I missed posting last week, largely because you couldn’t go 3 hours without some sudden and different news event to further decrease one’s faith in the survival of civilization, so there really isn’t much point trying to keep up with current events, at least not directly. But I had mentioned in an earlier post that I would address the subject of whether it makes sense to vote for a third party in this election (this election in particular, but the question still needs to be addressed in general).
Now if you follow me on Facebook you probably know I am a member of the Libertarian Party. Now that produces some reactions. Like, “Who?” Or, “there’s no point, nobody’s gonna vote for them.” Well, that’s BECAUSE nobody votes third party. Once people do, that’s no longer the case. Saying “third parties don’t win because nobody votes third party” is like saying “Nobody drives in New York, there’s too much traffic.”
Why would I vote for the Libertarian Party (LP) or any other third party, when it doesn’t make any sense? May I ask, doesn’t make sense compared to what? Compared to voting for Trump? Compared to voting for Clinton, who cannot do the easiest thing in the world- convince people she’d be a better president than Trump? One might say, I believe BECAUSE it is absurd. Doing the supposedly sensible thing is what has gotten us to this point. Voting for centrist “sensible” Democrats has not addressed the concerns of “progressives” on labor and trade issues. Voting for “sensible” and respectable Republicans has not stopped them from sotto voce endorsing racist, sexist and anti-intellectual influences, leaving them with no immune system or intellectual response to a demagogue like Trump who can give the target audience the raw meat they want with a less apologetic presentation than (say) Mitt Romney. Doing the sensible thing is not getting results. At least not good results.
This may explain the confusion among a lot of leftists who wonder, with good reason, why Bernie Sanders fans disappointed with his endorsement of Hillary Clinton are thinking about voting for Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, when Johnson supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which Sanders opposes and Hillary 180’ed on), doesn’t support a minimum wage (at all) and doesn’t go along with the economic goals of “progressives.” This is because of the appeal that both Sanders and Trump have to a lot of people who don’t agree on much else- these candidates are (or present themselves as) on the outside of the political system that is allowing their living standards to stagnate or decline. The main thing that Johnson has in common with Sanders (and in opposition to Trump) is antagonism to the corporate-welfare system that Trump profits from as a real estate developer and the Wall Street establishment that made the Clintons rich on “consulting” fees.
It’s also true that (as compared to the leftist Green Party) the LP is able to register on the ballot with all 50 states, so however fantastic or unrealistic it is to vote for something outside what the duopoly is providing, the Libertarian Party is still the most organized and realistic alternative if you just can’t vote for Clinton (or Trump).
Nevertheless, there’s a lot of resistance to the idea of voting third-party, at least on the Left. A huge reason for the fear and loathing of Libertarians and other “third” parties is the idea that they are “spoilers,” that is, that they will take just enough votes from the ‘right’ candidate to make sure that the ‘wrong’ one gets elected (this from the same people who say that third parties will never amount to anything because ‘nobody votes for them’). The primary example that keeps getting spit out is the fact that the number of people who voted for Ralph Nader’s Green Party in Florida in 2000 was within the margin to elect George Bush in that state, and thus win the Electoral College for Bush instead of Al Gore. Except that if the margin that won Florida for Bush was 537 votes, and the vote for Nader was 97,488, Libertarian candidate Harry Browne was 16,415. The vote for Reform Party conservative Pat Buchanan was even more, 17,484. Should we not blame the right-wing candidates for taking votes from Bush when fewer votes were needed to make a difference on the Right than the Left? Should we not consider that in Al Gore’s home state of Tennessee, Nader got only 19,781 votes, and the margin of Bush over Gore in Tennessee was 80,229 – in other words, not enough for the spoiler to spoil George Bush winning Al Gore’s home state, without which Florida would have meant diddly squat?
I say this because in state races where the Republican lost because there was a certain percentage of Libertarian or US Constitution Party votes on the Right, the talk-radio crowd would always blame us for “spoiling.” That’s what tends to happen when you’re in one of the two parties that have engineered the laws to make sure that you’re the only ones who have a chance of getting elected: You think that you don’t have to earn your votes. So when the people who “should” vote for you don’t, you tend to get snippy (as Al Gore might say).
Given that most of the Libertarian-hate is on the Left, despite the fact that even Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have made noises about considering Gary Johnson as an alternate vote, despite Trump being so loathsome that numerous Republican insiders have agreed that Hillary is the more sensible choice, liberals and Democrat-aligned “progressives” are pretty clearly broadcasting a fear that the third party vote is going to take just enough votes from Clinton to lose the election for her. In which case I say the same thing to Democrats that I said after Bush vs. Gore: IT’S NOT OUR FAULT THAT YOUR CANDIDATES SUCK AND NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE VOTE FOR THEM. And it certainly wasn’t the fault of Sanders fans that the establishment Democrats did what the respectable cloth-coat Republicans usually do, and voted in the old and dull candidate just cause “it’s their turn.”
There’s also a point that’s not being considered by the Left: It is a net negative when a liberal-left voter who “should” be with Hillary goes to another party or stays home. But it’s a benefit to them if a right-wing voter who “should” be with the Republican candidate votes for Johnson or another third-party candidate. Even if conservative-libertarian dissidents stay home, those are people not voting for the “wrong” candidate.
