Of all the conferences I have attended, I have never been at another one like this. And yet a new version of this one after the election - regardless of who wins - could have a major impact on the country. If organizations representing blacks, women, latinos, labor, the environment, Greens and the Sanders crowd came together for a few days - instead of just working endlessly in their own niches - they could produce a platform for a decent and progressive America with a backing and clout unlike anything we have seen for decades.
Sam Smith - In 1995, as an active member
of the Green Politics Network, I joined a number of other Greens in
hosting a conference of third party activists. Over a hundred showed up,
ranging from one of the founders of the ancient American Labor Party to
Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers, and Democratic Socialists of
America. It was a recklessly dangerous idea for a Washington weekend,
but Green activists John Rensenbrink, Linda Martin and Tony Affigne
seemed to know what they were doing and I was happy to go along.
We established two basic rules:
- We would only discuss issues on which we might find some agreement.
- We would reach that agreement by consensus.
We broke the body into tables of ten or so, each dealing with a
different topic. All policies that were proposed were written on
newsprint posters. Then participants were given three color stick-on
dots with their names on them. Everyone then went up to the board and
placed their dots on their favorite issues (cumulative voting style, so
that all three dots could, if desired, be placed on one issue). After
the vote, those with only their dots on a particular issue were allowed
to move them to their second choice (a la instant run-off voting) and so on until a clear consensus of three issues emerged. This scheme not
only produced a consensus, but one that was physical and visual as well
as intellectual and was fun to watch.
When the various groups
produced their recommendations, they were turned over to what was known
as a "fishbowl negotiation." Each small group selected a representative
to negotiate for it with representatives of all the other tables. The
representatives sat in a circle with those they represented behind them.
Anyone could stop their representative and request a small group
conference but only the representative could speak in the larger
assembly. It worked remarkably well.
The small group that had
the most difficulty with such techniques was comprised mainly of
Marxists who had selected economics as their area of concern. We were,
one suggested, guilty of "parliamentary
cretinism," and the socialists resisted it firmly. One result,
ironically, was that the weakest section of the final statement was that
dealing with economics. On the other hand, the libertarians came to the
organizers at one point and offered to leave the meeting so a full
consensus could be maintained. We encouraged them to stick around,
changing our own rules to accept several levels of consensus.
Despite the wide range of views present, despite the near total absence
of Robert's Rules of Order, the final document, with full consensus,
called for nothing less than a major transformation. The group
unanimously agreed to support proportional representation, campaign
finance reform "to provide a level playing field in elections;"
initiative, referendum and recall; better ballot access; the end of
corporate welfare; strong environmental policies; sexual and
reproductive freedom; an end to the war on drugs and treatment of
addiction as a health matter rather than as a crime; a dramatic cut in
military expenditures; workplace democracy and the maximum empowerment
of people in their communities "consistent with fairness, social
responsibilities and human rights."
Not bad for a group ranging
from one of the founders of the ancient American Labor Party to Greens,
Libertarians, Perot backers and Democratic Socialists of America. It
shouldn't have worked at all, but because the rules we had used felt
fair to those present, it did. By ignoring topics of obvious
disagreement, we even surprised ourselves with the level of consensus.
We had also discovered the possibility of a political transformation,
of moving beyond left and right. We understood that these were different
times -- not the thirties, not the sixties -- times that required
different imaginations and different risks. We had reached out and had
found that we were not alone.