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Spoiling for the Green Party

Before she can play on the national stage, Jill Stein must challenge lesser evilism’s reign

At the Green Party National Convention in Houston this month, the villain that loomed the largest wasn’t Hillary Clinton or global warming or even Donald Trump—it was the doctrine of lesser evilism. Some say that a vote for Jill Stein is a wasted vote, but Martina Salinas, candidate for Texas railroad commissioner, is tired of hearing that chestnut. “A vote is wasted when you vote against your conscience,” she countered from the convention stage. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange—who beamed in via video chat from his embassy safe house, a.k.a. “Ecuador in the United Kingdom”—called lesser-evil voting “a form of extortion” and said having to choose between Republicans and Democrats is like having to choose between cholera and gonorrhea.

This unctuous analogy, self-plagiarized from a recent appearance on Democracy Now, is emerging as one of Assange’s favorite election-season rhetorical staples, deployed to push back against the belief that third-party supporters are foolhardy, impractical, and positively gauche in their naiveté. So far, it doesn’t seem to be working. The United States may be the greatest, most exceptional bastion of liberty in the world, but the terms of political debate—not to mention political practice—are ruthlessly circumscribed. At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this July, the supposed liberal party underscored the smallness of our nation’s political range by wrapping itself in the flag of national security and dispensing tips on how to neutralize anti-war protesters. Rehearsing the consensus wisdom of the post-9/11 security state, liberals took to Twitter to express shock that anyone would boo a former director of the CIA. Rudeness is a capital crime in respectability politics, and voting Green or Libertarian is not far behind. That’s what a vigorous election looks like within the Overton Window or, in the words of so many cut-rate technocrats and preachers of incremental change, within the realm of “what’s practical.”

In this diminished political imagination, third parties have no place. So-called lesser evilism has been a feature of American politics for decades, and just recently, Noam Chomsky and John Halle have bestowed on it a fresh seal of radical-academic approval. When you get into the voting booth, pull the lever for whichever Democratic or Republican hack offends you the least, goes the philosophy. The electoral college is a farce, the system is hopelessly sclerotic, and all you can do is do the least harm. In a swing state, that means voting for a third party is absolutely out of the question. This isn’t the year to leave your lane. Don’t be a fantasist. Don’t be an obstructionist. And don’t pause to wonder how it is that your vote can be so precious as to matter a great deal but also so inconsequential that if you were to deviate from the duopoly, your dissent would hardly even register.

The Green Party must shake the perception that it is a party of spoilers—a term that makes it sound like it is fielding rotten fruit.

Liberals in particular live in fear of third parties, a relic of the election in 2000, when voter turnout barely cracked 50 percent, hundreds of thousands of Florida Democrats voted for George W. Bush, the terminally uncharismatic Al Gore managed to lose his home state, and a comparatively small number of Ralph Nader voters were blamed for the whole fiasco.

If the convention in Houston felt like it never quite emerged from a defensive crouch, that’s because the Green Party, before it can proceed to disclosing its platform on the national stage, must first shake the perception that it is a party of spoilers—a term that makes it sound like it is fielding rotten fruit. Much of the convention program, it seemed, was aimed at doing just that. “Ten million Democrats voted for George Bush directly,” thundered delegate Matt Funiciello, a Green who once got 11 percent of the vote in a New York Congressional race. “You put him in the White House. It’s your fault. How dare you crucify such an amazing progressive hero within our lifetimes rather than taking a long hard look in the mirror?”

