August 7, 2016

The Attacks on Jill Stein

Jill Stein cropped
Jill Stein by Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons
Some supporters of Hillary Clinton are becoming nervous about the number of liberal voters who are not interested in supporting their preferred candidate and are instead looking to third party options. Of the third party options, the Green Party's Jill Stein is probably the one who is most attractive to those on the left who had previously supported the progressive agenda championed by Bernie Sanders. Not surprisingly, the attacks on Stein have intensified in recent weeks as her campaign has experienced an influx of support following Sanders' endorsement of Clinton. Clinton supporters are now portraying Stein as a hopelessly naive, dangerously anti-vaccine, woo-peddling hippie who fears that wi-fi will damage the brains of our children and supports GMO labeling despite a clear scientific consensus that GMOs are perfectly safe.

Although I have not yet decided how I will vote in November, I can honestly say that none of the criticism of Stein I have encountered has led me to omit her as an option. The criticism has given me a more balanced impression of her in the sense that I recognize that she clearly has flaws and holds positions on some issues with which I disagree. But even if every one of these attacks on Stein was demonstrably true in a clear and unambiguous way, I think I'd likely still prefer a candidate with these weaknesses to one with Clinton's record on issues I regard as even more important.

The criticism that Stein is naive (i.e., overly idealistic) is one of the same Clinton supporters levied against Sanders. I suspect there is quite a bit of truth to it for Stein just as their was for Sanders. Compared to Clinton, both Sanders and Stein do seem quite idealistic. This is part of their appeal. Many voters on the left are looking for someone they can enthusiastically support, and a positive idealistic message is appealing.

While Stein has disputed claims of being anti-vaccine, some of her public statements on the subject have been far less clear than they should be, especially for a physician. This has raised questions about whether she's pandering to the anti-vaxxers in the Green Party, a poor communicator, or attempting to obfuscate genuine opposition to vaccines. On the subject of vaccines, Clinton has a a clear edge. Stein has had multiple opportunities to clarify her position and has been unable or unwilling to do so in a manner that takes this issue off the table. That's a problem.

Aside from Stein being a physician, the anti-vaxx attacks are landing for another important reason. The Green Party has a long and embarrassing record of promoting woo (e.g., homeopathy, alternative medicine). While they have apparently sought to change some of this recently, the perception certainly lingers. Moreover, it seems clear that some of those who make up the Green Party's core constituency are very much pro-woo. Between the opposition to nuclear power, the fear-mongering over GMOs, and the conspiracy-grade obsession with Monsanto, it is easy to see why critics would seek to characterize them as the party of woo. When the anti-vaxx criticism is considered in this context and one adds Stein's apparent concerns over wi-fi signals, it is understandable why this would be of concern.

When I ask myself how I could even consider supporting a candidate who is overly idealistic to the point of being naive, who might have enough odd misgivings about the FDA that she comes off as anti-vaccine, and who might be at least moderately pro-woo and willing to disregard scientific consensus in favor of discredited conspiracy theories, the answer is clear. If I had a good alternative with weaknesses that paled in comparison, it would be unlikely that I would consider supporting such a candidate. And yet, even if I assume that every criticism of Stein I have heard is completely accurate, I find myself no more inclined to support Clinton. It is undeniable that I prefer Clinton's stated positions on some of the issues to Stein's; what gives me pause is Clinton's record. In a nutshell, I am skeptical about her claimed shift to the left, and I worry that she's still the most hawkish candidate in the race by a wide margin.

It seems to me that Stein and her party deserve much of the criticism they are receiving around vaccines, nuclear power, GMOs, and assorted woo. Still, I'm far less concerned about this than I am about our state of perpetual war, our lack of single-payer health care, the sorry state of the middle-class, separation of church and state, and a host of other issues on which I have to give the advantage to Stein.