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
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
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
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
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.
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:
Use the consensus document to gain support and validation from our own
and unaligned affinity organizations (local and/or national).
document to help organize our communities to run local coalition (slate)
candidates or endorse announced candidates.
Organize petition groups to
qualify a presidential candidate (requires a party name but is allowable
in 38 states).
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
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%.
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
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.