The Perfect, Weak and Watery

One way to spot lesser-evil logic is to check its expiration date. Even where lesser evilism leaves open the possibility that our electoral customs can change, it pushes the ETA for that change ever further into the shimmering future. “This isn’t the year for ideological purity,” Jill Abramson wrote in the Guardian this week, adding that she “hates” third parties—but is it ever? Many convention-goers I spoke to in Houston expressed an attitude that could be summarized as, “If not now, when?” It’s not as if victory for the Greens is likely in November, although a number of delegates, in pledging their votes to Jill Stein, the Massachusetts doctor who tops this year’s ticket, referred to her as “the next POTUS.” Theirs may be a forced optimism, but it also conveys a sense that people are tired, as Funiciello said on the convention stage, of holding their noses and voting for a neoliberal, mollified by the dream that someday they won’t have to. Nothing will change unless people demand it. Or, as Alice Walker once put it, in a line that Stein is fond of quoting, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Stein’s assumption is that the Green Party can will itself—well, if not to power, then to some kind of influence. 

And who could blame her? With the two most unpopular presidential candidates in recent history on the ballot in November, the Green Party sees an opening. “We’re riding a wave here,” said Dave Schwab, Stein’s director of communications, during a special convention-week workshop about the campaign’s social media strategy. “Who wants to start a revolution?” (The workshop, which seemed poised to unleash a playbook for disrupting the major parties’ campaign strategies using the major parties’ campaign tools, was something of a disappointment, offering a rote introduction to Twitter and memes for an audience of digital neophytes.)

Settling for the good only dilutes our expectations for the perfect, until both are left much weaker than before.

The convention’s campy, informal slogan was “Houston, We Have a Solution,” but the problems had to be enumerated first. We are “facing a systemic crisis,” said Dana Brown, who was leading yet another workshop, this one about something called the Next System Project. (The Green Party loves workshops, I learned by looking at the convention schedule.) The logic and goals of the system—of our current political economy—are the problem, Brown explained. “Traditional strategies to achieve a more equitable, sustainable and just society aren’t working.” Moving through the nuts and bolts of systems theory, she talked about feedback loops and how rules and regulations help enforce the prevailing ideology while foreclosing possibilities for anything but modest reform. Even worthy efforts like the Fight for $15 might not be enough, she said, especially if other structures—health care, transportation, public housing, water—remain unchanged. Obamacare might be an example of a reform that had some positive impact at the cost of making more radical, necessary change, like a national single-payer health care system. In the liberal accommodationism of Barack Obama, this is known as the perfect being the enemy of the good. But Green Party supporters look at it differently, explaining that settling for the good only dilutes our expectations for the perfect, until both the perfect and the good are left much weaker than before.

Cornel West said much the same during his keynote address on the third day of the convention. “How shall integrity face oppression?” he asked, quoting WEB Du Bois. The Green Party is about integrity, not purity, he emphasized. The academic and activist was in full preacher mode, fired up before the audience of a few hundred people. Minutes earlier he had burst out onto the stage, pointing excitedly at the Green Party officials who had introduced him, and then launched into a round of fulsome hugs. West is a showman of the best sort, and his exhortations, which sampled Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Sly and the Family Stone, and John Coltrane, brought the crowd to its feet. “We understand the difference between a neofascist catastrophe and a neoliberal disaster,” he said, his voice rising at times from a whispery baritone to a near-scream that seemed to overwhelm the PA system at the University of Houston.

In a day of speeches, grievances, calls for solidarity, protest, and support for issues large, small, and picayune, West was among the finer speakers, but YahNé Ndgo, who took the stage before him, was at least as good. Ndgo stalked around the stage as she worked her way through a list of burns that felt cathartic for this disaffected lefty. “I didn’t come here to make y’all feel good,” she said. “I came here to push a little bit. I came here to challenge.” She worked the crowd like a good insult comic, lecturing them on their racism (“It’s not your fault, but you can’t do anything to transform it if you don’t acknowledge it”). She blasted the call for a “political revolution,” explaining, “What we need is an actual revolution.” Including President Obama in her critique, she said, “It’s not a revolution to watch a president drop a microphone and then drop a bunch of bombs on a bunch of people across this Earth.” She dragged Clinton and Obama over the coals for their support for the coup in Honduras and for deporting undocumented immigrants back there. The high point of her speech came during an extended riff on solidarity with other nations, calling out to the people of Rwanda, Honduras, Haiti, Iraq, Libya. “Those are my brothers and sisters in Syria,” she shouted. “It doesn’t matter that they’re on the other side of a border.”

