In the writing following this brief note, I hope to encourage people who may wish to vote for a third party candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to do so despite the criticism they will no doubt face from advocates of one or both of the two major party candidates. I hope to encourage them to do so despite the fear that they may somehow contribute to the election of a monster and I hope to encourage them to vote for a third party candidate that will, in all likelihood, lose the upcoming presidential election in a landslide. While I certainly have a good deal to say both to Republican and Democratic voters, my message here is entirely for those individuals who are not committed to voting for either major party's candidate. I have no intention of convincing a Democrat to vote for someone other than Hillary Clinton, nor do I have any intention of convincing a Republican to vote for someone other than Donald Trump. Those would be discussions for another time and place.
My message is, in part, inspired by the vitriol I have seen and heard directed at third party voters by individuals supporting one or the other of the two major party candidates. With so much animosity, fear, and rage plaguing the discourse surrounding the election in my social media feeds, I decided to retreat from those conversations both for my own health and because I felt what I have to say would go largely unread in the maelstrom of profanity, snark, and self-congratulating that seemed to accompany any mention of this year's election. Because the majority of my social circle identify as liberals, the Democratic Party and a certain breed of Democratic voter receive considerably more attention in the following discussion than do the Republicans simply because that is the perspective with which I have been most intensely engaged. Likewise, as someone who identifies as a progressive, much of frustration stems from the fact that people I generally agree with on many subjects have been intractable when confronted with even the most thoughtful expressions of disagreement, usually regarding another progressive's hesitancy to support the current Democratic presidential nominee. I have seen professors snap at former students and friends jettison decades-long relationships because of political disagreement and I feel discouraged as a result. My focus on the Democrats, then, is partly a reaction to the bullying behavior I have seen among my fellow progressives.
Rather than try to present complex ideas in a forum where anything exceeding 140 characters would be considered prolix, I thought I would share some thoughts here. Furthermore, rather than add to anyone's political frustrations by cramming yet another post into their already-overflowing news feed, I thought I would place those reflections I might have shared elsewhere here and, should anyone be interested in my views on the subject, invite them to visit this page at their leisure.
As a blog post, what follows is somewhat casual and, at times, I conflate a political party with its candidate or move rather abruptly from the general to the specific or from discussing national politics to the local. I do, however, try to organize my discussion in such a way as to make reading it less blog-like.
Finally, I do not wish to endorse any candidate, though it will become apparent to any reader that I intend to support a third-party candidate in the forthcoming presidential election. Although I use Bernie Sanders as a frequent talking point, and respect much of what he stands for, I have never supported his candidacy and would not have voted for him had he won the Democratic nomination. While I refer primarily to the Libertarians and Greens when discussing third parties, I do not wish to imply that these are the only third parties worth considering nor do I intend to imply that their candidates are somehow less worthy of skepticism than are the major party candidates.
Thanks for reading!
The Basic Argument Against Third-Party Voting
One of the most (if not the most) common arguments people use to dissuade the would-be third-party voter from casting his or her vote for a candidate who is neither a Democrat or Republican is that such candidates have no chance to win the election in which they are running. Depending on the year and the comparative likability or objectionability of the major party candidates, this assumption often leads major-party voters to assert one of two (sometimes) contradictory ideas:
A) the third-party voter is "throwing [his or her] vote away" by opting to support the candidacy of someone with little-to-no chance of actually winning the election, thereby "wasting" his or her chance to influence the outcome of the election.
B) by supporting an unviable candidate, the third-party voter is "helping elect" an objectionable candidate by not casting his or her vote for a less objectionable one.
In the first instance, the third-party voter is chastised for "wasting" his or her chance to have any influence on the election. In the second instance, conversely, the third-party voter is accused of adversely affecting the outcome of the election by depriving a worthy candidate of the necessary support needed to defeat an unworthy or even dangerous opponent.
A Note on the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election
Of the two aforementioned sub-arguments, the latter appears to be, by far, the most frequently deployed in the discourse surrounding the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Although I have heard a number of right-leaning commentators urge other conservatives to overcome their aversion to voting for Donald Trump in order to avoid a continuation of the policies implemented by the Obama administration in a Clinton administration, the overwhelming majority of people I have encountered for whom this line of reasoning appeals are Democratic voters. Democrats, of course, often cite Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential run as evidence of what can happen when liberals vote for a progressive candidate that is not a Democrat. While the claim that Nader supporters gave the White House to George W. Bush certainly has gained traction among disappointed Democrats, the reality is that Nader did not cost Al Gore the 2000 election
Perhaps it is because the memory of Al Gore's near-miss is so fresh in their memories that Democrats have created a cautionary tale of duopoly-resisting idealists handing the White House to a man they consider somewhere to the right of Yosemite Sam. More likely, however, is that the completely reasonable fear of an unpredictable, short-fused reality television star and real estate mogul who brazenly taps into the roiling resentment of the United States's racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, conspiracy theory-believing underbelly for personal gain holding a stubby finger
over the proverbial red button
is the biggest motivation for the unbelievably nasty campaign that some Democrats have waged against third-party candidates.
Further complicating matters is the fact that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are literally the least popular presidential candidates in the history of such polling the United States
. Granted, at one point in March, the Washington Post reported
that the only major party candidate to have registered a lower favorability rating than Donald Trump's 67% was former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who was viewed unfavorably by 69% of voters back in 1992 when he unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination. In contrast, Hillary Clinton was viewed unfavorably by 53% of Americans, tying her with George H. W. Bush in 1992 for the third worst favorability rating in the history of such polling.
I mention the unpopularity of both major party candidates for a reason: the unprecedented levels of distrust they inspire have created something of a perfect storm. Donald Trump is so unpopular that neither of the George Bushes
, the two most recent Republican presidents; nor Ted Cruz
and John Kasich
, Trump's two longest-lasting primary opponents; nor Mitt Romney
(who is contemplating endorsing Libertarian Gary Johnson)
, the GOP's most recent presidential nominee, will endorse the man. In other words, Hillary Clinton, a woman whose résumé--a former First Lady, state senator, and secretary of state--presents her as arguably the most qualified person to run for the office of President in recent memory should be absolutely running away with the election. Instead, she accepted the nomination of a deeply fractured Democratic Party
, dogged by James Comey's less-than-glowing assessment
of her handling of emails while secretary of state and the leaking of internal Democratic National Committee communications suggesting the Democratic Party had been unfairly favoring her campaign
over that of Vermont's Bernie Sanders.
As a result of the schism in the Democratic Party and Donald Trump's never-before-seen levels of unpopularity among his own party's standard-bearers, third-party candidates such as the Libertarian Party's Gary Johnson and the Green Party's presumptive nominee Jill Stein have drawn somewhat more interest than previous third-party candidacies.
The Liberal Fracture and Trump Anxiety
While it may simply be the result of my moving in more socially- and politically-progressive circles, the majority of the vitriol I have seen directed at third-party candidates has come from supporters of the Democratic Party. Given what I have read and heard over the past several months, however, I do not think as many supporters of the Republican Party share the same degree of animosity towards third party candidacies as do their left-wing counterparts, though, of course, I may be wrong.
The anatomy of the liberal fracture might be more easily delineated by focusing on four key individuals, each of whom elicits strong responses from the American electorate:
: Many Democrats (and a substantial number of Republicans) tend to agree with Clinton's assessment
of Trump's ideas as a "dangerously incoherent. . .series of bizarre rants, personal feuds and outright lies." As Ezra Klein writes in an essay
, many voters consider "Trump [to be] the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory. He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he's a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he's also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it's hard to know if he even realizes he's lying. He delights in schoolyard taunts and luxuriates in backlash."
: In Eleanor Sheehan's aptly-titled "Here's Exactly Why Bernie Sanders Is So Popular"
, she posits that the hitherto obscure Vermont politician's "surging popularity reflects the far left's dissatisfaction with the American political system." She explains that while his supporters believe that he "sincerely champions issues that are central to [the] concerns" they have, they perceive Hillary Clinton as a "robotic and hypercalculated" part of that same political system they seek to reject.
Ralph Nader: Many Democrats blame the consumer advocate for George W. Bush's presidency, arguing that had he not run in states like Florida and New Hampshire, Al Gore would have succeeded Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. In a poem published in the Huffington Post in 2008, Brent Budowsky articulates what so many Democrats have said before him:
Had Ralph Nader not run in 2000, President
Al Gore would be finishing his second term.
The Iraq war would never have happened,
Abu Ghraib would have been nothing more
than a fiction in horror movies. There would
be a progressive majority on the Supreme
Court rather than Roberts and Alito.
