Incoherence animates the Green Party’s budding Senate campaign in North Carolina. The thicket of confusion and contradiction in which the party finds itself stems from its refusal to forthrightly confront two questions — one empirical and the other moral — while forgetting it’s now engaged in the practical work of electoral politics, not the performative gestures of the protest line.
Political parties can gain access to the ballot in North Carolina by, among other methods, submitting signatures of registered voters in an amount equal to 0.25% of the total votes cast in the prior gubernatorial race (with the caveat that there be at least 200 signatories from at least three congressional districts).
In an effort to get on the 2022 ballot, the leftist Green Party earlier this year submitted more than 22,000 signatures to county boards of election, which validated around 16,000 of them.
Based on the 2020 vote tally, state law required 13,865 signatures to get on the ballot, and, by surpassing the statutory threshold, the Greens appeared to be eligible for recognition as a political party in North Carolina.
But in a transparently partisan bid to sideline a perceived competitor, the Democratic-controlled State Board of Elections voted 3-2 in late June to reject the party’s application. (The Board’s two Republicans voted to recognize the Greens.)
The ostensible grounds for the Board’s decision included suspicions of fraud in the collection of signatures — with wishful thinking taking the place of reliable evidence in the Board’s decision-making. (These self-serving arguments by Democrats echo the allegations of voter fraud and stolen elections that have been emanating from the recently raided halls of Mar-a-Lago since the 2020 presidential election. And just like Donald Trump’s baseless accusations of a stolen election, Democrats’ vague allegations of fraud reflect a shameful willingness to undermine our political system for the sake of perceived partisan gain.)
In mid-July, the Greens sued the Board for improperly keeping them off the ballot.
Matthew Hoh, the Green Party’s candidate for Senate, told the Associated Press, “We are fighting for our democracy against this corrupt, lawless and partisan decision by the State Board of Elections. This case will determine whether the political establishment can abuse its power to stop another party from participating in elections.”
In the wake of the federal lawsuit, the Board reversed itself in early August and voted to recognize the Green Party. This decision left unanswered the question of whether Green candidates would appear on this year’s ballot because the Board’s dithering meant the party wasn’t recognized until after the July 1 deadline to submit nominees.
Then, just days later, U.S. District Judge James C. Devers III ordered the Board to place Green Party candidates on this year’s ballot.
Hoh told WRAL, “North Carolina voters will now have an option to vote for a Senate candidate who represents working families. Issues that would have otherwise been ignored by the corporate backed candidates, such as healthcare for all, student and medical debt relief, affordable housing, true living wages, a Green New Deal and an end to the war on drugs, will now have a voice and a representative in this year’s U.S. Senate election.”
Mere ballot access — without an accompanying mass movement from which people can emerge to make effective use of their ballots — qualifies as a great moral good, according to Hoh. “Greater voter choice,” as one Green put it, ceases to be a mere means and becomes a most high end, a perspective that fetishizes choice and embodies the sort of consumerist ethos seemingly anathema to the Greens — but which the party has decided to celebrate because, compared to doing the hard work of building a mass movement, getting on the ballot is easy.
Having achieved the only measurable, practical goal he could have reasonably set for himself — allowing his name to be printed on the pieces of paper voters will contemplate in November — Hoh can’t decide whether he wants to be a political candidate or an Old Testament prophet. Does he wish to traffic in the practical compromises unavoidable in the work of a pluralistic society’s government, or would he prefer to purvey the moral purity that is the currency of those who seek only to tell us the truth about ourselves no matter the consequences? Each has its place, but they aren’t the same.
Sometimes Hoh sounds like a politician talking about policy: universal healthcare, student debt, affordable housing, and a living wage.
But on other occasions he acts as a latter-day American Amos condemning us for the injustices we commit against the poor, weak, powerless, and vulnerable.
Just days after earning his spot on this fall’s ballot, for example, Hoh tweeted about Israeli violence: “15 children have been killed by Israeli airstrikes. Go ahead with your lesser evil justifications and Vote Blue No Matter Who arguments. They were just brown Muslim children, obviously, they don’t matter in your political calculations.”
His substantive critique is no doubt right. Israel regularly commits crimes against humanity, and we enable their commission. We need public figures to point out our complicity in these crimes, but doing so isn’t an effective campaign strategy for a candidate for public office because taunting people about their sins won’t garner votes.
