Everybody Hates Jill
Jill Stein just wants to save the world. But no one will let her.
Jill Stein was looking for her cat. Inside her suburban treehouse of a home, slightly north of Boston, the two-time Green Party presidential candidate had been wandering around for about ten minutes, peeking in closets, disappearing into her bedroom. “Lily!” she called, but the feline refused to emerge. “She’s just shy,” she reassured me.
Stein is no stranger to losing things. When we met again a couple months later, we spent 15 minutes looking for her car, a blue Prius with a green "JILL STEIN" bumper sticker, after she forgot where she parked. She’s also lost the 2002 Massachusetts gubernatorial race, a 2004 Massachusetts House of Representatives race, the 2006 Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth race, the 2010 Massachusetts gubernatorial race, the 2012 presidential race, and the 2016 presidential race.
In the process, she’s become both a punchline and a scapegoat. Despite receiving a mere 1,457,050 votes nationwide last year, she became the perfect patsy (alongside many other targets) for devastated Hillary Clinton supporters to project their post-election grief onto. In Clinton’s election memoir, What Happened, she writes, “Stein wouldn’t be worth mentioning, except for the fact that she won thirty-one thousand votes in Wisconsin, where Trump’s margin was smaller than twenty-three thousand. In Michigan, she won fifty-one thousand votes, while Trump’s margin was just over ten thousand.”
The logic of Clinton’s claim is easily disputed—as recounted in a Politico profile of Stein, “National exit polling that shows the majority of [Stein] voters would have stayed home rather than vote for Clinton, while others would have sooner voted for Trump.” Nevertheless, Clinton loyalists and other mainstream liberals have eagerly echoed the former secretary of state’s talking points—one Salon article asserted that Stein “spoiled the election for Hillary,” and an editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report called her “the Ralph Nader of 2016.” Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden, a former Clinton aide, is a notable Stein adversary who once tweeted, “I know I need to let this go but I hope Jill Stein does not so much as whisper a rebuke of Trump pulling out of Paris. #shebuiltthis.”
“She’s human eczema,” Teen Vogue politics columnist Lauren Duca mused on Twitter. She's "a right-wing tool” according to Dan Savage. The famously unhinged political gossip blog Wonkette, which touts itself as the “Official Blog of #THERESISTANCE,” once called Stein “so cunty.” Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald wrote a post-election account of an interaction he had with a fan after learning he voted for Stein: “I interrupted him and said, ‘You’re lucky it’s illegal for me to punch you in the face.’ Then, after telling him to have sex with himself—but with a much cruder term—I turned and walked away.”
Stein herself is not bothered by this hate. In fact, she seems to get a kick out of it. When I told her that she got a mention in What Happened—along with Bernie Sanders, Vladimir Putin, and James Comey—she smiled and said, “I'm honoured to be among the list of heavy hitters. Wow, bring it on.”
The Green Party leader doesn’t worry whether any of the hate could perhaps be justified. If Democrats hate her, it’s because “they’re threatened by voices of integrity that go much farther than they're willing to go in their kind of window dressing solutions.” If people misunderstand her intentions, that’s thanks to “the sponsors, the powerful special interests [that] are controlling the politicians, and unfortunately the corporate media.” She is not the type of politician who backs down if one of her platforms is widely unpopular or nonsensical or unrealistic. She considers herself an activist, a radical idealist who believes this country and the rest of the planet are about to totally collapse, and incremental change simply will not suffice.
But when I spoke to her she didn’t seem to be considering another quixotic run in 2020. While she’s “not unshakably opposed to” to running for president again, “it’s certainly not the default plan,” she told me. “It’s good for the party to develop and build new leadership.”
To hear her tell it, she ran for president in 2012 and 2016 because she’s a “mother on fire,” and “when you and your family are backed into a corner, you will fight and do everything in your power… to do the right thing.” She described the current political situation as a “Hail Mary moment,” and told me, “I'm not running for political office for trivial reasons.”
