The Party of Our Discontent? Interview with Green Party candidate Jill Stein
Discontent with the political system as a whole is rising, as seen clearly through the lens of struggles around the world and right here at home, via the ongoing Occupy movement. Numerous figures have speculated and are continuing to speculate as to what the electoral strategy, if any, will be for the Occupy movement, come the 2012 election cycle.
Green Party candidate for President Dr. Jill Stein in Madison, Wisconsin on December 16, 2011. (Photo: ra_hurd)
Some, such as Center for American Progress' Van Jones, have proposed a new "American Dream Party," paralleling the Tea Party, with others critiquing that as a plan to Astroturf and co-opt the movement through various Democratic Party fronts.
Recently, in the aftermath of the now infamous pepper spray incident at University of California-Davis, Occupy UC-Davis declared its disgust with both the Democratic and Republican Parties, and made a public disavowal declaration of both parties. Similarly, Occupy Des Moines has stated that it will be part of Occupy the Caucus, planning several actions, geared toward both political parties, in the days leading up to the Iowa Caucus in early-January. Furthermore, Occupy Des Moines has declared an around-the-clock camp-out site, set to sit outside of President Barack Obama's campaign office.
This is the background to my conversation with Jill Stein, Green Party candidate for president of the United States, during a campaign stop in Madison, Wisconsin, on December 15. Stein is hoping to ride the momentum of the Occupy movement and reach uncharted water for a third-party candidate for president, and has a central campaign platform called the "Green New Deal."
Steve Horn: What was your overall motive for running for president of the United States, particularly as neither Democrat nor Republican? What got you to this point in your life; what moved you to run for president as a member of the Green Party?
Jill Stein: I've been fighting as a third party candidate for ten years. I stepped up to the plate for this election, basically. I stepped up to the plate because it is a perfect storm for really organizing a political alternative, a politics of integrity that our lives depend on - and more and more people are seeing that.
Specifically, it was the debt ceiling debacle last spring when President Obama put Social Security and Medicare on the table: it really felt like, "How could we not put an opposition voice up against this? This is outrageous!"
Between the Keystone XL Pipeline debacle, the ozone regulation roll-back; expanding war - multiple wars, drones and drone surrogate wars - our "pull out of Iraq"; only to establish a new base in Kuwait, that we now have a new front in the war for oil in Central Africa; and the tripling of the troop presence in Afghanistan, it just felt like "How can we not have a voice of opposition here? This is nuts!"
So, you know, I wanted to help the Green Party find someone who could run and there weren't a lot of campaigns that could ramp up, and I'm in a position to - having run for state office multiple times ...
SH: In Massachusetts?
JS: I ran for governor in 2010; I also ran for governor in 2002, and I also ran for secretary of state in 2006. Everyone is upset out there. People are really upset and we have no politics to attach it to.
SH: Electoral politics?
JS: Exactly. There is not a political vehicle for this and it was going to be the Greens or nobody because Nader, for a variety of reasons, is not going to run, and if you're not Nader, it takes a political party. Nader is just about the only person who can run a non-corporate campaign without having an expensive electoral organization. He has an extensive organization that he's built up over 40 years and nobody else is going to come along and compete with that. And there is no other political party that has managed to survive - something I've really grown to appreciate about the Greens is that - you see the glass half empty or half full. You can see the Greens as weak and fringe or, on the other hand, you can see them as incredibly heroic survivors who've managed to withstand the barrage from corporate America, and the fear campaigns and the smear campaigns, and being kept off the ballot, and censored and away from the microphone and all of that. I mean, it's impressive that the Greens have survived when the New Party and the Progressive Party and the Labor Party and the Socialist Party as electoral organizations have all folded. It's not because they do not have compelling positions and really dedicated people - it's extremely hard to survive in this extremely repressive political environment. But Greens have made it for the long haul and it was going to be us or no one, and I felt like it would be unconscionable not to step up to the plate when it seemed like our campaign team was probably best prepared to run a national race.
SH: When did you begin your involvement with Green Party politics and had you been involved with other politics before? Were you ever part of the Democratic Party machine?
