I have been asked by a few Green party members and supporters for my opinion on the current strife within the Green Party over the recently adopted motion to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement. I have been relatively silent on this matter – not out of any particular principle, but rather, I think, out of great deal of sadness. The very moment that I read that the BDS motion was being proposed for consideration of the members, I felt a profound sense of sadness and loss – I knew that the party I had enjoyed for the past decade was going to soon be over.
Not the Green Party, per se – but the general sense of unity that the Party has had since I became a member in 2007. Sure, there have been a number of hiccups, and anyone who is even slightly engaged would realize that prominent Greens have come and gone, for many reasons. And certainly, we’ve never quite lived up to our hopes and expectations. But for the most part, our aspirations have remained in place – and even those who may have left the Party for their own reasons, some continue to wish us well because of our shared values, if not how we have chosen to pursue them.
But the current crisis is different. It is existential. It is polarizing. And it is, in my opinion, one which will severely wound, if not destroy the Party that I have devoted my limited time and energy to over the past decade. I know that I should be angry, but because I feel that I understand both sides, along with the mushy middle, instead of anger, I feel only regret and sadness. But the fact is, this moment was going to come anyway – if not now, and if not over BDS, than at some point in the near future. In fact, viewing this current crisis as a unique one-off doesn’t do it justice. The crisis is one of many waves that parties like ours will have to endure over time, or be swept away by. Each wave erodes us a little more, but we have time to reinforce the base before the next wave strikes. What’s not clear is whether we’ll be motivated to shore up the base or let the structure collapse when struck by the next wave.
BDS is the first wave. It may swamp us all together. How can I feel anything but a sense of sadness and loss?
Greens and BDS
I understand that some of those who support the BDS movement likely do so out of a desire to delegitimize the state of Israel as a political entity, rather than out of a desire to influence Israeli government policy. In short, I know that there are racists and anti-semites who support BDS. But I also know that BDS is not inherently an anti-semitic or even an anti-Israeli initiative – and certainly I believe that the vast majority of Greens who voted for the Party to adopt this initiative as policy were not and are not anti-semites. Canada's Green Party is not the first Green Party to have signaled its support to the BDS movement, either, as we follow in the footsteps here of both the US and UK Greens.
However, there are some Greens, like British Columbia Green leader Andrew Weaver, who believe that BDS supporters are an “extremist fringe” (see: "B.C. Green Party considering name change, as federal leader May fires shadow cabinet trio," the Vancouver Sun, September 13, 2016). Of course, language like this shot across the bow of a national party that just adopted BDS as a policy initiative is, to say the least, unhelpful and divisive. That being said, I do agree with part of Weaver’s assessment – BDS and its supporters are on the fringe of Canadian political culture. But it’s not an “extremist” fringe in the sense that we often use that term to invoke the notion of intolerance. BDS is actually firmly entrenched now on the progressive fringe of Canadian politics. It’s still a fringe idea – but it will, in my opinion, trend towards the mainstream over time.
But “fringe” ideas aren’t generally an election winner for any political party, and B.C. Green leader Weaver, whatever his personal feelings about BDS actually are, is going into an election next year with the goal of increasing Green seats in the legislature. That the federal party membership has decided to champion BDS is, frankly, not helpful to the electoral success of Weaver and the B.C. Greens, no matter how much Weaver succeeds in separating his party from the national party with the same colour in its title.
The Existential Debate - Realo v. Fundi
All of this is to say that I understand Weaver’s frustration, and that of national leader Elizabeth May, who has done more to mainstream the Green Party than anybody else in the nation, in my opinion. May wants the Greens to be at the table (and she has succeeded in being present at the table in a big way on a matter of critical importance to Canada, the Green Party, and the fight against climate change, by literally occupying a seat on the 10-member Electoral Reform Committee). May believes, like I do, that Greens can have more influence inside of our parliamentary institutions than by remaining on the outside. Why else would she have moved completely across the country to run in a B.C. riding a little more suited to Green success than her Nova Scotia home? While it’s true that having to relocate to Sidney on Vancouver Island might not exactly be a negative experience, I’m using it as but one example of the personal sacrifices that May has made to advance the interests of the Green Party.
In the current crisis which has enveloped the Green Party, May and Weaver find themselves playing familiar roles – perhaps not all that familiar to Canadian Greens, but roles which those in other Green Parties - or indeed, in other progressive political parties – would ably recognize. In this crisis, May and Weaver are “Realos” - while those who are supporting BDS can be ascribed the role of “Fundis”. These roles were not ones that either side auditioned for – but they are nevertheless apt descriptions of those who are willing to find a little compromise if it leads to a little more power and influence, versus those who believe that values are bedrock and can’t be displaced.
