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“An Age of the Statistically Unlikely”: An Interview With Jill Stein

Jill Stein discusses the Green New Deal and the politics of fear she says is holding third parties back.

Jill Stein speaks at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Bowling Green, New York, on September 17, 2012.

Part of the Series

Green Party candidate Jill Stein officially announced she is running in the 2016 presidential race on June 22 during an interview on Democracy Now!. She held a campaign kickoff event the following day at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where antiwar activist Medea Benjamin and racial justice activist Marsha Coleman-Adebayo introduced and endorsed her campaign.

The main planks of Stein’s presidential platform include a “Green New Deal,” ending mass incarceration and police brutality, a $15 per hour federal minimum wage, a single-payer health care system, universal public education and the abolition of student debt, breaking up big banks and nationalizing the Federal Reserve, initiating a global treaty to reverse climate change and ending extreme forms of extraction.

During her interview, she also announced the filing this week of a lawsuit against the Commission on Presidential Debates on behalf of herself and other 2012 presidential and vice presidential candidates from independent third parties. The case argues that the Commission on Presidential Debates and the Federal Election Commission have violated federal election law.

While Stein called the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who is now Hillary Clinton’s leading Democratic primary opponent, similar to her own, she expressed disappointment in his decision to run as a Democratic Party candidate, telling Democracy Now!:

I’m running in a party that also supports that vision, so when our campaign comes to an end, that vision will not die. It will not be absorbed back into a party that is essentially hostile to that vision.

Truthout sat down with Stein at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, when she passed through for an environmental justice conference held in February 2015. Stein discussed the exploratory phase of her campaign, which included a listening tour of frontline communities struggling for justice. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Candice Bernd: You recently [February 2015] announced the exploratory committee phase of your campaign, which has focused on a listening tour of frontline communities, including my own hometown here in Denton. Can you tell me about your goals for this tour?

Jill Stein: We very much wanted to be here in Denton for this conference, and to come to Denton and witness the miracle that took place here, and to be able to lift it up and talk about it. This is really, sort of in a nutshell, what [the Green Party] is trying to do, is to lift up these models of how we go forward. So, [Denton] is the very stop for us, coming from D.C. [where the exploratory committee was launched]. (Stein is referring to the fact that Denton was the first city in Texas to ban fracking via a ballot referendum.)

Our intent is to be here, in places like Denton, at the oil workers’ strike in Houston, on the border town in Laredo, talking to everyday people who are on the front lines of justice and the struggle for the climate, economic and workers’ justice, because the front lines of those struggles should be the front lines of our political discourse, but they’re not. This is what’s traditionally locked out. So, this campaign, our mission, is to provide a vehicle for the frontline communities to be the front lines of the presidential race.

You were previously the Green Party nominee in the 2012 presidential race. What compels you to again explore the possibility of seeking the party’s nomination for the 2016 race?

One of the reasons why I was compelled to jump in has to do with the political vacuum that became really evident in the 2014 midterms, which were really a loss for Democrats — but not a victory for Republicans. So, it was wanting to respond to this political vacuum as more and more people peel away from the Democratic Party, having essentially thrown in the towel on a party that long ago threw in the towel on us and our movements. There’s an incredible window of opportunity, and nature abhors a vacuum. If that political vacuum is not filled with a narrative of frontline struggle and triumph, it will be filled by other, more nefarious, narratives.

History demonstrates this amply. At times of great crisis, things can go either way, and there are all kinds of makings of a fascist state that are underway already. So we felt it wasn’t something that could wait.

How is the Green Party funded, and how to do we get money out of politics?

[The Green Party doesn’t] accept corporate money, and most of the Green parties have adopted a policy where they don’t accept money from people who are the officers, lobbyists or otherwise are the surrogates for a corporation. So there’s a firewall between us and corporations. If you’re a corporate CEO, you can contribute money to the Green Party, as long as you don’t hire a lobbyist. But if you are a CEO that hires a lobbyist, then you have a vested interest in a certain outcome, and that’s where we draw the line.

