Green Party's Jill Stein on Why Bernie Sanders Should Go Third-Party

Stein discusses her plans to do away with student debt, combat climate change and pay reparations to African-Americans

"In times of great social upheaval, third parties are critically important," says Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. Credit: Rex/Shutterstock/Zuma

America's two major political parties are poised this year to pit a couple of historically disliked presidential candidates against each other. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton's unfavorable ratings are bad news for both the Democrats and the Republicans — but they could be good news for a candidate intent on dismantling the country's two-party system. 

That's exactly what presumptive Green Party nominee Jill Stein is counting on. Rolling Stone recently spoke to Stein about her entreaty to Bernie Sanders to join the Green Party ticket, about her plans to do away with student debt, combat climate change and pay reparations to the descendants of slaves. 

You sent a letter to Bernie Sanders after the New York primary asking him to join the Green Party ticket. Did he ever respond?
No, he has not. I'm not holding my breath, but I'm not ruling it out either.  The Green Party has been reaching out to him since 2011 without a response. There are a lot of commonalities in our agendas, in our views. Technically he is a political independent — or used to be, up until his recent registration as a Democrat — so we've long been exploring the potential for collaboration.

He has definitely not been interested, although I would mention that his brother is a member of the Green Party in the UK. But he has not responded, and has been really quite consistent in expressing disinterest in independent third parties over the last many years. After the beating that he is getting — this real, purposeful, I think, sabotage by the DNC — we'll see if he'll have a change of heart. I don't know.

Were you surprised when he switched his party affiliation from Independent to Democrat? He seemed to think he didn't stand much of a chance of winning as a third-party candidate.
It wasn't surprising at all. It seems like the logical and strategic thing for him to do from his perspective. I think he's been both proven right and proven wrong. We are in a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't situation right now, which should be fixed by a simple legislative reform — that could be passed right now, by the way, for anybody who is concerned about wanting to change this rigged political system: The state legislatures can simply pass ranked-choice voting, which gets rid of the fear factor. It is used in many cities around the country from San Francisco to Portland, Maine, and many in between, and in many countries around the world. It allows you to rank your choices instead of just picking one; you don't have to make your vote a gamble.

Most people are [voting out of fear] right now. The last CNN poll that showed the majority of Clinton supporters are not really supporting her, they're primarily voting against Donald Trump, and the majority of Donald Trump supporters are mainly voting against Hillary Clinton. What's wrong with this picture? We live in a system that tells us to vote against what we are afraid of rather than for what we believe in.

We are in a race to the bottom between two parties funded by predatory banks and fossil-fuel giants and war profiteers. Our foreign policy, for example, is not really a foreign policy — it is a marketing strategy for the weapons industry. We are all going down with this ship right now, and Americans are desperately clamoring for a way out, particularly a generation of young people who are held hostage now by student-loan debt with no way to get out of it in their lifetimes, given the economy that we've got and where it's going.

You mention student debt; I understand that student-debt forgiveness figures into your general-election strategy in big way. Tell me more about that.
We are the only campaign that will cancel student debt and bail out [those with student loans] like Obama did for Wall Street. Isn't it about time we bailed out the young people? Therein is how we move forward, because that's 43 million people who don't need to be persuaded, they just need to learn that they have an option to come out and cancel their debt by voting Green. That could actually take over the election: 43 million is a winning plurality in the presidential race. This is mainly to say that the potential for our campaign can be a real positive force. Potentially even a dominating force if the generation in debt gets on to this. That should not be dismissed.

A straw poll was taken at the Left Forum a couple of weeks ago and, given the choice between Trump, Clinton, Gary Johnson and yourself, you won the room. But we don't have ranked-choice voting yet, and one of the problems you face is that the Green Party still isn't on the ballot in all 50 states right now. What are people who are moved by your platform and who do want to vote for you supposed to do if they don't have the option to?
The same is true for the Libertarians, actually. They don't mention that. Their promo is all about, "We're on the ballot, or we will be." Well, we expect to be as well. I think that too is part of the fear campaign being conducted by the usual suspects that are terrified of the Green Party.

We need an attitude of defiance, not an attitude of cowardice. Out in the street, that's how we are winning against the TransCanada Pipeline. This is how we have delayed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and forced it into an election season, gotten everybody to stand against it. Democracy is not about surrender. In the words of Fredrick Douglass, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will."

People are quick to say, "Oh, third parties, you don't stand a chance," but actually in times of great social upheaval, third parties are critically important. This goes back to the election of Abraham Lincoln in a party that had just entered the scene that had grown out of first the Free Soil Party, then the Liberty Party, and then the Republican Party was formed, picking up the cause of abolition. It entered the fray as the new kid on the block, and I think it was its second election in which it won the presidency at a time of great transition.