This is where Donald Trump and Ralph Nader come into the picture. Hillary Clinton, like Al Gore, who the Washington Post
described as "the highest-ranking boring man in the land
" and the "profoundly boring" John Kerry
before her, does not appear to enrapture audiences
as Bill Clinton
, Barack Obama
, Bernie Sanders
or Donald Trump
do with such apparent ease. The frightening reality, for many Democrats and other Clinton supporters, is that they believe they have a sincere, hard-working, eminently-qualified
candidate for the White House who stands a very real chance of losing
to someone they condemn as a dangerous demagogue
. They fear, quite understandably, that a Trump presidency would be disastrous not only for many already marginalized groups
in the U.S. but for the nation
and even the world
. The Trump Anxiety is so strong that the thought of progressives not
voting for Hillary Clinton is unstomachable. It is here that the specter of Ralph Nader looms large
. Democrats remember George W. Bush's narrow defeat of Al Gore in 2000 and fear that progressives who refrain from voting for Hillary Clinton to cast a vote for a third party candidate
will open the seventh seal and unleash Donald Trump upon the world, ushering in an age of cataclysm
A Pair of Important Considerations
Before I proceed any further, it is important to make two concessions. First, Donald Trump's candidacy is a deeply troubling one that must not be dismissed lightly. While the president lacks the power to do some of the things Trump's critics fear he might do, the president is not only a powerful political force with the ability to affect millions, he or she is also the nation's public face. Just as electing Barack Obama communicated a widespread rejection of Bush-era foreign policy to the international community, placing a man whose hateful rhetoric preys on fear and prejudice in the White House would send a deplorable message to the global community. Second, a good deal of the criticism (including her perceived lack of charisma alluded to above
) Hillary Clinton faces reveals a level of misogyny that is truly horrifying
. Eight years ago, both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton were treated far worse in the media than their male counterparts and that tendency is rearing its ugly head
among some of Hillary's detractors again during this election cycle (often, but not exclusively, from among the True Believer variant of the Sanders crew, which is particularly troubling as that wing of the progressive movement ought to eschew sexism in the strongest possible way, given what they purport to believe).
A Tale of Two Bogeymen
The logic employed by many Democratic voters hinges on two bogeymen, one to the right of Hillary Clinton and one to the left. On the right, we have Donald J. Trump, and on the left, we have the Green Party's Jill Stein. A Trump presidency, as we have established, truly is a frightening prospect--so frightening, in fact, that some Republicans are encouraging people to vote for Hillary Clinton
just to prevent the real estate mogul's ascendency. Indeed, even noted political dissident Noam Chomsky reasons
that one must "vote against Trump, and by elementary arithmetic, that means you hold your nose and you vote [for Hillary Clinton]. I don't think there's any other rational choice."
Because the Green Party is a progressive political organization that appeals to disaffected Democrats, Jill Stein has assumed the "spoiler" mantle the Democrats thrust upon Ralph Nader in 2000 by virtue of seeking her second consecutive presidential nomination from the party. In an essay
, Michael Stone argues that "[b]y dividing progressives, Jill Stein works for the election of Donald Trump" and "is a spoiler who would deny Democrats the White House, and bring ruin upon the nation." Similarly, in a characteristically acerbic blog post
that quickly went viral, columnist and podcaster Dan Savage argued that voting for Jill Stein would result in a Trumpian "[d]isaster...And the people who'll suffer are not going to be the pasty white Green Party supporters -- pasty white Jill Stein and her pasty white supporters. The people who'll suffer are going to be people of color. People of minority faiths. Queer people. Women." Savage's repeated "pasty white" modifier highlights an important strain among the criticisms of third-party voting: that doing so is a mark of white privilege, a luxury afforded those individuals far enough removed from society's margins as to not have to worry about the consequences of their idealistic vote for a "non-tenable" candidate.
So, given that Donald Trump is so bad and Hillary Clinton is such an accomplished and qualified candidate, why on earth should anyone with progressive leanings even think of voting for a third party candidate in this election?
Unpacking the Assumptions
To begin answering this very important question, it's crucial that we unpack a few of the underlying assumptions that are often reified by those individuals vocally denigrating another individual's decision to vote for a non-major party candidate. Here are a few key assumptions upon which the sort of logic presented above is often built:
- Voting third party is nothing more than a protest vote.
- The Democrats are entitled to all progressive votes/The Republicans are entitled to all conservative votes.
- The two-party system is not going to change, so there's no point in resisting it.
- Third party voters are spoiled, privileged people with no concern for the wellbeing of others.
In an essay
for Rolling Stone
, Katherine Cross urges American voters to view the United Kingdom's recent Brexit vote as "a cautionary tale" for the dangers of third-party voting. Drawing a parallel between the "tidal wave of xenophobic isolationism that both [the Conservative Party] and the far-right UK Independence Party exploited with terrifying enthusiasm" and Donald Trump's "feeding off of a groundswell of virulent racism that is finding more and more public space in which to express itself," Cross passionately warns of "political idealists who allow purity to trump reason" and "protest voters who simply [wish] to... extend a middle finger to the establishment" handing an election to "darker forces." To be sure, Cross directs her argument primarily towards the Bernie-or-Bust crowd, but her contention that "if liberals and leftists cannot at least temporarily suspend their internecine squabbling to combat a greater threat," a spate of "bitter or clueless ballot protests" will result in "a nightmarish term under a President Trump" echo that of a larger concern many Democratic voters express when the possibility of progressives voting for a third-party candidate arises. While she is correct to note that some voters who might otherwise vote for Hillary Clinton are withholding their votes out of a belief that "any black eye given to 'the establishment,' even if it's from a decidedly rightward hook, is a victory for all" because "Trump's capacity for mayhem and destruction...makes him an asset to the left" since "[h]is tenure will be so destructive that the people will at last rise up in a glorious revolution in response, and then we'll get real
change," that is hardly the only--or even main--line of reasoning that third-party voters use when choosing to vote for someone other than Hillary Clinton (emphasis Cross's). In addition to the appeal to lesser evilism (no matter how "flawed a liberal is Hillary Clinton," as Cross writes, Trump must absolutely be stopped by voting for her), the assumption here is that any vote for a progressive third-party candidate is necessarily a protest vote against either Hillary Clinton as a person, the Democratic Party as the nefariously capitalized and scare-quoted "Establishment," or the American political system as a whole. Further, it assumes that Bernie Sanders's supporters rightfully belong to the Democratic Party by virtue of having supported him during the Democratic primaries. In other words, Cross builds her argument upon the first two assumptions listed above.
While some of the more recalcitrant members of Team Sanders certainly do fit Cross's understanding of third-party voters, she does a tremendous disservice to many of those individuals skeptical of partisan politics. Just as recent studies suggest that skeptical religious minorities such as atheists and agnostics tend to know more about religion
than believers, political skeptics, as Linda Killian, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and the author of The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents, contends
, are often deeply knowledgeable in politics and "tend to be well informed and care about the political process" at least as much as their partisan counterparts despite the prejudicial thinking that dismisses them as ill-informed or unwilling to listen to reason. Furthermore, arguments such as Cross's places the burden of defeating Donald Trump not on his opponent but on the American voter.
Because Bernie Sanders engaged many political independents and progressives dissatisfied with the Democratic Party and brought them into the party's nominating process, the underlying reasoning goes, those supporters must now follow him in his support of Hillary Clinton or risk handing the White House to Donald Trump. Democrats will often point to the fact that their party has produced what Bernie Sanders himself describes
as the "most progressive platform in [Democratic] Party history" as a reason for Sanders-backing holdouts to embrace Hillary Clinton's candidacy. The party, it would seem, believes that those holdouts should be convinced to support their ticket because it listened to some of Sanders's proposals and integrated them into their official platform.
The proprietary attitude with which this segment of the Democratic Party regards Sanders supporters and other progressives who do not wish to vote for the Clinton/Kaine ticket is troubling because it smacks of entitlement: rather than ask what it must do to win over a group of people the Democratic Party believes it needs to win the election, it attacks that group for not agreeing with it, dismissing many legitimate objections to the party's ways of doing things as petty, unrealistic, or stubborn--or just plain sour grapes. Thus, many thoughtful progressives who would rather vote for something they believe in are, paradoxically, being shamed into casting a protest vote against Donald Trump by being accused of protest voting against Hillary Clinton.
The reality is that many third party voters are not thoughtlessly protesting a candidate they dislike. Third party voters are expressing an important message to our government: our votes are going to candidates who offer what we want and need and, if you would like our support, you can gain that by embracing our concerns.
Assuming that third-party voters owe their support to the Democratic Party (in this example) is one way of politicians saying we want (and feel entitled to) your support but we do not want to listen to your concerns--and we wouldn't have to if you would just get in line.
In a very real way, a third-party vote is the only means of effectively communicating with the partisan "establishment"; the vitriol and shame directed at third-party supporters reveals nothing less than the reality of the situation: the big parties need our votes to get what they want. In other words, a vote for a third party is the farthest thing from throwing away your vote if you want something other than what the two major parties offer because it A) gives support to a candidate who does represent what you believe and B) signals to the Democrats and Republicans that they are not doing a good enough job to earn your support. By voting against an unlikeable candidate, you are telling the party for whom you do vote that they do not need to improve. After all, you're willing to give them your vote because they're not as bad as someone else. As Ralph Nader tells NPR's Jeremy Hobson
on Here and Now
, [i]f you don't deny major candidates your vote, you can't possibly change it...the only language they understand...is to deny them the vote."
