Thinking and voting outside the two-party box

Dr. Jill Stein is a leading member of the Green Party and its likely presidential candidate in 2016. A longtime activist, including around issues of health care reform and ecological justice, Stein ran for several offices as a Green in Massachusetts, before becoming the party's presidential nomination in 2012, where she won 456,169 votes. She talked to Todd Chretien about why she's running again and the importance of an independent alternative to the two-party system. The International Socialist Organization, publishers of this website, has endorsed Stein's campaign for president.

Dr. Jill Stein (Gage Skidmore)Dr. Jill Stein (Gage Skidmore)

A LOT of progressive energy in the election up until now has flowed to Bernie Sanders. It's incredible that a socialist candidate has attracted such support, especially among young people. What do you think has happened in the last 25 years to lead to this phenomena?

IT'S NO secret. The economy has been throwing everyday people under the bus because it puts profit over people--It's rigged in favor of the wealthy.

This has been going on for decades. Look back to Bill Clinton's presidency, including the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act and the signing of NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. The groundwork was laid for the Wall Street-engineered crash that destroyed 5 million people's homes, 9 million workers' jobs and $13 trillion in household wealth.

Add to that the bipartisan attacks on unions and working people that robbed people of health care and pensions. Even now, when the jobs are coming back, they are low-wage, temporary and part-time, and they're barely above the poverty level. Forty percent of workers are earning less than $20,000 per year!

There's really been a bipartisan collusion with the 1 Percent. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, "We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."

Unfortunately, our country has been concentrating wealth and losing democracy. And now it's reaching its logical conclusions--it's the inevitable final stages of predatory capitalism that's creating an unlivable world. Not only is our economy increasingly unfair, but now we're putting the very future of the planet at stake.

All these crises really converge on the backs of the younger generation--especially the crisis of police brutality and mass incarceration. This generation is suffering, up close and personal, the ravages of unbridled capitalism. So it's absolutely logical that millions of people are rejecting that system and moving toward a more just system that many people see in the promise of economic democracy--in other words, a more socialist type of economic system.

LET'S TALK about some of the specific issues, starting with climate change. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton claim that the COP 21 conference in Paris last December ended with a landmark agreement. You were in Paris--could you give us your opinion?

IT WAS, perhaps, a symbolic victory to have all these countries signing on, but the time for symbolism is long gone. We have a world that is going up in flames right now, and we need real emergency action.

COP 21 is voluntary and, even if completely fulfilled, would still lead to a temperature rise of well over 2 degrees Celsius [the point at which irreversible climate change will take place, say scientists], perhaps somewhere in the neighborhood of 3.5 to 4 degrees.

Worse, there's no enforcement mechanism, and it's completely hobbled by hypocrisy. As it was being finalized, President Obama was actually signing a bill that would lift the ban on exporting oil out of the United States, which will massively increase fossil-fuel production.

We need to go far beyond COP 21, but we see our government's actions as just another example of how it has been hijacked in the interest of the fossil-fuel industry. So while the Democrats pay lip service to the climate crisis, what they actually do is something entirely different.

For example, Obama's "all of the above" energy plan pretends to be friendly to the climate. Yet while it doubled the nation's production of renewable energy, this still represents only a fraction of our output. Meanwhile, by promoting fracking and other forms of extraction, it blew the lid off fossil-fuel production.

YOUNG PEOPLE today are saddled with incredible college debt. You've proposed abolishing this debt. How would you pay for that, and do you think it's really possible?

IT'S NOT only possible, it's essential. If we found a way to bail out the crooks on Wall Street who crashed the economy through waste, fraud and abuse, we can certainly find a way to help students who are some of the chief victims of that crash. We bailed out Wall Street to the tune of $17 trillion when you include the no-interest loans and the straight-up bailouts they received. The good news is that student debt is tiny by comparison: only $1.3 trillion.

And we have the people power to make this happen. There are 43 million young and not-so-young people burdened with predatory student loan debt. That turns out to be a winning plurality of a presidential vote, especially if all those students bring out a family member or two! Students aren't only the victims of the student loan debacle. They are leading the charge to fix this crisis.

BLACK LIVES Matter has brought the epidemic of racist police murders to the fore. But racism extends beyond the police. Why should people fighting racism and anti-immigrant bigotry consider supporting your campaign?

