WHEN I started out with the Monitor nearly 20 years ago, I covered Boston City Hall. One of my most thoughtful acquaintances there was a man who had worked for a United States senator from California. Then he narrowed his focus when he joined the staff of a congressman before coming back East to an even smaller constituency.
His political career seemed to have been a series of retrograde steps - from dealing with affairs of national and international consequence in the largest state in the most powerful country in the world to figuring out how to provide public services in an old medium-sized city. But he had sought out each change. The more he worked in government, he said, the more he believed that the biggest challenges - and the biggest opportunities for affecting positive change - were at the grass-roots level.
Meanwhile, of course, political participation in the United States has gotten worse and worse.
Barely half of Americans vote at all. The rest are turned off by all the special-interest money, the slick media tactics, and the failure to deal with the toughest issues. They seem to have concluded that voting only encourages the rascals. The move to limit terms of office is just one symptom of the problem.
Campaign reform would help. But more important may be greater grass-roots involvement with local races and issues, a renewed opportunity to take hold of and wield political power.
This may already be happening more than most observers realize. For all the talk about voter apathy, a recent study by the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio, finds that "Americans do participate in public life in many ways, and with great intensity of purpose." Based on a series of focus groups around the country, the report concludes that "beyond the dark, threatening clouds of politics as usual, we find citizens engaged on a daily basis in the solving of public problems."
This is the impetus behind the "Green" movement in this country, and it's reason enough to be glad that Greens are achieving ballot status - most recently in California.
Greens are best known for environmentalism - fighting nuclear-power plants and that sort of thing. But they represent a broader progressive movement as well - respect for social diversity, decentralized government, and community-based economics. That advice about thinking globally and acting locally is more than a slogan to them. It's intriguing that two-thirds of those who registered Green in California are women.
Greens have been active in western Europe for nearly 20 years. But they have yet to become a major party there, and that's likely to be the story with the US Greens.
They range across a wide political spectrum - from staid Audubon Society-type conservationists to far-left socialists preaching redistribution of wealth as the answer to acid rain, global warming, and saving the whales. They favor consensus over majority rule, and they avoid hierarchy. It's impossible to find a designated leader or official spokesman at a convention of Greens, where more time is likely to be spent arguing over process and "empowerment" than substantive issues. (Although some might say th ose are the issues.) Not exactly a formula for an effective campaign machine.
But the point is not to win the White House or take over Congress. The point is to get more people involved in politics again - especially at the local level, where it has the most personal impact and where the possibilities for making a difference are greatest.
Some argue that third parties are just spoilers - siphoning off votes and sometimes reversing close elections. But what's wrong with that - especially if it gets the main party candidates to pay closer attention to crucial issues?
And no matter how much we've gotten used to the idea, there's nothing sacred about a two-party system. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to suggest the Constitution should be scrapped every generation and the political system fundamentally restructured.
So more power to the Greens. Let them stir up the political pot, challenge the conventional thinking, and confront that thinking at the polls. If this stimulates more political participation, it will have been a good thing.