Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate for President, has come under widespread attack from Hillary Clinton's unscrupulous supporters, but the real problem with Stein is how and why she became the most prominent left-wing candidate in the first place.
As we approach November, the attacks on Jill Stein will only increase from Hillary Clinton’s most enthusiastic supporters. These people are horrified by the possibility–however unlikely–that Donald Trump will become the next President of the United States, but they do not seem to be so horrified at the prospect of Hillary Clinton becoming President. They will largely be aware of Clinton’s support for the war in Iraq, her role as an architect of various brutal interventions as the Secretary of State in the Obama administration, her support for her husband’s policies of expanding mass incarceration, and her support for mass deportations. Yes, they will be aware of all of these. But they can put it all aside.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, is so bad because he rubs it in your face. That is abominable. Supporting Clinton, on the other hand, gives liberals a nice warm feeling. Sure, she has problems, they will say, but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Then, in the next breath, they will declare that Jill Stein is the worst person who has ever walked this planet, because her very existence challenges the narrative of nice, warm-feeling liberalism in support of Hillary Clinton.
This is a problem for those of us on the radical and revolutionary spectrum of US politics, because we have to be clear about the utterly bankrupt attacks from Clinton’s defenders, but we also must have an independent critique of Jill Stein and the Green Party from our own perspective, and not from the neoliberal war hawk perspective.
A number of criticisms have circulated in recent months about Stein’s political platform, as well as the Green Party’s, which are not necessarily the same. Sure, we can point out some of her positions that we disagree with, and for some people there will be a litmus test that Stein cannot pass. There is nothing wrong with this. If sex work is the most important issue to you, and you are dissatisfied with her attitude on sex work, then you should not support her, and you should focus on sex work organizing. The radical community, and hopefully sex workers, will be better off for you having done that. Practical organizing over real issues that affect people’s lives will always be more worthwhile than electoral organizing.
The real problem, however, is not with any particular political position that Stein holds. Any person in her position will have some views which are just not good enough in some cases and that some radicals, rightly, cannot go along with. But the real problem is not in her political views, but in how she has become elevated by various forces on the Left to become the semi-official electoral representative of anti-capitalist struggle.
The real problem with Jill Stein is not so much with Stein as it is with the Left itself.
Why Jill Stein?
We need to ask this question, over and over again, because so many of our radically-inclined comrades are so unwilling to do so. Why Jill Stein? There are many people with politics as radical or even more so than hers who could be in the position she is in now. But they are not. Why is this the case? There is a simple answer to this question: the Green Party.
Stein has become the de facto leader of many on the Left because she won the Green Party nomination for President in 2012. This gave her the profile she has had for the last few months, has given her access to the media and has made her the presumptive and then the actual nominee for the Green Party in 2016. In other words, many people have decided that the Green Party is going to be the official channel by which these decisions will be made. This, and the fact that she has not completely discredited herself the way that some Greens have, is enough for some Leftists so that now “Jill Stein” is the answer to every political question.
Let that sink in for a moment. The Green Party in the US has a history of running candidates who use the party and then dump it for a career in Democratic Party politics. It is worth reviewing the role that the Green Party has played in helping the Democratic Party.
Audie Bock was an active Green Party member for several years when she ran for California State Assembly in 1999 as a Green, won, and then soon after left the Green Party. By 2002, she was officially a Democrat and ran against Congressmember Barbara Lee, stating that Lee’s opposition to the Afghanistan war was unpatriotic.
Rebecca Kaplan was also a mainstay of the Oakland Green Party for many years, running for City Council several times before winning in 2008. In order to earn the support of the Alameda County Central Labor Council, she changed her party registration to Democrat. She won the election and has been on the Council as a Democrat ever since. Kaplan remains a favorite of white progressives but does as little as anybody else on the Council to stop the police from killing Black men.
Ross Mirkarimi was a leading activist in the Green Party in San Francisco for several years and played a prominent role as an organizer for Ralph Nader’s campaign and the Green campaign for Matt Gonzalez for Mayor of San Francisco, which was a genuine threat to the candidacy of Gavin Newsom. Mirkarimi later won election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, changed his registration to Democrat, and then won election as Sheriff of San Francisco County, in charge of the jail system where guards forced gladiator battles between the inmates. Mirkarimi lost re-election in part due to charges that he battered his wife.
