A remarkable development took place on August 17: CNN, a corporate media organization, determined it was in their self-interest to broadcast a town hall event with Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, and for the first time in recent history, millions of Americans had a rare opportunity to learn about Stein’s revolutionary campaign.
Host Chris Cuomo opened, “We’re bringing it to you, no small part, because voters, many of you, keep expressing a desire for third-party alternatives.” Previously, on August 3, CNN presented a town hall with Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson.
Later in the broadcast, Cuomo said to Stein, who also appeared with her running mate, Ajamu Baraka, “We’re giving you an opportunity here at CNN. We believe it’s part of our duty to the process to represent all the parties that are options.”
Google search data reflects how CNN contributed to a surge of interest in Stein during and immediately after the town hall.
CNN framed the town hall around the reality that Americans are in the throes of an election, where Clinton and Trump endlessly squabble over who is the worst presidential candidate in history. Stein and Baraka can meaningfully disrupt this bickering and focus attention on issues.
The town hall gave the Green Party ticket, which will be on the ballot in 47 states, space for discussion that rarely is given to revolutionary politics.
Stein had plenty of time to detail how she thought student loan debt could be canceled for 43 million Americans. Stein and Baraka were able to talk about what a world would be like if the U.S. did not have 700 or 800 military bases around the world.
The Green Party ticket was hit with questions their supporters would expect from skeptics and detractors. For example, a Bernie Sanders supporter now leaning toward voting for Clinton asked, “Given the way our political system works, effectively, you could help Donald Trump like Ralph Nader helps George Bush in 2000. How can you sleep at night?” Aside from that, the event was never hostile to the idea of a presidential candidate running outside the two-party system.
Stein and Baraka strongly performed when addressing Clinton’s record as a warmonger and addressing the significance of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
A market research analyst and registered Democrat leaning toward supporting Stein asked about a tweet she sent about Clinton, “In order for women to achieve equality around the world, a feminist cannot be an imperialist and a warmonger.” She added, “Can you talk about the way in which you think your feminism is different from Hillary Clinton’s and the implication that would have on foreign policy?”
“In my view, being a feminist has a lot to do with nurturing our children,” Stein replied. “It’s about equal rights for women, but it’s also about kind of a special vision for women that we are the caretakers of children, of our parents, of our communities. There’s something about us that just wants to take care of people.”
“And, to me, that’s the height of feminism and that is not compatible with just, you know, taking care of your own private family,” Stein added, arguing it is important for feminists to take care of children all over the world. However, Clinton’s past support for welfare repeal, Wall Street deregulation, and the wars in Iraq and Libya, is not “compatible with what my view of feminism is that [you have] a responsibility not just to your own family but to all families and to the human family.”
Lacey Dickinson, a black co-founder of Feminist News who supports Stein, called attention to violence against people of color. She asked, “What do you think the role of the federal government should be in kind of structuring and working with local forces and how would you work to ensure that officers are brought to justice who kill citizens?”
Stein recognized violence against people of color is rooted in the legacy of slavery, which permeates institutions in the country. She offered concrete solutions to the policing crisis.
“We need to ensure that every community has a civilian review board so that communities are in charge of their police instead of having police in charge of their communities,” Stein declared. “We need to ensure that every community has access to an independent investigator, so it doesn’t require an act of God in Washington, D.C. in the Department of Justice to find out what happened.”
She recommended a “truth and reconciliation commission to confront the “living legacy” of fear and racism in the United States because racist policing is “just the tip of the iceberg,” when it comes to social and economic injustice facing black Americans.
When Cuomo asked if it was a problem to focus on police and ignore the high rates of crime in minority communities, Baraka responded, “Why do we have the kind of policing we have in these black communities? Because we have colonized territories where basically the police are acting like a military force, and they’re behaving like a military force because you are policing basically a population that at this point in history is almost superfluous.”
“In the larger economy, now we have become the problem people that [W.E.B] du Bois talked about.”
Stein and Baraka each had an opportunity to share some personal details about themselves. Stein talked about how she used to be a singer in a band called Somebody’s Sister. Baraka shared what it meant to be a grandfather and spend time with family.
