The curious case of Jill Stein

Americans value environmentalism and want to see more of it. But Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, drew only 1 percent of the popular vote, even in an election where many voters disliked the major candidates. Stein certainly differentiated herself from the two major party candidates. She asserted that electing Clinton would be as bad as electing Trump.

While Stein makes anti-establishment statements, her German counterparts have been advancing a green agenda for the past 30 years. There are two reasons why the U.S. Green Party remains so marginal. Structurally, the American electoral system is heavily weighted against small political parties. But U.S. Greens also harm themselves by failing to understand that governing requires compromise.

Both European and North American Green Parties evolved from activist movements in the 1960s that focused on causes including environmentalism, disarmament, nuclear power, nonviolence, reproductive rights and gender equality. The German Green Party’s rise owed much to the country’s electoral system. Proportional representation makes it possible for small parties to gain a toehold and build a presence in government over time. In contrast, U.S. elections award seats on a winner-takes-all basis. Third parties often have trouble even getting their candidates’ names onto ballots.

U.S. Greens have won only a handful of state-level races, and have never won a congressional seat. Their greatest success came in 2000, when Ralph Nader won 2.7 percent of the popular vote in the presidential election. Many argued that Nader’s only real impact was to throw the election to George W. Bush, but Nader and many of his supporters strongly disagreed, and the question of whether Stein impacted the election’s outcome remains controversial today.

In order to graduate from an opposition party to a ruling party, German Greens had to develop a capacity for compromise and form coalitions with center-left Social Democrats. But coalitions require consensus. Interacting with centrist politicians, unionists, church representatives and the media taught greens to act less like activists and more like politicians. In 1998 the Green Party formed a so-called red-green coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and won a large majority in the Bundestag.

Working through this alliance, former activists implemented an environmentally driven tax code and brokered a deal with the nuclear energy industry to cancel projects for new plants and phase out nuclear power by 2022.

Although the Green Party has not regained control of Germany’s federal government since 2005, its positions have become part of the nation’s mainstream political culture. Notably, after the 2011 nuclear plant meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, a center-right German government decided to accelerate the phaseout of nuclear power. To reach this goal, Angela Merkel’s centrist government has implemented a policy bundle known as the Energiewende that seeks to transition Germany to a nonnuclear, low-carbon energy future.

Massive governmental support for alternative energy sources has encouraged Germans, especially in rural areas, to invest in solar power, wind turbines and biomass plants. These green policies did not harm, and may have buoyed, Merkel’s status as one of the most popular German chancellors prior to this year’s controversies over immigration.

There is no easy way for the U.S. Green Party to emulate its German counterparts. Because the American political system makes it difficult for third parties to participate, Green Party candidates do not have opportunities to learn the trade of politics. They have remained activists who are true to their base instead of developing policy positions that would appeal to a broader audience. By doing so, they weaken their chances of winning major races even in liberal strongholds.

As a result, green ideas enter American political debates only when Democrats and Republicans take up these issues. It is telling that major U.S. environmental groups started endorsing Clinton even before she had clinched the Democratic presidential nomination over Bernie Sanders, who took more aggressive positions on some environmental and energy issues during their primary contest. And although Sanders identifies as an environmentalist, he sought the Democratic Party nomination instead of running as the Green Party candidate.

Running on a third-party ticket in the United States remains a flawed strategy to shaping a green message aimed at a broad electorate. Instead, climate change, dwindling energy resources and growing human and economic costs from natural disasters will do more to promote ecological consciousness and political change in mainstream America than the radical rhetoric of the U.S. Green Party.