The McKinney Choice
THE PROGRESSIVE, OCTOBER 2008 ISSUE
By Kevin Alexander Gray
MENTION TO SOMEONE that you’re thinking about voting for former Georgia
Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney or Ralph Nader and they’ll respond, “So,
you’re voting for McCain!” Or they’ll say, “You’re wasting your vote.”
And if you’re black and not planning on voting for Obama, you may be
labeled a “hater” or an “Uncle Tom.” I know. I’ve been called those
names. Poet Amiri Baraka, never one to be shy, has labeled all those not
supporting Obama as “rascals.”
It doesn’t matter that McKinney is herself African American or that Rosa
Clemente, her running mate on the Green Party ticket, is a hip-hop
activist and an Afro-Puerto Rican. What matters, for most, is that Obama
represents the first realistic chance for a black American to win the
White House, and that he is better than McCain.
But should those be the overriding considerations?
While Obama is cosmetically attractive, he is still a status quo
politician. What’s more, he has gone out of his way to disparage members
of the African American community as a way to ingratiate himself with
white voters. And he sometimes defends the same rightwing positions as
his Republican counterpart, as when Obama supported Bush on the FISA
bill and agreed with Scalia on the D.C. gun ban.
Aside from Obama’s limitations, there’s the question of movement
politics. If we believe that the two party system rigs the electoral
game, if we believe that corporate money contaminates both parties, and
if we believe change comes from below, then why must we get in line
With these thoughts in mind, I went out to explore the McKinney
candidacy. McKinney, who served as a Democrat in the U.S. House of
Representatives for twelve years, left the Democratic Party last year to
join the Greens. In Congress, she had one of the most progressive
records. And as a Presidential candidate, she offers up a coherent agenda.
In her acceptance speech at the Green Party convention in Chicago on
July 12, she denounced what she called “Democratic Party complicity” in
“war crimes, torture, crimes against the peace” and “crimes against the
Constitution, crimes against the American people, and crimes against the
global community.” She said, “Those who delivered us into this mess
cannot be trusted to get us out of it.” She told her supporters, “A
Green vote is a peace vote,” and “A Green vote is a justice vote.”
Whether the subject was the Iraq War, or Afghanistan, or Katrina, or
veterans’ rights, or Blackwater, or civil liberties, or the environment,
or universal health care, or equal pay for equal work, or free college
education, or the repeal of the Bush tax cuts, McKinney hit the
progressive high notes. (But she was a little off key when she indulged
the “9/11 truth” people.)
“We are in this to build a movement,” she said. “We are willing to
struggle for as long as it takes to have our values prevail in public
policy. A vote for the Green Party is a vote for the movement that will
turn this country rightside up.”
McKinney’s platform resembles that of Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio
Representative who ran as the most progressive candidate in the
Democratic primaries. Like Kucinich, McKinney wants an immediate end to
all wars and occupations by U.S. forces, beginning in Iraq and
Afghanistan; the orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops from the more than
100 countries around the world where they are stationed; Articles of
Impeachment to be filed against Bush and several members of his
Administration; and the creation of a Department of Peace. She would
also like to see a number of other Bush initiatives repealed, like the
Patriot Acts, the Secret Evidence Act, and the Military Commissions Act.
Like Obama, McKinney name-drops Martin Luther King a lot. But whereas
Obama constantly utters King’s line about “the fierce urgency of now,”
McKinney uses King in a different way. She says “the racial disparities
that exist today are worse than at the time of the murder of King.” And
she quotes King’s comment that the United States is the “greatest
purveyor of violence on the planet,” saying that it is still true today.
McKinney also adopts positions that Obama won’t go near, such as:
demanding reparations for African Americans, offering amnesty for all
undocumented immigrants, ending “prisons for profit,” and calling off
the “war on drugs.”
But having a shiny progressive platform does not guarantee progressive
votes. I recall a rule of organizing in the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign:
“Define your own win.” Reason being: If it’s about who has the most
money, resources, access, etc., those going against the flow or those
who are resource poor will always be sold short. Especially when the
powerful set the rules and call the game.
Running was Shirley Chisholm’s win in 1972.
Jackson’s win was successfully advancing a progressive, multiracial,
So what’s McKinney’s win?
She says the Greens want to pick up “5 percent of the national vote” in
the coming election with the hope it “confers major party status” on them.
“Then we will have an official third party in this country,” McKinney
said in Chicago, “and public policy that truly reflects our values.”
Yet 5 percent may be a tough nut to crack, given the party’s up and down
performances in the past three Presidential elections.
As a Green candidate in 1996, Nader garnered 0.7 percent of the total.
Four years later, he and the party increased their support three-fold,
pulling in 2.74 percent of the total vote while receiving no electoral
votes. In 2004, the Greens ran Texan David Cobb under a “safe states
strategy.” Cobb appeared on twenty-eight of fifty-one ballots, down from
the forty-four Green lines in 2000. The strategy supposedly focused its
efforts on states that were traditionally “safely” won by the Democratic
candidate, or “safely” won by the Republican candidate, so as not to run
in swing states. This defensiveness was in reaction to the Nader-haters
of 2000, who still blame Ralph for giving the country George Bush. Cobb
got an infinitesimal 0.096 percent of the vote, while Nader as an
Independent picked up 0.38 percent of the total.
This election season the Greens have abandoned the discredited “safe
state strategy,” says Brent McMillan, political director of the party.
Mc-Kinney and Clemente are on the ballot in thirty states, according to
the Green Party.
The party’s national electoral history may prevent McKinney from being
taken seriously by even the angriest of voters. “It seems that there’s
no in-between game,” says longtime grassroots activist Brett Bursey of
South Carolina. “The Greens pop up during an election season and that’s
it.” He and others argue that the election-year “top-down approach” of
choosing big-name candidates like Nader and McKinney rarely lends itself
to the off-year followup that is needed to build an effective national
party. “It will take more time than running doomed electoral campaigns
that do little more than make the candidates and their few supporters
feel superior,” says Bursey.
Bursey may have a point. The Greens have a dearth of campaign offices
(local folk where I live in South Carolina don’t know how to get
involved), and there are precious few grassroots volunteers outside of
traditional Green “strongholds.” Obviously, money matters, and McKinney
and the Greens have very little.
And the Obama candidacy is tricky for the Greens. “There are some Greens
who won’t support a Green at the top of our ticket today, regardless of
who that person is,” says Gregg Jocoy, of the South Carolina chapter.
“White Greens don’t want to hurt Obama’s chances.”
Given these difficulties, the question once again arises: “Why bother?”
To which Clemente replies, “People have to make some clear choices about
which side are they on.” The goal, she says, is “building the new
One can only hope that because McKinney and Clemente are raising
important issues they’re not wasting their and others’ time.
But let me put a word in for being contrary, for refusing to go with
flow, and for rejecting the choices we are given when we have that
opportunity. Sometimes it is necessary to stand up and say, “I’m not
with that.” Defying the corrupt two-party corporate system may be one of
The choice is yours. And mine. And for me, it’s not an easy one.
/Kevin Alexander Gray is a writer and activist living in South Carolina.
He managed the 1988 presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson in the state.
His forthcoming books are “Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The
Fundamentals of Black Politics” and “The Decline of Black Politics: From
Malcolm X to Barack Obama.”/