The Defeatism and Sanctimony of the Acquiescent Democrat or How I Stopped Being Idealistic and Learned to Bully
The Internet abounds with progressives expressing regret for having cast a vote for Ralph Nader in 2000. The sheer number of self-excoriating jeremiads lamenting the election of George W. Bush as a lesson to would-be third-party voters is astounding. In an essay for Quartz, Michael Kang confesses that his "voting record has been a shameful secret" because he voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. As a New Yorker, Kang "felt confident that [his] vote would not affect the overall outcome" of the election because the Empire State was a dark blue state in which his vote would be unlikely to have any bearing on the allocation of the state's Electoral College votes. In his lament, Kang explains that his "vote was purposely symbolic," an effort to say "'We can do better,' 'We don't need to settle,' 'We should vote with our hearts!'" Granted, Kang, like Cross above, addresses his plea to the stubborn Bernie-or-Bust crowd who plan to "vote for Trump out of protest, sit out the election as protest, or write-in Bernie as protest." They will, he claims, "share the blame" in " the dismantling of our country." However, his choice to use his own self-described "protest" vote for Ralph Nader as an example implicates any progressive who does not wish to vote for Hillary Clinton in his criticism. Again, we have the threat of Donald Trump--an even more unhinged, less qualified, tower of bombast and champion of angry American conservatives than George W. Bush--used as the reason to vote for Hillary Clinton rather than any virtue of her own.
I am reminded of something my high school English teacher once shared with me. Quoting comedian George Carlin, he said, "inside every cynic, there is a disappointed idealist," meaning, of course, that to truly be cynical one must have perceived the ideal, strived for it, been disappointed in the effort, and left diminished. In terms of third-party politics, the brand of buyer's remorse with which Kang regards his having voted for Ralph Nader is a prime example of the relationship between idealism and cynicism. In such a scenario, the idealist first ascertains that "The System" is broken, chooses to reject the Manichaean logic of lesser evilism, selects a third-party candidate he or she prefers, watches helplessly as the Greater Evil defeats the Lesser Evil, feels guilty for having "helped" the Greater Evil prevail, assuages his or her now-guilty conscience by voting for the Lesser Evil in the next election, then, ultimately, as Kang does, warns others of "mak[ing] the same mistake" because, in a two-party system, third-parties can be nothing more than spoilers.
Thus, the idealist ("I don't care if my candidate wins! I am voting for what I believe in!") transforms into a cynic ("The thing I would like to see has no chance of happening and I am powerless to effect that change, so I will vote within the system I don't like because it is all we will ever have").
While such a defeatist attitude in itself can prevent change simply by discouraging the individual from voting for his or her conscience (thereby contributing to the muting of dissent), that is not the most troubling byproduct of the cynical retreat into political acquiescence so many major party voters embody. Rather, the most disturbing consequence of abandoning the sort of idealism Kang expresses is the development of a brand of vitriolic self-righteousness borne out of the retreat into cynicism that encourages the bullying, scapegoating, and marginalization of dissenters; the silencing of their voices; and, ultimately, a suppression of democracy.
Legitimate Frustrations and the Descent into Bullying
In a post
titled "Hey, Progressives! Your White Privilege is Showing" published in The Poetic Arsenal
, the author shares a story that, by now, should sound familiar:
Like many young white progressives, I was a vocal Bernie supporter during the primaries. I hated Hillary the war criminal, and abhorred the idea of being forced to press the button for her. Back in 2000, I voted for Ralph Nader. Sure, his chances of actually winning were less than zero, but hey, I voted with my conscience.
The author proceeds, however, in a direction that is somewhat different from the previous attacks on progressives not completely sold on Hillary Clinton:
[The reason] why young white voters love [Bernie Sanders] -- we have the luxury of voting for the candidate who most accurately represents our beliefs without any concerns about electability, because our lives won't really be affected if he loses. Our white privilege lets us "vote our conscience" by insulating us from the negative consequences that other minority groups will face if the other guy gets elected.
I have selected this example because, like Kang and Cross, the author expresses their views (based on the two lattermost assumptions I mention earlier) in a civil manner which does not directly attack others (although another post
on the same site does rather snarkily portray the conscience-voter as an unreasonably stubborn idealist suffering from the self-inflicted consequences of his untenably quixotic hopes). The author's concerns for the "[m]inorities...staring down the barrel of Trump's gun" are not only legitimate but crucial. They concede that "we need a multi-party system in America," but reason that "this is just not the year for it" because "[i]t will either be Hillary's America or Trump's America next year," ultimately concluding that:
Third party ballot access and progressive ideological purity are not as important as basic human rights. People of color and Muslims don't have the luxury of voting their conscience. They are voting for survival, and if we claim to be their allies, we will vote with them.
In a related vein, many Clinton backers rightfully claim that the first female presidential nominee in the history of either of the United States's two major parties has been subject to a degree of misogyny and sexism from fellow progressives that many high-minded liberals would never have expected from their own ranks. In a thoughtful piece
, Sady Doyle discusses "the multivalent harassment mobs who crop up on social media to hurl reams of uncomfortably gendered, personal hatred at... Hillary Clinton and anyone who supports her--or fails to sufficiently support Sanders," a very real problem embodied by, but not limited to, the Bernie Bro phenomenon.
Perhaps as a result of such important considerations as the wellbeing of people most vulnerable to the threats of Donald Trump's candidacy and the misogyny swirling around Hillary Clinton's campaign, many progressives who are otherwise sympathetic to third-party campaigns have, like the author of "Hey, Progressives," concluded that 2016 "is just not the year" to vote for a third party. Still others are, understandably, excited to help shatter one of the thickest and certainly the most important of glass ceilings
in the United States by casting a vote for Hillary Clinton. The majority of people for whom such considerations have convinced them to cast a vote for Hillary Clinton in November do so with enthusiasm and, for the most part, civilly seek to convince those of us who do not share their views to reconsider our position whenever we discuss the election.
There appears to be, however, a rather virulent strain of self-righteousness that draws upon the aforementioned concerns to justify bullying behavior towards voters intending to or considering supporting a third-party candidate. In one of the most balanced, sensitive pieces
I've seen written on "the very real role gender plays when people talk about Clinton and/or any other women who dare to step into positions that for so long have only been held by men," Kelly Wilz expresses her frustration with "see[ing] well meaning folks called out as sexist jerks for simply offering legitimate critiques of Clinton and what a Clinton presidency might look like." Similarly, in a public Facebook post
, Ijeoma Oluo alludes to what she describes as the "many messages [she's seen] aimed at those dissatisfied with the current election, especially POC, stating that we need to stop critiquing Hillary because 'too much is at stake.'" She continues, asserting that "[w]e are not 5, we have not been living under a rock. We are some of THE MOST impacted by the outcome of this election, no matter who wins. If you want to get anywhere, a little respect for our basic intelligence & a little knowledge of your privilege would definitely help." I share these two examples because they both hint at something I have been increasingly troubled by: a sanctimonious streak among certain quarters of the Democratic party has resulted in social media feeds swelling with bile directed at people who wish to vote for a third party candidate, cast a write-in vote, or withhold their presidential vote entirely. The "if you're not with us, you're against us" argument has become, in their hands, a verbal baseball bat with which to beat dissenters into submission, compliance, or silence--an act of intellectual brutality sanctioned by a near-fanatic level of self-righteousness.
The Case for Casting a Third Party Vote in This Election
First and foremost, my objective here is not to dissuade hardcore Democrats from abandoning Hillary Clinton in favor of a third party candidate, though I am interested in reaching hesitant progressive voters who have been swayed by the logic of lesser evilism into casting an unenthusiastic vote for Hillary Clinton solely because they fear Donald Trump. (Of course, I would argue that much of what I have to say applies to conservatives voting for Trump solely out of a fear of Hillary Clinton, too). My purpose, then, is to encourage people who would like to vote for a third party candidate to do so, despite the immense pressure to avoid doing so in this election. There are several key points I would like to raise:
(1) Succumbing to the logic of lesser evilism rewards the Lesser Evil;
(2) Waiting until a less evil Greater Evil arrives before casting a third party vote will only reinforce the narrative that third party candidates have no chance;
(3) Voting for a third party candidate in the presidential election will help make it possible for third parties to gain momentum in local and state elections; and
(4) "Winning" may not mean what you think it means
Although the subjects of so much of my criticism in this post have been the Democratic Party, the Democratic National Committee, and certain segments of the Democratic electorate, let me be clear in saying I believe the Democrats are the Lesser Evil in this situation. As a progressive, the Republican Party, especially with Donald Trump as its public face, is undeniably the Greater Evil--and has been for quite some time. Thus, while I may not provide nearly as much reason not to vote Republican in the passage that follows as I do to not vote Democrat, I want to emphasize that supporting a largely anti-intellectual
amalgam of populist paleoconservativism
, theocratic longing
, shock jock rhetoric
, and delusional bravado
is beyond the pale.