MARTIN LUTHER King Jr. said it best: We are facing the triple monsters of racism, militarism and extreme materialism--a.k.a. capitalism. We need to build coalitions to link racial justice to climate justice to immigrant justice and to peace and democracy.

This is very much what we're trying to do in the world of independent politics, in the Green Party and our growing red-green alliance. We're working together to build a broad coalition for people, planet and peace over profit, in which racial justice is a central goal.

Our campaign has been there on the frontlines of many of these struggles, including supporting the communities standing up against police violence in Ferguson, in Staten Island, in Washington, D.C., in Chicago, in Benton Harbor--you name it, we've been there supporting the families and the communities.

We are calling for police review boards so that communities are controlling their police and not the other way around. We demand full-time investigators readily available for communities to examine all cases of death and serious injury in police custody. It shouldn't require an act of God to get the Department of Justice to investigate a murder at the hands of the police.

We've been there in the border towns where people have not only been fighting for immigrant rights, but just for plain old civil liberties. Along the border, the cops can just violate your civil liberties at will. Civil rights don't really exist.

We've been at the detention centers, and we are calling for all of them to be shut down. Instead, we support a welcoming path to citizenship as well as an immediate end to detentions, deportations and night raids. Immigrants are learning that the Republicans are the party of hate and fearmongering, while the Democrats are the party of deportations and night raids.

And we call for the end of the racist war on drugs. Substance abuse should be treated as a health issue, not as a crime. We demand the freeing of nonviolent drug offenders, who never should have been incarcerated in the first place. They not only deserve rehabilitation and education, they deserve jobs.

THERE ARE 39,000 Verizon workers on strike as we speak. Over the last 40 years, unions and working-class living standards have been devastated by neoliberalism, supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. You've proposed what you call a Green New Deal to address many of these problems.

TO START with, even before we get to the big systemic solution, we should immediately raise the minimum wage nationally to $15 an hour, so that it's a living wage, not a poverty wage. We can repeal the Taft-Hartley Act that prohibits unions from conducting sympathy strikes and really exerting their power in solidarity with other groups of workers. We must stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership and renegotiate NAFTA, which play a role in sending our jobs overseas. These are just the first steps to start putting people over profit.

But let me talk about the big solution: the Green New Deal. We need to declare a state of emergency with respect to poverty, racism and the climate. We need to take dramatic action now.

We call for creating 20 million jobs, living wage and above, that can transition us on an emergency basis to a 100 percent clean, a renewable energy economy, a healthy and sustainable local food system, public and energy-efficient transportation, and restoration of our ecosystems. These jobs would go first to the communities affected most directly by the economic and climate crises, which are, overwhelmingly, communities of color.

Not only do we propose achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, but we also support an immediate ban on new fossil-fuel infrastructure and exploration, so that we stop making the problem worse.

Some will say this is impossible, but at the outset of the Second World War, almost none of our gross domestic product was dedicated to military production. Yet just six months after the declaration of war, fully 25 percent of the GDP was dedicated to war production.

If we could do 25 percent in six months, you can be sure we can reach 100 percent renewable by 2030. This must be a national, all-out effort that will essentially create the right to a job.

This would not only turn the tide on climate change. It would guarantee good jobs and economic security, a critical need in communities of color. And it makes wars for oil obsolete, so we can pay for this by cutting the bloated military budget. This in turn makes us more safe, not less safe, by removing the Pentagon's trigger finger on foreign policy.

YOU DECIDED to run a campaign independent of the two mainstream parties. Given all the excitement that Sanders has generated, many people who are very critical of Clinton are hoping it might be possible to reform the Democrats and turn them into a truly left-wing party. Even those who don't hold out much hope to reforming the Democrats will be pressured to vote for Clinton as the lesser evil in order to stop Trump. And you will, no doubt, be called a "spoiler." How do you respond to these arguments?

THERE HAS been a long and valiant effort for many decades to reform the Democratic Party. But the party has a built-in kill switch that it created in 1972 after George McGovern won the primaries as a peace candidate.

They changed the internal party system to insure that grassroots candidates would never be elected again. This included creating the superdelegates in order to empower the party insiders to call the shots. The superdelegates are about 30 percent of the total needed to win the nomination, so it's a very powerful firewall. Likewise with the Super Tuesday primaries. So it's a doomed struggle, right from the outset, to try to reform the party.

