The media — and many Democrats — need to stop attacking Jill Stein unfairly

Originally posted at Vox.com

There is both a principled and strategic component to voting choices in presidential elections. In principle, citizens should cast their votes for whichever candidate’s views align most with their own. Strategic voting, on the other hand, includes a voter’s assessment of the probability that various voting choices will lead to desired outcomes.

These components are related to some degree; voters are more likely to agree about which candidate to vote for if they agree in principle on which candidate is best. Yet principled and strategic voting are not the same. One might believe a third-party candidate to be optimal, for example, but still vote for a major party candidate because of the higher probability that the major party candidate will win the election.

This decision can be a self-fulfilling prophecy —third-party candidates would be more electable if their supporters decided to vote for them — but it can also be rational, depending on how one evaluates the differences between major party candidates and the downside risk to voting for a bad nominee.

I believe social justice advocates committing to vote for Hillary Clinton in the present election have a misguided strategy — I’d argue that good policy in the United States is set back more by strict lesser-evilism than by the possibility of a Trump presidency. (In short, millions of people are suffering under the status quo, and I think a pledge to vote for a Democrat who won’t fundamentally change that just because she’s better than Trump deprives us of the bargaining power we need to challenge the status quo in the long run.) But I respect that others evaluate the trade-offs inherent in third-party voting this year differently. Their reasoning is generally coherent.

What isn’t coherent, however, is many Democrats’ ridicule of the Jill Stein candidacy on principle. If they believe what they say they believe — that America needs aggressive action to dismantle institutional racism and sexism, combat climate change, end mass incarceration, promote a richer democracy, and achieve economic justice — they should acknowledge that Stein is the candidate who, if elected, would be most likely to advance those goals. Stein’s platform is significantly better than Clinton’s, and, unlike with Clinton, there’s little reason to doubt that what Stein currently says gels with what she’d actually support if she became our next president.

Jill Stein’s goals dovetail with those of social justice advocates

Stein’s platform, along with the Green Party’s Green New Deal, enumerates most items on social justice advocates’ wish lists. Here’s a sampling:

  • Stein has called for a "WWII-scale national mobilization to halt climate change," which she believes must include a goal of "100 percent clean renewable energy by 2030"; she would also ban fracking and other environmentally destructive forms of energy extraction. Clinton’s proposals to address climate change have improved since the beginning of the Democratic primary due to pressure from activists and Bernie Sanders, but they are still "just half the way there," as environmental advocate Bill McKibben has put it. And while Stein has long joined protesters in their fights against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, Clinton continues to ignore such issues. Both her record and ties to oil and gas interests raise concerns about the genuineness of Clinton’s commitment to environmental justice.
  • Stein is an unapologetic supporter of a single-payer health care system, whereas Clinton, despite currently voicing support for some worthwhile improvements to the Affordable Care Act and praising the idea of single-payer health care at times in the past, inaccurately claimed that Bernie Sanders’s proposal was "going to cost middle-class families and working families" during the primary. She dismissed the idea of "free" health care to donors behind closed doors.
  • Stein backs a job guarantee for anyone who is willing and able to work. Clinton’s investments "in infrastructure and manufacturing, technology and innovation, small businesses and clean energy" would likely create some jobs but would still leave millions of Americans who want to work out of luck.
  • Stein has proposed solutions to meet nine out of the 10 elements of Campaign Zero’s 10-point platform to "end police violence in America." She is committed to, for instance, legalizing marijuana, moving quickly to end the militarization of the police force, ending civil asset forfeitures that target low-income people, ending the prosecution of people who film the police, and instituting "elected community oversight boards with subpoena and indictment powers." Clinton isn’t; while she has proposed solutions in six of Campaign Zero’s 10 issue areas, even those measures she has proposed are almost uniformly weaker than Stein’s.
  • Stein wants to end drone strikes, pursue nuclear disarmament, stop supplying repressive militaries with US weapons, support nonviolent protests of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, withdraw troops and military contractors from Iraq and Afghanistan, and cut US military spending "by at least 50 percent." Clinton, on the other hand, has positions on foreign policy that are arguably to the right of Donald Trump’s and a record that is extremely hawkish. She has undermined democracy in other countries and helped foster aggressive military actions that have led to millions of deaths. Her aggressive foreign policy vision has earned her the admiration of neoconservatives, including Robert Kagan, whom Democrats have long professed to despise.
  • Stein thinks Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are heroes and would end the Obama administration’s attacks on whistleblowers who reveal government wrongdoing. Clinton falsely asserted that Snowden "could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower" and supported Manning’s prosecution; she appears likely to continue Obama’s secretive and anti-democratic policies in matters of national security.
  • Stein calls for electoral reforms, such as "equal access to the debates [for] all ballot-qualified candidates" and ranked-choice voting, that make it easier to vote, reduce the influence of money in politics, and eliminate barriers for less wealthy and well-known candidates to win elections. Clinton calls for some electoral reforms as well, but she doesn’t go nearly as far as Stein and isn’t a particularly credible advocate against money in politics, given the arguments she and her supporters have made to defend the donations she’s received.

