Wednesday, August 03, 2016

The Green Party Has a "Woo" Problem


Belatedly, I am prompted to respond to new scrutiny of Jill Stein as a competing candidate and possible alternative for voters mobilized by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Stein is the presumptive nominee to be the Green Party's candidate for President a second time.

Unsurprisingly, with the enhanced attention making it harder to simply ignore the Green Party, there is a lot of negative stuff. Some prominent Democratic supporters, including Dan Savage, have stooped to misrepresenting and smearing the Green Party and its candidate.(As he has done in the past, being a rather hawkish partisan.)

Yet the scrutiny is important, and the party and its candidate have both been around long enough to understand their role in helping the electorate envision alternatives to the traditional parties and feel comfortable supporting them. They do this in the context of the bourgeois spectacle of presidential politics, and they work against the deliberate effort by the parties, media organizations, and the Commission on Presidential Debates to make us believe there are no other "real" parties.

Today I have to acknowledge that the Green Party has a bit of a "woo" problem. It's not insurmountable, and it's also not new; and they must confront it. This is the week of their nominating convention, maybe this is a good time.

Last week while I was busy at a festival, I began seeing posts alleging that Jill Stein was "anti-vaccine." I have enough background with the Green Party to remember that it has flirted with some fringey positions about food and medicine in the past (and not very long ago), so I felt concerned and immediately began examining this for myself. I also know that Jill Stein (for whom I voted in 2012)  is a physician so the rumor that she is part of the "anti-vax" fringe raised my eyebrows.

To begin with the anti-vax allegations: these are false, but there is a memo here for the candidate. The longest statement I could find by Dr. Stein about vaccines was from an "Ask Me Anything" session she did on Reddit (Direct link here.) This statement was also cited by Snopes in its article debunking the anti-vax claim. The statement makes a clear distinction: she does not question the value of vaccinations per se, and does not air non-scientific allegations about vaccinations; her argument about vaccinations addresses the economics, and the role of profit-seeking in vaccinations as well as medicine generally. She speaks of the regulation and promotion of vaccines by people with a financial interest. That's a valid political argument and to portray this as "anti-vax" is a smear that misrepresents the argument she actually makes. She has also tweeted, in response to these allegations, her support for immunization. I'm inclined to agree with Snopes that this charge is false; but there is some language here that is a little bit hedgy, as if trying not to alienate potential supporters who hold onto anti-vaccine views. This would be pandering to pseudo-science and she would deserve criticism for that.  I would have addressed this question differently, and made a repeated and unambiguous statement separating the science from the political economy of supply and distribution. For instance, let us now move into the issue of GMOs.

A widely shared blog post by Dan Arel takes her to task (and withdraws his own endorsement of Stein) on the issue of genetically modified foods and his point is valid. Stein is calling for a moratorium on genetically modified foods and pesticides. Arel quotes a recent fundraising email, which I also received, asserting without any documentary links that "evidence is now showing that once these foods reach our digestive tract, they can affect our very DNA." Arel presents the problem in very simple and stark terms: either this is an indulgence in scary prose for the purposes of raising money, which would be dishonest; or Stein is earnestly standing in opposition to scientific findings about GMOs, which is no easier to defend than those who deny climate change.

If we are debating whether the alternative candidate for the left is fear-mongering or actually subscribing to "woo" theories about science, we have a problem. 

Mishandling the issue not only kookifies the candidate - sssssh, kookify is a legitimate verb - it also pivots away from a legitimate issue that should be raised. We don't have to be scared about the science, but should we not be discussing the role of large corporations like Monsanto in patenting genetic material and using patent laws to extend its control and profit-taking over even the smallest farms?

Jill Stein should be staking her position as the candidate who wants to debate the political economy of GMO research. By playing to fears about GMO, she blows that issue and exposes herself to being portrayed as a kook. Considering her status as an alternative candidate in a country strongly entrenched in viewing the two-party system as legitimate, this is a very expensive mistake. To make any mark in this election, the Greens have to play to a national audience.

Another expensive mistake, also cited by Arel and getting circulation of its own, is a recent video of an appearance by Stein where she says strange things about wireless internet service in schools. I have watched the video myself. (Here is a link to the video.) She starts by saying some sensible things about education, how we shouldn't depend too much on screens or dump kids in front of computers too long, but then someone throws in a comment about wireless internet and inexplicably Stein keeps talking off the cuff: "We should not be subjecting kid’s brains especially to that…we make guinea pigs out of whole populations and then we discover how many die. And this is the paradigm for how public health works in this country.”

Oh brother. This is not a thing. I located some articles about medical research into radiation exposure in home and school environments. Yes, the wifi router emits radiation, and radiation is a scary word for a lot of people, but the kind of radiation it emits and the amount are not harmful. This has been investigated and the answer is no, wifi is not poisoning anyone. Wireless internet use in schools is not a public health hazard. This is kooky talk and constitutes an unforced error on the part of the candidate.