The terms “Realo” and “Fundi” come from the late 20th Century factional conflicts within the German Green Party. Those conflicts arose over issues other than BDS – but ultimately, the conflict was one more about power and influence, and the role of Greens in the national political culture (see: “Fundi,” Wikipedia entry; and, see: “Fundi v. realos in war for party,” the Guardian, September 21, 2005 – an opinion piece which in part examines the realo/fundi divide then present in the UK’s Liberal-Democratic party, with a reference to rising realo star Nick Clegg. As an aside, 11 years later, Lib-Dems must be wondering whether their pursuit of realo politics proved best for their party – and for the UK).
The Realo v. Fundi debate is one which all small political parties are likely to get caught up in – and certainly that’s an almost absolute truth for political parties who count themselves as “progressive”. Since the very notion of “progression” involves an orderly forward movement, it’s not as if there should be an expectation that progressivism will ever stand still. Even the most progressive political parties will discover that there is always something more worth fighting for, as we stumble forward in time and towards greater equity and universal human rights. This progression creates a challenge for progressive political parties – and can potentially precipitate a crisis in those parties seeking to move from the edge and into the mainstream.
The Progressive Dilemma
Look, truly progressive political parties will always find themselves on the edges of mainstream acceptance, simply because they are out in front of public opinion on progressive issues. By the time that their signature policy proposals enter mainstream thinking (think here of the Green Party and carbon pricing, if you’d like), there are other, newer issues appearing on the progressive radar that will remain outside of the scope of mainstream thinking – up until they don’t. Progressive parties like the Greens understand this. Hell, we keep saying that we want the other parties to adopt our policies. And, eventually they have – and eventually, they will.
So why the hell are Greens so concerned about mainstreaming? Yes, it’s nice to have a voice at the table and to be able to influence public policy from inside the room. But, frankly, what’s more important to most Greens? Ditching our values in the pursuit of power, or remaining true to our values and accepting our role as outsiders?
Conflict in the NDP
Ultimately, this is an existential question all Green parties (and all progressive parties) are forced to face. In Canada, the New Democratic Party too is faced with an existential dilemma, although it would be unfair to characterize that as a “new” experience for the NDP. Indeed, that Party has been locked in the constant push-pull of the values vs. power debate for decades. The primary difference right now is that those on the value side seem to have a little more momentum behind their point of view, after the power-seekers dropped the electoral ball in 2015.
In some ways, we Greens have it easier than the NDP. We’re hung up on BDS, while the NDP has to deal with the Leap Manifesto, BDS, and, quite likely, a number of other socio-economic issues that boil down to whether globalized capitalism continues to make sense in the context of the 21st Century. Of course, the NDP has already ditched their leader, and they have forced themselves to accept a day of reckoning next year, when a new leader who will presumably embody the direction desired by the grassroots is chosen by the members (with the hopes that the new leader will be able to convince the elected New Democratic caucus to come along for the ride – something U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbynn, elected with a 60% first ballot mandate by the grassroots, difficult to do).
But then again, the NDP probably has less to lose than Greens by having this debate. Because the NDP is an established, mainstream political party, even if incrementally progressive policies are adopted, if they can be spun the right way, the NDP will retain a significant portion of its base – and that’s nothing to sneeze at. For example, the NDP could decide that it’s time to start the conversation about leaving fossil resources in the ground (as Leap suggests) and re-examining global trade deals (in keeping with Leap and anti-capitalist interests), and still present themselves to the general public as being fairly balanced and level-headed. Debates, of course, will continue to rage along these fronts, but generally, the NDP could find itself playing the role of a real progressive political force again, after having largely abandoned that role in the pursuit of power since Jack Layton took its helm.
Of course, the significant risk to the NDP would be abdicating any realistic hope of obtaining power – their message will still be somewhat off-key with Canadians, as progressive messages tend to be, at least for a while. Of course with a new leader getting a feel for the job, and with a popular Justin Trudeau leading the nation from what the mainstream media refers to as a “centrist” point of view, it’s highly unlikely that the NDP has much of a shot at the golden ring in 2019 anyway.
A Lack of Political Capital with Canadians
Greens, on the other hand, don’t have the political padding to engage in half-measures after a day of reckoning. While those New Democrats who end up on the losing side of the Leap debate might be mollified into accepting the direction of their party with the knowledge that the NDP will retain a good portion of its’ mainstream political capital, the same can’t be said of Greens because the Green Party has never had any mainstream political capital. Greens who find themselves on the losing side of the current schism will be less inclined to return to the flock. Greens have always had a tendency to wander away from the Party when lesser sleights have occurred. And what we’re talking about here is really more of a cultural rift than a sleight.
Unlike Leap, and even unlike the anti-capitalist movement in general, BDS tends to be cast in a much starker light. While you can have a sliding scale of opinions on the role of corporations in democratic processes, it’s hard to find oneself in the middle on BDS – you’re either in favour of it, or you’re against. Yes, there is some space left for a nuanced position – and many tepid supporters of BDS try to inhabit that space – but for the most part, the mainstream political culture in this nation (and especially the mainstream media) doesn’t allow for that kind of occupation. Today, the frame around this issue is firmly in place, and while I expect that the frame will come under pressure and eventually crack (as it does for all progressive issues), it’s not going to happen any time soon. BDS is not at a mainstream tipping point.