Another example: In the wake of the United States recently killing Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, Hoh re-tweeted, “Breaking: The US did not kill Ayman al-Zawahiri for 21 years after he helped kill 3,000 American civilians. They did kill about 2,000,000 other people who didn’t have anything to do with it instead though.”
Once again, Hoh’s fundamentally correct. American violence in the so-called War on Terror, especially the Iraq War, was criminal, cruel, and needless, and we can only pray there exists a hell so George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld will feel its flames forever. But poking people in the eye isn’t going to win votes. Smug self-righteousness repels. A politician who hectors will repulse, not persuade, voters.
And one more: As the Senate recently considered the Inflation Reduction Act, Hoh tweeted, “The gushing over the poison pill ridden Manchin-Schumer Climate Bill is all the more nauseating and deadly when it’s understood that climate funding is 4% of Pentagon funding.”
Another fair point. We spend too much on the military and not nearly enough to prevent and reverse catastrophic climate change. We need voices to remind of this, but Hoh’s attitude won’t convince people to cast ballots for him. It instead seems intended to insult people by suggesting they are too stupid to understand what’s really going on. (And perhaps they are dimwitted, but that’s not a winning campaign slogan either!)
Hoh’s campaign seems proudly impractical. It sees elections not as practical affairs, but purification rites. It doesn’t seem especially interested in collecting more votes than other candidates, but in highlighting all of our social, cultural, and economic cruelty. While reminding us of our transgressions is indispensable as a moral mission, it fails as an electoral strategy.
Hoh’s impractical behavior suggests he is keenly aware that his candidacy is doomed and his campaign a bit of a charade.
Why would he think otherwise? His central critique, the a priori of the Green Party’s work and the backdrop for all its actions, is the impossibility of successfully competing in a closed political system dominated by two parties who hold an unfair, unshakeable lock on power. This corrupt environment is the premise of Hoh’s candidacy, so why shouldn’t he act like his campaign is a farce?
Yet, in some ways, he has behaved as though he thinks he might accomplish something practical: After all, he filed to run for office. Despite his rhetoric about a sclerotic, unresponsive duopoly that caters to the wealthy and ignores the people, Hoh chose to enter the broken arena of electoral politics. His entrance suggests that he believes he can, through some political alchemy, alter the partisan dynamic he critiques. The very fact of his candidacy means he somehow thinks he can effect a practical change of the political landscape simply by paying his $1,740 filing fee and submitting several thousand voter signatures to the state. (I’m reminded of an observation made by the early-twentieth century anarchist Emma Goldman, who criticized the push for women’s suffrage as empty formalism: “To assume, therefore, that she would succeed in purifying something which is not susceptible of purification, is to credit her with supernatural powers.”)
To the degree he sees himself in a civically messianic role, Hoh is mistaken: Elections, properly understood, are culminating events, not inaugural one. Successful political candidacies are built on a movement, not in a moment. Victory at the ballot box is the consequence, not the cause, of radical change among the people. A single candidate in a single election, simply by virtue of his candidacy, cannot and will not dislodge a hidebound plutocracy. (Another observation from Goldman seems apposite: “[I]n their self-sufficiency and egotism they make themselves believe that they have but to pet the beast [of politics], and he will become as gentle as a lamb, sweet and pure.” Such misguided ideas, Goldman wrote, are held by “sentimental reformer[s].”)
Despite running for office — a seemingly practical exercise — the Greens surely know they are currently powerless to secure meaningful change through the ballot box, and, in candid moments, they admit they have no particular interest in winning elections.
Michael Trudeau, secretary of the state party and a state senate candidate, told WUNC’s Rusty Jacobs, “So what does winning look like? Winning for me does not mean necessarily winning an election. Winning means building a radical, left-wing people’s party that can fight the system, not just speak from a soapbox.”
It’s difficult to see how a one-off exercise in electoral bureaucracy — gathering signatures, submitting paperwork, and earning the approval of mid-level public functionaries — will help build anything radical. Nor is participation in an election — a fundamentally conservative act that necessarily recognizes the political system’s legitimacy — reasonably likely to generate the sort of revolution the Green Party seeks. (It’s a curious rallying cry, isn’t it? “I have earned the right to play a one-time bit part in our irredeemably corrupt political system! Victory is mine!”)