Succumbing to the logic of lesser evilism rewards the Lesser Evil
Despite presenting the aforementioned "most progressive platform in Democratic Party history," progressive voters have many legitimate reasons to question their support of the Hillary Clinton-Tim Kaine Democratic Party ticket. As I mentioned earlier, the recent Wikileaks leak of Democratic National Committee emails reveals enough questionable dealings behind the scenes to give anyone pause in trusting the organization and, as a consequence, any candidates the Democrats support who may have benefitted from those dealings. Still others may take issue with what Kevin Young and Diana C. Sierra Becerra term Hillary Clinton's "corporate feminism
," a tendency to support the "the right of women -- and wealthy white women most of all -- to share in the spoils of capitalism and US imperial power" while "not confronting the exclusion of non-whites, foreigners, working-class people, and other groups" we might associate with feminism in the tradition of Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth. Thus, individuals concerned with protecting human rights internationally often find policies supported by Democratic politicians including Clinton to be deeply troubling. In an essay
for The Nation
published shortly before this year's Democratic Party primary in New York, Greg Grandin presents an argument in which he considers the neoliberal policies Hillary Clinton supported before and during her time as Secretary of State to have been disastrous for campusinos
, LGBTQIA+ activists, women, children, environmentalists, indigenous rights activists, and workers' rights campaigners in places such as Honduras
, El Salvador
, and Paraguay
. Elsewhere, critics of Hillary Clinton's foreign policy point to her role in escalating violence and political instability in North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and East Asia
and understandably worry that a Clinton presidency may lead us into another unpopular war in the Middle East
. Closer to home, Michelle Alexander, author of the seminal The New Jim Crow
, considers Hillary Clinton's track record on race and concludes that she, together with her husband, "decimated Black America
" through the policies they enacted and supported. In a related vein, vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine's support of the Hyde Amendment
is understandably troubling to some activists concerned with the wellbeing of women of color because it has a "disproportionate impact on women of color
, both because women of color are more likely to live in poverty and to rely on Medicaid for health care, and because women of color are also more likely to seek abortion care," as one advocacy organization reports. Furthermore, Kaine's presence on the ticket presents a challenge to the DNC's apparent move to the left after a difficult primary season. As William K. Black writes
, the Democratic Party's vice presidential nomination "embrace[s the] neo-liberal, pro-corporate outlook that has done incredible damage to the vast majority of Americans" from which the DNC platform sought to distance itself.
What I present here is but a small sampling of the concerns some progressives have with the Democratic Party's 2016 ticket. If, as so many progressives believe, voters will be responsible for all the consequences of a Donald Trump presidency either by voting for him directly or by not supporting Hillary Clinton as his only viable challenger, then voters must also accept the responsibility for electing a candidate who many of them feel has a track record of supporting policies that have resulted in death, human rights violations, and political instability around the globe. By supporting the Democratic ticket, then, such a voter must contend with the fact that they may very well be tacitly condoning the widespread mistreatment of individuals in third-world countries for the benefit of American business interests, the underhanded behavior of the Democratic Party in promoting one candidacy over another, and a presidential ticket that already raises questions about it's commitment to the progressive ideas so much of its voter base support. A vote for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine, unfortunately, is not only a vote against Trump; it is also an absolution of the Democratic Party's many transgressions and a signal to the party that it really doesn't have to change anything to earn a progressive's support. Thus, a vote for the Lesser Evil will only encourage it to continue behaving as it does because, every four years, a Greater Evil will come along and scare progressives into acquiescence.
Voting for a third-party candidate, then, is the only way for a progressive who disagrees both with the blatant xenophobic rhetoric of Donald Trump and the heavy-handed American imperialism of the neoliberal Democrats to push for the change we deserve.
Waiting until a less evil Greater Evil arrives before casting a third party vote will only reinforce the narrative that third party candidates have no chance
Recalling the sentiments expressed by the author of The Poetic Arsenal
post mentioned above, some progressives believe firmly that the United States should have a multi-party system, but feel that the risk of Donald Trump is simply too great to risk voting for a third-party this
year. In another one of the articles
I link to earlier, Olivia Goldhill refers to Michael LaBossiere, a professor of philosophy at Florida A & M, who claims that "two broad schools of ethics have bearing on how votes are cast" in the sort of election we see before us: utilitarianism and deontology. "Utilitarianism," Goldhill explains, "suggests that the best action is whichever creates the maximum happiness for the greatest number of people--i.e. it's best to vote with an eye to the political consequences" while "a deontological approach argues that the action itself, rather than the consequences, has moral worth." It is important to note, however, that Goldhill's article, like several of the others I mention in this piece, is largely directed at stubborn Bernie Sanders supporters who intend to write his name in out of a brand of "fervent idealism, which places support for a certain candidate above all practical consequences of that support." Importantly, Goldhill does leave room for "nuance--opting for the more practical candidate usually means opting for something closer to the status quo. That leaves limited opportunities for perspectives that fall outside party lines."
Goldhill's article, which has been shared by quite a few people in their various social media feeds, raises some very important points. First, she identifies an ethical binary between the utilitarianism one associates with Henry Sidgewick, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham on one side and the deontological approach one often associates with Immanuel Kant on the other. Unfortunately, this is a false binary that has been used to cast third party voters in a negative light: rather than consider the consequences of their actions (in the examples I use, for instance, Donald Trump is elected), they vote their conscience (a third-party candidate). Here, the consequentialist utilitarian view presents the third-party voter as the author of The Poetic Arsenal sees him or her: someone who is so enthralled with his or her own idealism as to ignore the threat Trump's presidency could present to others. The viewpoint is actually a conflation of deontological ethics--the agent (the voter) must not make a wrongful choice (cast a vote for Hillary Clinton) because what is right (not voting for a candidate with undesirable characteristics) must be prioritized over what is good (preventing Donald Trump from being President)--and an aspect of the virtue ethics of Plato and Aristotle--rather than adhering to deontology's duties or utilitarianism's consequentialism when making a decision, the individual is concerned with acting in accordance with integrity or other virtues.
The problem with the consequentialist viewpoint emphasized by the utilitarians is that it not only lacks the "nuance" to which Goldhill alludes, but actually overlooks the crucial fact that the third-party voter might actually be closer to a utilitarian than not. To be more precise, while the consequentialist belief that voting for the Lesser Evil to prevent the Greater Evil focuses on the short term, the utilitarianism of many third-party voters results in taking a longer view of our political predicament. In other words, while preventing a particularly loathsome candidate may appear to do the greatest good (which is, of course, the aim of utilitarianism), it may actually propagate an even greater Greater Evil than the vanquished Greater Evil.
As we have seen, the defeatist pathos of liberal lesser evilism relies heavily on cynicism to dissuade would-be third-party voters from casting a vote for a candidate that is not endorsed by the Democratic Party. The logic can be reduced to a rather simple pseudo-equation: if x = something horrible, y = something tolerable by contrast with x, and z = something preferable to both x and y but which will likely appeal more to supporters of y, then a vote for z is effectively a vote for x. Unfortunately, Americans are stuck with x and y every election precisely because the defeatist utilitarianism of lesser evilism keeps convincing people that their ideals are not worth fighting for--at least not in the present horrible instance (and it's always a horrible instance: the bad side is pretty much always the worst possible thing). Consequently, people who could change things by voting for a third party (z) acquiesce and vote for the lesser evil (y). Thus, when the next election rolls around, the same brand of utilitarianism looks at the past (z had nothing close to the support of x or y) as proof that a third party candidate cannot garner enough support to be a viable opportunity for change. It is upon this base that arguments such as "Look what happened with Nader! Third parties can't win--at least not in our corrupt system! We can only have the incremental change the major party candidate offers, so you must vote for them and prevent the Greater Evil!" are built.
Many third party voters such as myself understand this logic because, after all, it is, as Chomsky states, "elementary arithmetic." However, many a third party voter also understands that a constant acquiescence to the logic of lesser evilism breeds the sort of cynical defeatism that prevents people from supporting third party candidates in the first place. If an individual, like the majority of Americans
, believes that a third party is necessary because the Democrats and Republicans "do such a poor job" representing the American people, then that individual understands that supporting the two-party system contributes to the normalization of the lack of choice such a system propagates. The Greater Evil, then, is a system which makes it not only possible but highly likely for unpalatable candidates to keep popping up like mindless video game enemies automatically generated to plague the player. Or, as Kshama Sawant contends
, "[s]upporting corporate candidates like Clinton simply entrenches a political system that generates austerity and political monstrosities like Trump's campaign."
