An Interview with Matt Gonzalez

by Okla Elliott


1. As a person who has held elected office as a Green Party member and who ran as an Independent for VP in 2008, what do you see as the biggest challenges third parties face in this country?  And what do you see as the best course of action for people who are interested in seeing the Green Party (or some other third party) grow in influence?

I think as long as voters are scared that voting for a third party candidate might cause their least favorite candidate to win, third parties won't ever get a foothold in this country. The only thing that will fix this is demanding that all elections, throughout the U.S., be won by a majority vote. In other words: we should prohibit plurality victories. Obviously, in some cases this will necessitate runoffs. But I don't see why that would be difficult to administer. The point is that you can't spoil an election if the winner has to get a majority of the vote before they are declared the winner. 

And of course Rank Choice Voting, also known as Instant Runoff Voting, could be used to get a majority winner with one trip to the ballot box. It works because voters rank their preferences when they vote, so they vote their favorite candidate "1", second favorite "2", etc. That way runoff preferences are captured without a need for a second election. That's how local elections are successfully done in San Francisco and how many elections are done in England, Ireland, and Australia. 

Concerning the Green Party, my thought is that after nearly two decades of trying, it has shown little fundraising prowess and failed to capture the interest of a wide enough public to become a major force in American politics. I don't place the blame strictly at the feet of those activists who tried to make it work, and by the way, I count myself among them. It could simply be that the political forces we face, even in these times of radical economic upheaval, continue to exert a kind of influence that our strategies have failed to properly understand. Something isn't working and rather than invest more energy into the Green Party, I think we need to reevaluate whether there is a better path.

At the end of his life, Peter Camejo told me explicitly that he did not want to die as a member of the Green Party. He felt that we should avoid placing recognizable labels on ourselves as it makes it easier for our opponents to know who we are and consequently adversely define and marginalize us.


2. Last week, I had the South African writer, Zakes Mda, here at my university, and when he spoke to my class, he told them that all writing (and all art, regardless of genre) is political, even if we don't think it is.  He pointed out that for him, a black South African who began writing in the 70s, every word was obviously political, but that this is true of all writing/art.  You've funded the publication of a poetry book and put on art shows in your office, so it's clear that you see an important place for the arts.  How do you see the arts and politics interacting or supporting each other?  And which artists/writers do you most admire?

Saying that all art is political doesn't mean it furthers a political cause. It could, from a historical prospective, have embedded within it evidence of political struggles or social and political hierarchies. 

Personally I don't like to separate politics from the arts from anything else. I understand why we do so for purposes of differentiating them, but I don't like the idea that they be separate for the purpose of engaging in them or for assigning greater relevance or importance to one or the other. A healthy life should have mixed components and we should resist any suggestion to be singular in our activities.

Art can certainly promote a political movement or message, whether for change or to propagandize the established order and prop up its discriminatory objectives. Obviously it’s the latter we strive to combat. Marcuse's essay from the 30s about the affirmative character of culture comes to mind in that regard. 

I've always been an admirer of WPA art and also the Society of Six painters who painted in Northern California in the teens and 20s. Franz Kline and Joan Mitchell are favorites as well. 

With WPA art I'm attracted to what was an early instance of art breaking out of aristocratic or religious concerns, away from religious depictions, portraits of the wealthy, and staid landscapes, in favor of art that depicted the common man and woman and their work and recreation. 

Among writers, my favorites are the Europeans like Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser, Hans Fallada, Dino Buzzati, Merce Rodoreda, and Emmanuel Bove.


3. One thing I find both encouraging and disheartening is the current discussion of socialism in our country.  There seems to be an admission that capitalism as we were practicing it failed, and some people are considering socialism a viable option again (e.g., the April issue of The Atlantic has an article titled "The Revenge of Karl Marx"), but the disheartening part is that this new brand of socialism seems tied up with corporate bailouts more than helping the general populace.  Ralph Nader has said that the bailout system socializes risk while continuing to privatize profit.  What are your thoughts on the current stimulus package?  What parts seem to be good or bad, and what should be changed in it? And can we afford it (given the increased troop levels in Afghanistan and the continued military presence in Iraq, and other places around the world)?

There is nothing socialist about bailing out capitalism. In fact, I think socialists would say that it is a natural tendency of capitalism—that it is destined to fail and will always bail itself out on the backs of workers. 