Most of our money comes from small donors, just everyday people. We don’t have super PACs and things like that. There’s a $2,600 limit to a donation. That is small potatoes, and we have very few people who contribute at that level. I personally think it’s great, if you have to work in the system, to have donors that you don’t have contact with because just asking creates an expectation of a repayment. I think it’s better that candidates are not in the business of fundraising at all. Anonymous online donations where people donate because they support the cause, not because they think you’re going to do something for them or there’s some implied payback, are really great.

But ultimately, we need to have a system of public funding, and the way that can be affordable is by making the public airwaves free for public purpose. The minute you do that, the bottom falls out of campaign funding. It’s no longer needed, and they can raise all the money in the world that they want, but they don’t have an advantage for it. We could solve this problem in a heartbeat, but you can’t solve it unless you also democratize the airwaves and make them a tool for democracy and for educating the public about things that matter, like elections. The minute you do that, the funding campaigns go away. It’s totally within arm’s reach.

Many climate scientists have pointed out that we are already locked in to a certain amount of climate change. So, I’m wondering how the ideas like adaptation and resilience to climate impacts fit into the Green New Deal promise? Why do you believe a Green New Deal is the answer to many of the nation’s economic and social crises?

I transitioned into doing climate work because from my knowledge of science and how you read the data, I certainly share the perspective that we can’t take a single day for granted — that we have to work as fast as humanly possible to completely zero out climate emissions, but we have to do more than that as well.

Restoring ecosystem resilience is part of the Green New Deal, which we don’t often talk about because we’re usually focused on the headlines: energy, transportation and food. Those are the big three for climate emissions, and they’re critical for economic security, so that’s kind of where the focus is, but [the Green Party] equally talks about so-called “pink jobs”: the jobs of meeting human needs.

We also talk about the jobs of ecosystem needs and restoring ecosystems in the same way that the New Deal had a big conservation component to it. There’s a big component of [restoration] as well in the Green New Deal.

“The Green New Deal virtually pays for itself in terms of the health savings alone because what injures the health of the climate also injures human health.”

We look at restoring shorelines, restoring deltas, restoring forests, restoring grazing systems and so on, because once you begin to do that, you incredibly magnify everything else that you do [in regards to mitigating the impacts of climate change]. To zero out climate emissions, you also have to accelerate natural carbon sequestration through ecosystems. That’s the only way to do it reliably. There are many forms of [restoration] which also create jobs and save us humongous amounts of money in the long haul.

The Green New Deal virtually pays for itself just in terms of the health savings alone because what injures the health of the climate also injures human health. We’re so accustomed that we don’t recognize it, but our major health epidemics — from asthma, cancers, heart disease, lung disease and learning disabilities — have enormous ties to air pollution that results from fossil fuels. This has been documented by a whole variety of studies.

It was also documented by Cuba when their oil pipeline went down. Without changing their health care system, when they zeroed out their fossil fuel emissions, Cuba got healthy. It was not only reduction of emissions; it was also that they transitioned to a sustainable and healthy food system, and a sustainable and healthy transportation system, and those are essentially the underpinnings of modern disease — between pollution and a poisonous, predatory food system and passive transportation.

If those things are done well, the need for our health care system — which is really a sick-care system — is enormously reduced, and there are some really fabulous numbers around that. We spend around $3 trillion a year in sick-care expenses, triple what we spend on our military-industrial-security complex. But 75 percent of our health care burden is related to chronic diseases that are largely preventable by doing what it takes to fix the climate. So this is a win-win scenario. It’s a good-news story.

Can you discuss the lawsuit initiated by the Libertarian Party against the Commission on Presidential Debates, and how the Green Party became involved in that suit after you were arrested for simply showing up at the presidential debates in 2012?

The Libertarians initiated this case, and then they brought [the Green Party] into it — so the Libertarians, Greens, Gary Johnson, myself, my running mates and probably others as well. They kind of initiated this whole process and they’ve put together a wonderful plan, which we’ve been collaborating on. [The Libertarian Party] reached out to Rocky Anderson, a former presidential candidate himself, who was also locked out [of the presidential debates], who is a very credible, reputable constitutional lawyer. [The Libertarian Party has] another constitutional lawyer, [Bruce Fein,] from the Reagan administration, who served as an assistant attorney general. [The two lawyers] are very highly regarded and come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, not opposite exactly, but there’s a big space between them.

