100 days to go till Election Day … which means, as always, that I have some ‘splainin’ to do. Because every 4 years people who are barely heard from during the midterms come out of the woodwork to tell me that even though they are deeply distressed by having to choose between two obviously terrible candidates and do it only with the heaviest of possible hearts, I’m still a horrible, unamerican anti-patriot who doesn’t care about the future of the country for doing what they claim to wish they could do: voting for a third party candidate.
I always vote Libertarian, because this is the party that aligns best with my political preferences. Which is all that should be required of any voter: just look at the list and endorse the candidate that seems most likely to accomplish the most stuff that you agree with relative to the others. Republican government means no one gets his way, not entirely. What we do at an election is each of us registers his individual preferences. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that these preferences have to align in any way with the preferences of the Republican and Democratic Parties. Nowhere in any body of laws enacted since the Constitution does it say that. Indeed, the idea that political parties get to tell us what we prefer was anathema to the architects of the Republic:
John Adams: There is nothing I dread So much, as a Division of the Republick into two great Parties, each arranged under its Leader, and concerting Measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble Apprehension is to be dreaded as the greatest political Evil, under our Constitution.
George Washington: [Partisanship] serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
James Madison: Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic,–is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it. Does the advantage consist in the substitution of representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice? It will not be denied that the representation of the Union will be most likely to possess these requisite endowments. Does it consist in the greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties, against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest? In an equal degree does the increased variety of parties comprised within the Union, increase this security. Does it, in fine, consist in the greater obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority? Here, again, the extent of the Union gives it the most palpable advantage. [emphasis added]
We were warned from the begining that factional systems are bad, and that bipolar factional systems are particularly bad. And can anyone honesty dispute the Founders’ wisdom? When I vote, I vote against the excesses of the two-party system and the damage it does to our constitutional guarantees. What do you do when you vote?
Every four years people make the same arguments. Every four years I give the same response. And every four years they tell me that while they agree with me in principle, there’s this, that or the other thing about this year that makes it special. THIS year, allegedly uniquely, we don’t have the luxury of voting our conscience. When you’ve heard this like clockwork your entire adult voting life, and when you’ve noticed that each and every time the election’s outcome only leads us to the same place in the end, it starts to wear a little thin. I know what I’m doing. I’ve heard all this before. Is there any reason to think that it will be truer this time than in the past?
Well, actually, I have to admit there kind of is, a little. 2016 is exceptional. On the right-hand side, we have a underqualified, non-candidate narcissist who can’t complete a sentence without mentioning himself, has never read the Constitution and seems to have no idea how even the most basic aspects of the system of governance work. On the left-hand side, we have a known criminal who knows the ins and outs of the system intimately, has no problem brazenly and openly violating its rules and considers it a minor distraction that anyone thinks she should have to play by the same book the rest of us do. Each candidate has the worst favorability ratings of any candidate the major parties have ever nominated. Think about that. These are quite literally the worst choices the two-party system has ever offered us in a presidential election. And yet people are still banging on about how we have to vote for one or the other.
I hear this more often in favor of Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump is so uniquely horrible that we have to vote for the known criminal because at least she’s the criminal we know. She may be corrupt as hell, but at least she won’t wreck the system. Just the opposite: she is the system. Vote for her, keep the machine running a little bit longer, and we’ll revisit this question of how to improve it in 2020 when, hey, at least we know it will still be here.
I’m not unsympathetic to this line of reasoning. I have an incrementalist bias myself. If you’re going to burn the sucker down and start over completely, you’d better have a pretty good idea that what you’re replacing it with is going to at least function. Donald Trump doesn’t even know what he’d be replacing. He’s just pushing over the apple cart because "it would be fun to upset the apple-cart/ and see which way the apples would go a-rolling." Maybe you think that life in the United States in 2016 is so historically awful that that’s something we need to do – but you’re wrong about that. We’re nowhere near the point where doing it for the sake of doing it is a good idea. So, I get what they’re saying.
I’m still voting for Gary Johnson, and here’s why.
First, It’s Hillary Clinton we’re talking about. This isn’t a case of some-shitty-but-broadly-acceptable candidate against Donald Trump. It’s Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump. Let me just repeat that we actually know she’s a criminal who doesn’t give a fig about following the rules even when national security – you know, that thing you’d be electing her to be in charge of – is implicated. It’s like appointing a known arsonist fire marshall. You can say "better the Devil we know than the Devil we don’t" all day long – you’re never going to get around just how well we know this person is a devil, just how many times we’ve been reminded she’s a devil. You know this particular devil so much better than you know all those other devils you say this about.
Second, if you really believe in third party participation, and if you really believe in electoral reform, and if you really believe that the two-party system needs a shakeup, then what year could possibly be better than 2016 to achieve it? The Libertarian Party has been around, growing slowly but surely, since 1972. It’s had some limited successes at the local level, but nothing really spectacular. The organization is there, the grassroots effort is in place, but at the end of the day people just don’t vote outside the box. A strong showing at the national level may well change that. It’s certainly the only thing I can think of that might change that. The Libertarian Party has only cleared 1% of the popular vote at the national level once – in 1980, when it had the benefit of a billionaire on the ballot (David Koch for VP). This year, polls already put Gary Johnson at 8-10%, potentially higher than the Reform Party’s record-smashing showing in 19961. Now, it’s fair to call the Reform Party’s one-off "success" a cautionary tale: they registered their one blip and have been completely ignored ever since. It’s not unreasonable to say that all that effort merely gave the major parties some ideas to co-opt. But I don’t think the argument ultimately works. For one thing, what ideas? Did the Reform Party have a coherent platform, let alone a unifying ideology? "Dissatisfaction" is an emotion, not a set of policy preferences. It’s therefore not really surprising that they never escaped from Ross Perot’s shadow. They were only ever effective when they had someone (Jesse Ventura, Ross Perot) who brought all his own money and name recognition to the table – which is to say they were never effective. The Libertarian Party has everything that the Reform Party didn’t that positions it to grow from a strong national showing: an established organization, a coherent ideology, a network of donors. And indeed, the fact that I have to field this question – the question this article is a response to – every damn election year lets me know that lots of people would vote Libertarian but for its general lack of electoral success. There’s no time like the present. It isn’t every cycle that the two major parties nominate, quite literally, the worst candidates either of them has ever nominated. It’s now or never. If you’re only ever going to vote for a third party in years when experience has shown they won’t win, you’re not serious about the cause.