There thus exists a fundamental disconnect between the radical ends the Greens hope to achieve and the electoral means they’re employing to try to get there. Using the tools it’s selected, the party will no more build a radical movement than it will win this year’s Senate race.
But all will not be lost for the Greens. They will see Hoh’s inevitable defeat as the irrefutable proof of their own moral superiority amidst a bankrupt politics. The rest of us will get to experience their ethical eminence as a sort of political martyrdom by which the Greens will sacrifice not themselves, but the public: For they so love their ideology that they will turn us over to the care of the seditionist, reactionary Republican who seeks an open seat in the United States Senate.
Here we turn to the two questions Hoh and his supporters refuse to forthrightly answer.
First the empirical one: Will Hoh’s presence on the ballot in fact draw voters away from Democratic senatorial candidate Cheri Beasley and thereby provide a marginal benefit to Republican Ted Budd? Put differently, will the Greens hurt the Democrats?
This certainly seems to be the conventional wisdom. As the Associated Press reported after the State Board of Elections tried to block the Greens’ recognition, “Green Party certification could divide progressive voters and clear a path for GOP victories in key races, including the tight U.S. Senate race between Democrat Cheri Beasley and Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Budd.”
The Greens themselves indirectly acknowledge they could have this effect.
Exit polling Hoh cited during an online back-and-forth about his party’s potential impact on the Beasley-Budd contest demonstrates that Green candidates are likely to collect a disproportionate number of ballots from otherwise-Democratic voters.
“There is no data that supports assertions that Green votes would wholly go to Dems (same w/ GOP & Libs). In 2016 Stein voters in exit polls: 25% Clinton, 14% Trump & 61% would not vote,” Hoh wrote.
Notice the dodge. Hoh said there’s no data showing that Green voters “would wholly go to Dems.” But that’s not the relevant question. Instead, the relevant question is whether the Green Party’s presence on the ballot will provide a net benefit to the Republican in this year’s Senate contest. The data cited by Hoh suggests it will: Green votes are more likely to come from people who would otherwise vote Democratic than Republican. Advantage: Budd.
Both major parties have behaved as though this would happen.
Democrats tried to corruptly block the Green Party’s recognition at the State Board of Elections, and, when that effort failed, unsuccessfully pressed their arguments all the way up to the federal appeals court in Richmond.
As for the Republicans, Carolina Journal, a publication of the conservative John Locke Foundation and unofficial organ of the GOP in North Carolina, covered the Greens’ fight at the State Board of Elections unlike any other media outlet, running stories about Democratic dirty tricks, allegations of gubernatorial intrigue, the injustice of denying ballot access to the Greens, and the judicial vindication of the terrible wrong the Greens had suffered. Republicans didn’t chase the story because they hoped for a Pulitzer. They published every juicy jot and tittle because they saw a chance for partisan gain if the Greens prevailed and got on the ballot.
The bottom line: The Greens likely will have at least some effect on this fall’s election results. (If this isn’t true, why should the Greens bother? The premise of electoral politics is that parties and candidates can persuade people to cast votes for them. If Hoh doesn’t think his candidacy will affect the race’s outcome, he’s testifying to his own impotence. If his campaign aims for disruption of the status quo, why feign inconsequentiality?)
It being a fair likelihood that Hoh will peel away at least some votes from Beasley, the Greens, though they refuse to forthrightly admit it, may well play the part of the spoiler. If the race between Beasley and Budd is close, even a relative handful of diverted votes could make the difference, and it isn’t mere speculation that the vote margins could be razor thin: In 2020, Beasley lost her statewide reelection bid as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court by only 401 votes.
And so we get to the second, moral question the Greens refuse to honestly answer: If a Hoh candidacy makes it more likely Cheri Beasley will lose this fall, is a victory by neo-authoritarian election-denier Ted Budd a price the Greens are willing to pay for their political work?
Hoh suggested an answer on his campaign’s website: “Together we can build grassroots political independence from the corrupt political establishment that serves big money.” He explained elsewhere, “Please join me in this campaign to break our political system away from the corrupt two-party system beholden to the wealthy, the banks and the corporations.”