“We are at an extreme aberration of history right now, and it’s only going to get more extreme.”

They have a very interesting and credible legal strategy, which hasn’t been tested before but is thought to have a reasonable chance in court. We are well aware of [the fact that] what happens in the court can in turn depend on what happens in the court of public opinion, and this is an issue that Americans are really, extremely pissed off about — about not having choices and not being informed about the choices they do have. So, I think all bets are off as to what’s going to happen.

In my home state of Massachusetts, we have fought this battle and we actually won it a couple times, and when we did, it wasn’t over because they have ways to suppress your voice even when you’re in the debate. But if we maintain the same kind of organization and offensive strategy, we’ll be ready to take that on as well.

It’s not impossible. What are the odds? It’s hard to say. It would have been considered a “black swan” event — statistically very unlikely. But I think we’re in an age of the statistically unlikely. We are at an extreme aberration of history right now, and it’s only going to get more extreme. We’re in uncharted territory right now.

What do you have to say to those who are skeptical of the system no matter who’s in charge, to those who believe it’s the system itself that can’t deliver the change we need?

Well, if [the Green Party] were to get in [to the presidency], it would be proof in the principle itself, that we can do things like what Denton did [in banning fracking]. Who would have thought?

The predator state, the economic and political elite got so sure of themselves that they started doing very unstrategic things. It was total overkill, and that’s kind of where we are politically right now. When you look at the amount of money that’s being poured in, how incredibly toxic it is, and how incredibly pissed off and alienated people are by the attack campaigns and all of that, it’s really driving people out of their court. So, our objective is to let people know there’s somewhere to go to. You don’t have to just throw in the towel, abandon ship, jump into the ocean and drown. There’s a lifeboat to come to.

“We need to move beyond simply marching. These things [direct action and electoral politics] go together.”

We wouldn’t presume that the odds are in our favor at this point, but the odds are shifting. Let’s test those waters. Let’s find out. Who would have thought that [the Greek leftist party] Syriza would go from 3 percent to 70 percent in five years? We need to get started. At some point, the tide is going to turn, and it may turn after there are 100 Katrinas up and down all of our coasts, but it’s somewhere along the line. It may be when the next Iraq and Afghanistan disasters are blowing back at us, or with the next economic meltdown — which we are no more secure of now then we were in 2008 because Dodd-Frank has been so utterly neutered and castrated.

If you look at where public opinion is, it’s already in our court. It’s just that most people don’t know that there’s an alternative. They don’t have faith in it. They haven’t proven our credibility — all that. There are a billion organizational reasons why we’re not leaping ahead consistently with public opinion, but we have an incredible, unprecedented opportunity to grow as fast and hard as we can right now.

It’s very hard to reinvent the wheel constantly, but there are so many of these local battles. If we can win referendums, we can take over the city council.

How do social movements like the Occupy movement, which swept the nation in 2011, and now the Black Lives Matter movement, which emphasize direct action and civil disobedience tactics, complement a political and electoral strategy?

When you look at U.S. history and progress on the abolition of slavery, there was a social movement and a political movement in the form of the Liberty Party, whose agenda was then adopted by the Republican Party — which was actually an independent third party at the time that grew very rapidly during a time of great social upheaval. Other examples are the women’s movement, which also had the [National Woman’s Party] in addition to the social movement which involved people going to jail and going on hunger strikes.

If you move forward to the labor movement and the socialist and progressive labor parties and the farmworker parties, it was a time of direct action and very difficult struggles in the street. But those struggles then became political. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “power concedes nothing without a demand,” and that demand needs to happen in the street, in our communities, in our schools and in the voting booth. Because failing that, all the progress that we make in the street and in our communities will be rolled back if we simply wave the white flag of surrender inside the voting booth.

