Step Aside Bernie: When Jill Stein Came to Athens

History will mark 2016 as a year when insurgent progressives seriously threatened the candidacy of a mainstream, moderate Democrat. And believe it or not, Bernie Sanders might have only been the first half of that story.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein speaks in Athens. Photo:  Rory Hibbler
Green Party candidate Jill Stein speaks in Athens.
Photo: Rory Hibbler
On Wednesday night, Athens hosted its first presidential candidate of the 2016 cycle, bringing Dr. Jill Stein to the Miller Learning Center at the University of Georgia. Dr. Stein is the 2016 candidate for the Green Party and, according to recent polls, commands anywhere from 3 to 7 percent of the national vote. Her passionate, Warren-esque fury shined through during the two hours that she spent laying out the Green Party’s far-left platform and railing against the 2016 presidential choices. While a fact check might have been nice every once in a while, there was no denying the connection that Dr. Stein made with her audience. With Sanders out of the race, she might be the only candidate who continues to fiercely advocate for social and environmental justice. The young Athens crowd was highly receptive of that message, raising the question yet again about where Sanders voters will go in November. Hillary Clinton might want to take note.

Dr. Stein’s policies could have almost been pulled word for word from the Sanders platform as much of her speech was rooted in the same progressive populism that he espoused throughout the 2016 campaign (although she did briefly chastise Sanders for his lukewarm support of Israel). The Green Party agenda includes a universal healthcare system, a moratorium on deportations of undocumented immigrants, and, of course, the “Green New Deal,” a public works program that simultaneously addresses unemployment and the energy crisis. She did not mince words when criticizing Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or the Democratic Party for failing to enact similar progressive policies while in office. According to her, the Clintons were responsible for the 2008 recession and the humanitarian crisis in Honduras, President Obama’s enduring legacy will be the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants, and the Democratic Party in general has been hijacked by Wall Street banks. While some might question the accuracy of these statements, they sure did resonate with the audience, who roared with applause whenever Dr. Stein ranted against the Democrats.

With the two major party candidates receiving the highest unfavorable ratings ever, it could very well be a banner year for Dr. Stein and her band of Democratic discontents. That is not to say that she could win the race (or even a single state for that matter). She could, however, siphon enough votes away from Clinton to flip a state from blue to red, similar to how the 2000 Green Party candidate Ralph Nader supposedly stole Florida away from Al Gore. Georgia has been mentioned as a possible swing state in 2016 with some polls showing Trump and Clinton to be in a dead heat. Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Melissa Link, a Stein supporter who spoke at the event, dismissed concerns that a high turnout for Stein might contribute to a Trump victory in Georgia. According to her, the Democrats, not the Green Party, were responsible for Gore’s loss in 2000 and that, if she loses, Hillary Clinton will have also been the architect of her own demise. Link captured the sentiment felt by many third-party voters, saying that fighting against an unfair system is better than working within it.

Dr. Jill Stein drew a large audience at her appearance in Athens.  Photo: Rory Hibbler
Dr. Jill Stein drew a large audience at her appearance in Athens.
Photo: Rory Hibbler
But before Dr. Stein can become an alternative choice in the general election, she has a few legal hurdles to overcome. She will have to obtain 7,500 signatures to get on the ballot in Georgia. The number of signatures is down from the 52,000 that were previously required. This March, a federal judge struck down the 52,000 signature requirement as unconstitutional, the result of a lawsuit originally filed by former Georgia Congresswomen and one-time Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney. Dr. Stein is hoping to capitalize on this opportunity as members of the audience were encouraged to both sign the petition and volunteer to sign up others. According to her website, Dr. Stein has ballot access in just 21 states so far. Ralph Nader set the high mark for Green Party ballot access with 44 states in 2000. Although Dr. Stein was only on the ballot in 36 states when she ran as the Green Party’s nominee in 2012, she expects to break the previous record with 47 states in 2016.

If Dr. Stein attains her 47 state goal, she will have an important role to play in the absence of Bernie Sanders. The 2016 election promises to be a drab affair. The global economy could soon fall into uncertainty and stagnation with the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. That will only feed the doom and gloom of Donald Trump and fuel further discontent with political elites like Hillary Clinton. With Sanders gone, Dr. Stein and the Greens can become the next vessel for his progressive, anti-establishment message which, in many ways, is the complete opposite of what is being offered by Clinton and Trump. This role should be not taken lightly as over 12 million people voted for that message in 2016. Even if progressive idealism has no place in government after 2016, it still gets people off their couches and brings them into the political arena. It gives them a choice to vote for someone they actually believe in rather than just the lesser of two evils. In the face of what might be the ugliest election in our history, that still counts for something.

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On domestic issues Hilly and Stein are quite close. Hilly wants public option on health care, wants to keep immigrant families together, 275 billion more on infrastructure over five years, more green energy… The difference is Hilly’s aggressive foreign policy which she conveniently omits on her campaign web site.