You only have to look back to the era of the civil rights movement to learn this lesson. That movement was as powerful a movement as we have seen in modern history and, together with the labor movement, which was much more powerful than it is today, there was an attempt to organize what was called "realignment" inside the Democratic Party.

It did succeed in getting the conservative Southern Dixiecrats out of the Democratic Party, but that's as far as it got. It completely floundered on the effort to create a social-democratic party out of the Democrats. Why was that?

Specifically, it was the war in Vietnam that made it essential to be an imperialist or pro-war if you wanted to have the "credibility" to critique the Democratic Party. This basically shot that reform movement--in the foot, you could say! Because at the end of the day, the Democratic Party is funded by war profiteers, predatory banks and fossil-fuel giants. So this is not where we are going to create that party of revolution. It is fundamentally a counterrevolutionary party.

About the spoiler effect, I'll say a few things. First of all, just to put it to rest. It's a myth that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the presidential election in Florida in 2000. It was the U.S. Supreme Court that stopped the vote re-count, which Gore would have won had it continued.

But beyond that, the problem is that millions of Florida Democrats didn't come out to vote for Gore. Nader's votes in Florida were a tiny fraction of the Democrats who either voted for Bush or stayed home. Blaming Nader is a self-serving fear campaign that the Democrats use to silence their opposition.

Blaming Nader or other third-party candidates is a strategy to intimidate people into a politics of fear that tells you to vote against what you fear instead of voting for what you believe. But in fact, the politics of fear has delivered everything we were afraid of.

We can list all the reasons people are told to silence themselves and vote for a lesser evil candidate: we were afraid of jobs going overseas, the climate meltdown, expanding wars, the attack on our civil liberties and on immigrant rights, expansion of the prison state, etc. Look around. This is exactly what we've gotten--much of it under a Democratic White House with two Democratic houses of Congress.

Take the Wall Street bailout. Obama did that with a majority of Democrats in both houses of Congress in 2009. That's when that all occurred. So the politics of fear delivers what we're afraid of. The lesser evil is not the solution. It merely paves the way to the greater evil. It ensures that the Democratic Party base gets demoralized and doesn't come out to vote. So the greater evil wins. We've seen this time and again.

GIVEN THAT Clinton is likely going to win the nomination, you've said that Sanders supporters should consider your campaign a Plan B, and you've even publicly offered to discuss the potential third-party run with Sanders. Do you think Sanders will really consider leaving the Democratic Party? And if he doesn't, why should his supporters consider supporting you?

BERNIE HAS been very consistent over many years. In fact, the Green Party has been reaching out to him since 2011 to explore collaboration, especially around a presidential campaign. We have yet to have a phone call returned or an e-mail responded to.

But who knows--after the beating that he's getting, the very unfair treatment he's getting from the Democratic Party, perhaps he'll change his mind. We'll see! It can't hurt to extend an olive branch.

After all, we're in a pretty desperate situation as a society. It's time to think outside the box. So we're attempting to engage that conversation with Senator Sanders.

His base has been very responsive. In fact, it was his base that really suggested we specifically reach out. We've said we're open to collaboration, and many of Sanders' supporters are flocking to us on social media. Especially since he announced he was laying off hundreds of his campaign workers after the Northeast Super Tuesday election results.

His base, especially young people, see what they're up against. They don't see reality through the filters that we tend to develop over the decades.

That's why the vision of young people is very important here. They can't be easily tricked into supporting a predatory, corporate party. They understand how much of their future is at risk: the climate, the lack of jobs, student debt, racist police, etc. They get that this is a desperate situation. And we see the beginnings of a voter revolt.

WHILE THERE is some common ground between your platform and some of Sanders' proposals, there are also some sharp disagreements. For instance, you are a vocal supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. You also propose cutting the military budget by at least 50 percent, ending arms sales to governments who violate human rights, and closing all 700 U.S. military bases around the world. These stand in sharp contrast to Sanders' views. In fact, Sanders seems to agree much more with Clinton than he does with you on these policies.

ABSOLUTELY, ALTHOUGH I'll just say that I think these are more disagreements between my campaign and Senator Sanders than with his base, who agrees with us more than him on these issues.

In fact, his base has been pushing him, and he has been getting more, shall we say, fuzzy about his foreign-policy planks, and perhaps even a little more open to a principled antiwar policy, though he's still not taken the sort of hard stand he has to. For instance, he'll talk about the human rights of the Palestinians, but he won't talk about the U.S. enabling Israeli war crimes by delivering more than $8 million a day in military aid to a country massively violating human rights.