History says these movements didn’t move forward inside the established parties at the time. They needed independent parties in order to really do justice to their agendas. So I think history is full of precedent, and as you’re pointing out, the Black Lives Matter movement, tar sands, the eviction blockades, these are really powerful and important movements. There’s a lot of discussion in the climate movement [of] moving from marching to more than marching.

Before I went into campaign mode, I was working with the Global Climate Convergence whose focus was moving from a climate march to a climate strike, and I think it’s a really interesting concept that could use a lot more discussion, but we’re kind of at that point now. We need to move beyond simply marching.

These things [direct action and electoral politics] go together. During the last election, I was arrested three times in three direct actions to show solidarity and support for the evictions blockades in Philadelphia, for the Tar Sands Blockade here in Texas, and for the principles of democracy and open debates.

Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are both 2016 presidential candidates. I was hoping you could talk about the role of family dynasties in the presidency and what that says about our political system.

I think the fact that the dynasties are out in front already, with the donors, with the networks, with the machines, speaks volumes about what our political system is in this country. This is just one more nail in the coffin, and I think people are ready to bury that coffin and to move on, but we desperately need a new narrative.

The media, with the exception of Truthout and the independent media, is there to advance the predatory narrative and to suppress the alternative narrative. It’s not that hard to propagate our alternative narrative when we have the tools.

We can do it in the same way we turned around the [Federal Communications Commission on net neutrality], which was an incredible achievement over the course of the last year that had a lot to do with our communications and with direct action. It’s another example of how we need a multiple pronged strategy. There’s enormous capacity here to build on. Clinton versus Bush, which is kind of the way things are going right now, makes the situation as extreme as it really is. It’s a good context in which to have this discussion.

What’s your response to the idea of voting for the lesser of two evils? Many feel they are locked into this conundrum in the voting booth, where they want to vote for the third party candidate who reflects their values more but end up voting for a major party candidate because they don’t want their opponent to win.

It’s important to recognize that we are force-fed a lot of propaganda here and have been for a long time. So it’s really important to separate the mythology from the facts on the ground. We’ve had this sort of politics of fear, certainly since Bush-Nader-Gore. The politics of fear: that we don’t vote our values, that we have to vote our fears. We worry about unintended consequences rather than the things that we actually want to advance. That philosophy, that strategy, now has a track record.

We had Bush and all the terrible things under Bush. Then we had Obama, even with the Democratic Congress in both houses for two years. And what did we get under Obama? It was Bush on steroids. We continued to have more of that because the electorate reacted against Obama — because what was he doing? He was continuing to bail out Wall Street. He was looking the other way at predatory mortgages and the continuing foreclosure crisis, the offshoring of our jobs. On all cylinders, Obama really led the charge in the absolute wrong direction, and so people then rejected the Democratic Congress when they then had the option.

“The politics of fear doesn’t get you where you need to go.”

It makes the point that the politics of fear has delivered everything we were afraid of. The politics of fear doesn’t get you where you need to go. Whether you’re backsliding at 100 miles an hour or 80 miles an hour, it doesn’t matter; we’re still backsliding. We fundamentally need to stop this backsliding and move forward. Only we can do that. They’re not going to do that for us. We can’t just work around the margins of our electoral system because if we do all the right things in the street but continue to be moved by the economic and political elite, it doesn’t matter because they steamroll over the small progress that we’re able to make.

The bottom line is the politics of fear delivers what we’re afraid of. We need to look at those facts on the ground. When you have a friendly Democrat who speaks your language and uses the right buzzwords, of course you want to vote for that person over the vicious Republican, but they’re both funded by the same guys. The Democrats have every bit as bad a record as Republicans.

It’s important to remember what we did under Richard Nixon, as demonic a Republican as any. We did amazing things: on women’s rights, the war, establishing the [Environmental Protection Agency] and the Clean Air Act. We did that because we mobilized, and political activism became a way of life. It’s going to have to be again. I think for a lot of people it’s no longer a matter of giving up on the Democratic Party. People already have, and 2014 was the evidence of that.

So are we going to confine ourselves to those two choices? It’s outrageous, because to do so really tells the largest sector of the population not to vote. It locks them out of the election, and then all hope really is lost.

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