During the time of the labor movement, it was the independent third parties that pushed forward the 40-hour [work] week, and child labor laws and Social Security and all that. Without third parties, all forward movement stops. They're essential. They're not just OK. They are absolutely essential.

You bring up abolition, and I want to talk about something that I think many people don't realize, which is the fact that the Green Party supports paying reparations for slavery, in the form of monetary compensation to African-Americans. You were asked about this in 2012, and at that time you said it was in the platform but not a focus. I'm curious if there has been more interest or more conversation within the Green Party itself since Ta-Nehisi Coates' piece last year "The Case for Reparations" reignited a national conversation about it.
Yes, we have taken a stand in support of reparations. They are not only just, but they are really essential, I think, for coming to terms with the ongoing legacy of the criminal institution of slavery, which lives on in all kinds of ways. There was a seamless web between slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, school segregation and housing segregation — which is on the rise again, as well as school segregation — and massive and growing economic disparities — which has certainly gotten worse since the Wall Street crash — as well as redlining, the racist War on Drugs and police violence.

So, this is an ongoing crisis, and we need not only reparations — we need to restore to whole the African-American community that continues to pay an ongoing, devastating price. This is a horrific, ongoing injustice that needs to be rectified, and it should be part of a truth and reconciliation commission. This took place in Germany as part of process of reparations to the state of Israel for the Holocaust. The Holocaust of Nazi Germany is certainly no less of a historic crime than the Holocaust that went on for centuries against African-Americans. That process of reparations, and a truth and reconciliation discussion, was extremely helpful in the country of Germany, and we need to have that here.

I want to go back to something you were saying about how third parties have often advanced important agendas. You mentioned the abolition of slavery and the institution of the 40-hour work week, for example. What part of your platform would you most like to see instituted by whoever wins the presidency?
The slam dunk here is actually canceling student debt, because that can be done with the stroke of a pen, basically, by the Federal Reserve, and the head of the Fed is appointed by the president. Electing a Green to the White House essentially accomplishes that cancellation of student debt, which is really important because that liberates a generation of young people who have basically been hung out to dry, and have two hands tied behind their back. They need to be liberated and repatriated back into society so they can lead the charge on all the other justice issues where they are already leading the charge, from Black Lives Matter to climate justice to labor rights and living wages.

These are really campaigns led by young people, but let's liberate them to really do their job. This is their job throughout history: to lead the charge for social transformation. That's step one.

Number two, we are really talking about revamping the economy and answering the climate crisis in one fell swoop. You only have to look at the 123-degree heat wave that is going on in India right now, the apocalyptic firestorms in Canada, and the latest report out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; according to the latest data, the meltdown is proceeding so fast now in the Antarctic that we can expect as soon as 2050 nine feet of sea level rise, which is a civilization-ending hit. It's not like Pearl Harbor, which launched us into the Second World War — it means we've lost all harbors, as well as costal population centers, half of Manhattan, much of Florida, etc. This is where many of our nuclear power plants are located. We are looking at Fukushimas all up and down the coast — and, bear in mind, if you want to decommission a nuclear power plant, we gotta start now, because it takes years to cool down the fuel rods to even begin putting them in dry-cask storage.

We really need a public-interest government that is not taking marching orders from the fossil-fuel industry and the banks and the war profiteers. We really need a government that is acting on our behalf. It's not rocket science how to do this; it just requires us standing up with the courage of our convictions using the numbers that we already have, pushing forward to create transformative change now if we want to get out of here alive in the next couple of decades.

I think many people for whom your message resonates strongly would say: If we have no time to lose, then we can't wait until ranked-choice voting is instituted. We can't wait until the Green Party is on the ballot in all 50 states, or included in the presidential debates. We have to choose from the options we have. What do you say to the them?
Well, first of all, it's a fallacy that we don't have time for ranked-choice voting. If there was truly a mobilization, we could pass this in 50 states right now, in 50 legislatures. It doesn't require a constitutional amendment.

But the answer here is to not use your vote as a weapon against yourself. The answer here is to use your vote as a truly principled instrument of democracy. If we have given up our democracy, we certainly don't have one. We only have it to the extent that we demand it. It needs improvement, that's for sure. If we truly had a mass impact where the near 50 percent of people who have given up and have no reason to come out and vote — if they come back and vote, we win this in the blink of an eye.

In my mind, this is kind of a Hail Mary moment here: We stand up or we lose out. This ship is going down rather fast, in an accelerating fashion. Are we still going to be talked into supporting the predator who is basically assaulting us? I don't think so. They have made perfectly clear that they are not open to reasonable solutions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.