Dreaming Green

Stanley Aronowitz Wants to Build a Progressive Party—Crack by Crack

Aronowitz is taking his own act on the road. In a car as cluttered with books and papers as his Greenwich Village apartment, he has made more than 80 stops all across the state. A swing through the Adirondacks last month was typical. It began with a press conference at the legislature followed by a speech to students at SUNY-Albany, a Rockefeller-era campus with an eerie resemblance to Brasília. In this setting, Aronowitz the prof was on familiar turf, striking an agile balance between stats and sound bites: "We are the 47th state in expenditures on higher education. There's no money to clean up toxic waste. Have you heard anything in this campaign about these things?" His description of the two front-runners would make a great Green commercial, if the party could afford one: "See no evil, hear no evil, talk about nothing, and accuse your opponent of being a little more corrupt than you."

To the inevitable question about being a spoiler, Aronowitz replied: "What am I spoiling?" After all, he isn't running against a progressive like Wellstone, but against two centrists; one compassionate, the other canny, both corporatist.

"Pataki and McCall each say the other is bad on the issues," Aronowitz told a rally at Plattsburgh State University. "I'm here to say they're both right." He was speaking in the central plaza as students headed for lunch. It was a hard crowd to hold, but Aronowitz succeeded, weaving his remarks around a skateboarder. By the time he finished, his audience had grown to about 75—not bad for a campus where the Green Party chapter has seven members.

Mr. Aronowitz goes to Washington: The Green candidate for governor speaks at a Federal Hall rally.
photo: Marc Asnin
Mr. Aronowitz goes to Washington: The Green candidate for governor speaks at a Federal Hall rally.

One reason why the Greens draw crowds is their roster of unlikely candidates. This year, there's a fire-fighting veteran of 9-11 running for Congress, a truck loader at UPS running for comptroller, and a sex radical (Penny Arcade) running for the state assembly. Then there's Aronowitz, who is well suited to bring the utopian vision of the '60s to a generation that has yet to grasp its power. When he said, "We are voting to keep the voices of protest, of resistance, of alternatives alive," the skateboarder stopped and applauded. Briefly.

Still, there's a downside to working for change in a party that is itself a testament to unfettered democracy. The zany narcissism that bedevils the left is in full flower here. Aronowitz was bemused when the podium that had been set up for his Plattsburgh rally was moved to the far corner of the plaza because another Green speaker—a write-in candidate for Congress—didn't want to breathe fumes from the nearby street. Aronowitz despairs of the party faithful who "drift away from me on the issue of protein; they are against me because I'm a meat eater." But as "an old organizer," he is fit for this fray. "It's a hard party to work with," he admits, "but I enjoy the give-and-take." At his coaxing, the podium was moved to a more visible location, fumes and all.

The future of the Greens depends on their willingness to breathe the stench of political reality without succumbing to its toxic effects. In New York, at least, it seems possible. The party has cross-endorsed several Democrats, black and Latino insurgents running against their machines. Aronowitz thinks the Working Families Party, currently a progressive auxiliary of the Democrats, could break from its moorings "as the Democrats drift more to the right." As cuts in federal funding and a sinking economy push the state budget gap toward $10 billion, as Pataki betrays his labor allies, as the city becomes a hellish hothouse with soaring asthma rates in the ghettos, and as the two parties fail to address these issues, a new alignment will be forged—or so Aronowitz believes. "These are just the seeds of a multiparty system," he says. "If the two big parties are to survive, they will have to make alliances on the left and right."

That's precisely what the national Republican Party has done. The Democrats have not—but with whom would they ally? The left is a congeries of often-warring tribes. Can these fractious groups become a force? Who knows? But as Leonard Cohen, the poet of democracy, sings, "There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in."

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