United States: Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins: 'The two governing parties are presiding over a failed state'

Interview with Howie Hawkins

August 11, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from International Socialism — The Green Party, at a virtual convention completed on July 11, nominated the ticket of Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker to run in the U.S. presidential election in November. To find out more about the candidates and their platform, visit their campaign website at howiehawkins.us. Hawkins spoke with Lance Selfa on July 3.

We’re talking on a day when the U.S. set a record another 50,000 cases of the virus, and in the middle of this huge uprising for racial justice. Can you tell me how your campaign fits into all of that and what are the main issues you are running on?

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed to anyone who cares to look that the two governing parties in this country are presiding over a failed state. You know Trump gave up on COVID. He’s a loser, now he’s running around like Typhoid Mary, making his own people sick at these super-spreader rallies. And he’s losing support among his own people, he’s sinking like a rock in the polls.

But then, where the hell is Biden? I mean Biden is in commuter distance from the White House press corps. He could convene a press conference and beat the hell out of Trump for failing to set up a test, contact trace, and quarantine the infected program like every other organized society around the world has done to suppress the virus. It’s a total disaster and when you think that Joe Biden, what is he the champion of? What does he stand for? He’s basically invisible when he could also be beating Trump up on this mail-in ballot thing—it’s obvious voter suppression. How the hell are we going to have a credible election when it’s not clear that people can even get to vote?

Not just because they don’t have a mail-in ballot but because they don’t have enough polling workers to have enough polling places so people can go vote in person, which is maybe not good for public health. There’s a big vacuum, so I think that’s an opportunity for the independent left and our ticket to get a big vote and make some statements about the issues we’re talking about. The coronavirus test, trace, and quarantine program, protections for people’s income, housing, health care, jobs. [They’ve] done a little bit of those, but it’s a token.

I wonder if the Republicans aren’t trying to throw the election because they’re waiting until after the Fourth of July recess to even think about what the next relief package might be. The economy is plunging into a hole. That’s one emergency. And then with the uprising against police brutality and racism—the pandemic, that’s centuries old, of racism—is now something people of color have understood, but a lot of white people see it in living color on their TV screens, and they’re angry about it. They’re mad, they say that’s wrong. Plus, they’ve got their own grievances. A lot of them have lost their jobs, a lot of people are dying in this pandemic, the government’s not responding.

How do you respond to the demands that the racial justice movement has raised?

I think the crisis around COVID19 gave energy to those protests and, in that regard, Angela Walker and I have been saying that defunding the police is not enough because there’s not enough money in the police budgets to provide the services and resources racially oppressed communities that have suffered generations of segregation, discrimination, and exploitation need. So we’re [also] saying defund the military.

Let’s have a Marshall Plan for the cities, which is something the Urban League has talked about for decades. It’s part of our eco-socialist Green New Deal. For example, we want to build 25 million units of public housing over the next 10 years, so everyone has access to affordable housing.

We are also talking about community control of the police. Although the federal government can’t mandate that we can create citizen guidelines, but that’s crucial. Because we can make all these policy changes on police practices, but if we can’t enforce them . . . We’ve had a law against chokeholds in New York City since 1993. That didn’t help Eric Garner. It didn’t help another young man rendered unconscious by the police in Brooklyn recently. If the police “police” themselves, they can continue to commit crimes with impunity.

Not just murder but also this civil asset forfeiture. This is a racket for police departments, they get slush funds. I know in Chicago there’s a proposal for a Civilian Police Accountability Commission that is put forward in the city council. I guess it has 19 of the 25 people it needs and one of the Green candidates for congress is actually the guy who drafted it. And that’s the kind of thing we need to be pushing so that we have a commission publicly elected-—some people suggest it could even be randomly selected like juries—but representing the community with the power to hire and fire the police chief, to rid the forces of racists and sadists, to set the policies and practices, oversee the budget, negotiate union contracts that don’t give special protection to the police for misconduct, which most of them do, and to independently investigate and discipline police officers for misconduct. Then they work for us.