JS: I have always been involved in issue-based politics, not party politics - I was never really originally drawn to party politics. I'm trained as a medical doctor - that's my field: I've been practicing long enough to see how extremely broken our health care system is, how broken our health is, the link between that and the environment. I had become very active in the world of health care advocacy, advocating for single payer, but also in the world of environmental politics, and advocating for being a community provider of health. That's really the way to do it. If you really want people to remain healthy, you can't just throw pills at people once they become sick, which I feel like I was doing as a medical doctor, so I began working on more upstream thinking.
I began thinking, "If only our elected officials knew that there were all of these cost-saving solutions ..." So, I went into advocacy of this sort for about five years before I really knew what it was all about, and it was really a treadmill moving backward and that if you really want to fix any political problems, you also have to fix the political system. I was reaching the end of that rope after we passed campaign finance reform in Massachusetts, thinking when I was working on that issue, "Oh, it's the money that stops us from shutting down our incinerators ..."
SH: What year was this?
JS: It was passed in 1998. It then got repealed by the legislature after passing on a two-to-one margin via a citizen referendum. The people of Massachusetts passed it by a two-to-one vote, so it was an enormous victory and it took two years for the legislature to turn around and repeal it on a voice vote and to me that said, "Okay, we can't even change the system by changing the system - we actually have to throw the bums out." This is a long-term political struggle, and doing all of those other things, by the way ...
SH: But you need people to actually implement the will of the people if you're going to have a democracy?
SH: So, that was an experience that came before your days in Green Party politics?
JS: That was pre-Green Party and I had been a little involved in Nader's campaign in 2000, and coming out of that, the Green Party came to me and said, "Why don't you keep doing what you're doing and call it a campaign for Governor?" Either way, I'd be working on the same issues - a green economy, health care, chronic disease and all that. It's a win-win. If you're doing the right things with the economy, then you're doing the right things for the environment and the right thing for our health. It's this really compelling, uplifting narrative that never gets discussed. It really is a win-win that we can afford and that actually tackles all of these urgent needs, and that's when I realized I could do it all with the Green Party, so I ran for Governor in 2002, which at the time was a crazy thing to do. I had no idea what I was getting into, but it really turned into a really wonderful conversation that was begging to happen and I was continually shocked that things were not the way the media portrayed them to be, that it wasn't like you had "Red," "Blues" and "Greens." No, you had people who were really bewildered and distraught at the system, and the lack of solutions and the lack of integrity and they could smell a rat on both sides of the aisle. You didn't need sophisticated politics or ideology to get that the system was really screwed and screwing you. It was really exciting to be out there in the public domain having this conversation. I realized you don't do this work in one race - you have to build a party and a following as you do the work - and that's where it basically has continued from since then. I feel like I've been running continually since 2000 when I became involved for the 2002 election.
SH: Can you tell me more about your medical background and what you do as a doctor?
JS: Yeah, I was a general adult doctor and I practiced in an HMO setting and I also practiced at a college clinic where my patients were mostly young people. And in 2006, I realized that I couldn't keep doing both, that I couldn't keep on both running for office and practicing medicine, so I consider what I'm doing now "political medicine" that addresses perhaps the biggest disease of all that has to be fixed if we're going to achieve health in any other aspects of our society. We have to heal up our politics.
SH: You brought up single payer, you brought up what we have now, which is for-profit health care. What's your stance on what passed under Obama in 2009, what is popularly referred to as "ObamaCare"?
JS: Well, we have it in Massachusetts, since it's really modeled after RomneyCare (passed under Republican Party presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he was the Governor of Massachusetts), and it's very problematic. It is not a solution - it did extend care to some people who didn't have it, but kind of at the cost of working families. The costs are not fairly distributed; the mandate is extremely unfair; the system is entirely unsustainable, and it is not working.
I heard a survey the other day before I left and many people say health care is worse than it is better under ObamaCare, which is remarkable because you don't know what the real problems of a health care system are until you get sick. So the fact that so many people are saying this already - most people are not critically ill, but that's the real test of a health care system, does it take care of people who are critically sick - [is interesting]. Privatized health care does not [take care of people] - it leaves them in a lurch - it's basically a boondoggle for health insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies.
