As the Vermont senator's presidential campaign nears its uncertain end, third-party candidate Jill Stein is selling herself as the next best thing.
The merch line at the Left Forum—an annual lecture series for the progressive- and radical-minded, held this weekend at New York City's John Jay College of Criminal Justice—was stocked for the revolution. Scattered copies of proto-liberal books, like Michelle Alexander's New Jim Crow, and Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine littered the table, next to rows of Che Guevara gear and pro-Palestine paraphernalia. Alongside the expected swag, stacks of shirts were emblazoned with the newest symbol of the American far left: the bushy eyebrows and mad-scientist mop of Bernie Sanders.
"The Left Forum is usually about one thing every year," said Scott Caplan, a 59-year-old activist who serves as an officer for an array of Democratic clubs in New York. "For the past few, it's been Occupy Wall Street. But this year, it's Bernie."
"Not necessarily all pro-Bernie," he added. "Just what to do about him."
Whether attendees of the Left Forum counted themselves as Bernie supporters or not, it was clear that the Democratic-socialist-turned-Democratic-presidential-candidate had awoken something here. For a community perpetually disenchanted by the political "Establishment"—a group for which Hillary Clinton is seen as the poster girl—Sanders's surprisingly successful presidential run has become a sort of lightning rod for its hopes and aspirations. So, as his insurgent campaign catapults toward its uncertain end, the question of "What happens now?" hung heavily over the radical-left gathering.
At a panel titled "Is Sanders the Answer to Left and Black Power?" Sunday night, activists Chris Hedges and Glen Ford, as well as Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, tried to answer that question. Both Sanders and Stein pins flashed in the audience, while the panelists pondered whether the energy of the Vermont senator's supporters—and specifically, the 25 percent or so who still claim they will not back Clinton in November—could be transferred to a third-party bid.
When Stein took the podium on Sunday, chants of "Jill, not Hill!" erupted in the lecture room. She laughed, and then quickly added, "Yeah, you're not kidding."
"People say to me sometimes, 'So you're OK with getting Trump elected?'" she continued. "And I say, 'I will be horrified if Donald Trump gets elected, and I will be horrified if Hillary Clinton gets elected.' And I'm most horrified by a political system that gives us two lethal choices and says, 'Pick between them, and that's it.'"
Stein, a physician from Massachusetts, isn't new to presidential politics—she ran as the Green Party nominee in 2012, winning 0.3 percent of the national vote. But in 2016, matched up against the two most unpopular frontrunners in modern campaign history, Stein and her party seem to be getting a second look.
Stein's campaign lives off of Clinton and Trump's unpopularity—her slogan is "Time to reject the 'lesser evil' for the greater good." And even if activists at the Left Forum, including Stein's fellow panelists, criticize Sanders for being not socialist enough, the groundswell of support for his campaign seems to present a strong argument for a third party in American politics.
"We are right now in the polls where Bernie Sanders was about six months ago," she said Sunday. "So don't for a minute accept the propaganda that we are powerless, or irrelevant in this process or discussion."
Yet, aside from calling the Democratic primaries "sabotage" and stressing the importance of "building movements" rather than parties, Stein and her fellow panelists were pretty vague about how exactly they would tap into the energy of the Sanders revolution. The Green Party standard-bearer stopped short of criticizing Sanders directly, and instead often felt like a sort of Bernie Lite, promising a "people's' bailout" and calling for a revolution. But the call to arms lacked the familiar cranky urgency that has sent young liberals flocking to the polls this year—namely because, despite their political similarities, Stein just isn't Bernie.
According to Juan Pablo and Rodney Petit, two Sanders-turned-Stein supporters I met outside the panel, the two candidates' platforms "are ninety percent similar." Stein's "Power to the People," the brothers noted, promises progressive reforms, like a $15 minimum wage, a green-energy renaissance, single-payer healthcare, and an end to Wall Street's influence in Washington. After Sanders, the Petits said, Stein was the next best thing.
"They share the same sense of getting big money out of politics," Rodney explained. "And that's what his supporters want."
It's not just the ideological overlap that makes Stein's third-party bid appealing: The Petits shared a long list of grievances that the Sanders tent has with the Democratic Establishment, including allegations of "voter suppression" in the New York primary; the superdelegate bias toward Clinton; and the recent tumult at the Nevada party convention. Echoing Stein's earlier comments, the Petit brothers argued that the fear of Trump was being used by Democrats to disincentivize voters from choosing an alternative to Clinton.
"It's a politics of fear," Juan Pablo told me. "We're told to vote for one instead of other, but what if we don't want to vote for either? Who do we vote for then?"
"We're being offered a lose-lose," he added.
Still, the threat of a Trump presidency was a frequent point of contention during the Left Forum panel Sunday. Two people separately asked the speakers if they were underestimating the danger the presumptive Republican nominee posed to American democracy. The terms "fascist" and "dictator" were thrown around, as a third-party run was weighed against the prospect of a candidate as vitriolic as Trump winning the general election as a result. Was is worth it, attendees asked, to make a risky political gamble on a third-party in an election where the stakes are so high?
In the end, convincing voters to make that bet will be Stein's biggest challenge going forward. At the moment, her campaign seems to be hedging on the hope: that frustrated Bernie voters will not simply stay home in November, or fall in line behind Clinton, but continue their dogged fight for "the revolution," with Stein as its natural heir.
Caplan told me he voted for Stein in 2012 and is an avid Bernie fan in 2016. Wearing campaign pins for both candidates, he said that his loyalty to Sanders could shift once the Democratic nomination process is over—he's just waiting for the cards to fall.
"If Trump makes New York contestable, I couldn't see myself voting for a third party," Caplan said. "I'd have to try to stop him."
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