Third Parties '96: Building the New Mainstream

by John Rensenbrink, planning team member

Third Parties '96: Building the New Mainstream was held June 1-4, 1995 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.. The conference generated a Common Ground Declaration and it agreed to use the Declaration as a basis or starting point for third party alliances and presidential political organizing for 1996 and beyond. If the energy generated by the conference continues to build, as seems to be happening, we will soon be hearing about another Third Parties '96 conference later this year, a Round Two in a mounting drive that will catapult a genuine independent political alternative into national attention in 1996.

Preparing the Ground

Three conferences led up to Third Parties '96. The first was in Kansas City in March 1992, sponsored by the newly formed Green Politics Network (GPN). Called the Third Force conference, participants included leaders of the New Party, Campaign for a New Tomorrow, the National Committee for an Independent Politics, as well as various state Green parties.

The second conference, "Doing It the Grassroots Way," took place at Bowdoin College in Maine, in February 1993. Coordinated by John Rensenbrink of the Maine Green Party and GPN, it featured candidates in the 1992 elections, most of them Greens from across the country. And in June 1994, Rensenbrink was joined by Tony Affigne of the Rhode Island Greens, Linda Martin of the Virginia Greens, Hank Chapot of the California Greens and by Sue Wall and Dan Cantor of the New Party in sponsoring and organizing a third conference, "New Politics '94: Nuts and Bolts for State and Local Victory." Held in Oakland and coordinated by Hank Chapot, the conference got experts in campaign finance reform, proportional representation, and ballot access problems together with candidates, office holders and leaders of Green parties, New Party, Labor Party Advocates, Patriot Party, and Peace and Freedom Party.

The Next Step: Finding Common Ground

The above three conferences were strong on networking, dialog and information sharing among people from different parties and socio-political milieus. Though there was considerable talk about cooperation across third party lines and the need to think about overall strategy for a gradually increasing momentum in the future, the conferences almost consciously held back from making definite plans of cross-party coordination, fearing premature moves.

Yet the experience gained from these conferences by their organizers, the addition of Sam Smith of Washington D.C.'s Progressive Review to the planning group of Affigne, Chapot, Martin and Rensenbrink, and the increasingly compelling need of third parties to talk and act together in the face of the Republican and Democratic swing to the right -- all these combined together to create Third Parties '96. With Linda Martin in the lead as coordinator, Third Parties '96 frankly aimed to produce a common statement of principles as a basis for action, and, to accomplish this, brought together representatives from 27 independent political parties and associations and from 17 action organizations. They are listed elsewhere in the general report.

The planners faced a daunting challenge. They had to find and implement a weekend program that would take 100 people who for the most part were strangers coming from a great variety of political cultures and viewpoints, and help them work together to produce a document they could all approve and feel good about.

This actually happened. A Common Ground Declaration evolved over a period of four days. Seventeen statements were forged that received unanimous agreement. They were spread over 8 issue areas: political democracy, wealth and income, workplace democracy, human rights, sustainability, non-discrimination, community and international issues. Many other statements also received varying degrees of agreement, ranging in most cases from near consensus to 80% and on down to at least 60%. In addition to the Declaration, several options for action based on the Declaration were also agreed to.

Two-Part Structure for the Weekend

Early in their planning, the organizing team decided to devote the first part of the conference to information sharing and to formal and informal discussion on themes of independent politics and coalition building. They also saw this first part as an opportunity for the participants to get to know each other in a non-decision making atmosphere. As it turned out, this part went from Thursday evening to mid-morning on Saturday. It provided a valuable, perhaps indispensable, basis for the hard work of the second part (mid-morning Saturday to late afternoon on Sunday) devoted to actually seeking and crafting the Declaration and agreeing on next steps.