It wasn’t just rhetorical fire and brimstone. Ndgo, who received attention as a Bernie-or-Buster who filleted a Clinton supporter during a CNN appearance, brought plenty of policy into the discussion, making a case to end U.S. interventionism in the Greater Middle East. This fierce internationalism, combined with a savage rejection of Hillary Clinton’s record, electrified the audience. It also pointed to one thing that’s lacking for the Democrats, namely any sense of global concern or humanitarianism outside the myopic logic of security and terrorism. Ndgo spoke of “American privilege” and how “we set the tone of what happens everywhere. If we don’t do the right thing here, the world suffers.”

One Foot in the Ballot

It’s easy to come away from a weekend at the Green Party Convention with the sense that you’re exiting a sound-proofed echo chamber, where shouts and bombast mingle with incisive critique, but none of it leaks out into the open air. The confab was held at the University of Houston, and if you happened to duck into the student center to escape the hellacious weather, you might not have noticed that there was someone being nominated for president on the third floor. The Greens can claim little electoral success; some members, like Howie Hawkins, a perennial also-ran for various political offices in New York, are better known for their repeated losses. The party is a shoestring affair, reliant on volunteers and part-timers. At one point this summer, the Greens had about $30,000 on hand. At a post-nomination press conference, I watched as the Green Party’s media coordinator introduced himself to Stein’s spokesperson. It seemed as if the two had never met. 

Being a loser in the attention economy has real costs for the Green Party, which has devoted most of its resources to getting on ballots.

It’s not that the Greens and the Libertarians aren’t getting media coverage this election cycle—they are. But that coverage has mainly taken the form of bald acknowledgments that third parties exist followed by dire warnings that voting for them would be like driving a stake into the warm chest of pragmatism. Stein, like her Libertarian counterpart Gary Johnson, struggles to get reporters to pay attention to the particulars of her campaign priorities beyond the painfully obvious ones, although she has appeared a few times on Fox and now has airtime on CNN in the form of an August 17 town hall—an event that Stein, at the convention, portrayed as a validation of the growing interest in her campaign. Being a loser in the attention economy, though, has real costs for the Green Party, which has devoted most of its resources to getting on ballots and into the presidential debates. Stein joined with Johnson to sue for access to the debates, but they were rebuffed. Unless either begins polling above 15 percent—more likely for Johnson at this point—the debates will feature just two participants, which means we’ll soon see a sentient pile of corporate TPS reports shadowbox an angry carny for the country’s top prize. 

“We’re hoping to be on the ballot for every voter,” Stein said after her nomination. “If not for 100 percent of voters, then perhaps for 95 or 98 percent of voters.” Some ballot drives and lawsuits remained ongoing, she explained. At the time, the Greens were on the ballot for “70-some percent” of voters. She also encouraged write-ins.

Stein isn’t the most exciting figurehead, but she speaks fluently and earnestly about issues of concern to the left—climate change, police violence, income inequality, health care, mass indebtedness, deportations, the wars on terror and drugs. An MD with a degree from Harvard, she works in pacific, pleading tones that probably served her well in patient consultations. She projects a rhetorical polish without dipping too often into canned remarks or empty platitudes.

But a blitheness when it comes to the rules of media engagement means that Stein can seem unaware of how some of her comments play. In the week leading up the convention, two incidents dogged Stein: her attendance at a dinner with Vladimir Putin in Moscow (Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a Trump adviser and a former Defense Intelligence Agency director, was also there) and her possible waffling on the safety of vaccines. Those earned her attention from national news outlets, though probably not the kind she was hoping for. Several journalists confronted her about the vaccine issue. In an interview with The Young Turks news show, she firmly stated that she believed vaccines to be safe and important. But at her convention press conference, she followed up a similar answer with a somewhat meandering response expressing concerns about the quality of FDA oversight and the influence of big pharmaceutical companies in the regulatory process—not exactly anti-vaxxer stuff, but close enough for a sound bite.