What we’ve got now is the police department that the power structure set up by politicians. In most cities their careers are financed by the real estate industry. That’s the money that greases these machines in the cities and their purpose is to keep “down-scale” people down, particularly Black people, and out of upscale communities. Eighty-five percent of what they do is harassing people for noncriminal behavior or very low-level offenses. A very small portion of policing deals with violent crime or felony property crimes. And even there, they only clear 25 percent of the crimes with arrests. And 60 percent of people who are victims of those crimes don’t even report them. They don’t trust the police.

In the Black community, if they are the victim or witness to the scene of a crime, they might get charged. So the police can’t even do what they’re supposed to do. So that’s the second issue. They’re life or death issues.

What are the main issues your campaign is raising?

From the beginning we campaigned around three life-or-death issues: The climate meltdown, that’s where our eco-socialist Green New Deal comes in, using public enterprise and planning particularly in the energy, transportation, and manufacturing sectors, to rebuild all our productive systems, to go for zero to negative greenhouse gas emissions, and to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2030. I was the first to campaign for a Green New Deal in 2010, running for governor of New York.

As part of our Green New Deal, we’ve always had an economic bill of rights in there, which addresses the second life-or-death issue: economic inequality. Inequality kills. After 50 years of stagnant wages and growing economic inequality, working class life expectancy is in decline. You know, FDR came up with the idea. The civil rights movement expanded it to include a guaranteed income and implementing it without racial discrimination, a job guarantee, guaranteed income above poverty, affordable housing, Medicare for All, lifelong tuition-free public education from pre-K to college and trade school. And a secure retirement, where we want to double Social Security benefits.

And finally, and this is the issue that nobody is talking about except former Democratic candidate and U.S. senator Mike Gravel, is this new nuclear arms race. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has its “Doomsday Clock” the closest they’ve every had it to midnight. The last nuclear arms treaty, a bilateral one between the U.S. and Russia, expires next February 5. The U.S. has gotten out of a whole bunch of treaties. It has started modernizing its nuclear forces. The Russians, Chinese, and Indians have all followed suit. So we’re in a very scary situation. We’re saying that we need peace initiatives. Like cut the military budget 75 percent. Get our troops out of these endless wars. Pledge not to be first to use nuclear weapons. Disarm to a minimum credible deterrent and then go to the other nuclear powers and say, we’re ready and we want complete and mutual nuclear disarmament. And go there with the 122 non-nuclear nations that agreed to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons three years ago. The anniversary is July 7. They’re life or death issues, there’s a lot of issues, but that’s enough. And most of the things we’re talking about have majoritarian support.

Like Medicare for All. Polls have shown the popularity of national health care since Truman. What Bernie Sanders did was to give voice to that. Whereas Democrats for decades have been gutless about that, they’re afraid. But Bernie gave a lot of voice to it and got a lot of support.

The Green Party describes its policies as eco-socialist. How do you define that?

We draw a contrast to Sanders, who was really just talking about old-fashioned liberalism, New Deal liberalism, where you tax the billionaire class to fund your social programs. The problem with that is that concentrated economic power remains and translates into concentrated political power. And your social programs, if you get them, are always in jeopardy. Because the billionaires can fight them and roll them back. We’re talking about the traditional socialist program of social ownership and democratic administration of the major means of production, so we have an economic democracy. That’s a prerequisite for a political democracy.

Now we say eco-socialism, or ecological socialism, because that’s to contrast with a lot of the socialism of the 20th century, which was a lot about increasing the forces of production, solving the scarcity problem. We’re plenty productive now, that’s not the problem. The problem is how do we produce the basic needs of everybody within ecological limits. There we’re talking about disconnecting the capitalist dynamic of boundless growth driven by competition and having a largely planned economy of the major sectors that makes sure that everyone gets their basic needs but do so in a way that respects ecosystems—so that it’s sustainable.

You’re also a longtime socialist who has been committed to independent political action, distinct from the two corporate parties. But a lot of socialists today think they can run in the Democratic Party. What would you say about that?