C-SPAN Carries Friday Morning Program

The conference opened with a reception on Thursday evening, June 1st, at Andy Shallal's Luna Books on P Street just a few blocks from Dupont Circle in Washington. About 40 people attended. On Friday morning, the conference began in earnest at 9:00, about 100 people in attendance, with a panel hosted by Larry Bensky of Pacifica Radio featuring four speakers on themes of an independent politics: Jonathan Carter, Green candidate for governor of Maine in 1994; Sam Smith of the Progressive Review, Linda Martin, the conference coordinator, and Rev. Graylan Ellis-Hagler, senior minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in D.C. Their four short presentations were followed by open mike discussion with the participants.

Both this session and the one that followed were carried live by C-Span to all parts of the country. It was replayed several times during the weekend. Hundreds of thousands of viewers were introduced to Third Parties '96. Linda Martin's phone in Virginia took scores of calls. And, for example, the Green Party office in Augusta, Maine received calls not only from Maine but from as far away as California.

Tony Affigne conducted the second morning session with a rousing presentation of the sponsors and a timely discourse on the great diversity and internal coalition building among the Latina and Latino populations of the United States. He offered their experience as an inspiration and model for the participants of Third Parties '96.

Talking Points Questionnaire

Several times during the morning sessions, the organizers urged the participants to fill out a questionnaire entitled Talking Points. The intent was to get a preliminary "feel" of where the group was "at" with respect to 64 statements of policy/principle grouped under 7 issue areas. These had been drawn from a variety of sources before the conference. It had been put together by Stefan Patejak, a member of Linda Martin's on-site team. The participants were also asked to add items. By early afternoon, over 70 had been returned. The original questionnaire was then revised, an eighth issue area was added, as were the additional items submitted by the participants. The number of people who gave priority to each original item was also tabulated. The work was done by Paul Gagnon of George Mason University and his wife, Johna Gagnon. They played a vital role in the conference, especially on Saturday and Sunday, as the lead facilitators. They worked in tandem with a logistics team of Brian Smith, Jon Kunz and Pam Murphy; and with Larry Bassett, Dave Richardson, Chris Holder, Scott MacLarty and Stefan Patejak. The team had been recruited by Linda Martin and provided the essential logistical and administrative support to the conference without which it could not have happened.

Six Workshops and a Panel on Political Coalition Building

On Friday afternoon, three sets, of two workshops each, discussed campaign finance reform (Ellen Miller of the Center for Responsive Politics), constitutional brakes on big money in politics (John Bonifaz, founder-director of the Boston based National Voting Rights Institute), proportional representation (Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy), ballot access (Richard Winger of Ballot Access News), media matters (Larry Bensky of Pacifica Radio), and economic policy in relation to grassroots political organizing (Greg Gerritt of the Maine Green Party), Ruth Caplan (coordinator of the Economics Working Group), and David Richardson of Democratic Socialists of America).

After dinner, the participants gathered to hear a panel on political coalition building chaired by John Rensenbrink. Seven speakers made short presentations followed by extensive open mike discussion. The seven were Dan Cantor, New Party; Bruce Weiner, Virginia Patriot Party; Jo Haberman, Minnesota Green Party; Sam Jordan, D.C. Statehood Party; Richard Sincere, Libertarian Party; Nicole Christine Newton, University Conversion Project; and Andrew Hammer, Socialist Party. Rensenbrink asked the panel to ponder if there were a standout issue (a "paradigm issue") which met two criteria: that it would build unity among the various third parties and that it would have resonance with the generality of voters. This sparked a debate. Most settled on campaign finance reform as a likely issue of that kind.

The New Zealand Model

On Saturday morning, Hank Chapot and Peter Camejo roused the participants with a description/analysis of the founding of the New Zealand Alliance out of four small third parties, including an offshoot of the Labor Party and the Green Party. The manner of its coming together, the fact that it pushed successfully for proportional representation in a winner-take-all culture and system, and that it bids fair to win the next election -- all of these were much food for thought for the participants. It was an inspiration to them to now get on with their work of seeking and creating a Declaration of Common Ground of their own.