Similarly, when she defends her attendance at a conference in Moscow by explaining that she was there to tell Putin that there should be an arms embargo in the Middle East, as well as a “peace offensive,” she’s easily tagged as naive or—according to the bizarre neo-McCarthyism that now lurches into action after any sighting of big bad red Russia—another one of Putin’s useful idiots. In truth, while Stein has traveled to Russia and been interviewed by RT, these associations are far more informal than, say, the close contacts that American political leaders, in and out of office, maintain with repressive states around the world. (The continuing popularity of American leaders who are likely guilty of war crimes, such as George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton’s vacation partner Henry Kissinger, is another, though not unrelated, matter.) What seems to rankle liberals is that Stein uses these appearances to rail against American exceptionalism and the disastrous consequences of continued American interventionism in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia while failing to do any of the obligatory jingoistic song-and-dance about defending American interests. Having adopted as a candidate a vigorous hawk, Democrats have walled themselves off from any criticism from the left, particularly on foreign policy. It’s an unsettling calculus that’s led to a situation in which it’s somehow considered unfair to complain about Clinton’s policies in Iraq, Libya, or Honduras but billions of dollars in arm sales to Saudi Arabia represent mature statecraft. Democratic Party leaders have an easy time policing this border of polite discourse because any deviation can be said to enable Donald Trump or the Islamic State, currently the twin fears of the left. In other words, lesser evilism has made their job easy.

Paul Weiss, a Green Party delegate from Mariposa, California, provided an unintentional gloss on the situation when he quoted to me the Brazilian archbishop Hélder Câmara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” (Some of his rural California neighbors are suspicious of his political activism and charitable work, he told me.) A former Bernie supporter, Weiss joined the Greens only four months ago, when he discovered Jill Stein, but he has the zeal of the convert. “I’m living in God’s waiting room,” he joked—he’s eighty—citing his impatience with the pace of political change. Like others I spoke to, he emphasized the urgency of the climate crisis and marveled at what he thought was a groundswell of youthful idealism (one Green Party presidential candidate was only seventeen years old, Constitutional requirements be damned). He has a fiancee in Argentina who was going to soon join him in the United States, and Weiss envisioned them going on a cross-country road trip, stopping at colleges to talk about Jill Stein’s plan to forgive student debt.

What Price Unity?

Stein has developed a committed following within the Green Party, people like Weiss who are ready to preach the gospel for her. This year’s convention was, much like the pageants in Cleveland and Philadelphia, essentially a coronation of a party frontrunner. But the party of dissent isn’t immune to dissent from within. Stein’s most vocal critic at the convention was Sedinam Kinamo Christin Moyowasifza-Curry, a rival presidential candidate who during her convention speech accused Stein of “misrepresenting herself” over the years. Moyowasifza-Curry, who earned a few delegates’ votes but not enough to seriously challenge Stein, made her discontent known throughout the weekend. During the nomination process, when delegates announced their votes, Moyowasifza-Curry heckled those who didn’t say her full name (“Can you say Schwarzenegger?” she called out to one). She also said that she had lodged a complaint and demanded a form of “dispute resolution.” She had a handful of supporters in the audience—including one man who had passed out fliers railing against corruption in the party in an attempt to stir revolt—but there was a palpable sense of discomfort emanating from party officials as they tried to usher Moyowasifza-Curry, who went well past her allotted five minutes, off the stage.