Well I think they need to learn from the career of Bernie Sanders. He helped flaunt it, particularly these young folks got behind him, and he lost when he ran as a Democrat. The Democratic establishment cut him off in various ways. When he ran as an independent, he got elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and then to the Congress as an independent and then to the Senate as an independent. The argument is that we can’t win [running] as independents, so we have to run as Democrats. No you don’t! The best-kept secret in America politics is there are 129 Green elected officials and that’s as much as any party on the left. You’d have to go back to the heyday of the Socialist Party. And that’s the good news. The bad news is there are 500,000 elected offices in this country.

So the left and the Green Party should be electing thousands as we go into the 2020s. The way we’re going to build our power is from the bottom up. We’re going to win those local races and once you have people on the left and Green Party people who are in local office and doing a good job, then they are credible for state and congressional candidates for the House. [Voters] will say sure they can win, we already elected them and we’ve seen them and we know what they do.

One of the major goals of my campaign is to get more ballot lines for the Green Party. This country is off the charts for the difficulty to get on the ballot. The best comparison is for the national legislatures. If you want to run as an independent in this country you have to get thousands of signatures. In Illinois, it’s over 15,000 signatures. In Georgia, it’s over 20,000. Even in New York it’s 3,500. Whereas if we have the Green ballot line in my district, it’s about 100 signatures. Otherwise, we have to get about 7,000, and it’s a big job. In New Zealand if you want to run for their parliament as an independent, you need two signatures. Want to run for the House of Commons in the U.K.? 10 signatures. Australia, 50, Canada, it’s 50 or 100. The rural ridings are lower because it’s spread out. The highest I’ve found is Germany, it’s 200 signatures. And we’re in the thousands!

So getting on the ballot makes it much easier for those of us on the left to run independent candidacies without spending most of your campaign just to get on the ballot. Once you submit your petitions, the Democrats challenge you in most states. The laws vary state by state, but they can challenge, and our experience in New York is that they make frivolous challenges. You turn the signatures in late August and then whether you get on the ballot or not ends up in court, and it’s like early October when that’s resolved. Meanwhile, the Democrats say, you can’t be in the debates, you’re off the ballot. They’ll go to the TV stations and say the Greens can’t be in the debate because they’re not on the ballot.

I’ve always said you have to build the Green Party from the bottom up, and people say “why the hell are you running for president?” Well, ballot lines, that’s one reason. Also to move the debate. We want to advance our programs. The nuclear arms race should be a top campaign issue, and it’s not even being discussed. The international campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons gets the Nobel Peace Prize for the 122 nations signing on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Hardly anybody in this country even knows that. It’s just off the radar. And here we are with this thing hanging over our head and we’re oblivious to it. It’s a tribute to how dysfunctional our political system is.

What would you say about the relation between what’s broadly called the anti-capitalist left and elections?

We need a part of the left to be part of that [elections]. I come out of the New Left and we had criticisms of the Old Left: that they were slow on feminism, ecology, didn’t give racism the proper emphasis, sometimes making it an epiphenomenon of class exploitation. So we had good criticisms there. But I think we got overly impressed with what we got accomplished with the civil rights and antiwar movement in the streets. And we threw the baby out with the bathwater. We forgot that we needed to organize mass organizations that the people we are working with need local organizations where they can talk to each other and develop themselves. We need to be smart, so we have to have discussions, reading groups, political education. Instead we just mobilized for the demonstrations.

So that fit right into the nonprofit industrial complex, where you have staff who are paid to organize political activity. You trace it back funding for NGOs and there’s billionaires behind them on the left and as well as the right. And we’re just sitting online waiting for Move On or whoever to tell us what the next move is. And that’s been decided, not by us, but by the staff that was hired. So it’s very top down and undemocratic.

So people show up to a demonstration and then go home and get back online and maybe chat about it a little and read the messages they get. We need to have organization. You know we’re saying if we ‘re going to have a mass party of the left, we’ve got to organize people. The biggest bucket of votes is not people leaving the Democratic Party. It’s the people that don’t vote. One hundred million of them in 2016, disproportionately working class, which is disproportionally people of color, and young. That’s the future of an independent left. These people are alienated, they don’t trust either party—they don’t even trust the left.