I think most Greens get this – even those who support BDS, and who want to speed Canada up towards that tipping point. They know Canada isn’t there yet. And I think most Greens would concede that if the Green Party championed BDS, we will advance its cause (and let’s be frank here – by adopting BDS as Green Party policy, we WILL be its champion, no matter how little we might want to talk about it – by virtue of the fact that others will always be talking about it and us, we’ll really have no choice but to be BDS champions, whether we like it or not). And advancing the cause of BDS is really anathema to some members of the Party, who view it either as an pseudo anti-semitic cause, or whose opinions are informed by the mainstream cultural perception that it’s a pseudo anti-semitic cause.
Clearly, BDS is a far more divisive issue than Leap, or Socialism a debate on cultural values.
The Green Party is, therefore, not even remotely well positioned to handle this discussion that we have found ourselves in the midst of. I believe that we are about to tear ourselves apart over BDS because the Green Party itself is at a crossroads. Do we stay true to our values at the risk of marginalization, or do we abandon those values and those who value them in the pursuit of mainstream political acceptance in the pursuit of a narrower political agenda?
I’m certainly not in a position to answer that question. I have my own opinions, and in part my opinion is informed by BDS – an initiative that I tepidly support, but one which I understand to be toxic for the Party at this time (full disclosure: I voted “Yellow” in the online polling for the policy that the Ottawa BGM ultimately adopted without revision in August). But I’m just one guy – and a guy who likes to describe himself as being the most rabidly partisan Green Party member that the party has. I enjoy being a partisan – and I think that alone identifies me as the voice of a minority opinion within the Party. My partisanship alone, though, doesn’t mean that my values are in any way compromised. It just means that I’m likely to find myself more on the Realo side of the debate than I am on the Fundi . I continue to believe that it’s better to be on the inside than the outside of political decision making, and I see real value in electing more Green MP’s on that basis. But I acknowledge that not all members of the Party see things that way, and I think that there is merit to the argument that would leave the Party on the outside.
This current crisis, however, is truly an existential one. No matter how the crisis is now resolved, there will be casualties. It is the nature of existential crises to find victims fallen to friendly fire. While we may all want many of the same things, those small number of issues that divide us will prove to be fatal at some level. Either the agitators on one side or the other will eventually rebel or be expelled, leaving the Party a wounded reduction of its former self, or the civil strife will consume the Party completely. This is not an apocalyptic prediction, by the way. It’s a constant. This will happen, unless reconciliation is sought and accepted – and frankly, given the polarizing nature of BDS, there can be no reconciliation.
Survival Not Assured
For me, there are several questions. The first is, can the Green Party survive this existential crisis? I suspect it can, but the wounds are ones which may not heal. I believe the Realos like May and Weaver have the upper hand, largely because I believe too that the broader base of the Party who, like me, are mostly disengaged on the issue of BDS for whatever reason, will not be willing to sacrifice the potential for future electoral successes to an issue that doesn’t stir us, even if we realize that it should.
But the Fundis here do have a stronger moral case, and there must be a good number of them, judging by the strength that the BDS policy motion received in pre-BGM online polling and at the BGM itself. BDS supporters might be members with a minority view in the party, but right now that statement isn’t supported by the evidence. We may never truly know what the majority opinion is on BDS – but ultimately that’s not important. What is important is that there is a significant number of Greens that have embraced BDS – and more Greens are sticking their necks out and choosing sides, thanks in part to the current crisis. This means that every day we diminish opportunities for reconciliation – to find a mushy middle, even on an issue as divisive as BDS.
But I still hold some hope that we may be able to do so, even if it means that we lose the support of Greens like Weaver. But the fact that Weaver and the B.C. Greens are facing an election next year makes the task of reconciliation that much more difficult, because it’s clear that Weaver, at least, has no desire to find a “mushy middle” at a time when he’d rather be talking to British Columbians about what the Green Party can do for them, rather than defending Green candidates from charges of supporting anti-semitism.
My second question is, if the Green Party can somehow keep a good part of itself together, will it emerge from the end of this exercise as a political entity that I want to support? I say “entity” because it may very well be that, while remaining ostensibly a political Party in name, what comes out of the other side of the civil strife snake might be unrecognizable as a political party as we view parties today. If, for example, the party opts to pursue as a primary goal something other than the election of Greens to parliament, it will be unclear to me that the appellation of “party” would be appropriate.
I'm Here for the Climate Change - Cheque, Please!
Ultimately, though, that’s for Greens to decide. The power-struggle is on, and there’s really no way now to get around this. While I have hopes that the December General Meeting in Calgary might achieve some sort of compromise on the matter, I can’t see that happening.
So, I’ll sit and watch and wait for a while longer yet. But ultimately, I’m here for the climate change and for the democratic reform. If the vehicle I’ve chosen to invest my time and treasure in ultimately goes off the rails, I’ll have to look for an alternative form of transport to take me to the hub of those issues.
(Opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be considered consistent with the policy and/or positions of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)