The nature of the dispute remained opaque, but it seemed to stem from a sense that the Green Party wasn’t as democratic and open as it promised. (With the DNC leaks fresh in everyone’s minds, the issue of institutional party corruption was in the air.) Ashely “Flashe” Gordon, a delegate who is running for commissioner in Travis County, Texas, said that she observed a feeling among some of her peers that “the Green Party for the most part was already behind Dr. Stein. In a lot of ways the other candidates were not getting much attention in the party. Kind of they pre-chose her.” Moyowasifza-Curry didn’t think she had been given the requisite opportunities to prove her candidacy and claimed that she wasn’t invited to a party debate in Alabama. The dispute was “upsetting for me,” Gordon said. She didn’t want her party to look like it had a favorite. “Because what it looks like to poor people is that a very privileged white lady is still the favorite and she’s the one who gets to speak on behalf of all our issues.”

Fault lines remain on the left that not even the doctrine of lesser evilism can erase.

Gordon was also disturbed by white party members who were shouting at Moyowasifza-Curry to be quiet. “We have to deal with that in the outside world,” she said. “We don’t want to have to deal with that in our own party. Whether you agree with her or not, you need to allow her to have a voice.” Gordon said she still supported the party and Dr. Stein. “I don’t feel like I’m voting for the lesser of two evils when it comes to her,” she said.

The conflict may be immaterial to the election, but it speaks to some of the remaining fault lines on the left, particularly surrounding issues of representation and race, that not even the doctrine of lesser evilism can erase. “We see this a lot in a lot of our activist spaces,” Gordon said. “There will be micro-aggressions against people of color. They’re unintentional most of the time. For example, my workshop was in a room the farthest away from everyone”—Gordon is a breast cancer survivor and has mobility issues, walking with a cane. When she arrived at the convention, she said, many delegates received preprinted badges, but one hadn’t been made for her, even though she’s a delegate and a workshop leader. “We could stand to learn when it comes to people of color and inclusion when it comes to people of different backgrounds,” she said.

Despite these problems, people like Gordon, who is thirty-two, may represent the party’s future. A native of Port Arthur, Gordon lives in Austin, where she teaches Spanish and provides free art education classes to children. She comes from an activist lineage; her father was a Black Panther and founder of a neighborhood watch group and her mother is involved in educational causes. Her father died of cancer brought on by asbestos exposure from a refinery where he worked. “So did all the men who worked with him at the same time,” Gordon noted. She attributes her own cancer to environmental pollution from the area’s refineries, which were mostly on the black side of town. Gordon embodies the complex intersection of environmental racism, economic injustice, poverty, and infrastructure neglect that has hit minority communities hardest, as with Flint’s water crisis. All of these are issues of concern to her, along with securing better public transit for outlying areas of Travis County, where former Austinites pushed out by gentrification face long, toll-laden commutes to their jobs in the city.

Hectorers of the Electorate

Getting people like Gordon into local office would go a long way toward showing that the Green Party can match its own self-image and morph into a real electoral force, one that does more than trot out a protest presidential candidate every four years. Lesser evilism always defers the possibility of change, but it would be more easily vanquished if the Green Party had a list of regional successes it could point to, and perhaps concrete victories around a key initiative, like Stein’s Green New Deal proposal, a jobs and infrastructure program that calls for 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. (Arn Menconi, a Green Party Senate candidate from Colorado, told me that he, for one, thought the party should play to its one-issue reputation and devote itself above all to fighting climate change.)  

Instead of running from the spoiler stereotype, some Greens embrace it. These are the people who say, “Fuck practical.”

Torn between calling for revolution and playing the game of small-money politics, the Green Party can seem like little more than a baggy collection of people and ideas. Dan Leahy, a writer from Olympia, Washington, who helped organize the Citizens Party in the early 1980s, told me that the Green Party can feel like a “virtual party,” down to the lack of a paper trail. (Leahy tried to secure a list of this year’s party delegates but was told that one wasn’t available.) At the same time, the energy, passion, and clearly articulated principles—from environmental conservation to nonviolence to local economics—of its partisans have the potential to appeal to millions of Americans, particularly those who may not have much familiarity with leftist politics. By any reasonable measure, the two dominant parties fail to adequately represent the needs of anyone beyond a narrow slice of corporate concerns and special interests. That most people who do vote end up voting for one of the two major parties may be evidence that the message of lesser evilism has been heard loud and clear, but it is hardly an endorsement of the Democrats’ and the Republicans’ continued viability. The Greens may not be “practical,” but the status quo can change unexpectedly. (Some supporters cite Lincoln’s Republicans as the first successful third party.)