There are other things you could do to fight the impending collapse of the United States besides repeatedly running for an elected office that you have no chance of winning. But thoroughly disillusioned with the two-party system and highly mistrustful of anything and everything establishment, Stein is trying to save the world. At least, that's how she sees it.
The question for her and like-minded leftist do-gooders who want to avoid the quagmire Democratic Party politics can sometimes be is whether good intentions can do much of anything.
In person, Stein is hardly villainous. She’s slender, with short and unkempt gray hair and a motherly attitude any offspring of liberal Jewish baby boomers will recognize. Despite my objections, she foisted a bowl of grapes on me, which I happily ate while she dissected a pomegranate. She can seem fragile and birdlike and charming, all at the same time.
Her house is exactly as you’d picture it: a little dirty, cluttered with antique furniture, musical instruments, and hippie art. Atop her piano sits a framed collage with silhouettes climbing up a landscape of cut-up newspaper headlines, the most prevalent words: “PALESTINE,” “A LIFE OF WAR,” “CRISIS,” “COVER UP,” “RADICAL,” “MISCALCULATIONS.” In the office area adjoining the living room, about 100 copies of a newsletter called Practical Sailor were messily stacked. By the computer there was a glass lamp that bore a stunning resemblance to a bong. Her bathroom, impressively enough, was dirtier than my own, towels unfolded and the toilet unflushed, maybe because she’s one of those “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” type of environmentalists.
I couldn’t help but love her just a little bit, in the same way you love your friend’s hippie mom who let you smoke weed in the house in high school—you’re relieved she’s not your mom because you know deep down that that behavior is inappropriate, but you can’t deny the weed she grows in her backyard is dank as fuck.
Not that I came close to voting for her. During the election, I participated in a deluge of negative media coverage she received, writing one article that ridiculed her refusal to confidently state that vaccines don’t cause autism—“I'm not aware of evidence linking autism with vaccines” is the furthest she’ll go. (When I pressed her on this, she attributed her careful language to being a “scientist” before delivering a monologue on the corruption of the “medical establishment.”) I also mocked her concern about the “possible health effects of WiFi radiation on young children,” comparing her saying that she doesn’t have “a personal opinion that WiFi is or isn’t a health issue for children” to not having a personal opinion on whether reptilian shapeshifters did 9/11. (“We need to study it. I use WiFi, and the concerns are about young children,” she clarified to me, launching into a spiel mentioning a study about the effects of cellphone radiation on rats. There is no credible evidence that radio waves cause adverse health effects in humans.)
She then informed me that “people like to lie” about what she says and scolded the press for “cherry-picking” her comments on WiFi while ignoring her actual campaign platforms. Or rather, she did her to best to scold—she has preternaturally gentle way of speaking, her voice smooth and low in a way that is almost soothing enough to rock you into a soft slumber.
In person, Stein is the biggest sweetheart—but she’s also a cautionary tale for leftists trying to build a movement. To understand who she is and why she does what she does is to understand the left at its absolute wackiest, what happens when a rigid mistrust of establishment politics goes too far, and what it means to be a joke.
Stein was born in Chicago in 1950 to two Jewish parents—her father, Joseph, was a small business attorney and her mother, Gladys, was a stay-at-home mom. She had a childhood that she described as “idyllic” in Highland Park, a predominantly white, Jewish, upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago. “I was part of that generation growing up in post-war suburbia that was waking up,” she told me. “That this was a really crazy world and the suburbs are just lifeless and the whole war mindset was criminal.”
Like many a baby boomer, the Vietnam War awakened the activist within Stein. While attending Harvard in the late 1960s, she participated in anti-war protests and occupied University Hall. But she didn't launch her career in electoral politics until much later. First, she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in anthropology, sociology, and psychology, went to Harvard Medical School, and worked as a doctor for decades. She became involved in environmentalism because she witnessed “an epidemic of asthma, cancer, developmental disabilities, obesity, diabetes, you name it,” much of which she attributed to pollution. In 1998, she joined a campaign to close the "Filthy Five" coal plants in Massachusetts. (The last of the state’s dirtiest power generators was finally shuttered earlier this year.)