Democrats and Republicans are opposite sides of the same corporatist coin, according to Hoh, so no moral difficulty attends the likely boost his candidacy will provide to Budd. By definition, there’s simply no ethical knot to untie.
But while the Greens’ assertion about the interchangeability of Democrats and Republicans may be a helpful rhetorical tool in stump speeches and social media posts aimed at the disillusioned and discontented, it’s too much to argue there is no difference between the parties, and it’s simply incorrect to argue that the consequences of a Beasley victory would be indistinguishable from those of a Budd victory.
For starters, the Republican Party is currently determined to sacrifice our admittedly flawed government to the whims of a narcissistic, egomaniacal conman, while the Democratic Party — notwithstanding its recent, unsuccessful shenanigans at the State Board of Elections — remains committed to the basic tenets of representative, constitutional democracy.
As for policy, consider:
Real, meaningful differences exist between Cheri Beasley and Ted Budd. As a matter of observable, verifiable fact, the same kinds of differences exist generally between Democrats and Republicans.
But facts don’t matter to the Greens. Hoh has exchanged a reality-based politics for a faith-based civic religion. Facts are as irrelevant to his movement as they are to the resurrection. He has a tale to tell, and, whether motivated by error, delusion, or dishonesty, he will not be dissuaded from telling it.
Despite Hoh’s best efforts at obfuscation, however, reality continues to intervene: The strictly party-line vote in the Senate adopting the Inflation Reduction Act recently provided another illustration of the major parties’ differences. The bill includes massive investments in clean energy and healthcare and beefed up taxes and tax enforcement for corporations and the super wealthy. Every Democrat supported these provisions, and every Republican opposed them. The Act promises real, if imperfect, policy changes that ought to be applauded by everyone outside the blind alley that is today’s GOP.
But not according to Hoh, whom the legislation filled with scornful fury and righteous indignation. Because the bill also opens up some additional land for oil and gas drilling, he endorsed the view that “[t]his is not a win, this isn’t a step in the right direction. This is a tragedy.”
While politics can offer the promise of practical accomplishments born of compromise, Hoh advocates for a puritanical anti-politics: If we can’t have absolutely everything, then we deserve nothing. A perverse, punishing sadism replaces public policy. This is the inescapable terminus of the logic undergirding the Green Party’s identity and existence: While pragmatists achieve incomplete, incremental progress, absolutists inflict well-deserved suffering.
Consider a final, personal example I recently put to Hoh: I’m a married gay man. The Democratic Party embraces me and my husband as full members of society and wishes to honor our marriage, our equality, and our very right to exist. The Republican Party does not. This is a real difference, and one that matters quite a lot to me and millions of other LGBTQ+ people.
Hoh dismissed my concern as self-centered: “[W]hat about the rights of the poor, the immigrants, the sick, the homeless? Your argument pits one marginalized group against another.” He added, “This argument is essentially we can’t advocate for 100 million Americans who can’t afford healthcare because other LGTBQ rights are endangered. We can and we must do both.”
Of course, at no time did I say we shouldn’t or couldn’t advocate for those who need and deserve healthcare. (Indeed, I support Medicare for all!) Faced with an undeniable, consequential difference between the two major parties — the sort of difference that cannot exist if his candidacy is to possess any coherence — Hoh, while dismissing a reasonable concern as malicious selfishness, distracted and deflected to avoid disruption of his political worldview. He chose dishonesty.
If Hoh were to embrace the truth and reject his favored narrative that no meaningful differences exist between the two major parties, or even if he merely modified his position to allow for a bit of nuance, the justification for his campaign would collapse. Acknowledging some differences between Democrats and Republicans would require him to wrestle with his culpability in likely helping to elect the greater of two evils. This he will not do.
Hoh fancies himself a fighter bravely challenging the political powers-that-be, but his behavior suggests a morally obtuse candidate mindlessly clinging to a simple, fictive political portrait. Approaching politics as a form of hostage-taking and seeking anticipatory vengeance for his expected loss at the ballot box, he intends to inflict electoral pain upon us because we dare to acknowledge a messy political reality inconsistent with the caricature he cannot bring himself to abandon despite plentiful evidence to the contrary: If we won’t install him in office, he’ll help a far worse candidate gain power, and if we won’t endorse electoral politics as the proper means to achieve his radical program, then he’ll do whatever he can to make sure we get a reactionary one.