You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Democrats Stole the Green Party’s Best Idea

The Green New Deal used to be the eco-socialist party's signature proposal. Now the Greens, without Jill Stein, are trying to find their voice.

Illustration by Jason Arias

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the wunderkind congresswoman from New York, has been getting most of the credit for the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to fight global warming that has become increasingly popular among Democrats. But Howie Hawkins wants to set the record straight. “A lot of people think AOC thought it up,” he told me by phone Wednesday. “But I’m the original Green New Dealer.”

Hawkins, a 66-year-old Green Party member from New York, says he was the first American political candidate to run on the promise of a Green New Deal. During his run for governor in 2010, he proposed a plan to fight climate change “with the same urgency, speed, and commitment of resources that our country demonstrated in converting to war production for the mobilization for World War II.” To reduce New York’s carbon emissions to net zero over ten years, Hawkins’s plan would “devote resources to and create jobs in renewable energy, public transit and organic agriculture,” the New York Times reported. And those resources would come from progressive tax reform, including massive taxes on the rich.

Some greens are now irked at the Democrats’ attempt to claim ownership of the idea. “It’s a little frustrating to not have a dialogue between those of us who have been working on the Green New Deal for quite some time, and people who want to keep it solely in the realm of the Democratic Party,” said Ian Schlakman, a Baltimore-based Green Party member who’s running for president. “There are some Democrats who acknowledge the existence of third parties and independents. Congresswoman Cortez is not one of those people.”

Hawkins—who told me he’s launching a presidential exploratory committee in the coming weeks—also thinks the Green New Deal is being unfairly co-opted. But he’s happy that it’s become mainstream, because now the Green Party can expose the Democrats for the corporatists they truly are. “It’s our opportunity to explain how the Democratic establishment ... chopped away the pieces,” he said.

The question is whether the public will listen. Once widely accused of spoiling a presidential election that led to two wars, the Green Party has been mostly relegated to a political punchline, thanks in part to the foibles of its former leader Jill Stein. Now, the Green New Deal—which helped to differentiate the eco-socialists Greens from the Democrats—has been coopted. The Democrats are even warming to socialist ideas. So does America even need a Green Party anymore? Or does America need it now more than ever?

The Green Party barely registered notice in 1996 when it fielded its first presidential candidate, who only made it onto the ballot in 22 states. But four years later, nominee Ralph Nader qualified in 43 states and won about 2.7 percent of the popular vote nationwide. Because he drew 95,000 votes in Florida, the famously decisive state in that election, he was accused of handing the presidency to George W. Bush. Nader and his supporters—among others—reject the argument that he spoiled the election, but there’s no denying that the 2000 election established the Greens’ legitimacy and influence as a third party.

Nearly two decades later, the Green Party has lost some of both—though it might still have enough support to tip the results of a presidential election. The party’s two-time nominee, Jill Stein, received just .4 percent of the vote in 2012, but 1.1 percent in 2016. The latter was “enough votes to tip the scales for Donald Trump in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin,” claimed Vanity Fair. (More accurately, her vote total in the three key states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania was higher than Trump’s margin of victory, but there’s no evidence that Stein’s supporters would have voted for Clinton otherwise. They may have chosen no one at all.) Stein also potentially compromised her party’s legitimacy with her connection to multiple scandals related to the Russia investigation—not to mention her curious comments on vaccines and the health affects of Wi-Fi.

Stein has suggested she won’t seek the party’s nomination in 2020, so there’s potential for a new Green voice. But it’s not yet clear who that will be. Aside from Hawkins and Schlakman, only 12 people have officially declared their candidacy for the Green Party nomination. It’s hard to tell which are serious. Kanye Deez Nutz West most likely is not. But Dario Hunter is, and he’s about as diverse as candidates come: black, gay, Iranian, and Jewish. He’s also an ordained rabbi, a former environmental attorney, and a school board member in Youngstown, Ohio. These qualities all make him an ideal new voice for the party, he said. “If we want to cut through the lack of attention given [to Greens], we need someone who has a loud and clear voice and a tough skin,” he said. “It takes a tough skin to be an openly gay black son-of-an immigrant Jewish rabbi.”

Why should there be attention given to Greens, though, now that Democrats have embraced the Green New Deal? Simple, said Hunter: “This Democratic version of the Green New Deal is watered down. It pales in comparison to ours.”

The Green Party’s Green New Deal is indeed more expansive. It includes far more detail than Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution, and a much more aggressive, socialist reorganization of society. The two plans have the same goal of 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2030, and they both call for universal health care and a federal job guarantee. But the Green Party’s plan calls for single-payer Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and “democratically run, publicly owned utilities.” To pay for it, the Greens call for major progressive tax and financial reform, including a 90 percent tax on bonuses for bailed out bankers, and a reduction in military spending by 50 percent.

Greens say their Green New Deal is the only version that’s going to reduce emissions to the degree scientists say is necessary to prevent climate catastrophe, because it’s the only one that’s truly socialist. “The mobilization that would need to take place to solve climate change would have to upend the capitalist economy,” Schlakman said. Hawkins agreed. “You can’t have an economy structured around endless growth,” he said. “Growth has to happen on a basis that is ecologically sustainable, and that won’t happen if you leave it to market incentives.” The Democratic Green New Deal flirts with these ideas, but doesn’t fully commit to them.

This is why some Greens say the 2020 presidential race is not a challenge so much as an opportunity to expose Democrats. “There is this growing cafeteria socialism where Democrats pick and choose elements here and there and put them on a platter because they sound conducive to running a progressive-sounding campaign,” Hunter said. “If you are espousing Medicare for All and free college for everyone, but ultimately still allowing for capitalist interests to run amok … then you are not a socialist. You’re just running on a platform that draws people in falsely.”

Calling Ocasio-Cortez a fake progressive is a risky game, given that she’s one of the most popular Democrats in America. But it does seem like the natural place for the Green Party to go in 2020. Third parties, after all, are historically for people who not only dislike the two major parties, but don’t believe the major parties will ever change. “I think if you work within the Democratic system, you have to be incredibly honest about who the Democrats are, which is that they are pro-capitalism, very moderate, and don’t want to move very far left to tackle the challenges we see worldwide,” Schlakman said. “Sure there’s an avenue for socialists to upend the Democratic Party from the inside, but they’d really have to be at war with their own party. And I don’t see that in Congresswoman Cortez.”

The chances of a socialist revolution within the Democratic Party is unlikely. Only one of its presidential candidates even uses that term to refer to himself, with the modifier “democratic”—and Sanders isn’t even a member of the party. So the Green Party surely still appeals to those who want the American economy to become fully eco-socialist—an inconsequential niche of voters, electorally speaking. But that’s not to say the party is without political influence. The Greens’ history as a spoiler threat might keep the Democrats honest, ensuring they don’t nominate a moderate who won’t at least entertain Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

Then again, leftist voters may be so motivated to remove Trump from office that they’d hold their noses and vote for, say, Amy Klobuchar or Joe Biden.

“Keep thinking that,” Hunter warned. “We’ll be out here knocking on doors.”