She found the Green Party the way many do, after feeling her efforts to protect her community were continually stymied by larger establishment forces. After she spoke at a Ralph Nader rally in 2000, the Green Party approached her to run for governor—“I was tricked into running for office,” she likes to say—with the promise of being able to reach a broader audience. Thanks to a 1998 referendum passed by Massachusetts voters, candidates who went without any large private donations got public money for their campaigns, giving her more money than most third-party candidates receive. (The legislature repealed the referendum in 2003.)
Arguably, Stein’s career peaked during the 2002 Massachusetts governor’s race. She loved running for office—”it was so much fun,” she told me, oozing with girlish excitement—and performed surprisingly well, coming in in third place with about 3 percent of the vote. Her biggest moment came in a televised debate that featured her, the two other third-party candidates, Republican Mitt Romney, and Democrat Shannon O’Brien. Compared to the Libertarian who pledged to abolish all income tax and the raspy-voiced and largely incoherent Independent, Stein emerged as the most reasonable member of the third-party crew. Exuding a sort of frazzled art teacher vibe, she held a silver pencil in her hand to punctuate her points as she explained how recent Massachusetts tax cuts disproportionately benefited the wealthy. (In hindsight, many of her ideas were similar to those of Bernie Sanders.)
“When we walked out to where the press was waiting, I was mobbed by the press who told me I had won the debate on the instant online viewer poll,” Stein told me. I was unable to find this poll, but her performance did receive positive coverage in the Boston Globe and the Boston Phoenix, which wrote she “won” the debate.
Inspired by the relative success of her first gubernatorial campaign and armed with a belief that the two-party system was never going to create the radical social and political change needed to save the country, the Massachusetts doctor embarked on a new path as a full-time third-party candidate. She’s now run as a Green in eight elections, six of which she’s lost. Her two victories, in 2005 and 2008, were for Lexington’s town meeting, a group of elected officials that enacts local laws and is in charge of the town budget.
A town meeting official who served at the same time as Stein told HuffPost in 2016, “I don’t think she was active. I can’t recall her speaking on any of the issues or being active in any of the activities of town meeting.” Stein mentioned this “point of attack,” telling me, “I went back and got the records and the articles about it, which show, in fact, the strength of my position in town meeting.” Briefly explaining how she organized “statewide local officials to stop the fire-sale of public lands and buildings,” she then brought the conversation back to her favourite topic, unfair criticism of her. “I said, 'You want to cover my background as a local member of town meeting? Here, here’s something to cover. You’re interested in my background? No, you’re not interested in my background—you’re interested in creating a smear campaign.'"
It’s true that everything she does gets pilloried by national political observers. After Hillary Clinton’s razor-thin 2016 loss, Stein led an effort to recount the votes in the Midwestern swing states that gave the election to Donald Trump, raising over $7 million. The Green Party had called for recounts in previous elections, but the widespread shock among liberals at Trump’s victory gave this one a fundraising boost. It also opened her up to criticism from all sides of the aisle. A report from the right-leaning Free Beacon accused her of pocketing $2 million from her recount fund. Trump referred to her efforts as “Just a Stein scam to raise money!”
Democrats mostly rolled their eyes at the whole thing, which seemed to many like a pointless last-ditch effort to reverse time. “The amount of Democratic energy and money being wasted on recounts instead of trying to win the Louisiana Senate Race is mind boggling,” tweeted former Obama administration staffer and podcast host Dan Pfeiffer. It ended up uncovering nothing beyond a totally routine number of counting errors. Wisconsin, which was the only state to comply with her recount request, found that Donald Trump received 131 more votes than initially counted, while Pennsylvania and Michigan declined to participate.
