Chasing the third-party rainbow: Jill Stein on Sanders, the two-party system, and the "equivalent evils" of Trump and Clinton

"I will not sleep at night with either of them elected," Jill Stein tells Salon about the Clinton-Trump battle

Published July 28, 2016 6:10PM (EDT)

Jill Stein speaks at Occupy anniversary event in September (Wikimedia/ PaulSteinJC)
Jill Stein speaks at Occupy anniversary event in September (Wikimedia/ PaulSteinJC)

Jill Stein is the Green Party's 2016 presidential candidate. A practicing physician, Stein has only held one elected office in her life, serving as a town meeting seat holder in Lexington, MA. But she has a decades-long history of progressive activism, working with non-profits and grassroots organizations to combat environmental injustice and financial corruption, among other things.

Dr. Stein is the lesser known of the two third-party candidates. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, has received far more media attention. But Stein has amassed a following on the far left. She has seized on Bernie Sanders's capitulation to Hillary Clinton, using her Twitter account to lure his disillusioned supporters. “I call on the millions inspired by Bernie's call for political revolution to reject the self-defeating strategy of voting for the lesser evil,” she wrote two weeks ago.

On Wednesday, I sat down with Dr. Stein a few blocks from the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. I wanted to know why she was running and how she would respond to criticisms of her and the Green Party. I had only 15 minutes and thus little time for counterarguments. Readers will have to decide whether she engaged the points I raised or whether her answers are persuasive.

Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

You've been very critical of Bernie Sanders, particularly since he capitulated to Clinton. You said recently that he was “lulled into compliance” by the Democratic Party. Do you think he's a sellout? Has he betrayed progressives?

No, I don't think so. I really respect what Bernie has done and never expected anything different. Bernie's a man of his word and he always said he would support the nominee. I extended an olive branch to him and I still hope that someday there will be a collaboration. This is a movement he gave life to, and his fingerprints are all over it and I think we owe him a debt of gratitude.

You've told progressives that there aren't enough differences between the parties to save the planet or their lives or their jobs. But only one party acknowledges the reality of climate change, only one party believes in universal health care, only one party rejects the phantasm of trickle down economics, only one party affirms a woman's right to control her reproductive cycle. Democrats don't always deliver on the policy front, but much of that has to do with Republican obstructionism. In any case, are these not hugely consequential differences between the parties?

Well, lip service in one thing but the track record is another, and as a scientist and a medical doctor, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that what we did under all of the above was actually worse for the climate then under “Drill Baby Drill.” All of the above turned out to be “Drill Baby Drill” on steroids because it totally took the lid off of fossil fuel extraction and production. So nature doesn't care about renewable energy – people care, but nature doesn't. So yes, all of the above gave us more renewable energy but it massively increased the output of fossil fuels and, in fact, the rate of increase of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere actually got a lot worse and is accelerating under a decade of Democratic policies. The Democrats promote fracking and “Drill Baby Drill” under all of the above. And by the way, we did have two Democratic houses of congress – why did they flip? Because Obama turned out to be a lesser evil president. He chose to bail out Wall Street. He chose to bring back Larry Summers, the architect of the Wall Street meltdown. That's why people went from blue to red. That's what's stimulating Donald Trump. If there's ever to be any hope of defeating Donald Trump, it's not gonna come from a Clinton neoliberal White House.

What's your response to those  such as Dan Savage, who say the Green Party makes no real, concerted effort to build itself up from the local level? The Green Party is rarely heard from beyond presidential elections. It seems to me a populist party would do well to develop its infrastructure more strategically, to raise awareness by pushing viable candidates in winnable contests around the country. It's a long game to be sure, but is there any other way to become a national brand? Focusing on symbolic presidential campaigns every 4 years seems ill-conceived at best, self-indulgent at worst.

That's just wrong. Dan Savage is entitled to his opinion, but not to his own facts, and he's completely uninformed. In fact, he makes the case for why we need to run at the national level, because otherwise we're ignored by the press, we're ignored by the pundits, we're ignored by the apologists and the elitists. We have a very strong movement and the Green Party is the national voice for it. We are running on all levels of political office, from librarians to school committees up to city councils and governors and for Congress.

Do you currently have any Green Party members serving as governors or competing seriously in gubernatorial campaigns? Do you have any members serving in Congress?

Do we have a system that actually allows people to know about who's running? See, we're kept off the ballot. Maybe that's news to you, but we actually have an extremely oppressive system. What happened? Why is it only the Green Party? We used to have multiple parties? We used to have a Labor Party? Why did they disappear? They had more funding. They had the infrastructure of the labor movement. They had the unions behind them. They were pushed off the political map by the scare campaigns, by the apologists for this predatory political system. In fact, we cannot run for local office unless we're also running for president – I bet Dan Savage didn't know that. So in order to run locally we have to run at the national level.

It's so funny that these pundits and party operatives are very busy telling people who are being thrown under the bus to be good little boys and girls to just follow marching orders and don't go outside of the political parties who are raking you over the coals. People are sick and tired of that.