Third, what have we honestly got to lose? Let’s say the Libertarian Party splits Donald Trump’s vote and Hillary Clinton wins. Well, then we’re just back where we started. The Establishment won, like it always does, and we’ll have four more years of stuff we already know how to deal with. It’s not a great outcome, but neither is it cataclysmic, and more to the point, it’s the same outcome we’d get by not voting Libertarian in any other year. Now, let’s say instead the Libertarian Party picks up a disproportionately large number of disaffected Sanders voters and splits the Democrats’ vote more than the Republicans and Trump wins. You can dream up some doomsday scenarios there, I suppose, but in reality the likelihood is that The Donald will have the effect his fans are predicting he’d have and just end up weakening partisan politics more than anything. His own party won’t like or support him, the Democrats won’t like or support him. He is truly an outsider. The existing system would probably react by marginalizing him as much as possible, and it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t stand by and let it happen. It’s pretty clear to me that he’s in this for the attention more than anything. He doesn’t have a coherent platform, or any firm policy goals. There are a couple of talking points he repeats because they get him cheers at his rallies, but they’re uniformly unrealistic (there’s never going to be a wall on the border with Mexico, let alone one built in and paid for by Mexico, nor is there going to be a blanket ban on muslim immigration), and it’s doubtful in the extreme that they’re what motivated him to file his candidate papers. I suppose Trump could do some real damage on the foreign policy front. That is a real risk. But again, the devil we know gives us a completely unlibertarian foreign policy. Trump floats the possibility of dialing our foreign commitments down. That is, if he’s going to deviate from the norm in foreign policy, it seems likely to be in our direction. I dunno – like I said earlier, he’s the devil we don’t know. There’s undeniably a (large) measure of risk in handing him the keys to the White House. But to recall the Reform Party from the previous post, one effect we can be pretty sure he’d have – already is having – is to weaken the entrenched two-party system – since that’s what one-off, self-financed candidates do to their parties – and that’s good news for those of us who are expressly voting against it. Again, the issue is this: if you can’t vote against the two major parties in a year when they’ve nominated the worst candidates they’ve ever nominated, you probably can’t do it ever.
Fourth, it’s morally reprehensible to make it my responsibility that the Democrats and the Republicans both screwed up their nominating processes at once. Neither of these parties represents my interests, and neither of them will pay attention to me and like-minded voters once they’re back on their feet. They did not consult me when deciding to nominate the worst candidates they’ve ever nominated, so why should I feel obligated to walk into a booth on November 8th and sign my name to a form that says it’s all OK? It’s NOT OK, actually. This is the same logic behind "Too Big To Fail." Some institutions demonstrably fail to do their job, and the government’s response is to prop them up because there are no clear and present alternatives. That reasoning would have been fine if there had been some credible assurance that once the economy were back on its feet we would do something to safeguard against a repeat of the same catastrophe, but as far as I can tell we didn’t. And it’s just like that with these two parties. Letting them skate precisely when they get it wrong provides no incentive at all for them to ever get it right. So no, I decline to help. It’s up to them to nominate credible candidates, not up to me to support whoever they nominate. If you want my vote, earn it. If you want to blame someone for the Donald Trump presidency, blame the Republican Party. I didn’t do it, and my one vote can’t stop it now that it’s imminent. What my one vote can do is register my honest objection – and that’s the honest use to which I intend to put it.
Fifth and most importantly, Gary Johnson is also the only candidate on the slate this year who’s actually qualified to be president. Think of it like hiring an accountant. Hillary Clinton is the candidate you interview with the best education and the longest resume, but then you call all her references and they all hint she’s embezzeled money from them. Next up, one Donald Trump, who has a degree you can’t verify from Western Wyoming Community College and flunks the interview by talking about how awesome he is the whole time while evading all your specific questions about accounting practices. Also, some of his references seem bogus. Then there’s one Dr. Jill Stein, who’s certainly intelligent, but who doesn’t seem to have an accounting degree or any accounting experience at all. Then comes Gary Johnson. He’s got the degree, he’s got the experience, and all his references check out. I mean, is this honestly a head-scratcher for anyone? He’s the only one you would actually trust with the job. And you’re telling me I have to hire someone else because they have the right last name? You get why that’s not persuasive, right?
I’m voting for Gary Johnson for these reasons and more. He’s the candidate who best represents my preferences. He’s the man on deck in the year the Libertarian Party is most likely to achieve a breakthrough. The alternatives to him are both horrible. The argument I’m typically given for voting for one of his opponents is a moral fraud. And, most importantly, he also happens to be the most qualified and reliable candidate on the slate this year. I’m voting for someone I trust and whose cause I believe in. What are you doing?
Ross Perot won 19% of the vote in 1992, but running as an independent. He got half as much as the nominee of the party he founded 4 years later. The Reform Party nevertheless holds the record for popular support in the presidential election (Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats won only 2.4% of the vote in 1948, though they did carry four states), but I’m not sure how relevant to consider that, since it’s entirely down to Perot’s money and name recognition and not to any organizational efforts of the party itself.↩