Green Party Candidate Jill Stein: 'Political Silence Has Not Been an Effective Strategy'
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For over a century, the United States has had a defacto two-party system. Our electoral rules are set up to stifle upstarts and maintain the dominance of two major parties.
But while they have very rarely won seats at the national level, third parties have played a role in shaping our politics – and our society – by promoting policies that have been ignored by the big two. Women's sufferage, the progressive income tax, child labor laws, Social Security and limits on working hours were all ideas promoted by third parties before being embraced by the public at large (third parties have also been incubators for more destructive policies like the “war on crime,” which George Wallace championed as head of the American Independent Party in 1968).
But it's hard to articulate their visions given the corporate media's tendency to ignore them. That's why we invited Jill Stein, a candidate for the Green Party's presidential ticket, to this week's AlterNet Radio Hour. Below is a lightly edited transcript (you can listen to the whole show here).
Joshua Holland: Why don’t we just start by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself. Introduce yourself to the electorate.
Jill Stein: Sure. I’m a medical doctor and a mother who got really worried about what I was seeing as a healthcare provider. Going way back, maybe 15 years, I saw that the healthcare system was broken and also saw that I was handing out pills and pushing people back to the things that were making them sick – everything from pollution to poverty and homelessness, a lousy food supply, and all the rest.
I became involved with my community trying to improve those things, and I found out very quickly that having solutions is what counts. Things like turning our polluting incinerators into recycling facilities to keep our air clean and create jobs, or phasing out our coal plants and instead creating jobs in weatherization and conservation, clean energy.
In short, I had the lesson that lots of advocates and concerned citizens have – that when we go to our elected officials, it’s not about good solutions, it’s money you bring in campaign contributions and the lobbyists around you that make the difference.
I basically got recruited a ways back for office with the Green Party, and in the process I went from desperation to inspiration seeing how ready the public is for a politics of integrity and to get beyond the divisiveness and the labels down to a politics of, by and for the people -- moving for solutions that people are desperate for.
I was then recruited into this race, my first experience in national politics, because I’ve mostly been focused on what we can do locally, but I hit my breaking point as so many others did when the president began to put Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block as the solution to this concocted debt ceiling crisis last year, which could have readily been avoided.
JH: You’re running in a primary against Roseanne Barr. What’s the Green’s process for selecting a candidate? There are no statewide primaries. Is there a convention?
JS: Well, there actually are statewide primaries. So far, there are something between seven to 10 of them altogether. In addition, we have statewide conventions and caucuses. So it’s much like the major parties except that there are fewer of the statewide primaries. I’m glad to say that my campaign has won all of them so far. Eleven out of 11 by major landslide margins.
JH: So Roseanne, I assume, has a much higher name recognition than you do, but that’s not creating a barrier for you, given that it’s a party with an activist base where everybody’s paying close attention?
JS: Exactly. It’s an activist base that’s fairly informed and engaged. It’s a party of grassroots politics and grassroots organizing. I come to it with a long track record in that capacity. What I found running a statewide campaign was that was the best way to build our local organizations. So I entered into this race in order to really build an organization for the long haul that can challenge this incredibly deadly path that we are on in terms of downsizing and offshoring our jobs, the declining wages of workers, the continuing and ongoing Wall Street bailouts, the catastrophe of the climate that we continue to rush towards headlong, the breakdown of our healthcare system and this pseudo solution with the Affordable Care Act, which unfortunately doesn’t do the job.
There are so many good solutions out there that people are really hungering for. That was really my inspiration in running this campaign – that there is a movement out there in the grassroots. It needs a voice in this election and a choice at the polls come November.
JH: My guess is that when it comes to ideology, when it comes to policies, there are a lot of people within the Democratic Party base -- not the conservative Democrats and not the establishment, but the progressive base – who would fall closer to your views than the views of the Democratic Party leadership. I think a lot of people don’t necessarily understand the kind of barriers to entry that third parties, not just the Green Party but Libertarians and the Constitution Party on the right, face. Tell me about the structural realities that have kept third parties, with a very small number of exceptions throughout history, from really gaining a foothold in national politics.
JS: The real barrier isn’t so much that people don’t understand third parties or don’t understand the technical barriers. I think the real stumbling block is fear. There has been an incredible fear campaign, certainly over the past 10 years and more, that if we stand up and actually vote our values -- we can't actually vote for ourselves, vote our ideals and our solutions that are right there and ready to be implemented. We’ve been hammered with this fear campaign, but I think it’s worth a fresh look.
I’m finding it so exciting to have this discussion with people now because people are incredibly frustrated now and are incredibly distraught, feeling like they just worked themselves to the bone in the last presidential election and what did we get for it? We continue to have the expanding wars, the meltdown of the climate, the continuing, ongoing bailouts for Wall Street. We had the attack on Iraq and the launching of the Afghanistan war under Bush, but in the Obama administration we’ve had the surge and he doubled the size of the Bush force in Afghanistan. You had Obama withdrawing from Iraq on George Bush’s withdrawal date because he couldn’t negotiate immunity for our forces, or the Iraq war would have been longer. One of his first acts was initiating greater bombing into Pakistan and then into Yemen and Somalia.
We’ve been told that we had to be quiet and sort of hold our noses and vote our fear or terrible things would happen. What we find 10 years later is that political silence has not been an effective strategy. The politics of fear has delivered everything that we were afraid of. I think there’s a whole new openness, considering new solutions and acknowledging that the politics of fear leads to more fear. We need to answer that fear with the politics of courage. Look back over history, because while independent parties have been small, they have served a critical role in driving a progressive agenda into the dialogue.