SH: Would you support an amicus brief from the left for the upcoming US Supreme Court case on the constitutionality of ObamaCare. And do you think ObamaCare was a step forward or step backward for the final goal of single-payer, universal health care support?
JS: I think it was a step backward for the final goal of a system of single payer health care. Whether I'd support an amicus brief, that's a good question, and I really haven't yet given it much thought yet.
SH: The big question here, though, is do you support ObamaCare?
JS: I don't support ObamaCare and see it as a step backward that entrenches the power of the private health care industry.
SH: Can you tell me about the Green New Deal, which is the centerpiece of your presidential campaign, and what sorts of policies you envision coming out of a Green New Deal in the United States, especially coming out of the recent debacle in Durban?
JS: This is another reason why we're running the campaign now - because if you follow the science there we don't have four years to wait. I mean, we don't; we really have to start tackling this now. It's really important for the climate and it's time that people put their politics where their values and science argue they ought to be. I think Obama supporters are really having a rude awakening right now.
The Green New Deal is an emergency jobs creation plan that really addresses the crisis in our economy, in unemployment, and likewise, in the climate. And truth be told, it has enormous potential to address health issues, as well. It's a win-win on all those fronts and is modeled after the New Deal that helped us get out of the Great Depression, and would help us through direct and indirect means, ways to create scores of new jobs and really attack this problem with all of the inspiration and force that it deserves, not just a little two million job creation hit that comes and goes, but to really tackle the crisis head on. In doing so, it would do away with the recession and put people back to work, jumpstarting the economy as a green economy, instead of going back and going back to the same old economy that isn't going to work. It goes green and also relocalizes, and it jumpstarts, in particular, small businesses and co-operatives. And in so doing, it puts a stop to escalating climate change.
The US, as you know, is the largest per capita contributor to climate change and the direction the US pushes goes a long way toward determining what the rest of the world does, and from that perspective, dramatically downscaling carbon emissions goes a long way toward determining the global carbon budget and helps move global policy that way. Typically, the jobs it would create are in the green area of the economy. We're talking about green manufacturing, sustainable local agriculture, public transportation and clean renewable energy that has the added benefit of making wars for oil obsolete. This would be felt immediately, as the millions of dollars spent on the military-industrial-complex on an annual basis would be put into creating these jobs.
The numbers we've worked out - we look at various models for doing this, and we looked at a report by an economist named Phillip Harvey out of Rutgers Law School, and according to his model, the cost of creating these jobs - the costs of creating these jobs would be less than what was spent in the Obama stimulus package, which essentially created two million jobs, which were good and probably blunted a worse catastrophe and did add some jobs in the area of the green economy, but ultimately wasn't of sufficient magnitude to really fix the problem. So, this will do a whole lot more. The cost for the stimulus package worked out to be about $220,000 per job created, because the mechanisms were indirect and relied a lot on tax incentives, which don't always get used to create jobs. This, instead, would be money used directly to create jobs and would be more like $20,000 per job created.
SH: Many liberals say natural gas is a "bridge fuel" toward a clean energy future. How do you feel about that?
JS: The current science - I mean, there's been doubt on that for quite some time - and increasingly, the science confirms the cynics here. When you do full life-cycle accounting of it, it is not a cleaner fuel, and is very carbon intensive. Add into that all the impacts on water and we do not want to be going there.
SH: Would you support a national ban on fracking?
JS: Absolutely. We should not be opening up new lines of carbon right now, like shale gas and shale oil, as well as tar sands oil, and we just cannot go there right now if we do not want to go over the climate cliff. We are already a bit over the climate cliff right now as it stands. As conservative of an organization as the International Energy Association is, the IEA, started by Henry Kissinger and others, they're saying - we're not talking about radicals here - we're looking at 5-6 degrees Celsius increases of warming by the end of century and that's just not survivable. And that's just where we're at now, so there's no way that we can conceivably get out of here alive if we keep doing what we're doing. People need to hear the truth about that. Already, the US has been pulled back in their climate understanding by intense propaganda campaign, but even so, they still get that it's really a problem and they're seeing it right now, with the droughts and the floods and the hurricanes and all that, so people do not even doubt this anymore. I think the number is at something like 70 percent of people who think this needs to be dealt with, so I think we badly need national leadership to do the right thing.