In 2000, people implored Ralph Nader to run only in “safe states.” (non-swing states). He refused to do so and we know what happened. The idea was to allow progressives to vote their conscience in greater numbers and send a message to the Democratic Party without empowering the GOP. Voters know the Green Party or the Libertarian Party candidates aren't going to win. These are protest votes, and more people would cast them if they were confident they weren't doing Donald Trump or George W. Bush a solid. This matters a great deal to people who detest the two-party system but care deeply about core liberal principles or the balance of the Supreme Court. Why won't you do what many now wish Nader did?

Well, do we know what really happened in 2000? Didn't the Supreme Court call off the recount that Al Gore would have won? Gore refused to stand up. He just rolled over for the Supreme Court.

But the 2000 election isn't merely about Florida. Gore lost New Hampshire by something like 7,000 votes. Nader received over 20,000 votes in New Hampshire. This is a state Democrats have won in every presidential election since 1992 save for 2000. It's pretty clear Gore would've won if Nader wasn't on the ballot. That alone would've flipped the election.

Well, did he have a right to those votes? Do politicians have a new form of entitlement? Are they entitled to our votes? I think they have to earn our votes. And right now, Hillary Clinton doesn't have our votes. Nor does Donald Trump. In fact, the recent CNN poll shows the majority of their supporters don't support them – they're opposing the other candidate. So what's wrong with this system where people are voting against what they fear rather than for what they want. We're in a completely different time than the 2000 election, because most people have now rejected the Republican and Democratic parties. We can also see what the track record is of this politics of fear. It delivered everything we were afraid of, all the reasons you were supposed to vote for the lesser evil. We didn't want the expanding wars. We didn't want the melting climate. We didn't want the big bailouts and the attacks on immigrants, but this is what we got. Democracy needs a moral compass and we have to lead the way.

Speaking of lesser evils, you tweeted earlier today that there's “no evidence that Hillary Clinton is less evil than Donald Trump.” I think the words “evidence” and “evil” are mostly useless here. Trump doesn't have a record. All we have is his rhetoric and his behavior as a candidate, both of which are obscene and terrifying. So would you at least admit that there are more reasons to worry about a Trump presidency than a Clinton presidency? For all her faults, Clinton is a competent adult. Trump is a dangerous buffoon. Does that concern you at all?

Here's what I'm most worried about: Hillary Clinton gets into office and she has a Congress that's going to work with her. She's going to take us into an air war with Russia over Syria. She wants to start a no-fly zone. She wants to go head-to-head with a nuclear-armed power that Hillary's done a pretty good job of provoking these days. So we could slip into nuclear warfare like that, given Hillary Clinton's judgment and track record and her militarism. I think that is as realistic a scenario as anything.

Ok, but my question is, do you think there's a meaningful difference between Trump and Clinton? Is one not objectively scarier than the other?

I'm terrified of Donald Trump. I'm terrified of Hillary Clinton. And I'm most terrified of a political system and people who apologize for it. I'm terrified of people who tell us that we have two deadly choices and we must pick our weapon of self-destruction. We should not resign ourselves to a trajectory that is making a beeline for oblivion. The day of reckoning on climate is coming closer and closer, and I don't regard Hillary Clinton as one iota safer than Donald Trump on the climate. She's been promoting fracking around the world. Maybe she's the most effective evil. She gets a lot of people to do what she wants. She's got a whole Democratic Party system behind her, which has proven itself extremely effective and extremely dangerous.

Does the possibility of losing the Supreme Court for a generation trouble you? At the very least, Clinton would choose justices who would preserve women's rights and make crucial judgments about campaign finance and gun laws.

Like her vice presidential choice who does not support a woman's right to choose and has supported restrictions on abortion.

To be fair, I believe those are Tim Kaine's personal beliefs, not his policy positions. He has drawn a distinction between these things.

Well, he has supported policies that will restrict the right to choose. So I don't have faith in Hillary Clinton. We are the ones who should be pressuring the Supreme Court. This is how we got Roe v. Wade to start with an extremely conservative court. This is how we brought the troops home from Vietnam, how we got the EPA, the Clean Air Act the Clean Water Act, and protections for workers under one of the most corrupt conservative presidents ever in the form of Richard Nixon. So we've been incredibly disempowered by drinking this Kool-aid that tells us we're powerless. I think we are whole people on a whole planet and when we get together on an agenda for people, planet, and peace over profit, we are an unstoppable movement. We are moving forward. We are the only campaign that can stop Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders could have stopped Donald Trump. He was beating him in every poll? Why did the DNC take him down? If Trump prevails, we have the DNC to thank for it.

I know you have to run, so one last question: If our choice was ultimately reduced to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, who would you rather live with? Who would more reliably defend progressive values?

Do we live in Iran where they tell us we have one or two choices. We live in the United States of America. We live in a democracy. We are building that democracy, and that democracy doesn't consist of two deadly choices.

Is that to say that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are equivalent evils in your mind?

I am not voting for either of them. I will not sleep at night with either of them elected, and I will work to move forward that political revolution so that we can actually have a democracy and a planet on which we can survive and thrive. Hillary Clinton is only going to fan the flames of the right-wing extremism supporting the Donald Trumps of the world.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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