If an individual takes the long view, it is possible to perceive that voting for a third-party A) signals to major parties that voters feel excluded from government and forces the big two parties to reconsider their positions on the issues that matter to third party voters in this and future elections and B) preserves and expands the necessary support for third-parties so that they can continue working to bring a more representative form of democracy to all Americans, helping ensure that future generations will not be restricted to the inherently limiting two-party system we have today in order to bring about the democracy so many Americans keep saying we deserve. In other words, voting for a third party can be an extremely utilitarian choice, provided we consider the greater good to extend beyond the rather narrow temporal confines of the immediate present. Rather than vote against Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, a third party voter can vote for the increased visibility of marginalized voices in our republic--voices that will be muted if their supporters decide supporting them is less important than shutting someone else up.
Voting for a third party candidate in the presidential election will help make it possible for third parties to gain momentum in local and state elections
In a thoughtful and compassionate piece
, longtime Green Party activist Mark Haim explains why he will not vote for Jill Stein in the 2016 election despite "strongly support[ing] the platform she's running on." In his essay, Haim argues that the Green Party's "focus on the presidency is misplaced" not only because "[v]irtually all Greens know that come January 20, 2017 it will not be Jill Stein who is inaugurated our next president" but also because he fears the damage a failed presidential campaign will have on the Green Party's future growth. With the liberal backlash aimed at Ralph Nader in 2000 still fresh in his mind, Haim laments that "[i]f the Greens do well, meaning well for a third party, they generally won't elect their candidate, but, by splitting the votes of liberal-centrist Dems and leftie Greens, they might allow the Republicans to win elections that otherwise would have gone to the Dems," thereby earning the dreaded "Spoiler" label. This is, of course, precisely the same same scenario proponents of lesser evilism among the Democrats use to support their own candidates. Haim, however, has a different concern, presenting his readers with a crucial paradox: "[t]he more successful the Greens are in races like this, the less likely their supporters are to be pleased with the results or to continue to vote Green in the future." In support of his point, Haim cites a pair of elections "in New Mexico where 'successful' Green campaigns drawing support in double digits led to two Congressional seats that had been held by Democrats go to Republicans who scored fewer than half the votes, but enough to win in a three-way race," which resulted in "the New Mexico Greens [losing] ground in subsequent years." In order to avoid the damage a "spoiler" label can bring while maximizing the party's growth potential, Haim proposes that the Greens only run candidates in "districts in which only one of the major parties is running a candidate" and where there will be "zero spoiler risk" or "districts where both parties have candidates on the ballot, but, due to demographics and gerrymandering, one party is seen as having a lock on the election" and where a Green candidate might be "afforded the opportunity to raise issues, recruit members and hone activist skills" without "driv[ing] away their potential base in the process, the way a strong run at the presidency is likely to."
Haim's viewpoint recalls the concluding passage in Dan Savage's podcast (as transcribed in The Stranger
) in which the columnist informs the caller who had phoned into his show that "if you want to build a viable third party, more power to you. I could see myself voting for a Green Party candidate for president in 25 years, after I've seen Green Party candidates getting elected to state legislatures, getting elected to governorships, getting elected to Congress. Then you can run some legitimate motherfucker for president."
Of all the many pages of ink I've seen spilled on the subject (you'll have to excuse the skeumorphic turn of phrase), Haim's is, by far, the one which strikes me as the most reasonable, particularly in its strategizing for third-party growth through participation in non-competitive races. Likewise, despite the vitriol with which Dan Savage attacks the idea of voting for Jill Stein, his sentiments on being willing to consider a third party candidate after their party builds a presence in local and state elections are entirely reasonable.
Underlying both Haim's and Savage's arguments is the belief that smaller parties can build a presence in local and state governments, providing third-party candidates with critical legislative and executive experience that will enable them to mount successful runs for higher-profile national offices in the future. On the surface, this reasoning is virtually airtight because, frankly, it makes total sense. People are less likely to be swayed by the logic of lesser evilism when considering who to vote for in, say, a city council election than they are in a presidential election. Likewise, with the exception of Libertarian candidates such as Bob Barr and Gary Johnson or the Green Party's Cynthia McKinney, most recent third-party presidential candidates (and Donald Trump, for the record) are almost laughably under-qualified for the presidency by virtually anyone's standards for government experience--and only Johnson had any executive experience prior to running for the office of president (though Ralph Nader boasted a record of legislative influence that most national politicians would consider beyond enviable). In other words, and as Haim suggests, third parties might best be served by running candidates in lower-eschelon races because it will set them up for future success in higher-profile races by preemptively eliminating two of the major criticisms so often tossed in their direction: A) that they have no experience which prepares them to handle the rigors of the offices they seek and B) they have no chance to win an election.
To be clear, I am totally on board with that strategy and believe a grassroots effort to broaden our American democracy through an influx of third party candidates into all levels of government is the best possible, most reasonable approach. The ideal, even.
There are, however, a few facts that complicate matters and which ought to be addressed before abandoning third party candidates running for the highest office in the country. Remember when the Hillary Victory Fund was criticized
because "less than 1 percent of the $61 million raised by that effort has stayed in the state parties' coffers"? What about the time Hillary Clinton's campaign was praised
for having brought in an "impressive haul of $37 million, with an extra $18 million raised for the DNC and local Democratic parties for down ballot Democrats" while Bernie Sanders was questioned for having raised nothing for local party affiliates? How about the time the Trump campaign joined forces with the Republican National Committee
to form the Trump Victory fund to "raise money for the RNC, the campaign and 11 state party committees"? Clearly, major party candidates running down ballot benefit from their parties' presidential campaigns. Put bluntly, if a third party wishes to compete with the Democrats or Republicans on a local level, that party must also run national campaigns in order to gain the visibility and the financial resources for their local candidates that are only available to members of parties that compete on a national scale. When combined with the fact that the "[v]oter turnout for local elections, typically held in off-cycle years, has historically lagged behind state and federal races set to take place in November" is "slowly becoming even worse
," relegating third parties to local elections without the funding a national candidate can raise could destroy an already marginalized voice. Voting for a third party candidate in a presidential election, then, in many ways, will help make it possible to run successful local campaigns, even if a presidential campaign fails. Indeed, the Green Party so maligned in Dan Savage's post for not focusing on local elections, openly acknowledges
that the party's "presidential candidates promote local and state Green candidates and raise money for them" (so, too, does the Libertarian Party
) and benefit from the fact that "local activists connect with the party for the first time though Green presidential campaigns." Considering the sheer number of Bernie Sanders supporters likely introduced to the Green Party
through Jill Stein's candidacy, one can see how crucial a third party's participation in national politics can be in helping grow the party in ways that could benefit local candidates. While it is easy to dismiss third party presidential candidates, as Savage does, as "these fake, attention seeking, grandstanding Green/Libertarian party candidates who pop up every four years, like mushrooms in shit, saying that they're building a third party," one must not forget that it is the face of the party on the national level that helps gather water for the grassroots candidates at the lower tiers. Furthermore, as I discuss in more detail later on, in order to maintain ballot access in local and statewide elections, many states require that a party win a certain percentage of the popular vote in either a presidential or gubernatorial election. Put differently, voting for a major party candidate will actually make it more difficult for smaller parties to succeed in the future.
"Winning" may not mean what you think it means
Any casual observer of third party politics in the United States will likely be familiar with several third party presidential runs and their various outcomes. In the nine presidential races preceding this year's upcoming election, only John Anderson in 1980, Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, and Ralph Nader in 2000 can be said to have had any appreciable effect on their respective races. Anderson's haul of nearly 7% of the popular vote was the best performance by a third party candidate since the pro-segregation George Wallace won 14% twelve years earlier. In 1992, H. Ross Perot won over 18% of the popular vote and finished second in two states as an independent and won about 8% as a Reform Party candidate in 1996. Ralph Nader's 2.74 percent of the popular vote in 2000, as we have seen, has frequently been cited by critics as the reason Al Gore lost the election.
Independents and third party candidates have been somewhat more successful in gubernatorial elections, with Alaska's Bill Walker, Rhode Island's Lincoln Chaffee, Florida's Charlie Crist, Minnesota's Jesse Ventura, and Maine's Angus King all serving at least part of their terms as independents or members of a third party since 2000. It is important to note, however, that of these politicians only Jesse Ventura was neither previously nor subsequently associated with either the Democrats or Republicans. In that same time period, only Vermont's Bernie Sanders, the Virgin Islands's Victor Frazer, Virginia's Virgil Goode, and the Northern Mariana Islands's Gregorio Sablan have served in the House or Representatives as independents. In the Senate, New Hampshire's Bob Smith, Vermont's Jim Jeffords, Minnesota's Dean Barkley (who was appointed by Jesse Ventura to fill the seat left vacant when Democrat Paul Wellstone died), and Connecticut's Joe Lieberman as well as the aforementioned Sanders and King have all served at least part of their time in office unaffiliated with either the Democrats or Republicans in the same time span. Of these men, only Barkley and Frazer have never been affiliated with either of the two major American political parties, though Barkley did come close to collaborating with the Minnesota affiliate of the DNC.