Stein, characteristically, regrets nothing. “To me, it was being able to show that these issues of corruption are very real, and I think the recount has been extremely validated since then by the findings you know of rampant tampering in a variety of election systems,” she said.
She directed me to a Bloomberg report about how Russian hackers targeted voting machines in 39 states as further evidence that her recount efforts were justified—which is odd considering Stein is not convinced that Russia interfered with the election to begin with. When I asked her about the various reports that indicate there was Russian interference in the 2016 election, she told me she hadn’t read anything to indicate “it was Russians,” but believes that voting machines were vulnerable to hacking.
To many of her critics, Stein’s stance on Russia is her most insidious view—her refusal to acknowledge that perhaps the United States’s biggest foreign adversary interfered in the election is baffling, to put it gently. When I asked her about the infamous picture of her at a 2015 gala in Moscow sponsored by Russian state-funded media platform RT where she was sitting at a table with Vladimir Putin and General Michael Flynn—now the disgraced former national security adviser—she chalked the whole thing up to a misunderstanding.
“What’s Putin like in real life?” I asked.
“I didn’t meet him,” Stein said. “That photograph tells a very different story than the facts. Putin came in with all these guys who turned out to be his most important people. I wouldn’t have known that. The Russian speakers only spoke Russian… There was nothing substantive going on at that table. This was Putin coming in so that he could give a speech in Russian. That’s all it was. And then he did a fast-forward around the table to shake everyone’s hand, but no names were exchanged, nothing."
“It happened so fast,” she said with a laugh. “I was trying to talk to him because I wanted to challenge him with our peace offensive and tell him that bombing Syria sucks. Which is what I said in the conference, which he said that he actually listened to, and he said in his speech, which I learned the next day, that he actually agreed with much of what was said.”
When I asked her what exactly she and Putin agreed on, she explained, “What he said was that he listened to the panel with the foreign diplomats, which I was on, and he said, ‘I was shocked how much I agreed with them.’” Needless to say, it’s pretty clear that Putin isn’t seeking peace in Syria, and Stein seems smart enough to know this. But she talks about Putin with the same carefulness you’d use to talk about your most problematic friend—she won’t praise him, exactly, but won’t condemn him either.
So it comes as no surprise that she welcomed RT’s interest in her 2016 campaign and didn’t have an issue with the Kremlin-backed media company broadcasting the Green Party’s primary debate. The way Stein sees it, RT hasn’t taken a particular interest in her but in “American dissidents in general.”
“That has everything to do with the fact that American dissidents don’t get covered by corporate media,” she explained. “I think trying to demonize RT for covering us is ridiculous. RT is a propaganda tool by the Russian government, in the same way that we do the same thing.”
Bill Kreml, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina who ran against Stein in the Green presidential primaries but did not participate in the RT debate, expressed disgust at Stein’s seemingly warm relationship with the Russians. “Hell no, I was not going to that… It was just the worst kind of representation of what the Green Party should be,” he told me over the phone. “Jill was desperate—she was being ignored by the mainstream press to be fair, but you just don’t do things like that.”
But Kreml seems to be in the minority in Stein’s party. I spoke to eight Greens, and he was the only one who had a bad word to say about her. Gloria Mattera, who co-chairs the New York Greens and worked on both of Stein’s presidential campaigns, told me that her fellow Greens generally believe that “Jill lifted the party's profile and level of political professionalism to another level.” Jabari Brisport, who ran for Brooklyn City Council on the Green ticket and is also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, credits Stein for bringing him into the party after he decided to leave the Democrats when Sanders didn’t win the 2016 nomination. He praised her for doing a lot to help out local candidates, including himself, “through fundraising appeals or her own social media presence.”
She works hard for that approval. Since the election, Stein has been traveling around the country to support local Green Party groups. When we first met, Stein was preparing to fly to Salt Lake City for the official launch of the Utah Greens. Our interview was repeatedly interrupted by Stein dictating text messages to her assistant about her constantly changing travel plans.
