‘Fanning the flames of a peaceful revolution’: Green US presidential candidate Jill Stein
To anyone watching the 2016 US presidential race unfold, the big talking point seems to be the unprecedented rise of Donald Trump. On this side of the Atlantic, we have looked on in horror as Trump has raced into a formidable lead among the Republican candidates, with no amount of childish name-calling, racism, and misogyny seeming able to dent his inexplicable poll lead. As Dr Jill Stein puts it, as she addresses a room of Oxford University students, “This election is a farce, a caricature, a mockery of democracy.”
The name Jill Stein may not ring a bell with you. Indeed, by the standards of the Oxford Union Society, she is a fairly low-key speaker booking, nestled in the term card amongst the likes of Mary Berry, Mark Hamill, Lance Armstrong, and the Prime Minister of Kosovo. With so many huge stars on offer, one could be forgiven for skimming past Stein’s name in the calendar.
But by all accounts her relative anonymity is bizarre. This is the woman who ran in the 2012 presidential election under the Green Party banner, and in doing so achieved the highest vote share of any female candidate in history. And she plans to run again.
On the 24th of February, an expectant crowd has gathered to hear the foremost voice in Green Politics in the USA. There are one or two British Greens here, but for the most part it is American accents that can be heard chattering away as the audience takes their seats. Shortly after 8 o’clock, a round of applause starts to ripple from the back of the room, and as it swells, Dr Jill Stein strides to the front and begins what turns out to be one of the more purposeful speeches that the Union will see this term.
As a presidential candidate, Stein offers a contrast to the frenetic energy and wild arm waving that we have come to expect in this race from the likes of Trump and Bernie Sanders, but her calm and measured approach should not be confused with the mannerisms of a typical Capitol Hill politician. As a strong, confident woman in politics it is almost inevitable that Stein will invite comparisons to Hilary Clinton, but she certainly does not see herself as anything like her potential Democratic counterpart. For one thing, as Stein is at pains to emphasise regularly throughout the evening, she is not a big money candidate, nor a candidate representing “corporate politics.” For this reason, Stein comes across as more principled and trustworthy than Clinton. She is also a lot more radical: She speaks passionately but with a justified sense of urgency, as she explains that she is here to “Fan the flames of a peaceful revolution”.
In fact, if there is one US political figure that Dr Stein wants to see herself compared to, it seems to be Franklin D Roosevelt. Roosevelt came to power while America was on its knees during the Great Depression, but through his New Deal and the mass mobilization necessitated by World War Two, he managed to save America from disaster. Stein believes that the simultaneous approaching economic, ecological, and democratic crises pose an even greater threat than the one faced in the 1930s, not just to America but to the whole of humanity, and that to avert this disaster we need to enact emergency policies, much like Roosevelt did on his ascension to office. She’s even proposing her own “Green New Deal.”
At times, Stein’s speech feels almost like a war cry, but this is not a military war to save us from an external enemy. This is a political battle to save us from ourselves. Stein points to World War Two, when the bombing of Pearl Harbor forced the US to enter the conflict, and the subsequent sense of emergency led to rapid mass mobilization which in turn increased GDP drastically. In Stein’s words, “This shows we can make a change when there is an emergency. But what we’re facing today is an emergency. This time, though, we don’t just risk losing one harbor (Pearl Harbor): We risk losing every harbour.” Stein wants to channel the war-time sense of urgency and public spending, but use it to help us avert environmental and social disaster. This is where her Green New Deal comes in.
To us Brits, who generally consider the US political spectrum to be skewed massively to the right, the Green New Deal may seem too radical to ever catch on. Stein wants to transfer to 100% renewable energy by 2030, coupled with an immediate ban on all new fossil fuel infrastructure and exploration. She wants World War Two levels of mass mobilization to create 20 million living wage jobs. She wants to cut the military by 50%, and end wars for oil. She wants universal healthcare as a basic right, under one provider. She wants racial justice, starting with citizen-led police review boards, “in order to put communities in control of their police, instead of the other way round”. She wants to end the war on drugs. Surely in a country like the USA, these ideas are just wishful thinking?
Stein insists that these ideas can be made to work. For starters, cutting the military will free up significant funds to invest in other infrastructure. Likewise, she points out that eliminating fossil fuel pollution would improve national health so dramatically that the scheme would practically pay for itself. She describes the current American system as “sick-care” rather than healthcare, with an inefficient emphasis on treating diseases rather than preventing health problems in the first place, leading to a huge waste of money.
But this is not just some pipe dream for Stein. She argues that for the first time in US political history, the number of Americans who refuse to affiliate with either of the major parties outnumbers those that do. This opens the door to the potential for great political change. She points to opinion polls that show that her Green New Deal contains policies that the public actually want, and attributes their perceived unviability to “a con”- politicians and the media, being paid by large corporations, conspiring to tell us that nobody wants these things. This is partly the reason she is skeptical of Bernie Sanders’ chances- “It’s hard to have a revolutionary candidate within a counterrevolutionary party.” She wants to change the state of US politics, to wrestle back power from the corporations and put it back in the hands of the people, to create a system that works in the interests of the people and the planet: “We’re told resistance is futile. But if we don’t resist, then everything is futile.”
Stein points to the SNP as an example of how dire economic circumstances and a clear positive message can act as a catalyst to turn an outside party into one holding power within a relatively short space of time. She argues that the US Green Party needs to be ready to capitalize on any further social, economic, and environmental disaster. She emphasizes that 43 million Americans are locked into unaffordable student debt: If all of these people realized that the Greens are the only party promising to cancel student debt, they could gain enough votes to win a divided electorate. While Stein laughs off a comparison to Abraham Lincoln made during the question and answer session, she is right to note that Lincoln won the presidency on a third party ticket, during a time of great political trouble. Could history possibly repeat itself in 2016?
Dr Stein has spent a large part of her speech talking about the impending catastrophe facing mankind, but she says, “As a physician, I try not to give hopeless prognoses.” All is not yet lost, but her speech is a warning that we need to drastically change our ways if we don’t want to slip into self-destruction. Could Stein be the candidate to save us from ourselves? She is a realist, and knows that her chances of winning are slim. However for her, success in this election cycle is not necessarily winning the presidency, but rather “getting closer to survival…success is changing our trajectory.” While she may not find herself sitting in the Oval Office come November 8th, as a populist outside candidate, she certainly has the power to influence the outcome and change the terms of the debate. Multiple times throughout her speech, she repeats the mantra that we need to put “people, planet, and peace over profit.” And in the upcoming presidential election, there is only one party dedicated to doing just that. Stein promises that whether or not she wins, she is going to “run as long as I can, as hard as I can, and as loud as I can.” We better hope so: The future of humanity depends on it.