Socialism is a far more interesting and complicated matter. The common notion is that socialists don't believe in private property and somehow want all things owned commonly. But this is a capitalist definition of socialism to make it as unappealing as possible to Americans who don’t have a sufficient context for communal societies and are not likely to find that very appealing.

The socialists I've spoken to are not opposed to private property or even private business. Their primary focus, as I understand it, is an opposition to concentrated capital, which they rightfully blame for undermining workers’ rights, good environmental regulation, and for failing to support public benefits that are focused on eradicating poverty among other things. It’s interesting to note in this connection that the House Banking Committee has held hearings on the question of whether any institutions should be too large to fail and what threats that poses to our economy. In a sense, I believe these inquiries to be related. It’s fundamentally a question of the threats posed by concentrated capital. 

Concerning the stimulus package—first off it’s a bailout. And seems primarily focused on encouraging confidence. But it does so by further committing public resources into worthless debt and commits our nation into deficit spending, which is very risky given the state of world financial markets. 

The fact that many conservatives are assailing efforts at salvaging mortgage holders who are facing home foreclosures is enough to make the point clearly—they might as well be crocodiles—rewarding these entities for harming us will not be greeted by an era of deeper understanding or acknowledgment in how the implementation of their economic policies and the political lobbying they engaged in compelled this outcome. Expect these institutions to find new ways to engage in behaviors as diverse as predatory lending to the creation of risky financial instruments. I predict that it'll all just be repackaged in the post Obama optimism.


4. You and I discussed how the political and the artistic correlate.  This might seem like splitting hairs, given the immense overlap of the political and the ethical, but how do you see the ethical and the artistic (cor)relating?  Does the consumption or production of art mature us ethically in some way?

I think all human beings derive something from art, although they may not create or consume art in a traditional sense. We all do small things that relate to creating and consuming art. We arrange objects, even if we think them mundane, in our living spaces. We set the table, toss a newspaper on a seat as we exit the train, we dress ourselves. We approve or disapprove of how others dress. These are all aesthetic choices or implicate our relation to things albeit not in the way people think of when they say art. 

The act of producing something with the label art underneath it presents a variety of problems not the least of which is the expectations of how an artist perceives himself or herself in relation to everyone else. And it encourages people to look at art as if it’s something separate from them. In that sense art making suffers most by labeling it as "art". 

I would define art in an expansive way which also helps remove it from the obvious hierarchies that normally get constructed around who makes it, buys it, likes it, etc. Art is your relation to a thing, whether it is an object or performance. I believe it is part of human essence to engage in art and to have a relationship with the things around us.

That said, I personally derive pleasure from aesthetic objects. In some cases because I think they contain beauty, and sometimes because they inspire reflection and spark contemplation, even controversy.

Does art mature us ethically?  I'm hesitant to say that it does mostly because I’m concerned that such a claim lends itself to elitism and because I believe art to be so intertwined with our natural essence. Your question for me is like asking whether breathing makes us more human.

I also want to say that consuming art objects can have all of the defects that general consumerism suffers from. There is nothing about it being art that absolves it of that critique. The question of whether looking at art promotes something else; well, I can only say that I have experienced that personally. I frame it in the sense of pleasure but obviously it’s more than that. It’s an invitation into something.


5. One interesting aspect of the Obama Presidency is all of the focus on his rhetorical style and his literariness.  There are books out now on how to talk like Obama, how to persuade like Obama, and many of the folks in my profession are sending around lists of Obama's reported favorite novels.  In fact, Ohio State University will be offering a class in Spring Quarter '09 titled "Obama as Literature" in which his speeches, memoirs, and the literature generally pertaining to him are studied.  Is this just more liberal fawning over Obama, or is there some substance to this?  For example, I can't imagine a course in an English department on Rumsfeld even though—despite my disagreeing with his policies—he is a highly literate and intellectual man.  Is there a danger in treating the campaign speeches of a current President as literature or cultural material worthy of its own class (one I cannot imagine will be very critical)?

I can't help but recall the story that circulated shortly after Obama was elected about a twenty-something law school graduate who was Obama's primary speechwriter. The story delved into his routine, which included his various stops at Starbucks, where he often did his work.

I couldn't help but wonder how many of Obama's signature lines were his.

Concerning the class—well, I think it could be what students make of it. Studying the rhetoric of any successful cultural icon could be a fascinating course to take. I disagree with your thought that it won't be critical though. Any close textual reading will reveal the contradictions in who “Obama” is—which doesn’t take much to stumble into. 