Jane Kim is currently a Democrat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors but she ran previously as a Green before switching her allegiance. Nonetheless, she is considered one of the most progressive members of the Board even though she supported a billion dollar “reform” of the City and County workers’ pension. She is currently running for a position in the California State Senate, for which she has earned the endorsement of Bernie Sanders.
Kaplan, Mirkarimi and Kim are all major political figures in Oakland and San Francisco. They all used the Green Party as a stepping stone into the Democratic Party, building left-progressive credentials and developing a base of support, then abandoning the Green Party when it suited their career. Of course, the Green Party cannot control every individual that enters its ranks, but it has shown no interest in doing anything about this problem. It appears to be perfectly happy to be a stepping stone for other people’s political aspirations. So long as there are people coming into the Green Party and campaigns that get some support and so long as there is an active base, everybody can feel like the Green Party is doing something positive and that is about all they want.
When people say that the Green Party can be an alternative to the Democratic Party, I wonder which Green Party they are talking about. This is the party that in 2004 ran David Cobb against Ralph Nader (who ran as an independent) because Nader was too opposed to the Democratic Party. Instead, Cobb ran a “safe state” campaign to assure that he would not hurt John Kerry’s chances against George W. Bush in states where the race was close. Fortunately for Cobb, his campaign was so irrelevant that it hardly mattered.
This is the party which has given Jill Stein the stamp of approval to be the official candidate of the Left. Had she not won the nomination in 2012, nobody would be talking about her today as an independent or anything else. There is something fundamentally wrong with a process where this party is left to decide who will be the Left’s official voice for a year or more.
Keynesian economics vs class struggle politics
This process leads us to two further problems with Jill Stein of which there is little recognition from her supporters. First, what does Stein have to offer? She regularly critiques inequality and racism and war, and that is useful. But what does she offer herself? The problem is, her answer to most questions is: “This is what I would do as President.” Burdened by student debt? I will cancel it! The President can appoint a Federal Reserve chair who will do that. Can’t afford healthcare? I will pass single-payer healthcare! Don’t have a job? We are calling for 20 million jobs!
That a person in Stein’s position can say that she will do these things is utterly ridiculous. Try telling poor people that Jill Stein is going to create 20 million jobs and give them free healthcare. While you are at it, you might as well promise them a monorail. They will laugh in your face like the charlatan that you are. She will do no such thing. Ever. She should not promise to do such things. The only way out of the immiseration of class inequality, racist violence and gendered oppression is mass organizing, resistance and revolt among working people. Which I am sure that Stein supports, but her propaganda is entirely focused on the various Keynesian measures that she will supposedly pass as President.
Stein may want to hold up the legacy of Eugene Debs, but she seems hardly interested in doing so in a meaningful way. Instead of telling working people what he would do as President, Debs was committed, over and over again, to telling people what they must do to challenge the capitalist system. “I would not be a Moses to lead you into the Promised Land,” Debs famously said, “because if I could lead you into it, someone else could lead you out of it.” His message to working people was, you have to go out and fight for the world that you want to live in and create it yourself, and it will take great sacrifice and struggle, sacrifice which Debs was more willing than most to make himself, spending many years in prison for his political organizing.
It would be great if Stein or anybody else wanted to run a campaign like Debs, a propaganda campaign whose sole purpose was to encourage people to revolt. Sadly, nobody wants to. The problem is not just that there is no great labor leader today like Debs, who led a an illegal railroad strike that was crushed by the military and later helped form the IWW. No, there are no labor leaders like that today, but that should not stop anybody from running a campaign with his message, right?
The problem is, everybody loves Eugene Debs but nobody wants to be Eugene Debs. They are embarrassed to say that working people have to revolt, that they should not trust leaders including themselves, that the poorest and most oppressed of our society have the most power to transform it, much more so than self-promoting candidates, bureaucrats and academics. No, you don’t say these things among polite company.
While there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
No, the Left today feels much more comfortable explaining how a modest tax increase on the richest one percent could pay for single-payer healthcare and a Green Jobs program, and if we could just convince enough college students and adjunct lecturers to organize for this then maybe some broad left-wing formation could develop that might be powerful enough to fight for it.
But that gets us to the other problem with Jill Stein.