And then there are those Greens who, instead of running from the spoiler stereotype that has plagued their party since Nader, fervently embrace it. These are the people who say, “Well, fuck practical.” The planet is warming, many people in America are suffering right here and now, and our continued blundering and bombing throughout the world harms millions more. The crisis is real and urgent. Things are not okay. The reminders are all around us: one of the Green Party’s own delegates, Gary Frazier from Camden, New Jersey, was detained by Houston police for thirty-five minutes for “matching a description” and almost missed the convention. Incrementalism won’t save us; it’s what got us to this point.

Many of the people I met at the Green Party Convention said they aren’t intimidated by the threat of a Trump presidency (one that grows increasingly unlikely as Trump’s poll numbers keep falling). Nor are they encouraged by the patronizing assurances of liberals who claim that this election is different, that we must vanquish the Donald, install another Clinton in office, and hope for more radical change down the road. Instead, they are tired of being cajoled into casting votes for candidates who won’t materially improve their lives. This may not be the election that breaks the two-party system, but it is, for some people, the one that has broken their faith in it. The grievances and anger expressed by many at the Green Party Convention are real, despite the histrionics or consciousness-raising clichés that might accompany them. As Philip Roth, in a very different context, once wrote, “We are immoderate because our grief is immoderate, all the hundreds and thousands of kinds of grief.”

I thought of Roth’s line throughout the weekend, including when I met Rodolfo Munoz. A lawyer who’s running as a Green Party candidate for the Texas Supreme Court, Munoz was also a convention speaker. “I’m an Indian with rights preexisting Americans,” he said. “The system is rigged, but my people have always known that.” For almost twenty years, Munoz has been filing lawsuits against the state of Texas. In hundreds of pages of filings, in motions with titles like “An ‘Indian’s’ request for Access to this Racist System,” Munoz recounts the manifold abuses and betrayals heaped upon American Indians over the last five hundred years. His main demand is for the state of Texas to recognize its lack of authority over him and its own illegitimacy. Among his other requests is that the court should declare that there is an ongoing genocide against American Indians—or as Munoz describes it, “the intentional extermination of the people autochthonous to the Western Hemisphere.” Munoz’s legal campaign is quixotic and confusing. Some of his prose is difficult to penetrate. His request for the court to recognize his claims and at the same time to recognize its own illegality is almost paradoxical. Many of the claims he brings forth would be better presented elsewhere, like in a work of history. Courts in Texas have barred Munoz from filing more lawsuits and threatened him with sanctions. He said that two U.S. Marshals showed up at the convention to express worries that he might be a threat to the judge in his lawsuit. (Munoz saw a useful possibility here: “If you’re here to do anything, arrest me,” he said. “Because then it’s a quasi-criminal matter and you’ve got to have jurisdiction”—i.e. provoking one of the original questions behind his suit.)

But Munoz isn’t interested in apologetics, or in capitulating to a system that has repeatedly victimized him and his people. Though it wasn’t until the 1940s, he said, that anyone in his family had a name appear on a government document, they were always here, recognized or not. Munoz may lack the charismatic style of YahNé Ndgo or the sharp intersectional critiques of Ashely Gordon, but over the years, his grievances, like theirs, have been pushed ever further down some future politician’s imaginary to-do list. It’s no wonder that from this view, “impractical” voters seem more like clear-eyed strategists charged for a fight and less like fantasy-sick obstructionists intent on spoiling elections, which already seem spoiled enough.