Green Party’s Jill Stein: A Missing Voice in Presidential Debates
Like many of us here at YES!, medical doctor Jill Stein has been frustrated by the narrowness of this year's campaign for president of the United States. Crucial issues such as climate change, poverty, and the cost of war are completely left out of the conversation.
No one tackles this problem as directly as Stein, who is running for president on the Green Party ticket. On Tuesday, she and her running mate, Cheri Honkala, were arrested while attempting to enter the debate hall at Hofstra University in an effort to join President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney in debate.
While Stein was unable to gain access to the stage, her campaign has already achieved a great deal. She and Honkala will appear on 85 percent of ballots nationwide this November, and she has qualified for a federal matching grant to support her campaign.
Think what you will about whether it makes sense to vote for Stein, she and Honkala are doing everything they can to widen the range of issues this
election is about. So when she was visiting Seattle recently, YES! Executive Editor Sarah van Gelder asked her to describe both the stances she's taking
and the strategy she thinks can change the country.
Sarah van Gelder: Was there a particular moment when you knew you were going to run for president?
Jill Stein: First, the president put Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block, as part of the debt ceiling crisis. He then went on to propose a budget that went far beyond the $2 trillion mandated for budget cutting. It was becoming clear that the social infrastructure of the country was really up for grabs between Democrats and Republicans.
I was one of many people who got religion about the national Green party at that point. I had not previously been active at the national level. Consistent with our grassroots democracy concepts, I had only been active at the local and, at most, the state level.
SVG: Did your background as a medical doctor play a role in your decision?
JS: I got involved in this as a mother and medical doctor watching an epidemic of chronic diseases descend on our younger generation that didn’t even used to exist. To me, that is such a serious warning sign. Another thing that mobilized me was learning that breast milk had become contaminated with industrial pollutants.
So I got mobilized to work on those issues. And I spent five or 10 years thinking "Oh, if only our legislators knew!" But I gradually realized that we can’t solve healthcare without addressing the underlying political problems. I now describe my medical specialty as “political medicine” because it's the mother of all illnesses. We've got to fix this one if we want to fix everything else.
SVG: What do you hope to accomplish?
JS: There is a movement out there that's alive and kicking in things like Occupy, eviction blockades, and Bank of America protests. That movement deserves a voice in this election and a choice at the polls that is not already bought and paid for by Wall Street.
What’s more, we’re building a national party. I have a clear concept of how this would work because we piloted this at the state level. We built a strong state party out of a dysfunctional fringe party in Massachusetts by running campaigns that brought in a whole new generation of activists. And they've allowed us to begin to have contested elections. Once you start having contested elections, you start discovering the people who are suited for the job and have the skill set. So this is about building the structure of the party, which we are going to need for the long haul.
SVG: How concerned are you about the “Nader Effect,” the idea that you might draw votes away from President Obama and help Governor Romney to win?
JS: The exit polls actually show that Nader drew equally from Democrats and Republicans, as well as people who otherwise would not have voted at all. So, I think there's good reason to reject the propaganda that tells us it's a terrible thing to stand up for yourself. Historically, we have made progress when there has been a social movement and an independent political party that helps drive that social movement into the broader public dialogue, forcing the larger political parties to change their agenda.
SVG: Isn’t there reason to believe that there would be major differences between Obama and Romney as presidents?
JS: Look at Obama's record. George W. Bush bailed out Wall Street to the tune of $700 billion. Under Barack Obama, it's been $4.5 trillion in money disbursed and another $16 trillion in zero-interest loans. On free-trade agreements, Obama has gone way beyond Bush. He negotiated three more, and there's a new Trans-Pacific Partnership that would send jobs overseas, undermine wages, and compromise American sovereignty with a multi-national corporate board that can undermine American regulations.
On the climate, too, Obama has gone beyond Bush. We have expansion of offshore drilling, expansion into the Arctic, and into our national parks.
You can make the argument that the Republican ship is going to sink faster than the Democratic one. I don't really believe that anymore. And under a Democrat, the resistance goes to sleep. And that's far worse than any difference between Democrats and Republicans. What's going to save our necks here is the revival of our democracy, not the difference between two corporate candidates.
SVG: To what degree do you draw on the work of social movements in coming up with your agenda?
JS: We certainly weren't reinventing the wheel. We have drawn on existing ideas from labor unions and Green parties around the world who, in Europe in particular, have a policy called the Green New Deal. And I think in our work at the state level we are certainly drawing on the concept of YES! Magazine and David Korten's work around local sustainable economies.
SVG: What would you like to see the new economy look like?
JS: The green economy is a win-win for creating jobs, for stabilizing and reversing climate change, and for creating a healthier infrastructure. On health, it means addressing the environmental drivers of disease. By tackling air pollution, you also decrease rates of heart disease, asthma, and lung disease.
On transportation, it means having a public transportation system that encourages walking and biking. On nutrition, it means having a healthy, localized food supply that provides fresh and largely plant-based food.
We saw how all of this can play out in real time when Cuba lost access to Russia’s oil supply during the 1990s. They did a lot of biking and walking and stair climbing because they didn't have the elevators. The public health impact of this is all documented in a wonderful study done by Johns Hopkins and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. At a time when you would have thought stress would have aggravated chronic disease, the opposite happened. Death rates from diabetes plummeted by 50 percent, death from heart attack and stroke went down 20 to 35 percent, and obesity rates went down 50 percent.
We can't buy that kind of a health revolution spending $2 trillion a year. All we get is bankruptcy and sickness from the side effects of medication. So that's another way we win by moving to the green, relocalized economy.
SVG: How do you see this agenda moving forward?
JS: Well, I'm not holding my breath, but I'm also not ruling it out. Two recent polls said between 49 and 61 percent of American voters are calling for a third party and said they would seriously go for one.
We are in a perfect storm now where there's enormous desperation out there. One out of every two Americans is now in poverty or close to it. One out of every three homeowners is at risk of losing their home. Thirty-six million students and recent graduates are indentured debt servants. You talk to them about the spoiler effect and they say, “Sorry that doesn't pass the laugh test. It's my life that's been spoiled, thank you very much.”
It’s the politics of courage we need to move us forward. It’s the only thing that ever has.
Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Sarah is co-founder and executive editor of YES!
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