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‘Safe’ isn’t always successful

‘Eeking’ out a new political party

By Leigh E. Rich

Can a revolution occur gradually?

Or must it actually involve a … revolt?

It’s difficult to say when it comes to social clines. Social mores can erode or assemble with the slow, subtle means that mark the movements of mountains or the construction of a canyon.

And they can shift suddenly, in response to events as catastrophic as a meteor crashing into the earth.

But what will it take for a viable new species to emerge in the current two-party political system?

An analogous debate began more than two decades ago in paleontology. Popular writer and Harvard paleontologist Stephen J. Gould and New York professor and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Niles Eldredge shocked the fossil world in 1972 with the publication of their theory of “punctuated equilibrium”—or “punk eek” as some have deemed it.

Tired of looking at the fossil record as an incomplete and lifeless tome, Eldredge and Gould, then but lowly graduate students, addressed the fact that paleohistory seems to be marked by “bursts” of speciation in the midst of long periods of species stability.

In 1954, evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr had proposed a similar notion among living species called allopatric speciation. “According to this idea,” Donald R. Prothero, a professor of geology and paleontology at Occidental College, wrote in Skeptic magazine in 1992, “new species usually do not arise within the main body of a population, because the genetic exchange between organisms rapidly swamps any new variations. Instead, small subpopulations which are genetically isolated from the main population are more likely to change, because an evolutionary novelty has a much better chance of dominating a small population than a large one.”

So, too, Eldredge and Gould discovered in the fossil record that, among complex organisms, “species arise rapidly (a few hundred to a thousand years, but instantaneous in a geological sense) on the periphery of their range (where they are rarely fossilized),” Prothero explained. This means that “the main population (most likely to be fossilized) will show little or no change, but will be suddenly invaded by new species with no apparent transitions between them.”

All of which is to say that Charles Darwin’s idea of phyletic gradualism—or a gradual emergence of new species—no longer stands the test of time, so to speak. Speciation, the emergence of a distinct biological group, happens in these spurts that punctuate the status quo.

That said, the question bears asking: What will come of Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb’s “safe states” strategy?

Cobb talks of a “nonviolent revolution” in the political world, one that will agitate the current “corporatist” two-party system and allow the third-party Greens to get their foot in the evolutionary door. But with a safe states strategy, the Green revolution can be no more than a slow subversion of the dominant species that, they hope, will eventually push the fat cats toward extinction.

To go for total annihilation now, Cobb and the Greens maintain, would only keep George W. Bush king of the jungle and perpetuate what Cobb calls “a neoconservative cabal.” And though they don’t quite like the makeup of John Kerry’s political genes, they believe he’s a slightly healthier branch in the political tree.

The Democrats who also desire the demise of Bush are thankful for the safe states approach. The Republicans, on the other hand, would rather have Cobb splinter the liberal vote and force the Kerry campaign down a political dead end.

And there seem to be no “punk eek” third parties capable of upsetting the existing environment.

But can speciation occur?

Bob Kinsey, the Green candidate who is taking on Republican incumbent Marilyn Musgrave and Democrat Stan Matsunaka for the 4th CD’s House seat, grumbled at last week’s “Go Green” event in Arvada that both major parties are focused on “images, not issues.” He even did a stand-up comedy bit on how he could, as if he were a political Jane Goodall, mimic these politicians. Always wear blue. Stand a certain way. Pump a “thumbs-up” fist when making your points. One need only look at Pete Coors and Ken Salazar on the front covers of the dailies following the primary to find examples of this behavior. Both were captured all smiles and thumbs in the air.

Kinsey may be a true punk eeker, heartily coloring in his red “Marilyn Must Go” signs—often mistaken as pro-Musgrave—with a green permanent marker as he spoke with The Statesman that Wednesday night.

And the Green event was nothing if not revitalizing, with a naturalness that conveyed that this is how politics should be. Cobb and Kinsey conversed with reporters. No scripts. No placating, middle-of-the-road answers. And crammed in a back hall, patrons squeezing past the presidential candidate in order to get to the men’s john.

The 50 or so people in attendance—as many as those who showed for Coors’ unity rally at the capitol earlier that day—actually asked Cobb questions. And, get this, he answered them. Right there, on the spot. Even aptly cursing to make a point, so caught up in his commitment to forge a “real democracy” where “the people are going to rule” instead of corporate interests.

Kinsey is correct: This isn’t image politics but real people craving real change.

Whatever space existed in the cavernous room was commandeered by Cobb, an amiable but serious lawyer one-on-one and a rousing speaker up on stage.

But Kinsey can’t drive out Musgrave from the 4th CD. And Cobb can only promise not to swing the 2004 election back to Bush.

And even if the Greens or another third party could settle into a better position in the pecking order, can they—and, more importantly, their new species of politics — last?

As Prothero explained, when such an allopatric population, a group “living in another homeland,” reinvades the mainstream environment, one of three things can happen: “This new species may die out quickly, or it may drive its ancestors to extinction, or both may persist side-by-side, typically by exploiting slightly different ecological niches.”

Only one, of course, can be said to be a “revolution.”

And until then, American voters are left with, the Greens purport, a choice between two antiquated groups that are more alike than distinct. As Kinsey elucidates, The Democrats may be heading down the left side of the road and the Republicans the right, but “that road goes over the same cliff.”

But right now, “the corporate Democrats,” added Lanny Kness, a Denver Green Party spokesman, “can take for granted the progressive Democrats and expect them to march along”—leaving little chance that the smaller cohort will prevail.

Regardless, Cobb is confident his third-party species will leave its mark in America’s historical record, even via his gradual plan.

He better hope the scientists are wrong.

Of course, the political world contains a different sort of beast. 

Rich, L. E. (2004, August 20). Safe isn’t always successful: ‘Eeking’ out a new political party. The Colorado Statesman, p. 2.

Second Place – Political Columns – Colorado Press Women – May 2005

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