While many skeptics of third-party politics in the United States will point to the fact that neither Anderson nor Perot, despite the comparatively high percentage of popular votes they received, won a single state or even a single electoral vote in their presidential runs to support the case against voting outside the two major U.S. parties, many advocates of third-party politics will point to the aforementioned governors, senators, representatives, and delegates as evidence of the very real possibility of successful minority party runs. The reality is that most of the successful independent and third-party politicians listed above come from one of three camps: A) the Anderson-Lieberman tradition of established Republicans or Democrats running as independents only after losing a primary race, B) the Jeffords-Crist tradition of elected Democrats or Republicans who leave their party while in office, and C) the Sanders-Walker tradition of independents who run with the tacit support of one of the major parties. In other words, truly successful third-party runs that succeed independently of the two big parties remain extremely rare at the state level.
Because of the seemingly infinitesimal success rate of third party runs for higher offices in recent years, many people have concluded that third parties simply cannot "win" an election higher than those of the many local offices such as mayor, school board, or city council both the Green Party
and Libertarian Party
have proudly won. These are, of course, the very sorts of offices Dan Savage both encourages third parties to pursue
and subsequently ridicules
as a "fucking pathetic" markers of electoral success. Apparently, even small victories aren't enough.
Interestingly, Kshama Sawant, the Seattle Socialist Alternative City Councilwoman Savage boasts of having supported
, takes a quite different stance
both on the Green Party ("Jill Stein's Green Party campaign will likely offer the strongest left challenge in November and deserves the broadest possible support") and the necessity of progressives "ending our subservience to the Democratic Party" by "reach[ing] out to the millions mobilized by Sanders's 'political revolution' and convince them to organize themselves into an independent movement rather than back Hillary Clinton." She continues, contending that "[n]o political revolution can succeed that starts and stops in an election year, or that tones down its demands so as not to embarrass whatever Wall Street-blessed Democrat is running for office." Importantly, Sawant recognizes that a truly progressive political movement in the United States cannot succeed in "the starts and stops" of electoral politics dominated by the two major parties.
While supporting a third party in this election is a necessary part of the progressive movement against the self-propigating duopoly in Washington, "winning" this election ought not be measured solely in the terms we traditionally associate with American politics. Rather, the third-party voter must look to win other key victories, many of which either do not require "winning" in the more commonly-accepted sense of the term or which, as Sawant hints, aim at victories that transcend a single election cycle.
In a presidential election, third party candidates face a number of challenges that major party candidates need not worry about. Six of the most frequently-mentioned of these challenges are:
1. Winner-take-all representation
2. Ballot access laws
3. The Commission on Presidential Debates
4. Media coverage
5. Financial limitations
6. The prevalence of binarism in American political thought
While my focus here is on the presidential election, it is important to note that winner-take-all representation is perhaps the major roadblock to third party candidates at all levels of American politics. In unicameral legislative bodies making use of party-list proportional representation, for instance, electoral preferences are reflected more or less proportionally in a parliamentary body. Thus, if a theoretical Liberal Party garners 42% of the vote, a theoretical Conservative Party wins 43%, a theoretical Libertarian Party wins 6%, a theoretical Green Party wins 7% of the vote, and a theoretical Socialist Party wins 2% of the vote, the make-up of a theoretical legislative body consisting of 100 members will look something like this:
If in our theoretical system, as many such legislative bodies do, a prime minister and cabinet is selected through the parliament, there are generally three possible outcomes: a majority government, a coalition government, or a minority government. In a majority government, one party wins an absolute majority of delegates and elects the prime minister and the cabinet. In a coalition government, several political parties work together to achieve a majority of seats and set up the executive branch. In a minority government, a party or coalition lacking an absolute majority takes power. The lattermost possibility is extremely rare and usually only appears in exceptional situations beyond the scope of this brief passage. In the example cited above, no single party can form a majority government, thereby encouraging coalitions to form between parties with compatible goals. For argument's sake, let's say the Conservatives and Libertarians join forces while the Liberals, Greens, and Socialists decide to work together. In such a scenario the Conservative-Libertarian alliance will have a 49% minority stake in the legislature despite having a party with the most representation while the Liberal-Green-Socialist alliance will have a 51% majority stake in the legislature despite not having the party with the most representation. In all likelihood, the executive branch of the government emerging out of the coalition will include members from each of the parties. In other words, a Liberal prime minister could work with a cabinet including Greens and Socialists in addition to other Liberals. Of course, the Conservatives and Libertarians will continue to have a significant voice in the legislature because of proportional representation. Thus, such a system encourages the sort of collaboration between parties we often crave in U.S. politics and leaves room for minority voices to participate at all levels of government. On the other hand, Americans might baulk at the idea of not directly electing the head of the executive branch or having to vote for a party rather than a person.
In the United States, however, we do not have proportional representation. Instead, the candidate with the most votes wins and, barring extraordinary circumstances that are extremely unlikely to occur, neither one of the bodies in our bicameral legislative branch elect the president or the cabinet. Thus, a third party could theoretically win high percentages of votes in congressional, senate, and presidential elections without ever winning a single election. For argument's sake, I will present a highly unlikely scenario to illustrate some people's objections to this system: let's say the Libertarian Party becomes extremely well-liked and its candidates win upwards of 30% of the popular vote nationwide and even exceed 40% of the popular vote in some elections, but never finishes higher than second in any race. So, for instance, Major Party 1 wins a theoretical three-way senate race with a 42% majority, defeating the Libertarians who win 41% and Major Party 2 who win a paltry 17%. Elsewhere, Major Party 2 wins a congressional race in similar fashion, narrowly defeating the Libertarians and leaving Major Party 1 in the dust. If scenarios such as these unfold around the country, it is entirely possible that the second most popular party in the country will win 0% of the elections in which it runs. Again, this is extraordinarily unlikely, but, thanks to the system we have in the United States, it is possible.
While many Americans might feel alienated by the indirect election of the executive branch of government presented in the theoretical example above, citizens of the United States actually do not directly elect their president, either. In presidential elections, the United States Electoral College presents a unique challenge to any would-be Commander-In-Chief. When U.S. citizens enter the voting booth in November, they will see a ballot upon which the names of the presidential and vice presidential candidates for each presidential ticket that has successfully made the ballot in their state or district are listed. While most voters believe they are voting for the candidates they select, they are, in fact, voting for a slate of individuals called electors that will represent them in the Electoral College. The number of electors for each state is the equivalent of its combined number of senators and representatives while the District of Columbia receives three electors. Every political party appearing on a state's ballot designates a slate of electors matching the number determined by method listed above. With the exception of Maine and Nebraska
(where electors are determined by a combination of congressional district votes and popular votes), the party that wins the most votes in the state or district appoints all of the electors for that state or district. Owing to this convoluted version of a winner-take-all system, it is possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote while winning the electoral college vote, as happened in 2000 when George W. Bush's 271 electoral votes surpassed Al Gore's 266 despite Al Gore having won 50,999,897 popular votes (compared to Bush's 50,456,002).
Further complicating matters is the fact that in 21 states, electors are not bound to vote for the candidates to whom they are pledged while in the remaining 29 states and Washington, D.C., electors that vote for candidates to whom they are not pledged face very minor repercussions. As a result, it is entirely possible for an elector to either vote for a candidate other than one to whom they are pledged or to abstain from voting entirely. While this is rare, faithless electors can effectively disenfranchise huge numbers of voters.
Because an absolute majority of Electoral College votes is required for a candidate to win the position for which they have run, third party presidential candidates face a few significant challenges in addition to the logic of lesser evilism. For instance, imagine a three-way race in which the Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate and a third party or independent candidate split the Electoral College votes in such a way as to ensure that no candidate has an absolute majority. In such a situation, the House of Representatives elects the president from among the top two candidates and the Senate elects the vice president from among the top three. Given that the U.S. Congress is dominated by the two major parties, it is entirely within reason that Democrats and Republicans will vote along party lines rather than in accordance with the popular vote among their constituents (a situation that recalls the Democratic Superdelegate controversy during this year's primary season), thereby handicapping a third-party candidacy. Likewise, the existence of faithless electors enables an admittedly unlikely scenario in which electors pledged either to Democrats or Republicans might cross the aisle to hinder an insurgent third-party campaign from succeeding (though, to be fair, it could also benefit a third-party candidate that is more palatable to one major party than the opposition).
The Electoral College, then, is one of the single most significant roadblocks for third party presidential candidates to overcome and represents one of the "opponents" a third party must seek to defeat.