SH: You mean, specifically, someone to use the words "climate change" on a consistent basis?
JS: Yes, I mean, it's my understanding that the Obama administration prohibits the use of the words "climate change."
SH: I knew there were criticisms that they did not use those terms, but did not know that there was an official prohibition of the use of those words, though I can see why they wouldn't want them to be used.
Now, in terms of ballot access, getting signatures and all of the barriers that exist for third-party candidates that are not in play when you are a Democrat or a Republican: knowing that going in, has that ever come across to you as something you just do not want to deal with - the barriers are so high that it doesn't seem worth it to you? And how hard do you plan on campaigning?
JS: Well, the exciting thing is that people in the party are really motivated right now and see it as the perfect storm after having beat their heads against the wall during the Obama bubble.
SH: 2008 and pre-2008?
JS: Exactly, and the fallout after Nader, and I think Greens feel so vindicated right now. We've had this experience over the past eight years where we've been told to silence ourselves, muzzle yourselves, shut up, hold your nose, you know, vote for the "lesser evil."
SH: Bush to Obama transition in particular, you mean?
JS: Yeah, so now people now really have the evidence that silence is not an effective political strategy, and what we do if we silence the public interest, which is so hard to hear anyway, is that we silence ourselves and then we do not have a democracy. It is not a survivable type of politics. Witness what just happened with the Defense Authorization bill. We cannot go there and we need to do something. It just doesn't pass the "laugh test" anymore, and silence just is not working, nor is the politics of fear. The politics of fear has brought us everything we are afraid of, including the endless wars, the collapsing economy - all the rest. Greens are standing proud now, and none too soon. Two ships are going down - Democrats and Republicans are both going down. Historically, we've said the Republican ship is going faster. I think that's debatable right now, but regardless, is the solution for getting off of a sinking ship to jump on another ship that is also going down and maybe just a little bit less quickly? Absolutely not. We've got to get in another boat and take us to where we've got to go. At any rate, it's a good time for Greens to be fighting. It's not easy to get on the ballot - we've got 16 states where we're already on. It just so happens, for the first time, we are already on the ballot in the five states in which it is hardest to get on the ballot in, so we are way ahead of the game.
SH: Are there a lot of people on the ground getting signatures?
JS: There are and it's definitely a lot of work. It's a really uneven playing field that we have to exhaust ourselves in. The Democratic and Republican Parties can start off right away and get out their message. It's a rigged system, a totally rigged system, but it's a really good time to be fighting it, and people are angrier than I've ever seen them. This is my sixth race, and in some of them, some people have been angry at me for running as a Green, and I expected it in this race, but I've been shocked not to encounter it as much this time around.
SH: Would you say Obama has done a lot of the work making the case for you?
JS: Exactly. He's made the case for us.
SH: How do you make more noise then, or how do you get around the fact that there are scores of highly paid partisans working for the Democratic Party in particular, since often, that's who you are really up against. How do you defeat the people loudly saying "Vote for the lesser evil; the right is really scary. The right is really evil. Romney is really scary; Perry is really scary." What's your strategy for combating that message?
JS: Our strategy has a lot to do with alternative media and selectively engaging with groups who have been screwed over by both parties. They don't need much convincing. Students, for one, they're there. We launched our campaign at Western Illinois University. Students are on the receiving end, and when you're talking about an issue of generational injustice, because everything we're discussing will end up falling into the hands of the youth and young people - unfairness in jobs, a climate catastrophe - and we have to ask ourselves what kind of world we're making for them, how we're going to clean up this mess we've left for them. I mean, students and young people are really on the receiving end. What civilization devours its young? Because that's what we're doing. The profiteers are going after the young as a population to exploit. That's why the loans are so high; that's why young people have been put at the bottom of the priority list. They are victims of profiteering. We are all about fighting that. We think green jobs will help with this fight; we will forgive student debt. They must be engaged because they bring creativity and fresh life into our economy, and we need them badly. We will provide tuition-free higher education, since it's comparable to a high school education in the 20th century - you need a higher education degree in the 21st century economy and it should be provided as a basic right.
