Can Jill Stein Lead a Revolution?

The Green Party candidate wants disillusioned Bernie Sanders supporters to join her—not Hillary Clinton.

Dominick Reuter / Reuters

PHILADELPHIA—Jill Stein takes public transportation to the Democratic National Convention. On the day after Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman to win a major party presidential nomination, the Green Party presidential candidate is on the subway en route to the Wells Fargo Center. Adoring fans spot her on the way over and demand selfies. A heavily tattooed woman complains to Stein: “It’s been a Hillary party the whole time. It’s like brainwash, like waterboarding. It’s awful.”

Stein is in high demand. The populist progressive tells me that after Bernie Sanders endorsed Clinton two weeks ago, effectively ending his insurgent campaign for president, a lot more people started paying attention to her campaign. “The floodgates opened,” Stein says. “I almost feel like a social-worker, being out there talking to the Bernie supporters. They are broken-hearted. They feel really abused, and misled, largely by the Democratic Party.”

It’s hard to miss the anger and frustration. At the start of the week, Sanders supporters took to booing the mere mention of Clinton’s name at the convention. Dozens of die-hards even staged a dramatic walkout after Clinton won the nomination. Stein insists she feels their pain.“I think the Democratic Party is really struggling right now,” she says. “It’s become a zombie party.”

The Green Party candidate styles herself as a successor to the Sanders campaign. And she has been making the rounds in Philadelphia in the midst of the Democratic convention. When Sanders supporters protested Clinton’s nomination, Stein was spotted in the crowd. On Tuesday, she showed up at a Bernie-or-Bust rally in downtown Philadelphia, reminding the crowd: “Whatever happens, you know my campaign is here. We are going to continue this movement.” As she works to channel the dismay of Sanders loyalists toward her campaign,  Stein says perhaps “Bernie will see the light, come over, and join us at some point down the line.”

The thing is though, Sanders has already promised his political revolution won’t end. At the same time, he has undeniably signaled a willingness to make peace with the establishment. Stein seems skeptical. “It’s hard to have a revolutionary campaign inside of a counterrevolutionary political party,” she cautioned at the rally. “Every time, there’s been a rebel inside the Democratic Party, a candidate with integrity, they have been sabotaged, like Bernie,” Stein tells me as we walk out of the subway and into 90-degree heat. “All their claims about having a movement that will live on inside the Democratic Party, it just doesn’t happen.”

Stein may be right, but that doesn’t mean her revolution will fare much better. The Harvard-educated physician has barely made a dent in national polling. A YouGov/Economist poll from late July put her at just 3 percent. And while Stein may win some votes from Sanders supporters ready to defect, the vast majority of people who voted for the senator appear to already have lined up behind Clinton. Among consistent Sanders supporters, Pew Research found a full 90 percent plan to support Clinton.

Even the anger on display at the convention may soon be a distant memory. Despite threats of protest from Sanders supporters against Tim Kaine, Clinton’s vice-presidential candidate, there was no revolt when the Virginia senator took the stage on Wednesday. As Angie Aker, a Sanders delegate, put it on Tuesday evening inside the arena as she held a sign that read, “Silenced by Her,” above her head: “It’s really hard to maintain sustained outrage. It’s just tiring.”

So, can Stein really lead a political revolution? Her diagnosis of the problems plaguing the country isn’t so different from Sanders’s assessment. Like the senator, she sees a country overrun by big money and corporate power. She wants to make health care a right, break up big banks, and ensure that high-quality education is accessible for Americans. Stein has also embraced positions that put her to the left of the senator. At the Bernie-or-Bust rally, she called for reparations as part of a conversation on fighting racism rooted in the “criminal institution of slavery.”

Add all that up and the campaign’s most effective selling point may be that Stein can act as a kind of stand-in for Sanders now that his campaign has reached an end. But political revolutions are the stuff of bold promises, not plan Bs and second-choice candidates. Messages like “If you don’t like Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, vote for Jill Stein” or  “Vote Green Party, if your first choice candidate is no longer in the race” may not prove adequately inspiring.

Still, Stein is winning some voters over. Theresa Gallivan, a 48-year-old from Michigan, who showed up at the rally, said she plans to vote for Stein now that Clinton has secured the nomination. “I won’t vote for Hillary,” Gallivan said decisively. Asked what she thought of the talk of unity from speakers on stage at the Democratic convention, she said: “It’s all a bunch of bullshit. This whole thing has been planned for her coronation. There’s no unity.”

Morgan DeCaul from New Orleans, Louisiana says at the rally that if she “can’t vote for Bernie Sanders, then I’m definitely going to vote for Jill Stein.” Watching Sanders support Clinton, she said, has been like watching “somebody holding someone hostage.” When she started seriously considering Stein as an alternative, DeCaul said, “the only concern I had was that people were saying that she was anti-vaccine, but it seems like she’s just into alternative medicine.” (The Green Party platform mentions support for the “funding and practice of holistic health.”)

Anyone who votes for Stein will undoubtedly face scorn from anxious Democrats. If the Green Party candidate siphons support away from Clinton that could weaken the Democratic Party heading into the November election. “I would feel horrible if Trump gets elected, and horrible if Clinton gets elected,” Stein tells me. But, she adds, what she feels “most horrible about [is] a political system that gives us two deadly choices and says, ‘Here, pick your weapon of self-destruction.’” When I asked Gallivan whether she thought Stein would play the spoiler, she paused. “Could Trump win because we vote for Jill Stein instead of her?” she asked. “Possibly, I suppose that’s possible, but I blame the DNC for that.”

The pull to vote third-party may be particularly strong during this presidential election. The 2016 race is poised to ask Americans to choose between a pair of historically unpopular candidates. Voting for the lesser of two evils is hardly an attractive prospect. It only makes sense that people would be look for alternatives. Walking around the grounds of the Wells Fargo Center, Stein was quickly surrounded by more fans. From there, she headed into the heart of the political establishment for even more interviews—undoubtedly hoping to find a few more converts.

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