In the words of Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. Never has, never will.” To my mind that’s exactly what independent politics does. It brings that demand into the political arena, because without that demand we continue this landslide to the right without any kind of a backstop. I think people are really beginning to see that it’s not only ok to vote third party, but in fact it may very well be the only hope.
JH: Can you just discuss briefly the catch-22 in that there are legislative approaches that could certainly do a lot to open up our political system? There’s proportional representation, which is a probably a stretch. There’s instant runoff voting, also called ranked voting, that could make it so people could vote their consciences and not worry about the so-called “spoiler effect.” But you have this fundamental problem that in order to pass those measures you would need to first have some power. The power of the legislature right now is of course entirely in the hands of the Republicans and Democrats. So we have this catch-22 where we end up with the oligopoly of the two-party system. While we’d like to see it opened up we bump into a wall. How do we square that circle?
JS: Believe me, I have done my share of work on the legislative fixes here, particularly on ranked choice voting. It’s very hard to get people’s attention on voting reform when they don’t have jobs or the jobs that they have don’t pay a living wage, or when you’re a student and you’re up to your eyeballs in debt and are virtually an indentured servant going forward.
We’ve got to move the democracy reforms, but they need to be piggy-backed on the bread and butter things that people are so very concerned with and very focused on right now. To my mind, there are legislative solutions, but in order to exert them we need to stand up. This is where the larger circle gets squared. How do we ever move forward as a society, as concerned citizens and residents, and members of not only a nation, but the planet? We don’t have a lot of time by many indicators, particularly if you’re watching climate development.
For me the words of Alice Walker keep coming to mind, which are, “One of the biggest ways people give up power is by not knowing they have it to start with.” To look at what happened in Tunisia or Egypt -- not that those struggles are over, but enormous progress has been made, far more than anyone ever considered in their wildest dreams -- by people basically hitting the wall. There’s no doubt that we are hitting the wall in this country as well. In the Middle East, the role of young people who had no future, who had no jobs or didn’t have decent wages, that’s really what kindled these amazing breakthroughs. Those circumstances very much apply here in the US as well. We’ve got 30 million people who are struggling as indentured servants with debt. You have 50 million people who can’t afford their healthcare. Millions have lost their homes and millions more are at risk.
If all of us got together and were to stand up -- like, for example, we were able to with the PIPA and the SOPA legislation – we just stood up and we did it. We saw the Occupy movement doing that too. Very much driven by young people who decided they were at the breaking point and they were going to turn the breaking point into a tipping point. That is very much a philosophy of our campaign. We can’t control all the circumstances here, but we can mobilize the incredible power we have as ordinary citizens of the nation and the planet. To really standup against the system that has left us largely in incredible peril and more or less heading downhill very quickly.
I think people are seeing this right and left. There are no signs out there that the political establishment is turning this around. There are no good proposals out there even from the Democrats. They tend to be less bad versions of what Republicans are giving us. What they’re not giving us is the good solutions that we need for single payer healthcare as a human right, for creating free public higher education and forgiving student debt, for actually ending unemployment and creating the jobs that we deserve. If we simply redirected the trillions that are being squandered on wars, Wall Street and tax breaks for the wealthy we could not only do the right thing, but we would have the numbers do it.
We are the majority. Poll after poll shows that people of conscience and conviction are out there and see the way forward. The trick is getting ourselves past this politics of fear and standing up with the politics of courage and moving forward, as progressive movements have always done – as movements out on the street, but which also have an independent political, electoral voice that drives that agenda into the process.
JH: One thing that’s always struck me is that if we were to send Greens to Congress they would face the same challenges that liberal Democrats do. There are 80 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who I imagine are very close to you and I on the nuts and bolts of policy. What they face is this massive structural barrier to get a progressive agenda passed. I’ve spoken to lawmakers who went in as a freshman and were told that they had to start dialing for dollars on their first day of office. They didn’t get to look around and get acquainted; they were already dialing for dollars. You have this structural issue in the Senate where very small states in the South have the same two votes that populated coastal states have. We basically have an effective requirement that you have to get 60 votes in the Senate to pass anything nowadays.
Wouldn’t you face the same problems? Wouldn’t Greens face the same problems that Congressional Progressive Caucus members face?
JS: Yes and no. This to me is why a party makes a big difference because the Green Party doesn’t dial for dollars. We are not creatures of corporate sponsorship and we also don’t take marching orders from leadership that is making you toe the corporate lines.
To my mind that is definitely an argument for a different political party. A party that is not hijacked and essentially kidnapped by the big money that prevails in the current mainstream political parties.
Back to your question about how do you ever move forward when you’re just one of many, when you’re a lone voice in the wilderness on behalf of a people’s politics. Keep in mind this is where executives really do come in, whether they are the mayor of a city, a governor, or the president. Being president is not being commander-in-chief only, it is also being organizer-in-chief.
Right now we fly blind as a democracy, and ordinary citizens are the ones who should be the drivers of our political process, but they are completely blind. They don’t know what’s coming up and when it’s coming up, and what the real story is on those bills. We don’t have a real free press, with notable exceptions such as the alternative press.To my mind, the opportunity and responsibility of an executive like a president is to inform people. To truly have a liberated moveon.org telling people what’s coming up, when it’s coming up, and here are the three talking points, now go to it with your congressmen so that they know you’ve got your eye on their vote, and if they want your vote in November you need their vote now. Whether it’s for healthcare as a human right under a Medicare for all system, whether it is for a Green New Deal which will eliminate unemployment and put 25 million people back to work, whether it’s for downsizing the military and bringing the troops home from these illegal and immoral wars.
These are all things which if we had a responsive, strongly democratic government we would be passing. I think there’s enormous power in our executive branch right now to help drive that agenda and make it impossible to ignore.