I’m actually starting to believe that the Libertarians might be a more realistic choice than Trump this year. No, seriously. I mean, yes, hardly anybody knows who they are, and of those who do, half utterly loathe their political philosophy, but unlike Trump and Mike Pence, Gary Johnson and William Weld aren’t going out of their way to actively piss off everybody who isn’t them.
There’s also the overlooked point that to actually join the Libertarian Party, you have to sign a pledge (https://www.lp.org/membership) saying that you reject the initiation of force as a primary means of achieving political or social goals. To the extent that anybody acknowledges this at all, it might be another reason people don’t join the LP. On the other hand, having a core principle that one has to sign onto is something the Republicans could have used to weed out both a flim-flam man like Trump and the kind of people who vote for him. But then, so would asking people to fill out a form asking “Can you spell your own name accurately?” and “Do you know what the word ‘accurately’ means?”
I frankly don’t think the Libertarians are ready for “prime time” yet. However in a campaign where Donald Trump is the nominee for a major party, it’s clear that being ready for prime time is totally irrelevant to being elected. At the same time, to improve upon the status quo, rather than merely replace it, a party ought to have a plausible plan for what it is going to do when it gets in power, which is questionable in the case of Democrats and not at all true with Republicans.
But back to Mike Pence.
To get back to the question of whether one should vote third-party this year, we need to exercise both idealism and pragmatism, and consider all factors.
First off, if you are voting for Clinton (or Trump, for that matter) understand that you are throwing away all moral considerations in doing so. Whatever Faustian bargain you think you are making for the “greater good” is worthless because Clinton cannot be trusted to hold to a commitment that interferes with her political survival goals, and Trump can’t be trusted because he is both too slimy and too ADHD to understand what a “commitment” is.
Voting for the lesser evil is still voting for evil. At best, it is not stopping or reversing the decay. It is merely choosing to let the decay proceed at a slower rate than it would with the More Evil party. However, this is constructive only if one is trying to develop a better alternative in the long term. If you are not looking for or not working for a better choice for future elections, you’re just lying to yourself.
Having said that, operating on pure pragmatism, between the two major candidates the final question is: Who do you want in charge of the nuclear launch codes- an experienced politico with Machiavellian survival skills and self-preservation instinct, or the spoiled little rich brat who doesn’t know which end of the fork to use?
Thus if one still chooses to operate within the binary logic of the system, Hillary Clinton is clearly superior to Donald Trump- if only in the sense that the country may survive her long enough to flush out the political system. But if that system needs to change, we still need to have a practical means of doing so, and work towards that goal. And thus, we still need to grow support for at least one “third” party.
The strongest criticism against supporting a third-party movement in the United States has to do with the “first-past-the-post” system in most of our elections, federal elections in particular. If there’s no second prize for losing, there’s certainly no third prize. Thus, if you’re not already in one of the big two parties, there’s not any real chance of winning, unless perhaps there was a runoff system where multiple candidates could run in a preliminary election and then a few months later the two top candidates run in the general election.
Changing the election process is something that has to be done in the long term anyway. The problem with that is that it can’t be done in the short term, for the same reason you can’t get term limits: In order to pass the laws to change things in the long term, you have to rely on the same group of politicians who passed the current set of laws, and have no motive to lose the advantages they gave themselves. So running third-party is no less (or more) quixotic than extra-party efforts to change the system overall.
The other thing that opponents of third parties overlook is that while America has always had only two parties able to seriously contend for presidential elections, they haven’t always been the same two parties. At least once, one of the parties has fractured or lost support, allowing a “fringe” or “one-issue” party to take its place, which is what happened in the 1850s when the Whig Party, long in decline, lost its position to the abolitionist Republican Party.
Given that the institution will not allow itself to be reformed outside the vote, and voting will not change the two-party structure, the only way to change within that structure is for a “third” party to replace one of the two current parties. Given the duopoly’s built-in advantages, the only way for a third party to do so is if at least one of the two establishment parties becomes so incompetent, so malicious and so alienating to the population at large that voters start looking around for a more reasonable alternative.
And look, here we are.
So here is my conclusion: Since presidential elections are decided by the Electoral College- that is, state by state- I advise that you keep a weekly or daily watch on www.fivethirtyeight.com to get a view of exactly how close your state is to voting for Trump. If it looks like your state has a margin within 10 points either way, it’s probably close enough to where you have to vote for Clinton just to make sure. If the margin is wider than that, say if you’re in California and there’s no way that it’s going to Trump, you can afford to vote for someone other than Clinton if you want. Hillary, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson… just, Christ, don’t vote for Donald Trump. And if you’re thinking strategically, what you want to accomplish is not just a “protest vote” but aim towards making Trump not the second, but the third or even fourth-place candidate. And again, he is such a clusterfuck even by conservative standards that this could quite possibly happen. This is also aiming towards hitting the “down ballot” candidates for Congress to punish the POT (Party of Trump) for their decision. This unfortunately has the effect of making Democrats more powerful. But that means we also have to look for third-party and independent candidates who (like the younger Bernie Sanders) who actually have a chance of winning or placing in their races. Even second place means a chance to replace one of the two factions. Keep in mind this is not going to happen this election, or maybe even the next one, but you have to start somewhere. How that down ballot work is to be accomplished, and how the Libertarian Party in particular is actually going to deserve the vote, are subjects I intend to address in the next few posts.