We come out there like preachers with our “here’s our answer,” “here’s our leaflet,” “join us.” And they’re like: Who the hell are you? Instead of preaching, we have to go out like good organizers do, in a union or in the community, and listen. And learn and build relationships and friendships and then eventually organizations. So that fights come up they say, “we know these people.” They know us personally. They know us in the community. And what an independent party of the left can do also is bring the different movements, different constituencies together for a common program.

Now, with this mobilization around different single issues, the different issues and constituencies are competing for attention, for bodies, for money, and news coverage. They end up in competition when they should be allies. So to me that’s all the reason why we need a mass independent party on the left.

It’s been the missing ingredient in left politics; you can trace it back to the 1930s, with Popular Front, a lot of people went into the Democratic Party and never came back out. I like to say, “You go into the Democratic Party, you get lost in the sauce.” If you vote for Biden, and you’re a Sanders supporter, they don’t know you’re for Medicare for All, or a full-strength Green New Deal, or tuition-free public college. You voted for Biden. You just disappeared yourself, you lost your voice. You vote for the Green Party, it’s clear what we stand for, and that will be registered in the results.

The more votes we get the more leverage we have. I got 5 percent running for governor of New York in 2014, and except two socialist party candidates that got half a percentage more in 1918 and 1920, we have a third-party history going back to the Liberty Party, and the Workingmen’s Party, 1830s and 1840s, that’s the most we ever got running for governor. And Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo had wanted to run up the vote, he wanted to get ready to run for governor, and he wanted to beat what his daddy Mario Cuomo got. Instead, he got less. And he’d been a fiscal hawk, branding himself the “real Tea Party” in 2010. He’s still a fiscal hawk, but he’s relabeled himself the “pragmatic progressive,” and he picked up some of our demands, like a ban on fracking. We got $15.00 an hour minimum wage, we got paid family leave. And he made gestures toward tuition-free college . . . He couldn’t take us for granted, he had to compete for that 5 percent. So you don’t have to win the office to move the debate.

There’s also a debate on the left from people from Noam Chomsky to Bhaskar Sunkara supporting what you might call a “safe state” strategy for voting in November. That is, for people on the left, to vote for you in states where Biden or Trump are overwhelmingly favored, and vote for Biden in states where it’s close. What’s your perspective on that?

We like to say every state for the Green Party is a battleground state. There are no safe states. If you’re against fracking in Pennsylvania, and Ohio, the Democratic Party are worthless. Even the elected officials who supported Bernie Sanders won’t touch that issue.

In any city where you are fighting for affordable housing, the Democratic machine is in with the real estate industry. And that’s how we get Greens. The Green Party isn’t the best-organized organization. But we are constantly replenished by really pissed off Democrats. People who got really involved in an issue and found out the Democrats are on the other side. The Iraq War is another one, we got an influx of people because they realized the Democratic Party was not the party of peace.

The Enbridge Line 5, the pipeline in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, bringing tar sands oil from Alberta, and fracked oil from the Bakaan fields in North Dakota, the company wants to expand it now across three more battleground states (Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan). The Democrats are scared of that issue.

I was invited to a weekend-long demonstration against Enbridge Line 5 organized by Native people up there. And I happened to run into the Anishinaabe Democratic Party Caucus leader outside the Democratic Party debate in Detroit at the “Make Detroit the Engine of the New Green Deal” protest. She said you’ve got to come up there to put some pressure on these Democrats that she can’t get any traction with.

That’s why we need to fight in every state. Those battleground state Greens don’t want us to stand down. They want us to fight for their candidates down ballot, for their ballot line, for their ballot access going forward. . . . Peter Dreier actually wrote in The Nation to scold Bhaskar Sunkara because Bhaskar said “I’m voting for Howie in New York.” And Dreier said, “Only privileged people can do that.” And our answer to that only privileged people can think that electing Joe Biden will change things for them. I mean Dreier will be good because he’s a professor down in Los Angeles, but we talk about the economic bill of rights because inequality has been growing for 50 years and it’s killing people. Working-class life expectancy is on decline. We now have 21-year life expectancy gap between our richest and poorest counties. And that gap has been growing since 1980. Working-class people don’t have the privilege of saying Biden is going to be okay, because Biden has nothing for them.