During the Greek negotiations with the European Union in the summer of 2015, all of the promises of SYRIZA were suddenly put to the test. The gruelling negotiations were often described as a coup, as the EU would impose its own sovereignty over the Greek people to bleed them even more than they already had. That there was no plan for this, the most likely outcome, says quite a bit, but that is another story.
What concerns us is that, during the negotiations stories came out that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was under so much pressure from the EU that it amounted to “mental waterboarding.” Considering the fate of Salvador Allende in Chile in the 1970s, Tsipras might consider himself lucky. Nonetheless, we now know that he was not willing to stand up to this pressure and folded.
In the post-SYRIZA era, we now have to ask of every person who wants to pose themselves as a social movement leader, what will you do in the face of “mental waterboarding?” This is a gruesome question to ask, but it has to be asked, not because this is how things turned out in Greece, rather because this is how everything always turns out everywhere. Neoliberalism will not face a serious challenge without responding with at least this much pressure. In the Green Party, we do not even get to mental waterboarding, instead everybody voluntarily abandons the facade of political independence as soon as they get anywhere near a position of power.
It would be nice if, as a gesture, these topics were taken up with some vigour among the Green Party and its supporters, but they are not. They do not even want to bother with the basic steps of trying to assure that various candidates are not going to just use the Party as a stepping stone for their career.
So, is Jill Stein ready for “mental waterboarding?” Has anybody even bothered to ask this question? If not, what do they expect to happen when she takes office, cuts the Department of Defense in half and ends funding to Israel? “We do not expect her to really do any of these things,” they will answer, and that is a good answer. We should follow that answer to its logical conclusion. But the point here is, when similar political forces approach some position of power, whether it is SYRIZA or the local Green Party candidate for City Council, these questions are rarely asked. When they are, a cadre of fools emerges from the woodworks to question why you would ever raise these things, as though their ability to end this conversation is going to help anybody challenge neoliberalism.
The reason why these questions are not addressed is because in many ways the Green Party, the Jill Stein campaign, and much of the Left exist largely for the benefit of their own participants. The problem is not with Stein herself, rather the problem is with the entire conception of what the Left is and should be and how it ought to make decisions about moving forward. So long as Jill Stein is fairly prominent and speaks from a fairly left-wing basis, that is enough for her supporters to go home at night and say, “I have done well,” and not worry about other problems, such as what if she is successful.
These difficult questions, the most practical questions there are about building a social movement, are left unaddressed because they pose difficult problems for which there is not really an answer–nor could there be until we actually try it out in practice. These difficult questions only remind the Left of its limitations, but many people prefer to read a book about Debs and put a Jill Stein bumper sticker on their car, maybe even argue with their neighbors about how so many problems could be resolved with a better fiscal policy that is totally reasonable. Unfortunately, such a fiscal policy will never happen and the task of expropriating the wealthy will be left to those who are the least likely to vote in this or any election.
It is not the case that everybody involved in political organizing in the US is simply looking for a warm fuzzy feeling when they go home at night. Rather, there are hundreds and thousands in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore and Anaheim and Salinas and Milwaukee and Oakland who have risen up against police violence. They are not looking for a good feeling, rather they are looking to protect their lives from state forces that want to kill them. They are not revolting out of inspiration over a Keynesian economic program or a promise to cancel their student loans, rather they are risking their lives and their livelihoods to construct a different world because they cannot survive in the one that they have been born into. They have nothing to lose but their chains.
Many of these people are now sitting in prison for years, charged with looting and arson and battery on an officer. They, too, do not want to be Eugene Debs, they simply did what they had to do to survive in a society that wants to destroy them. You do not have to ask whether these people are prepared for “mental waterboarding” as many of them are now suffering the same or worse.
Imagine Stein or her supporters talking to the young man whose brother was killed by the Milwaukee police, who says of the riots that “this is what you get” when the cops keep killing Black people. Or the people chanting “Black power” while a gas station burns down. Or the many people throwing bottles at police who are occupying their neighborhood. Yes, it is perfectly reasonable that a small tax increase will grant universal healthcare and could launch a jobs program, but maybe these perfectly reasonable solutions mean little to the people most consistently passed over by government programs. On the other hand, Stein’s comments about how to “avoid escalations like Milwaukee” suggest how out of touch she is for those whom escalation is a strategy for survival.
These young people, with their record of sacrifice and courage, ought to be the leaders. They are the basis for future challenges against the current neoliberal order, not the Green Party, no matter how anti-capitalist its official program may become.