They each had a chance to highlight their personal heroes. Stein said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Baraka said Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights leader and member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party who went to the Democratic Party convention in 1964 and demanded the party seat her and fellow delegates.
Where Stein and Baraka, perhaps, struggled a little bit was with questions focused on their individual personalities. Both preferred to talk about the Green Party and movements while town hall meetings are about giving voters a chance to meet individuals.
Cuomo had questions about past statements made by Baraka outside of mainstream politics. For example, after Stein sought to persuade disillusioned Sanders supporters to back her campaign, Baraka was asked about statements he made about Sanders supporting elements of American imperialism. The CNN host did not quote Baraka exactly but said he had called Sanders an “ideological prop” and argued there was a strain of white supremacy to his campaign.
In response, Baraka said he was reflecting on how Sanders disconnected domestic policy from foreign policy. He did not think Sanders should have “embraced Barack Obama’s drone program” or been so muted on foreign policy issues. Yet, he suggested this was a conversation that was aimed at people among the left, as if Cuomo and others not of the left should ignore it.
“We’ve got to disconnect personalities from movement building,” Baraka added. He said people need to engage in conversation about contradictions.
It is not that Baraka is necessarily wrong, but when the conversation happens out in the open and not in some private meeting space among left-wing organizers, it no longer is just addressing friends. It becomes a public debate in which people will take sides and display interest, and that should be encouraged because it potentially creates space for the spread of revolutionary political ideas, even if those lacking a certain vocabulary and understanding take positions.
Also, as Stein and Baraka became self-aware they were broaching topics, which are typically third rail in establishment politics, sometimes they came off as more concerned about how their answers would be perceived instead of simply answering the question. For example, Stein was asked by Cuomo whether Israel is a “special ally” and “in a unique defensive position” in the Middle East.
Stein attempted to focus on her Jewish background. Cuomo repeated the question, and she then answered, “I believe all of our allies are special allies—Israel and all of them. These are, we are all members of the human family.”
The question came up in the context of Stein’s support for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Already, she knew the questioner found her radical politics on the issue to be troubling. A vapid answer may have seemed like a way to guard against pro-Israel advocacy groups taking words out of context to call her anti-Semitic, but by the time she was asked about Israel as an ally, she had defended the BDS movement, which these groups view as “anti-Semitic.” So, this was one of the few instances, where Stein would have been better served if she challenged the premise of the question and criticized more aspects of the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Yet, inarguably, Stein and Baraka are a meaningful alternative for millions of Sanders supporters, who may be concerned about Clinton’s corporate politics and courting of Republicans. The movements, which networked with parts of the Sanders campaign, do not have to worry about the leadership of the Green Party conspiring against Stein, as Democratic National Committee officials did against Sanders.
“We’re the one party that’s actually calling for canceling student debt and bailing out a generation of young people like we bailed out the bankers on Wall Street,” Stein said. “We can do that for this generation and unleash them to be the stimulus package of our dreams and make higher education free and health care as a human right and create a welcoming path to citizenship, end police violence, and [have] a foreign policy that’s based on international law, human rights, and economic justice, not on military and economic domination, which is blowing back at us so catastrophically.”
Stein’s campaign remains far below the 15 percent candidates are expected to achieve in polls before they can be included in the presidential debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is run by operatives with ties to the Democratic and Republican Parties.
The Green Party has seized upon the political moment by speaking directly to Sanders supporters. They recognize the Clinton campaign has taken their votes for granted and shown minimal interest in Sanders’ vision for a “political revolution.” The Democratic Party has also undermined and sabotaged the work of movements.
CNN’s presidential town hall was a rare glimpse of what electoral politics could be if the stranglehold of the two-party system is ever broken. Progressive voters, who feel helpless, would not have to remain trapped in the Democratic Party. Progressive voters, who feel afraid, would not have to tolerate intimidation and harassment from pundits or political operatives, who seek to pin responsibility on them for what the Republican may or may not do. Progressive voters could vote for someone they can believe in rather than against someone, who causes fits of anxiety and cycles of outrage and despair.