On practically every issue social justice advocates say we care about — from addressing poverty to providing a path to citizenship for immigrants to regulating Wall Street to raising taxes on the wealthy to establishing education as a right — Stein is much more with us ideologically than is Clinton. In addition to having weaker proposals, Clinton often has a record that suggests she’s even less with us than she professes to be, in addition to having cultivated donors whose interests diverge from ours.

Attacks on Jill Stein’s ideas are misleading, hypocritical, or both

Stein isn’t perfect, and Clinton partisans have seized on some of her mistakes and flaws to attempt to discredit her as a candidate. Some of their individual critiques of Stein are fair, but many are misleading. Stein critics also apply a hypocritical and deceptive double standard when calling Stein’s behaviors "disqualifying."

On practically every issue social justice advocates say we care about, Stein is much more with us ideologically than is Clinton

Consider, for example, the argument of Catherine Rampell in a recent piece called "Both third-party candidates would be terrible presidents." Rampell devotes most of her column to Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, dispensing with Stein in a single sentence: "Despite being a medical doctor who knows better, she’s pandered to anti-vaxxers; expressed strong stances on high-profile issues, such as Brexit, only to abruptly reverse herself without explanation; and (along with running mate Ajamu Baraka) trafficked in conspiracy theories, among other disqualifying behaviors."

First, Stein strongly supports vaccinations — and she reiterates that fact every time she’s asked about them. Stein often implies, correctly, that addressing corporate influence over government regulatory agencies would address a major concern of vaccine skeptics. (Though vaccine skeptics are wrong to link vaccines to autism and to doubt the efficacy of vaccines, it’s hard to fault them for their concerns about the profit motive in medicine. We’re more likely to convince people that vaccines are safe by explaining the research we have on vaccines than by mocking their legitimate concerns about big pharma.)

While I agree with Stein’s critics that Stein didn’t disavow the link between vaccines and autism as clearly as she should have in a couple interviews, her statements on this topic have not been inaccurate and have improved a lot over time. Here’s an exchange from September with Politico’s Glenn Thrush:

THRUSH: Do you think —you've been asked this before but I'll ask it again —do you think vaccines —there's any clinical — not clinical —any research link that you have seen between vaccines and autism?

STEIN: No. Many years ago I was part of a public health movement that raised concerns about the mercury in vaccines and about the heavy dose that infants get — used to [get]. They don't anymore.

THRUSH: Right.

STEIN: There is no evidence, that I am aware of, that points to a link between vaccines and developmental disability. On the other hand, there are plenty of red flags that link developmental disabilities to things like lead and mercury and pesticides and air pollution and certain kinds of unhealthy foods, and that's what's begging for a comprehensive and definitive study. We should have a long-term prospectus study that looks at all, you know, exposures, medications, life habits, etc., pollution, and traces people over a period of many years, starting with when--starting with their parents, from when they are healthy. This is how we learned what causes heart disease.

Seems pretty reasonable to me.

Maybe you disagree, but if you do and are complaining that Stein has "pandered to anti-vaxxers" because of her use of phrases like "that I am aware of," you should also have been furious with both Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008. Clinton said that she was "committed to make investments to find the possible causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines." Obama said a link between "a skyrocketing autism rate" and vaccines was "inconclusive, but we have to research it." Such missteps should not be a political death sentence (or if they should, the sentence should be applied even-handedly).

Rampell’s second critique – that Stein "expressed strong stances on high-profile issues, such as Brexit, only to abruptly reverse herself without explanation" – is more legitimate. Stein called Brexit a "victory for those who believe in the right of self-determination and who reject the pro-corporate, austerity policies of the political elites in the EU" in an initial statement while also lamenting the "attacks on immigrants and refugees" that helped fuel it. Then she deleted her initial statement and posted a revised statement that recast what she had previously called a "victory" as a "wake-up call." Stein did not offer an explanation for this change — or for her deletion of a Facebook post praising Elie Wiesel, possibly in response to complaints by pro-Palestinian activists — and she should be held accountable for doing so.

Yes, she has misspoken. Hasn’t every candidate?

Here again, however, it is grossly inconsistent and hypocritical to consider such social media self-editing "disqualifying" if you support a presidential candidate who deleted emails while under investigation by the FBI (and whose statements about that investigation have sometimes contradicted those of FBI Director James Comey) and who has distorted her record on numerous policy issues. Clinton’s statement that she had always believed marriage should be "left to the states" in a 2014 interview, for example, is belied by her longtime support for the federal prohibition on marriage equality that her husband signed into law. Her stated reasons for opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) today presumably ought to have applied just as strongly back in 2012, when she was promoting the deal as "the gold standard in trade agreements." She was absent from the Fight for $15 before she tried to take credit for championing it.

