As the 2016 presidential campaign creeps out of the gates, American politics seems to be at yet another crossroads. Discontent over economic inequality, unchecked climate change , and systemic racism in the criminal justice system have spurred growing protest movements across the country. Meanwhile, the country's two major political parties are more polarized than ever, endlessly locked in a farcical partisan dance that brought governance to a standstill. Voters can be forgiven for thinking that the democratic process is broken and that their leaders have failed to respond to their most urgent needs—it's no surprise that the 2014 midterm election had the lowest turnout in 72 years.
Amid this political landscape, Green Party activist Jill Stein feels it may finally be time for a real third-party movement to take hold in the US. On Friday, Stein, a Massachusetts doctor, announced that she is considering another run for the Green Party's presidential nomination in 2016, declaring in a press conference that "it is time for generational shifts in our national vision."
"We've had enough of rule by the economic elite," she told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. "The old politics is collapsing and the political vacuum is begging to be filled. 2016 provides an incredible opportunity to fill that vacuum and surge forward."
For most voters, the Green Party is best known for Ralph Nader's spoiler campaign in 2000, which some argue tipped the scales in favor of a Bush presidency. There's been a reluctance for left-leaning voters to embrace a third party ever since, and the Green Party has subsequently faded from relevance, gathering only a fraction of Nader's 2.8 million votes in subsequent elections. And despite increasingly dire reports from scientists, climate change routinely polls near the bottom of the list of American voters' priorities.
But Stein, who ran as the Green Party's candidate in 2012, believes the movement is ripe for a comeback. She may have a point—a recent Gallup poll showed 58 percent of Americans desire a viable third party, near the all-time high set in 2013. And while Stein received less than 1 percent of the vote in 2012 , she still managed to become the most successful female presidential candidate in history. Her campaign has a strategy to expand that success in 2016, she says, with a stronger focus on digital organizing and social media.
"In this country, people are rightfully very cynical about politics because the models that have been held up are completely toxic," Stein said in an interview with VICE this weekend. "We have the potential to be the dominant political force. We have the numbers, we have the expertise, we have the grassroots vision, and sense of democracy."
Stein believes that the party can gain broader support by tying environmental issues to economic and social justice issues, bringing in disparate progressive movements that have gained momentum over the past year. "The reality is that every one of the crises we're facing right now, from the climate crisis to the economic meltdown to the assault on communities of color and police militarization, there are solutions," she said. "It's not an accident, there's a real effort to divide the environmental community from the social and economic justice community, and it's absolutely false. The economy will collapse in a second if there's not a stable climate."
"In my experience, the problem is not persuading people… that we must work together. The problem is overcoming the media blackout and the things that silence us," Stein added. "Where those movements are being funded by offshoots of the Democratic Party, then it doesn't work. Then the agenda is being dictated."
While the encyclopedic Green Party platform reads more like an aspirational wish list for a progressive utopia than an achievable set of policy goals, Stein has honed in a specific set of proposals she believes could gain popular support outside of her relatively tiny network of activists. That includes a "Green New Deal" public works program aimed at making the country powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2030; comprehensive immigration, education, and healthcare reform; a "radical reduction" in the prison population; and the legalization of a number of recreational drugs. The reforms would be paid for in part by reducing the US defense budget, as well as by the public health savings that would come from eliminating the use of fossil fuels.
"The bottom line here is that the number one environmental issue is jobs," she said. "That in my mind cuts through the fog here that these are both emergencies—they can both be solved together and this is a win-win."
In a political environment where science is often optional, Stein stands out for her purist belief that modern science can play a central role in improving daily life for average citizens. A medical doctor, Stein has co-authored two reports on the environmental influences on public health and advocates for plant-based food systems and "active transportation" like biking and walking. "We need community infrastructure which supports health, as opposed to the community infrastructure we currently have, which really inflicts disease," she said.
Of course, Stein isn't likely to make much of an electoral impact on the 2016 race. For one thing, her campaign would be decidedly low budget, thanks in part to her refusal to take corporate donations. In 2012, her campaign raised just $1 million, enough for just a few television ads. Her response to Obama's State of the Union address last month appeared to be filmed with her computer's webcam, with dogs barking in the background.
"It does create a steep uphill battle, but I think the American people are hitting the wall for what we can stomach in this very toxic money-dominated political mode that has been inflicted on us," she said.
Despite the Green Party's admittedly low chances, other progressives remain wary of any left-leaning third party effort. "It's hard to see how the symbolism of a run ever compensates for real damage," said Richard Reiss, a fellow at the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities. "Within the existing system, the Green Party itself is a marginal force, and can only be a distraction."
But Stein maintains that she can win. "We don't have to persuade people, we don't have to change people's minds. All we have to do is flick that switch in our own minds from powerlessness to powerfulness," she said. "The minute we do that, the future is in our hands."
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