Although Green Party membership fell to a 15-year low in May 2016, with only 216,200 registered Greens, Stein’s post-election recruitment efforts seem to be paying off—as of August 2017, there are 257,389 registered Greens throughout the United States, down from the 2004 high of nearly 319,000, but a solid number for an American third party.
Even Kreml voted for Stein in 2016, though he had critiques of her that are shared by many non-Greens. “You don’t graduate from Harvard Medical School if you’re stupid. On the other hand... she’s not very well educated,” he said. “There’s no depth to it.”
Jill Stein is always on the defensive. When I emailed her spokesperson to confirm or deny whether she was a multimillionaire, a claim supported by a 2016 Daily Beast report, she sent me four paragraphs that emphasized how her “time, energy and financial resources have been focused on dismantling economic inequality and a political system serving the economic elite,” so yes, her “family income, being a two-doctor couple, has been very generous,” but make no mistake, her family has “had minimal expenses—driving old and used cars, rarely taking vacations (the last was ten years ago), sending [their] kids to public middle/high schools, eschewing fancy jewelry, clothes, vacation home and private clubs of any sort,” and then going into the “deceptive smears” she receives “from the DNC apologists.”
In short, yes, Jill Stein is a multimillionaire—she’s just unable to answer the straightest of questions in fewer than three paragraphs.
But there was one question I needed an answer on, the thing I simply couldn’t understand: Hillary Clinton had her faults, and would never have earned an endorsement from Stein, but compared to Trump, her presidency would certainly have resulted in less harm being done to middle- and low-income Americans as well as Muslims, immigrants, women, and other marginalized groups. That much seems obvious, even to the Berniest of bros. Why wouldn’t Stein just say so?
In our interview, Stein wouldn’t assert that Clinton and Trump are equally dangerous, but she also wouldn’t say that they’re not. (Classic Jill.) While Stein remains eager to criticize the Republicans, the focus of her anti-establishment vitriol has most often been directed at the Democrats. I chalk it up to, in part, what Freud called “the narcissism of minor differences,” a psychological theory that asserts closely related communities “are engaged in constant feuds and in ridiculing each other” which satisfies “a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression.”
“We deserve more than two lethal choices is the bottom line,” Stein told me.
I wondered whether a shift in the Democratic Party to the left would change her mind. After Bernie Sanders lost the 2016 Democratic nomination, Stein had wanted him to join her on a third-party ticket (Sanders didn't respond to her overture). With Sanders and other leftists enjoying more influence than ever, would Stein modify her assessment of the Democrats? Would she vote for Sanders in 2020 if he got the nomination?
"He won't be the nominee, you can be sure. For the same reason he wasn't this time," she replied. She didn't think the Democrats would ever make Medicare for all a reality, and though she conceded there were differences between the two parties, she trotted out one of her favorite lines: "Is the difference enough to save your job, to save your life or to save the planet?"
“Yes, it can be, maybe not the planet but at least for your job or your life with the ACA versus how it was before," I replied.
“I think it remains to be seen," she said. "There are fewer people who are uninsured, but there are massive numbers of people who are under-insured. Are we gonna get there? What we find with less than single-payer is that it is a diversion and you always wind up starting over, and this has been repeated time after time."
I told her I agreed that single-payer healthcare is needed, but for all the ACA's flaws, wasn't it better than nothing? Weren't people who had preexisting conditions better protected?
Stein wasn't sure. She thinks that Massachusetts would have single-payer if not for "the inordinate spending of the neoliberals on all sides of the aisle." Then she asked me the question that defined her political philosophy: "Is half a loaf better than a loaf?"
"Half a loaf is not better than a loaf, but half a loaf is better than no bread at all," I said.
"That's right," she said, "but you don't know what the alternative to half a loaf is."
Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.