I also support legalization of marijuana, ending war, and other bread-and-butter concerns for young people. This is a constituency that is just itching for a platform of this sort. After that, the Occupy movement is a key constituency. UC-Davis, for example, the night before I came there, said they disavow the Democratic and Republican Party, so that's a great opportunity. The antiwar movement, the civil liberties movement - in fact, I've met Republicans and Ron Paul supporters who have told me, who have said that when Ron Paul doesn't make it in the Republican Party they're supporting us in our campaign because we are the only voice in the race for our assaulted civil liberties. This has been completely different than my experiences with campaigns. This one seems to have a life of its own. Running in other campaigns as a Green, outreach is a big part of the job. This one has been different.
SH: Would you say the growing social movements in the US and around the world have something to do with that?
JS: Yes. Economically, people are up against the wall and people are looking for a voice to represent them within the system. It's a real credit to Occupy Wall Street that they not only maintain their independence, but that they are constantly rethinking their strategy. When they began, they did not want to have anything to do with electoral politics. As they are increasingly evicted, they realize they have to use every tool they have and they can't afford to overlook an electoral tool if they have one. And we've actually been written to by one of the Occupies in Delaware and they said they were really excited about the campaign and wanted to go to work, asking what they can do. So, they're all on a steep learning curve, as we all are, since the times are so rapidly changing, demanding and stressful, and I think that one of the very exciting things about the campaign is that it is part of a very public conversation about where we stand and what we do to help each other work through solutions. And a lot of people get stuck on this thought process of, "Oh, I've been told I can't stand up for my values," and I think people have hit the wall with that right now.
SH: What do you see as the role of the Internet for your campaign? For example, in 2008, many people say Obama succeeded largely because of how his team utilized and maximized the capacity of the Internet to tap into young people. At the same time, you can say that the Occupy movement has spread much further and grown in size because of tools like Twitter.
JS: Exactly. Look at Egypt. That really is the model. If Facebook can bring down Mubarak, or in Tunisia, their dictator, the unspoken subtext here is that incredible and unpredictable things can happen with the rise of social networking sites because more people are on it.
SH: Do you see social networking sites as a vital prong of the campaign?
SH: One of the big things I notice when I'm online is ads, be it on Facebook, Google, YouTube etc, particularly pertaining to the 2012 presidential campaign. Do you see those as influential, and how do you compete with that, as the two parties have big corporate money to spread their message far and wide, and not just on the Internet?
JS: This type of stuff is extremely influential, and many people simply do not have enough time to come up to speed with all of the issues, so that's why in my mind, it's a very imperfect process. We're fighting within an extremely rigged system and I think that's why we can know the public is with us through polling - the public is more than disenchanted with the two corporate parties and has rejected them. The largest group of voters says that they are neither Democrats nor Republicans and are fed up with both. Large majorities favor bringing the troops home, support good wages for workers and all of the things we stand for. So, if we really lived in a democracy, then we'd expect to win this, but that's not the way the American political system works. It's mostly about money, and if you get a word in edgewise about democracy, you're doing really well. We don't expect that they are going to open up debates with us, but on the other hand, we could fight our way in.
SH: Can you talk a bit more about the debates? Political scientists have said that debates are one of the few times a year where vast amounts of people are tuned into a single political event, paying attention to politics, and that debates are the "Super Bowl" event of the year for politics. That being said, are you going to try to fight your way into them and if so, how?
JS: If we got traction in the social media sphere, where we get up in the polls to 10-15 percent, then it would be hard to deny us a spot in the debates. To my mind, that is our goal, to reach out to those constituencies. We're just dead in the water without it.
SH: So, the goal is to get in, within the very rigged rules? They do make it almost impossible for anyone that is not a Democrat or a Republican to get into the debates, and even more difficult post 1992, after the Perot incident, where he got into the debates on merit, and afterward, the rules were changed to make it even harder for a third-party candidate to get into the debates. Your first goal is, obviously, to get in through the rigged rules, but if you don't, then what do you plan to do?
