinding through an environmentalist agenda for the better part of a decade. (Recently state and local officials have been rightfully turning to the Greens' other big agenda item: social justice.) Granted, it's not the sort of idealistic back-to-the land vision of some greens. It's a pragmatic, incrementalist set of economic policies, regulations, and conservation measures. Even so, rather than rise to the surface to whine about conventional politics every quadrennial, public officials in California have been dominating core Green issues like climate change, habitat protection, and energy efficiency year-in and year-out. 

In 2006, Democrat Fran Pavley authored Assembly Bill 32, arguably the toughest anti-climate change law in the country. It was signed by a Republican governor. Two years later, Democrat Darrel Steinberg sponsored Senate Bill 375, which gives more teeth to AB 32 via land use. SB 375 is arguably the most far-reaching law in the country to promote compact development and other trappings of smart growth. The same Republican governor signed that one too. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown, the consummate Democrat, issued an executive order calling for more aggressive greenhouse gas targets.

A few weeks ago, Brown signed a landmark extension of AB 32.

Meanwhile, scores of other environmental laws, pro-environment bonds, and state and local laws have been enacted, implemented, and adopted. All of this comes against the backdrop of California’s original environmental laws, the California Environmental Quality Act and the Coastal Act. All of these policies have their controversies and shortcomings—with frequent complaints that CEQA analysis and threat of CEQA-based lawsuits hinder infill development—but they are serious laws with unambiguous goals.

These efforts are far from perfect, but, as I've written before in the California Planning & Development Report, they go well beyond what almost any other state has done.

You'd think that if California is so progressive statewide, surely the Green Party would stake out territory in localities even more progressive. In places like Santa Monica, Berkeley, Oakland, Petaluma, Davis, and San Rafael, "conservative" means that you don’t separate your recyclables. If the Greens were a serious party, wouldn't they be all over those city council races? (Granted, local elections are nonpartisan, but that doesn’t mean that candidates are nonpartisan or that the party isn’t allowed to organize.) And why isn't there at least a caucus of Greens to join, and bolster, the Dems?

The fact is, mainstream politics are not oblivious to environmental concerns. The Democratic Party has already embraced the policies (and voters) of the Green movement and squeezed it into irrelevance. Rather than use this success as a springboard into legitimacy, Greens have gotten nuttier—deliberately making themselves a fringe party.

Little of this would matter were it not for the sanctimonious rhetoric that the Greens spout every four years. They've been talking about political revolution and about breaking the two-party system since at least 2000. How's that working out? California's history shows that plenty of voters might have supported Green candidates—and their policies—if only the party had given them half a chance. If we survive this election, they probably still will.

As a protest vote—if there is such a thing—the Greens are perfect. But why would anyone who believes in an environmental agenda vote for a party that has accomplished literally nothing? Their haplessness makes Trump University look like Harvard.

If the Greens were serious about their agenda, you'd think they'd figure out how to win more than 116 elections. If they tried, they could probably win 116 elections in California alone. You'd also think that they'd at least support other politicians who support environmentally friendly policies. Like, say, Hillary Clinton, who is loudly touting green energy. Or, say, Nobel Prize-winner Al Gore.

In case the Greens have finally grown tired of frittering away their opportunities and of merely complaining about the two-party system, the question for the Green Party and its supporters is not, Who are you voting for November 8? It's, What are you going to do November 9? 

Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens is the former editor of, and current contributing editor to, the California Planning & Development Report, the state's leading publication covering urban planning.

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