Ballot access laws
Because of the Electoral College's precedence over the popular vote, presidential candidates must effectively run over fifty separate campaigns in order to win enough state contests to collect the electoral votes needed to win an election. Thanks to their historical dominance, the two major U.S. political parties are essentially assured of gaining access to the ballots in all fifty states and the District of Columbia for every election, freeing them of the onerous task of assuring ballot access on a state-by-state basis. Smaller parties and independent campaigns, on the other hand, frequently have to devote significant resources to simply appear on state ballots each election and, despite these efforts, rarely succeed in appearing on every state's ballot. In fact, part of Bernie Sanders's reasoning (besides not wanting to be a spoiler) for running as a Democrat rather than an independent was precisely because "it's very difficult to get on the ballot in 50 states
" without the backing of a major party.
Indeed, the difficulty to which Sanders alludes is almost an understatement given how widely ballot access laws vary from one state to another. Whereas some states such as Louisiana
(where a candidate need only pay $500 or collect 5000 signatures with at least 500 coming from each Congressional district) offer a comparatively simple route to appear on the presidential ballot, other states have convoluted processes that benefit the two long-established major parties. Take Kentucky
, for instance. In that state, the results of the previous presidential election determines the status of a party in subsequent elections. If, for instance, a party wins under 2% of the popular vote in the presidential election, it is classified as a "political group." If a party receives between 2% and 20% of the vote in the presidential election, it is classified as a "political organization." A party earns the status of "political party" in Kentucky only if it wins more than 20% of the popular vote in the previous presidential election. For parties designated as either a political organization or a political party, ballot access is granted automatically for all offices for which the party would like to nominate a candidate. Those parties designated as political groups and independent campaigns must obtain anywhere between 25 and 5000 signatures to gain access to the ballot, depending on the office that is sought. By contrast, in North Carolina
, a political party can only avoid having to requalify for ballot access if it maintains party status by winning 2% or more of the vote in a gubernatorial
Because the two-party system has afforded both the Democrats and Republicans a near-monopoly on political offices nationwide, most ballot access laws are at most minor formalities for the major parties. For minor parties aiming to begin influencing the national scene, however, the dizzying array of ballot access laws provide a real hindrance to success.
The Commission on Presidential Debates
The Commission on Presidential Debates
is an organization that sponsors and produces presidential and vice presidential debates in the United States. Its rise to prominence emerged out of the League of Women Voters refusal to sponsor a debate
in which George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis agreed to debate only upon the condition "that they control the selection of questioners, the composition of the audience, hall access for the press and other issues." Speaking on behalf of the League of Women Voters, which had sponsored presidential debates since 1976, League President Nancy M. Neuman lamented that "[n]ever in the history of the League of Women Voters have two candidates' organizations come to us with such stringent, unyielding and self-serving demands." In a statement, Neuman said that "she and the League regretted that the American people have had no real opportunities to judge the presidential nominees outside of campaign-controlled environments" when announcing that "The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debate scheduled for mid-October because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter." In the wake of the League of Women Voters's decision to withdraw support of the debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates has assumed a de facto monopoly on all presidential and vice presidential debates in the United States.
Unfortunately for third parties, the Commission on Presidential Debates, "a nonprofit group made up of representatives from each [major] party
" sponsored by a long list of corporate donors
with special interests, expresses a long-established antipathy towards third party candidates. According to an article
announcing the formation of the Commission in the New York Times
, "Paul G. Kirk Jr., the Democratic national chairman, and Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., the Republican national chairman, said they had the support of all the 1988 Presidential hopefuls for the new arrangement, which they said would 'institutionalize' the debates and strengthen the role of the political parties in the electoral process." Phil Gauley, the author of the article, explains that "[t]he parties' effort to take control of the Presidential debates underscores the central and potentially decisive role the nationally televised debates have come to play in both primary and general election campaign." Thus, it should come as little surprise that, when asked about the inclusion of third party candidates in future debates, "Fahrenkopf indicated that the new Commission...was not likely to look with favor on including third-party candidates in the debates." Likewise, "Kirk was less equivocal, saying he personally believed the panel should exclude third-party candidates from the debates." In an admirable stand for transparency, "Neuman said the need to assure legitimate third-party candidates a place in the debates was one of the reasons the league should be in charge. She said that, unlike the two political parties, the league 'does not have a stake in the outcome of the election.'" Kirk and Fahrenkoph, on the other hand, justify their stance by claiming that "[w]e believe the Democratic and Republican Parties are making history today by assuming their rightful responsibility for the single most effective voter education project" and "[t]he extremely competitive nature of the two parties will ensure that we will reach the best possible agreement for all concerned, most importantly for the voters of this nation" respectively.
Kirk's blunt statement that the Commision would "strengthen the role of the political parties in the electoral process" combined with Fahrenkoph's assertion that the Democrats and Republicans are "assuming their rightful responsibility" in jointly running debates which "should exclude third parties" presents us with nothing less than an admission of political collusion.
Despite the clear barriers to appearing in debates sponsored by the Commission, third party candidates do have a path to the debate stage. According to the Commission's website
, "[t]he CPD's nonpartisan criteria for selecting candidates" are
1. Evidence of constitutional eligibility;
2. Evidence of ballot access;
3. Indicators of electoral support.
The first criterion is nothing more than a requirement that a candidate actually be eligible to run for president. The second two criteria can use a bit of unpacking. The evidence of ballot access requires that a candidate appear on enough state ballots to stand a mathematical chance of winning a majority of the Electoral College votes. While some people might have qualms with how the United States Constitution defines eligibility or with the existence of the Electoral College, virtually all third party candidates will accept the terms of the first two criteria as entirely reasonable. It is the third criterion that has drawn the most criticism from third party advocates and other fair-minded individuals. According to the Commission, the "third criterion requires that the candidate have a level of support of at least 15% (fifteen percent) of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations' most recent publicly-reported results at the time of the determination." More precisely, the Commission reports
In each election cycle since 2000, CPD has retained Dr. Frank Newport, Editor-in-Chief of Gallup, to assist it in selecting the five national public opinion polls to be used in applying the criteria. Dr. Newport's recommendations have been based on his professional judgment concerning the most suitable polls. In making his recommendations, he has considered the quality of the methodology the polling organizations employed, the size of the sample population polled, the reputation of the polling organizations, and the frequency of the polling conducted. In 2012, the polls relied upon were: ABC News/The Washington Post, NBC News/The Wall Street Journal, CBS News/The New York Times, Fox News and Gallup.
Critics of 15% criterion often express concern that the Commission might select polls in which certain third party candidates are not included
, suggest that the threshold is "absurdly high"
given that candidates need only win 5% of the popular vote to receive public campaign funding, point out that candidates polling less than 10% can actually go on to win an election largely as a result of being included
in the debates, or refer to polls
indicating that the majority of Americans support including third party candidates with a mathematical possibility to win the election in the presidential debates. In an open letter to the Commission published less than a month ago in U.S. News and World Repor
t, Joe Lieberman, who had stood on the debate stage as the Democratic Party's vice presidential nominee the very year supporters of Ralph Nader were accused of handing the election to George W. Bush, echoes Nader's supporters' push to open the debates
when he deems the exclusion of independents
on the debate stage to be "contrary to the clearly expressed interests of the American people." Lieberman continues, arguing that the 15% "rule would be unfair at any time, but it is especially undemocratic at a time when the polls show that the American people have become increasingly alienated from the two major parties." Ultimately, he concludes his piece with the following plea: "[t]he American people are demanding more competitive and inclusive elections, and they want independents to have a fair chance. The Commission on Presidential Debates should live up to its responsibility and change the [15%] rule now." Given that an entire nonprofit organization
exists for the sole purpose of ensuring the sort of open debates Lieberman promotes, it is evident that the Commission for Presidential Debates is a significant barrier for third party candidates. It, too, presents a "victory" target towards which third-party supporters can direct their sights.
Bernie Sanders caused something of an uproar when he told Chuck Todd
that "he ran as a Democrat to get more media coverage," suggesting that the MSNBC host "would not have me on his program" had he run as an independent. Sanders's comments prompted Brad Woodhouse, the communications director for Barack Obama's two presidential runs, to call the Vermont senator "a political calculating fraud
." Similarly, Donna Brazile, the current Interim Chair of the DNC, referred to Sanders's motivations as "extremely disgraceful
." Unfortunately, as the Washington Post
's Philip Bump writes
The two-party system necessarily can't encompass every viewpoint. So, to hold parties together, some things became unmentionable. As media options broadened and the press wasn't acting as gatekeeper, candidates could talk to voters more directly. But they still largely needed the resources of the party in order to get elected, so they still hewed to the rules about what couldn't be mentioned.