Paul Gagnon as lead facilitator then sketched the plan for the meetings of small and large groups for achieving this goal and introduced the trained facilitators he had recruited for the task of guiding the small group discussions. Both he and they volunteered their services pro bono. The plan, with built-in provision for course correction, had been worked out the previous Tuesday by Gagnon and Rensenbrink.

Several guiding principles went into the planning. Such as: That how you get to something and what you get to are very, very closely linked. That it's important to provide a variety of ways for participants to meet, talk, and interact; no one method suffices. That strong facilitation by seasoned and trained facilitators is a must and they must operate within the assumptions of maximum opportunity for participants to engage in discussing and negotiating. And, that the participants are encouraged to seek and find what they do agree on and to keep in the background what they disagree on. But also, since we live in a culture of negativity and, besides which, since negatives are often helpful in bringing out greater agreement, the facilitators had to be sensitive to disagreement and not override or foreclose its potential.

Phase One: Roundtable on 8 Issue Areas

The discussions proceeded in three phases. In the first phase, 8 Roundtables met, each with a facilitator, and each addressing one of the 8 issue areas. Participants could attend any of the 8 of their choice, though members of different parties or political tendencies were encouraged to distribute themselves evenly among the 8 roundtables. This happened, and it also turned out that an approximately equal number of people composed each of the Roundtables. Six had between 9 and 11, though one had 5 and the other 7. The conference had the use of the ballroom of the Marvin Center of GWU, a large space that could accommodate all of the Roundtables. This proved a vital advantage in the proceedings, for it provided a good territory for each Roundtable and yet also permitted easy interaction and access among the Tables on an as-need basis.

The Roundtables took the items from the Talking Points Questionnaire and identified those they approved -- adding, subtracting and revising as they went along. Just before lunch, reporting began but could not be completed consistent with the felt need for food. The lists were rather long. And, though the spirit in each Roundtable was high, the groups had not prioritized (nor had they been told to), and one, Wealth and Income, was unable, according to its reporter, to come to agreement on any specific item. At lunch, Gagnon and Rensenbrink, and the facilitators did some course correction. It was decided to ask the Roundtables to name their three top issue-statements. This was done with dispatch. The Wealth and Income Roundtable gave it another chance and came up with several statements. Some of the Roundtables came up with four or five, not three, but "the management" rolled with it.

Phase Two: 5 Groups Take Up The Priority Items Generalized in Phase One

In the second phase, starting mid-afternoon on Saturday, the task changed and different groups were formed. Five groups, chosen at random, met to seek and reach what agreement they could on all of the priority items generated by all the Roundtables in phase one. Each group was asked to name one of their members and an alternate to represent them in the next phase. This phase turned out to be perhaps the smoothest part of the entire process. Still, one group was rushed at the end, time was a-fleeting, and one group, though they met later, never did quite finish. But the mood of accomplishment was very strong. Things were simmering up to the ultimate denouement: would the conference come up with truly agreed upon principles/policies? Indications were that they would, but no one knew how many.

Phase Three: The "Fishbowl"

The third phase, starting late Saturday afternoon, turned out to be the most challenging and the most demanding of the participants, the lead facilitator Paul Gagnon, and of the event's organizers, especially John Rensenbrink who acted as a kind of general backstop (or buckstop!), though he also sought to participate in the group discussions.

Five persons, each a representative of his or her group, sat around a table with Paul Gagnon. Directly behind them sat their alternates and the members of their groups. The five had priority of speaking, facilitated by Gagnon, though occasionally a member of a group could get permission to speak. At any point, the group's representative could consult with members of his or her group or vice versa. This happened a lot.