That’s another thing I would tell these people: get out here and see what’s really going on. I hate Trump as much as anybody, he’s killing us. But Biden, look at his record. He was crusader against busing for integration. And it wasn’t the busing he was upset about. It was the integration. They called themselves “neoliberal” back then, you know the people [i.e., Democrats] who lined up with the Reagan people to have these top end tax cuts. Biden was very much behind that. He was one of the original members the Democratic Leadership Council, which Jesse Jackson aptly named “Democrats for the Leisure Class.” And then he became head of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate, and shepherded through Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and wrote the legislative architecture of mass incarceration and the war on drugs in that period.

And as his last act as a senator he was the head of the Foreign Relations Committee and rallied the Democrats behind Bush’s war in Iraq. To say we’re privileged if we won’t vote for that? It’s absurd!

Let’s deal with the realities we’re facing. We’re in trouble. And like I said at the beginning, the two governing parties, including the Democrats, as incompetent as Trump is, are presiding over a failed state. They can’t solve basic problems. I’m hoping people see that and we get a big vote and move some of these demands forward.

In that context, what’s your takeaway from the Sanders campaign, or impact of figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

Well I think both cases show that people go into the Democratic Party to change it and get changed by the Democratic Party. Justice Democrats helped AOC get elected, but in this election year, last I heard she’s only supporting two of the eight congressional candidates endorsed by the Justice Democrats—the two running against very conservative Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been telling political operatives and candidates, “If you don’t support our incumbents, you’re blacklisted, you’re not going to get business if you’re an operative, you’re not going to get support if you’re a candidate.” AOC seems to have adapted to that. We could go through a lot of things that she’s done.

In terms of Bernie, he’s adapted to the situation as well. I think he wants to be a player in his last four years as senator, at least the next four years, so he’s got to play ball. He’s supporting Biden, and making compromises even on his signature issue, Medicare for All. He went on MSNBC with Ali Velshi and the segment was headlined “He’s Willing to Compromise.” Now Medicare for All is for those aged 55 and up, and for the children. But up until you’re 55, you’ve got to go out on the market, or your employer to get your health insurance. I was screaming at the TV during the Democratic primaries when Sanders and Warren were being attacked by all these other candidates for the cost of Medicare for All. The damn public option costs more! I just kept saying “Tell ‘em that! Explain that!” Now Bernie’s for the public option. That’s what happens. After the primaries, if you want to be a player, and not be blacklisted, you have to get behind the corporate Democrat, if they won the primary. Then you end up contradicting your own platform that you ran for in the primaries.

After Bush’s selection by the Supreme Court in 2000 and the backlash against Nader, people who were marginally committed to independent politics and afraid of Trump, they went back to the Democratic Party, into the Sanders campaign. A lot did that. Some have not come back to us. Some have. And there’s a lot of people in the Sanders campaign who have come to us. It’s like the late Bruce Dixon, former Black Panther and co-founder and editor of Black Agenda Report, used to say, these progressives in the Democratic Party are like sheepdogs. They herd progressives back into the Democratic Party. They make it look better than it really is. I think the Establishment loves their progressives. I wish I could remember who said this, but I’ve quoting this from memory, “the progressives make speeches, but it’s the corporate wing that makes decisions.”

The movement for racial justice that touched off after the murder of George Floyd seems to be something of an inflection point for the left and for the struggle. How do you see it?

I think there’s reason for optimism because this is the first time I’ve seen white people come out with Black people and all kinds of people come out and say this racial injustice, this police brutality, has to stop. We had after Bull Connor and the hoses and the dogs in the civil rights movement, there was a lot of public sentiment, but not this kind of mass participation saying this has got to stop. Now the question is, how does it go forward? You can’t keep the kind of energy that we had there for month going. How will it be channeled politically? I’m concerned the focus now in the cities is on strengthening citizen review boards, which don’t have the kind of community control I’m talking about, and getting reforms like no chokeholds, maybe a little more transparency in discipline. But the police are still self-policing.

