CLEVELAND—On the eve of the convention that will end with the Republican Party officially nominating the most explicit caricature of a Political Bogeyman ever seen, the Green Party’s Jill Stein was in Cleveland doubling down on her message that the fear-based tactics employed by both major parties will only continue to fail America. Present with her new champion Cornel West (who gave the DNC a titanic-sized middle finger by endorsing Stein last week after his role as chief rabble-rouser on the Democratic Platform Drafting Committee), the presidential candidate now polling at five percent was in town for an AIDS awareness event that served as a type of counter-rally to the far right rhetoric that will dominate the week here.
This election cycle is a delicate balance to strike if you’re a spoiler on the ballot. With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton each carrying historical negatives with the populace, the pickings have never looked so ripe to those in third parties. But there’s also the risk of being “Nader’d.” Fare too well in your campaign and establishment wisdom doesn’t paint you as an outsider making admirable progress for a movement; to them, you’ll just be remembered as the jerk who helped the bigger asshole move into the Oval Office.
This was the anguish for Democrat-in-name-only Bernie Sanders before endorsing the candidate he called “unqualified” to be president. There isn’t much doubt he meant what he said about Hillary, but since she’s the only thing stopping Trump from getting the nuclear codes—and the revolution Sanders envisioned would catch the blame—he entered a painfully uncomfortable dance with the devil. Even if you believe that blaming anyone but the major party candidate in the event of electoral failure would be unsound logic, history shows that Bernie-blaming would likely be the prevailing spin, as Ralph Nader and the Greens found when they “gave” the George W. Bush presidency by having the audacity to not only run, but to win enough votes from disaffected leftists to tip the scales ever so slightly in Florida. Stein isn’t hearing any of that noise.
“The lesser evil thing is false. It’s not going to fix this problem,” Stein said in an exclusive interview with Paste. “We’ve been using that strategy since Bush-Nader-Gore and where has it gotten us? The politics of fear has delivered everything we were afraid of. All the reasons you were told you had to vote for the lesser evil is exactly what we’ve gotten: expanding wars, the meltdown of our climate, the prison-industrial complex, more student debt, police violence, the off-shoring of our jobs, Wall Street.”
Stein is lagging behind Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in both polls and media attention for dibs on being the third face of this general election. At 13 percent in that same CNN poll, Johnson appears to be a real threat to make the televised debates this fall if he reaches the magic number of 15 percent in at least five national surveys. The Green vs. Libertarian battle for supremacy in the party-crashing game of American politics has been criminally under-the-radar, especially considering that both Democrats and Republicans more vulnerable than ever with the voters of tomorrow.
The general view is that Libertarians have an advantage, in that the tenets of the philosophy can scoop supporters from both the right and left sides of the spectrum. But the patron saint of modern libertarians, Ron Paul, never won a state in his otherwise impressive showing in the 2012 Republican primary, and with self-identified libertarians being overwhelmingly white and male, the movement fights a perception that it has a low ceiling. Sanders and his brand of progressivism—basic New Dealer principles that sent shock waves through a political world that has seen a hard shift to the right—won 22 states this primary season. Stein, who disavows comparisons between Greens and Libertarians by pointing out the Koch Brothers’ roots in the latter, sees no good reason that momentum can’t be continued under the umbrella of a different party.
“Student debt is the key issue because there are 42 million people who are locked into student debt,” Stein said. “That is a winning number in a presidential election that will win a three-way race. And if everybody in debt brings out one sympathetic family member, we have enough to win a two-way race.”
Crazy talk, right? The idealistic little Green Party as general election winners? Hell, Stein recently declared victory on Twitter just because her name finally came up on a Google search for “presidential candidates.” But it’s getting harder to place your bets on the future successes of major parties that rely on broad coalitions which feel increasingly impractical as the voting pool features more generations raised on the tribalism of the Internet. On the youth and digital front, it is safe to say that support for both Greens and Libertarians are overrepresented. Stein often references “the politics of integrity,” which inspires loyalty or laughter depending on your level of cynicism. “Integrity” hasn’t carried a lot of weight in society in recent years. When attempting a comeback to show business in 2013, comedian Dave Chappelle poignantly mocked the notion that it was his saving grace after leaving millions on the table and disappearing for the spotlight when he said “I’ll go home and make the kids some integrity sandwiches.”
The establishment response to growing discontent with major party politics is fairly predictable—the idealism kick these jokers are on, they say, is a phase. When push comes to shove, it’s no match for the fear that a candidate like Trump evokes. Relying on fear of the opposition or mere tolerance of the agendas that Republicans and Democrats laid out with brazen transparency in 2016 is an awfully dangerous game. As the big parties bring a downtrodden electorate into its web of spectacle and misdirection in these next two weeks, “integrity” might not be such a bad word. At the current speed of things, Jill Stein and other political outsiders will have the market cornered, and the currency might be more valuable than we’d ever believe.
(Brian Coburn will be reporting from Cleveland all week.)