Third, Rampell alleges that Stein and Baraka have "trafficked in conspiracy theories." This assertion is based in part on Baraka appearing on a radio show with and allowing an article of his to be published by a person who turned out to be a Holocaust denier. But once Baraka found out about that person’s belief, he forcefully denounced it, saying he "abhor[s] and reject[s] any individual or group that fails to understand the tremendous suffering of Jewish people during that dark period."

The "conspiracy theory" charge is also based on Stein’s responses to questions she’s been asked about wireless internet and 9/11. On wifi, she said in March that "we should not be subjecting kids’ brains especially to that," but she has since clarified that she meant to convey her belief that we should "take precautions about how much we expose young children to WiFi and cellphones until we know more about the long-term health effects of this type of low-level radiation." She still supports extending free broadband access to everyone.

On 9/11, she’s been criticized for her statement that "we need the full story, and the 9/11 commission itself said we don’t have the full story" at a September town hall. It definitely wasn’t a good response to the question she received, but her position on the issue — demanding the release of redacted information about Saudia Arabia and 9/11, for instance — is probably less a conspiracy theory than the Clinton campaign’s speculation that because of Donald Trump’s potential investments in Russia and favorable comments about Vladimir Putin, "Trump himself is just a puppet for the Kremlin," a conspiracy theory Clinton echoed at the last presidential debate.

Some Clinton supporters have also decided that Stein’s attendance at a conference in Russia proves she has an "apparent affinity" for the Russian president. There’s little basis for that accusation — Stein’s comments at the conference criticized both US and Russian military action and called for both countries to work together on "a peace offensive." If sitting at the same table as Putin at that conference is problematic, what should we make of Clinton’s close connections to such figures as Hosni Mubarak, the Saudi royal family, and Henry Kissinger, to name a few?

It is both fair and essential to grill Stein on her ideas and to knock her when she gets something wrong. She has described quantitative easing incorrectly when discussing her plans for student debt, for example, and it’s perfectly appropriate for journalists to criticize her for that.

But most attacks on Stein’s ideas that haven’t been completely wrong should, if applied consistently, be more "disqualifying" of Clinton than of Stein. And if you care more about presidential candidates’ thoughts on wifi than about the strength of their commitment to combating climate change, inequality, and police violence, it may be time to reevaluate your priorities.

But what about experience and pragmatism?

Stein’s critics knock her for more than just her principles; they also sometimes allege that Stein is inexperienced and her views unrealistic, objections also raised about Sanders during the Democratic primary. They were wildly inaccurate when applied to him — Sanders has more political experience than Obama had when he became president and has a history of getting things done as an executive and legislator — but they do make some sense when applied to Stein. The highest elected position she’s held was on the Town Meeting in Lexington, Massachusetts, and it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder about both how she’d make decisions in a high-intensity executive position and how she’d work with Congress to get her agenda passed.

That said, presidents have thousands of people on their staffs; they don’t need experience developing all the specific ways to address the various issues they deal with so much as they need to "lay out their goals, outline the broad contours of how to get there, appoint and/or hire staff who share their vision, and exercise final decision-making authority."

It’s much better, I’d say, to have a president who credibly shares our values but has little political experience (Stein) than one who has spent time in political office undermining those values (Clinton). While Stein would make foreign policy decisions surrounded by experts who view state-sponsored violence as a horrible thing that we should take great pains to avoid, Clinton would make foreign policy decisions surrounded by experts who have proudly perpetrated mass violence. While Stein would make economic policy surrounded by experts who prioritize workers’ needs over those of corporate interests, Clinton is more likely to make economic policy surrounded by experts inclined to put business interests first. While Stein would likely make environmental policy surrounded by experts who view climate change as the most urgent crisis facing humanity, Clinton would likely make environmental policy surrounded by experts who think incremental progress towards clean energy sources is enough.

It’s okay to oppose third-party voting. It’s not okay to smear third-party candidates.

When it comes to working with Congress, it is also better to have a president who pushes us to rethink what’s possible with bold proposals than one who is constantly triangulating with the right. A president may not get everything she proposes enacted into law, but she is most likely to get something good enacted —as opposed to something bad — if she advocates aggressively for what we actually need. The lesson of both the civil rights movement and recent movements like the Fight for $15 is that change happens when people stand up for what’s right despite others’ insistence that bold demands for social justice are unrealistic.

Take an issue like climate change. If Republicans are adamant about blocking any and all action on this issue, neither Jill Stein nor Hillary Clinton would have much chance to get useful legislation passed in her first two years in office. Stein’s demands could shift the window of acceptable discourse, however, giving Democrats a stronger negotiating position. And her convincing, principled push for what people need could be just what motivates voters to get out in 2018 and give her a Congress willing to enact her agenda.

Although I disagree with it, the argument that a vote for Stein isn’t practical this year is legitimate. But Stein is quite clearly the candidate social justice advocates are most aligned with in principle. Opportunistic, misleading, and hypocritical attacks that pretend that she isn’t need to stop.

Ben Spielberg co-founded the site 34justice, where he blogs.