Those police union contracts still have those shields. A lot of state laws, if you do challenge it, it ends up in arbitration and arbitrators tend to go with precedent, which is with the unions. I think at the local level, community control needs to be uplifted, and then the defunding the police. But we’ve got to realize its only token money. Obviously instead of charging a homeless person with vagrancy we should be buying them a home. And a drug addict, instead of charging them with drug possession should have access to drug treatment. For someone having a mental health crisis you don’t want to send an armed, clueless cop. You want to send a psychologist, someone who knows how to deal with that crisis.

But even after you transfer all that money, it’s still not going to make up for all that impoverishment that was systematic in these communities, and deliver the kind of services people need, from school to housing to healthcare. I wish to see the movement escalate: let’s defund the military and invest in our racially oppressed communities and bring them back up. I’m surprised that reparations for African Americans demand hasn’t gotten a higher profile. Which, to me, is an obvious demand. People opposed to reparations say, well, I’ve got nothing to do with slavery. How about how African Americans losing their housing wealth during the Obama administration in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Between predatory lending and foreclosures and robo-signing, those homes were stolen. How about reparations for that? To me, that’s another reason the left that thinks we need to vote for Democrats to fight the Right is wrong. The Obama administration did not bring criminal charges against these corporate criminals that were stealing homes. And now they’re in the Trump administration—Steve Mnuchin of One West, a big predatory lender and foreclosure machine and had some role in the robo-signing. And Wilbur Ross, he owned all these mortgage servicing companies. He was right in the middle of the robo-signing. And they are free and clear, corporate criminals running the economy for the Trump administration.

And what about the Democrats? Early in the second Obama administration, the Wall Street Journal asked Attorney General Eric Holder why they didn’t go after them and he told them they were “too big to jail.” So we can’t rely on the Democrats to fight the hard Right.

Any final thoughts?

Well, definitely, I want to get 1 million votes for socialism in this election. Eugene Debs came close twice. The last time 100 years ago, 1920, I think in 2020 we’ll get 1 million votes for socialism. And I hope several million. And that will mean something. It will say to this new socialist movement, we can vote for socialism and show that there are a lot of us. And we can build upon that. We want a million votes for socialism, we want to get more ballot lines. In 40 of the 50 states, the presidential outcome, the vote, determines if we get a ballot line going forward. It ranges from half a percent in New Mexico to 20 percent in Alabama, which is tough, but in most states, it’s 1, 2 or 3 percent. That’s achievable. The most we’ve ever gotten was 2.7 percent. That was Ralph Nader in 2000. If we can do better than that, that would be a big statement.

We reach 5 percent, we’ll get double-digit millions for our general election campaign in 2024 from this Federal Election Commission fund that the capitalist parties don’t use anymore because it’s only $100 million, and that’s not enough for them. The last one to use it was McCain. Obama was the first major party candidate to refuse it. He said, “I don’t need it, I’m going to get a more private money.” So that would be a benchmark that would be one of those use-it-or-lose-it things because there are movements in Congress to get rid of that funding. We’re going to be the only campaign in the country in any party to qualify for federal primary matching funds.

HR-1 [a bill passed in the House and stalled in the Senate] has a lot of good things in terms of voting rights and democratic rights, but it increases the qualifications for matching funds from $5,000 raised in 20 states in contributions of $250 or less, to $25,000 in 20 states. We’re struggling to get the $5,000. But once Bernie suspended his campaign, and then when he endorsed Biden, we started getting bumps in funding. Took a year to get the first $100,000, and it took 4 months to get the second $100,000. Bernie had over 1.5 million unique contributors and raised over $100 million. That’s how the left can fund itself, another thing Bernie demonstrated is that a lot of regular folks giving small contributions and that’s enough to challenge the capitalists.