2016 is an important year for alternative parties. This year we have a major opportunity to make a case for considering alternatives to the two traditional parties. The Republican Party cannot govern and has nominated someone for president who is obviously a kook with a serious personality disorder and glaringly unprepared to hold office. The Democratic Party is in a different kind of trouble, as large numbers of voters (and millennials especially) are rejecting its center-right ideology. Confidence in these two parties as a legitimate duopoly is at an unusual low.  This could be a year when a Libertarian or Green candidate could make the case for being allowed to debate on the same stage. Interest in these new voices can also energize a movement for some important electoral reforms that would open up our politics, empower voters and make some of our institutions more representative of popular consent.

This puts a burden on the alternative candidates. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein have more eyes on them now, more is being written about them, and they are on television more than they have been previously. They cannot afford to look like kooks. If they do, we lose the opportunity to change strongly-held prejudices about "real" political parties. As kooky as Donald Trump is, he is also frighteningly close to being elected President, and there is a lot of fear-mongering, scolding, and shaming going on among liberals directed at those of us who would dare consider a competing alternative to Hillary Clinton. Even in states that are securely blue or red, where voting for an alternative candidate won't change the state's electoral vote, some report simply being too scared to do anything except vote for Hillary Clinton.

Speaking for myself, I think what is likely going to happen is that Hillary Clinton will be elected President in November. With months to go before election day, Trump's campaign is in disarray and falling behind in fundraising, elected Republicans and prominent fundraisers are beginning to withdraw their endorsements. He could still win, especially if the Clinton campaign falters, but today things appear to be moving in her direction while Trump melts down and rejects the counsel of political professionals.

I will be asked if this is enough to make me change my vote. That's not a snap decision for me. How do I weigh kooky utterances about science and missed political opportunities against a Clinton presidency I feel certain will result in more endless warfare, further destabilization and humanitarian crises, escalation of fracking, further postponing of radical changes in energy production and consumption, and the eventual approval of the TPP and its human consequences?

Jill Stein is on enough state ballots that she has a numerical path to winning the electoral vote. That said, she would need to run the table in a landslide without precedent. Jill Stein is certainly not going to be elected President in 2016. There is a great deal that her candidacy could achieve, however. That depends on whether she can present herself as a credible leader, a citizen of strong principle and humane ideology, who could take that oath of office and then recruit and manage the executive branch of the federal government.

This means that everything she says counts. The way a candidate for President talks about science matters. If Jill Stein says kooky things about science, we lose the opportunity to advance this alternative to the Democratic Party in the mind of the electorate.


Kelly said...

Interesting post, Algernon. I hate that we're entrenched in this two-party system and I believe we will remain so unless third parties can be taken seriously. Think how much more exciting this campaign could have been with all four candidates getting equal coverage. Sadly, I know there are many folks who don't even realize they have a choice other than R or D. (and sad to think how little research they put into their votes when the time comes)

I believe you're correct in that Hillary will be elected, however, I dislike her and her policies and cannot vote for her. So that leaves me three choices: hold my nose and vote for Trump, listen to my conscience and vote third party (which I see as a vote for Hillary, in reality), or not vote at all. It's a real dilemma.

Algernon said...

Whether or not a vote for an alternative candidate is a vote for Hillary depends, strategically, on where you vote. In a state that is securely blue or red, a vote for a Libertarian or Green will not make a difference in the electoral count, which is what really elects the president. In states where the vote is likely to be very close, then there are strategic considerations to be made since we have this two-party winner-take-all system (that we really need to change, by the way, since it is one of the biggest obstacles to meaningful change at the ballot box).

The notion that we vote against people is fiction, although it comes from an understandable mindset. When we are forced to think in terms of either A or B, and both those choices are individually unacceptable, the doctrine of the lesser evil comes into play. This is, however, a dangerous illusion itself, because we do not literally vote against anything - we only vote FOR something. If the only alternative to Trump we are willing to recognize is Hillary Clinton, then we vote for Hillary Clinton - but then we are voting FOR what we can rationally expect from a Clinton presidency (which I would argue amounts to more war, fracking and its consequences for the climate, and the TPP and its human consequences). That's isn't a lesser evil and I'm not going to vote for it. If I did, I would be compelled to cut off the hand that marked the ballot.

Kelly said...

Historically, Arkansas has gone Democrat, but the last four elections have gone against that. I honestly can't tell you which party will carry the state this time. After all, we are the "land of Clinton" (though she's not nearly as popular here as he).

And yes, when you word it that way I can see what you mean about a vote "against", but I still believe it's a case of "lesser of the evils". While I doubt there will ever be a candidate I can agree with 100%, some are more palatable than than others, even if not what I truly want in a leader. It's just unfortunate that in this case the two major party choices are both unacceptable. Chances are, I'll vote Libertarian.