JS: Another option is to do an alternative debate, outside the debate, on the debate grounds, where we are live streaming the event to the general public. We can create the debate, even though they try to prohibit it. We can hold simultaneous output of the questions, so that we can answer the questions ourselves and get it out to our viewers. It won't be easy.
SH: Would you be willing to commit an act of civil disobedience to get in?
JS: I wouldn't rule anything out at this point.
SH: Many in the Green Movement, broadly speaking, support things like cap and trade, carbon markets, carbon sequestration, industrialized biofuels etc. What's your stance on these issues? Is it part of your Green New Deal? If not, why? Would you describe what a real green job looks like if it's not one of these?
JS: Our job is to do the right thing in both the climate emergency and the jobs emergency and not let the public relations campaigns of the various fossil fuel interests - and nuclear interests as well - confuse our thinking - because they're hyped up when you actually look at this stuff carefully. Take, for example, carbon sequestration: there's really no evidence for it whatsoever that it's going to do the job, and it just so happens that it puts billions of dollars into the pockets of coal companies. This is just an exercise in influence peddling. Our job is to do the right thing because we do not have time to keep going down the wrong road, and we keep allowing influence to be bought.
We do not accept money from lobbyists, corporations, CEOs or corporations that hire lobbyists, so I think those very unconvincing strategies hold sway when you're taking money from those corporations, but when you're not taking money from them, they really don't hold sway at all.
SH: They're not based on science, is what you're saying?
JS: Exactly. They're not based on science or even sound economics, because the economics behind the carbon trade and carbon markets looks to be as problematic as hedge funds.
SH: Would you say they're sort of like a Ponzi scheme?
SH: So, what is the alternative to that and what is a true green job?
JS: It's not carbon and not nuclear. It needs to be clean. A lot of it has to do with redirecting our economy to less carbon intensive, relocalized versions of the economy.
SH: What's your stand on the Israel/Palestine conflict and US foreign policy more generally? What's your vision of the US role in the world?
JS: Israel/Palestine is a microcosm of broader US foreign policy principles, and our foreign policy needs to come into harmony with principles of human rights, nonviolent conflict resolution and a respect for international law - haven't been there at all in Israel/Palestine and more globally. And I think, globally speaking, the issue of clean and renewable energy factors in here as well. Because as we become less dependent on oil, we can stop fighting wars for oil and they go hand in hand and make each other possible.
So, in Israel/Palestine, we need to start holding all parties accountable. All of the various factions responsible in Palestine and in Israel, for stopping human rights violations, so that assassinations are not accepted, so that apartheid is not accepted etc. We need to ask all parties to come up to the same standards of respect of human rights. We need to stop, in particular, being Israel's enabler of being the more powerful prohibitor of human rights. Occupation is unacceptable.
SH: Most people do not know how many military bases there are around the world because it is not part of the everyday dialogue in the United States, although people around the world definitely know when they have an American military base in their backyard. What would you do about that?
JS: Well, the bloated military budget is first of all, not good for our safety, and neither is the militarization of our foreign policy. Neither is a good thing and I think they enable a knee-jerk military solution to all problems and it is not a good thing for us to have this ready default to engage militarily. It's extremely expensive and we can't sustain it, and again, the more we create renewable, secure energy sources domestically, the less we need to do what we're doing internationally. Our program is to downsize our military by at least 50 percent, if not more.
SH: And you say use it more for defense, rather than offense or forward engagement?
JS: Yes, and not make it the crux of our international relations and use international law and working through international governmental bodies to resolve conflicts.
SH: Anything else you wanted to talk about?
JS: Well, [December 15] is the 220th birthday of the Bill of Rights, and it, in particular, is on life support. The Patriot Act symbolizes the death of the Fourth Amendment and the right to judicial review, and the right to a trial has just been sabotaged by Obama. It is as if a coup has occurred. Any one of these alone is bad enough, but when you add them all up, we are on some pretty thin ice right now as a free society. Our freedom is hanging in thin air right now. There is now a legal basis for curtailing that freedom.
SH: Do you support an immediate repeal of the Patriot Act?
JS: Yes. And also, an immediate repeal of the Defense Authorization Act that just passed. It's an outrage.
This article posted originally at truthout.org, January 29, 2012.