I want to say that I share the enthusiasm for the end of Bush's regime and some of the advances of the Obama Administration. But the left shouldn't get carried away. This is all the low hanging fruit as far as I'm concerned. In a year, as the economic collapse widens we'll see how many people want to pretend it’s all working. At this point I think it’s a Potemkin village—painted to create a false optimism.

Already Obama has authorized an increased troop deployment in Afghanistan, which is only going to further mire us in that region, and his commitment to leave Iraq is now openly including a permanent troop presence which the administration says will include 40,000 American soldiers.

I also believe that the “post-partisan” era that Obama wants to usher in will become anathema to progressives. Politics is partisan because ideas matter, and there is a profound difference in them.  “Post-partisan” politics is a synonym for “sit down and be quiet”. It’s as if Obama were saying, “I know what’s best for everyone, and I’ll decide when the rights you are demanding are ripe for implementation.”

Perhaps I’ll audit the class.


6. You frequently work in immigration law, and you've spoken quite a bit about the troubles with popular views on immigration (particularly from Mexico).  Could you explain what you feel are the greatest misunderstandings held by Americans on the subject?  What are the greatest problems immigrants face?  And how do we improve the situation?


Well, I think most Americans are unaware of how our own policies are pushing Mexicans to leave their homes to come to the United States. There is a pretty direct relationship between American policies that, for instance, dump subsidized corn into Mexican markets and tens of thousands of Mexican workers losing their agricultural jobs.  Estimates place the job loss as high as 1.85 million jobs.  The NAFTA accord which took effect in 1994 is primarily to blame.

In California there is a strong anti-immigrant sentiment despite the rising Mexican American population in the state, now at one-third of all residents.  While I was on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors I attempted to get voters to approve a ballot measure that would have given non-citizens the right to vote in school board elections if they had children in the public schools.  The measure lost narrowly (about 51 to 49%), and, disturbingly, it lost in many traditionally progressive neighborhoods.

Concerning the enforcement of immigration laws, I’d like to see the US adopt a different statute of limitations rule so that once someone has lived here for lets say three years, we don’t even bother to engage in the question of whether the federal government should deport them.  Right now, the statute of limitations for most crimes is three years (for misdemeanor offenses it’s generally 1 year and for murder there isn’t a time limit to bring a prosecution).  These time periods limit the government or prosecution in regards to when they must commence an action alleging a violation of the law.  Somewhere along the way we decided that with certain offenses the statute of limitations wouldn’t even start to run until the commission of the crime was discovered. What this means in the immigration context is that the statute of limitations starts to run when someone is “discovered” to be here without proper immigration permission.  This means absent an amnesty, immigrants often live here in fear of being “found“ despite being integrated into our society, paying taxes, and serving as the backbone of most of the working class economy for years.

I say the above although I’d like to see open borders someday. That’s the goal of course, but it has to be proceeded with financial assistance to Mexico so that the incentive to immigrate to the US wouldn’t be complicated by an imbalance in working opportunities. As it stands now, people come here for work even though the constant fear of deportation hangs over them – not to mention lousy working conditions, which are the result of their “illegal” status.


7. You've held elected office before and nearly became mayor of San Francisco.  And, of course, in 2008 you were Ralph Nader's VP running mate.  I've heard plenty of people eager to see you be the Green Party presidential nominee in 2012.  Do you plan to run for any elected office in the near future?

I don’t know how to answer this.  I’m flattered that anyone would want me to head a presidential ticket, but realistically I don’t see myself as being the candidate to lead that movement.  

I would be pretty satisfied if I never stood for political office again. On the other hand, I’d be surprised if that were to be the case.


—April 16, 2009—


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Matt Gonzalez is a native of McAllen, Texas, who has been living in California for the past two decades. He has been active in politics as a former city councilman in San Francisco and most recently as Ralph Nader's 2008 running mate.  He was formally educated at Columbia College in New York where he studied comparative literature and political theory and at Stanford University where he received a law degree. His collage work has been exhibited at a number of art venues in the San Francisco area, including Lincart, Adobe Books Backroom Gallery, Johansson Projects, and Soap Gallery.

Okla Elliott is a visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Ohio Wesleyan University.  His non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations appear in A Public Space, Indiana Review, International Poetry Review, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Letters, North Dakota Quarterly, and the Sewanee Theological Review, among others.  He is the author of The Mutable Wheel and Lucid Bodies and Other Poems and is co-editor, with Kyle Minor, of The Other Chekhov.