I think my positions resonate with Sanders' base, and if he were liberated from the Democratic Party, then perhaps he would do the right thing. But that's not going to happen inside the Democratic Party, that's for sure.

We are calling for a foreign policy that goes back to the drawing board because our current policy is based on economic and military domination. We need a foreign policy based on international law, human rights and diplomacy.

The current foreign policy isn't working out so well for us. We've spend $6 trillion since September 11, 2001, on these wars for oil or wars on terror, whatever you call them. That comes out to $75,000 per household in the United States by the time we get done paying everything, including the chronic health problems suffered by wounded U.S. veterans. It's a devastating burden.

A million people have been killed in Iraq alone, and that isn't winning the hearts and minds of people in the Middle East, to say the least. And we have killed or wounded tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers. What do we have to show for it? Failed states and a mass refugee crisis.

And with each new front in this war in the Middle East, we are creating worse terrorist threats. ISIS grew out of the devastation in Iraq, which was largely our doing, just as al-Qaeda grew out of our policies in Afghanistan. In fact, the origins of Jihadist terrorism goes right back to the CIA and the Saudi monarchy, which created this religious, extremist force in order to fight the USSR in Afghanistan.

But it came back to bite us in a very big way. We created a Frankenstein's monster. And it unleashed the Saudis, who have been enabled by us as a terrorist monarchy in their own right.

We need to put a halt to these catastrophic wars for oil with a peace offensive. That's not where the Sanders campaign is. They look to the Saudis as being part of the solution. The reality is that the Saudis, along with the U.S., share culpability in being the major promoters of war, instability and poverty in the Middle East.

SPEAKING OF international politics, in both Europe and Latin America--where there are more democratic electoral laws and even parties that claim to be leftist or socialist in power--making radical political change hasn't been as easy as electing, for instance, the SYRIZA government in Greece. How do you see the relation between left-wing election campaigns and building up social movement and union power?

THAT'S A very important question. Transformative social change is always led by movements. The role of electoral politics, in my view, and in the view of the Green Party, is to amplify those movements and give them greater power.

If social movements don't challenge power, then they are in real trouble. That's how SYRIZA originated as a political party. They saw that after a series of demonstrations, it's all over and done. This has been happening over and over again in the U.S. and beyond. We can bring out millions of people to stop a war, but the press won't cover it. So we have to go beyond demonstrations, and we have to challenge power, including in the voting booth.

I can't say enough about the young people who are leading in the streets in the fights for a living wage, to stop police brutality, or to win immigrant rights. They are risking everything.

Look at the workers at Verizon now who are putting everything on the line. They are standing up for workers' rights, for job security and for decent wages. Look at the young people who've been arrested fighting for racial justice and, I must say, have even lost their lives standing up to police brutality. I just returned from meeting with young people standing up against discrimination at Yale and fighting for divestment from fossil fuels at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. These are courageous actions.

We say that not only do we have to bring the revolution to our workplaces, our schools and our streets, but we have to amplify that power in the context of the elections. The elections should not be allowed to silence what's really happening in the struggles that our frontline communities are leading.

Elections need to be used as a megaphone for the struggles for social, climate and racial justice. That's how we've defined the purpose of our campaign from the very start.

At the end of the day, the real engines of change are the social movements, but it's critical that they fight for power in the electoral arena, because that's where you can concretize change.

Just look at the labor movement in the first half of the 20th century. Not only was it alive and well in the streets and in workplaces, but it expressed itself in the voting booth with the Socialist and Communist Parties, and with the Farmer-Labor Parties and the Progressives and Populists. It really fought the battle on all fronts.

In fact, one can argue that the day the labor movement gave up its own political voice--by joining the Democratic Party as part of a New Deal coalition--was the day real progress ended. The third parties lost their agenda and identity inside the Democratic Party, and social and economic justice has been backsliding ever since.

Third parties are not only legitimate, they are absolutely necessary, because they, along with social movements on the ground, create the conditions for real change. So now is the time to gather our courage and stand up--just like the workers at Verizon, the students on the campuses, and the young people in Black Lives Matter.

Now is the time to bring that kind of courage into the voting booth--to forget the lesser evil and fight for the greater good.