Criticism and Doubts About the Process

At first, progress was slow as the "fishbowl" took up, one after the other, the priority items in each of the eight issue-areas. It took some time and getting-used-to by the participants, many of whom had never experienced anything like this before. By early evening Saturday, only three principles/policies had gained unanimous agreement. On Sunday morning, things began briskly but soon bogged down. New people had arrived and had to be brought up to speed. The participants were still trying to get the hang of it. And some had opted out of the process and were either watching it critically or had gone into the adjoining hall and patio to hang out, take a breather, or express their doubts. Some of the doubts were about the role of Paul Gagnon who was perceived by some as either too directive or as overly concerned that everyone had abundant opportunity to register disagreement on an item before declaring that consensus had been reached. This criticism tied into a disbelief by some in the consensus process itself. Words like "the tyranny of structurelessness" was heard in the halls to describe what was going on. Rensenbrink regularly toured the perimeters of the fishbowls and the halls to listen and monitor the critiques and dissatisfaction and at times made suggestions to Gagnon and/or the participants as a whole.

Momentum is Reached

Things improved and began to go better and better. Often there was agreement on the concept, but finding the right words proved a stumbling block. With experience, the participants stopped getting impatient at not finding the right formulation but accepted that this was a truly critical part of coming to agreement. Sometimes, three or four participants who disagreed would go outside the group as a whole to work out the wording. This proved successful. More members of the five groups, in addition to their chosen representative and alternate, began sitting in the hot seat; each group grew more adept at conferring among themselves, and began to have more and more fun doing it. Consensus was being reached on more items than people initially thought possible. At times the discussions among the members of the five groups reached a depth of insight and balance on a given issue, among people across the spectrum of parties and political tendencies, that was truly remarkable. This was especially noticed with regard to the issue-area of Communities. The resulting formulation could not capture the richness of the discussion.

Though the new-fangled words of consensus and fishbowls constituted the language of the participants, yet what was going on in the room was a great deal of old-fashioned negotiation and renegotiation leading to agreement and the acknowledgement of disagreement, and dealing with that. It was like making deals, but not in the backroom. It was all out in the open.

By mid-afternoon on Sunday, 17 principles/policies had been unanimously agreed to. Many others had received super-majorities of either 80% or 60%. All are listed elsewhere in the general report.

Action Plan

There followed two more sessions. The first was the presentation of an action plan by Linda Martin. She identified a series of options for action in the forthcoming election season through November 1996. These were accepted after brisk discussion. They are:
  1. Use the consensus document to gain support and validation from our own and unaligned affinity organizations (local and/or national).
  2. Use the document to help organize our communities to run local coalition (slate) candidates or endorse announced candidates.
  3. Organize petition groups to qualify a presidential candidate (requires a party name but is allowable in 38 states).
  4. Join an exploratory committee to research potential presidential candidates amenable to running on an alliance platform -- also a shadow cabinet slate of candidates who would be willing to join the national campaign, with members who are representative of the various parties/movements.
  5. Do nothing. Wait until Round 2 to make a decision.

A Last Fling at Voting

The second "last thing" was an assembly session in which participants got a chance to bring to the floor items which had not gotten consensus or had not made the earlier priority lists. All together 24 such items were voted on and got anywhere from virtually full consensus down to 50%.

Looking Ahead

Participation in the conference was broader and more varied than we could have imagined possible. Our careful planning and execution paid off. The people who came were inspired by a felt need to do something, and to do it together.

Among the things to remember for next time is a point pushed by the Queer Caucus, who did meet but justifiably felt pressured for time. We needed to set aside a better and well-structured time for caucuses to meet. We also need to work even harder to create rapport with organizations of people of color dedicated to strong and independent politics; and we need to add more members of their persuasions into the planning group.

What we accomplished by the conference can be, and I think will be, a springboard for a more and more effective coming together of hitherto separate tendencies and forces. An alternative party with vision and clout, a party of hope that can contest for power and legitimacy with the Democrats and Republicans, is in the making.

The Declaration of Common Ground is an open document, inviting more participation, expansion and deepening. We'll be meeting again to further the evolution. The people of America have long been denied a voice that speaks for their need and aspiration for democracy, for social justice, for community and for a strong economy based securely on ecological principles. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To this end we proceed and persevere.

Back to TP'96 The CGD Boulder Addendum Agenda for Round Two Register for Round Two