Thus, while it might have made perfect sense
for Bernie Sanders to run as a Democrat this election, the considerable backlash
his campaign faced from the entrenched Democratic establishment
despite not really advocating policies that had not already been supported by popular Democratic and Republican presidents
such as Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower in the 20th Century highlights the tendency of a party's power structure to reign in its candidates via the media. It should be noted, however, that Bernie Sanders, like the GOP's present nightmare of a candidate
, has benefitted from the mitigating power of social media and the Internet
to reach an audience that might otherwise be limited to the often centrist-leaning perspectives presented in larger print and broadcast media outlets. Still, despite Sanders's reported aversion to running for office as a Democrat
, he was ultimately convinced to do so largely because the considerable challenges he would face in the media as a major party candidate
would still be a massive improvement over running outside of the auspices of the DNC with only social media to offset the disadvantages of token national coverage
In the same interview
in which Bernie Sanders expresses his desire for media coverage as factoring into his decision to run as a Democrat, he also cites the financial necessity of mounting a campaign within the two-party system, claiming that "[t]o run as an independent, you need -- you could be a billionaire...If you're a billionaire, you can do that. I'm not a billionaire. So the structure of American politics today is such that I thought the right ethic was to run within the Democratic Party." Similarly, In early 2014, Ralph Nader, the Democrats' favorite bugbear, shared his view with the Washington Post that "only very rich modestly enlightened people could have a chance to break this introverting cycle of political oligarchy, which unenlightened rich people generally approve of, that sets its own rules, makes its own laws, appoints its own judges and even brazenly forces taxpayers to finance its quadrennial political conventions." The Washington Post's Aaron Blake agrees, affirming Nader's belief that such figures "
would be more likely to poll highly enough to be included in debates and have the money to get on the ballot in all 50 states" and provide a modicum of hope for third party or independent campaigns. Of course, Nader admits that extremely wealthy candidates "could also challenge the major parties in primaries or get involved in the conversation by some other means, including threatening a third-party bid," which, as we have seen, rather presciently imagines the circumstances through which Donald Trump appears to have hijacked the GOP. Citing the example of Ross Perot's first presidential campaign as evidence of the potential power an independently wealthy candidate could wield, Nader suggests former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg would likely have been able to match or exceed Perot's level of success had he chosen to run
this year and provides a list of twenty individuals he believes would have the financial clout to mount a powerful independent campaign for the presidency. Nader presents his logic as follows:
Modestly enlightened rich people (MERPs) can persuade the mass media and other definers of the public's attention that they have the resources to overcome, at least initially, many of these obstacles. Ross Perot did so and after temporarily dropping out in the summer of 1992, still managed to receive an amazing 19 million votes...MERPs receive immediate media coverage, and are likely to be regularly included in polling. They can get on all 50 state ballots, plus D.C. and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. They can demand access to the presidential debates or even attract sponsors of additional presidential debates and circumvent the largely corporate-funded arm of the Republican and Democratic Parties, called the Commission on Presidential Debates...MERPs can open up this closed system and make it breathe. And this openness helps people publically place many issues, redirections and improvements, from the local to the global, on the electoral table that have been previously wholly neglected by the Republican and Democratic political parties.
Nader's point is clear: the amount of wealth that is concentrated in the two major political parties' coffers, while appealing to marginally outsider candidates such as Sanders, generally does not allow candidates that veer too far from the established party line to compete beyond the major party primaries, if at all. The lone exceptions to the rule are wealthy individuals able to persuade the media to cover their runs. Ross Perot and Donald Trump stand as testaments to this line of reasoning.
While Sanders's run has been remarkable in many ways, it was made possible in large part by the financial and political clout of the Democratic Party enabling his name to find its way onto the primary ballots in every state and district with voting privileges in the United States and it's assorted other territories. Money is, unfortunately, a major reason why a former two-term Republican governor (Gary Johnson) ended up on only 48 state ballots, a former six-term Democratic congresswoman (Cynthia McKinney) ended up on a mere 37 state ballots, and a four-term Republican congressman (Bob Barr) landed on 45 state ballots as third-party candidates while a quirky businessman with no prior record as a public official (Ross Perot) appeared on every state's ballot for their respective third-party runs. Of course, of these four candidates, only the latter was able to self-fund 30-minute commercials airing on major American television networks during primetime
to reach voters. It's simply much easier to fund media appearances and ballot access initiatives when you have the financial resources to pay television networks for their time, local activists for their work, and state administrative and legal fees. Only the major parties and the independently wealthy can do so.
The prevalence of binarism in American political thought
Part of the reason Americans keep voting for the Democrats and Republicans rather than third parties despite the aforementioned unpopularity of both of the major parties is because, thanks to a bit of linguistic legerdemain, many of us have been led to believe that we are, to varying degrees, either right-wing or left-wing. In fact, the reason Noam Chomsky's comment
about "elementary arithmetic" convinces people to vote for a Democrat over a Republican is because we have come to accept an elementary concept (a simple line between two points) as our political reality. In such a worldview, we are limited to a single dimension, which benefits a two-party system in which a given party promises to represent voters whose political orientations are closer to the party's point than that of it's opposition. Of course, when libertarian David F. Nolan plotted out various political ideologies using Cartesian coordinates to produce the Nolan Chart, a two-dimensional plane in which two axes intersect, new ways of visualizing political orientation emerged: Nolan's horizontal x-axis was labelled "economic freedom" with economic communalism at the left end and economic individualism at the right while the vertical y-axis was labelled as "personal freedom" and placed authoritarianism at the top and libertarianism at the bottom. The four resultant quadrants are as follows:
Bottom Left: left-wing political philosophies (such as democratic socialism) which favor low economic freedom and high personal freedom.
Top Right: right wing political philosophies (such as that of the GOP) promoting high levels of economic freedom while restricting personal liberties.
Bottom Right: libertarianism, which Nolan described as favoring both high levels of economic freedom and high levels of personal freedom.
Top Left: statist philosophies which favor low levels of economic and personal freedoms such as those governments seen in North Korea or Soviet Russia.
The traditional left-right line of American politics, in most versions of the chart (which has since become the basis for the popular "World's Smallest Political Quiz
"), runs directly through the center forming a continuum between the bottom left corner and the upper right corner of the chart. While the Nolan Chart is certainly not without its flaws, it does help explain why so many registered Democrats and Republicans feel at odds with their respective parties' platforms. For instance, an economic conservative who firmly supports gay marriage might find that they agree with the Republican Party's ideas about small government but favor the Democratic Party's attitudes towards civil liberties. Alternately, someone might be drawn to the law and order rhetoric of the Republicans while disagreeing strongly with that party's lack of corporate regulation. The Nolan Chart would place the former in the libertarian quadrant while the latter would fall into the statist quadrant. The uneasy sense of having to settle for "close enough" that so many voters feel when selecting a candidate in the two-party system emerges out of the fact that it shoehorns a naturally multidimensional worldview into a unidimensional vision. The often vague disconnectedness such voters feel between their internal political convictions and their external political identifications is the inevitable and unenviable byproduct of a political system which denies a fluidity of electoral expression.
While this political dysmorphia is likely responsible for so many people refusing to identify with either party, many Americans remain so convinced of the absolutism implied by the false left-right dichotomy that third parties often appear to be minor riffs on the generally-accepted liberal and conservative philosophies supposedly more solidly represented by the two major parties. Thus, the Libertarian Party will be accused of "taking" conservative votes from the GOP while the Greens will be accused of "taking" liberal votes from the Democrats, even when those individuals who cast votes for these third parties would never have voted for either of the two major parties.
Losing the Battle to Win the War
As I have been suggesting for some time now, the third-party voter must take the long view when contemplating the future of American politics. In the short term, it's remarkably easy to find oneself swept up in the hysteria or histrionic polemics surrounding polarizing candidates. If one looks beyond a single term, however, and recognizes that the two-party system almost inevitably produces a choice in which many voters shriek in horror at the possibility of a particular candidate becoming president while another huge chunk of the population recoils in disgust at the prospect of that candidate's opponent landing in office, that voter will have to recognize that casting a vote for either candidate will simply make future elections more likely to fit the same deeply discouraging pattern. When reports such as those appearing in the Washington Post
and The Hill
revealing that "poll after poll shows that both national parties are deeply unpopular
" and the majority of American citizens
believe a third party would be good for a government long handicapped by the legislative gridlock a two-party tug-o-war almost always ensures become commonplace, it is evident that the conscientious voter has an obligation to address the situation in the voting booth as well as in other spheres. While a particularly distasteful candidate may present a terrifying prospect in any given election, voting against that candidate is akin to treating a symptom of an illness rather than the underlying chronic disease. While any single outbreak might be eradicated, another one lies dormant, ready to wreak havoc. Future outbreaks are essentially assured as long as the disease remains untreated.
Thanks to the binarism produced by the two-party dominance in American politics, most voters are forced to self-identify along a continuum that extends from left-to-right, distributing themselves in a bell curve that rewards political candidates at the center. With more and more Americans fleeing the two major parties
, it is clear that each of the two parties sitting on either side of the Democrat-Republican see-saw requires these unaffiliated voters to shift to their respective side of the fulcrum in most elections if they hope to win. Traditionally, this is done either by enticing voters with alluring promises or through the demonizing of an opponent. The emphasis both major parties place on convincing these so-called "swing voters" to support their candidate in a presidential election should actually encourage third-party voters because it reveals the very important fact that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans actually enjoy the unqualified support of an insurmountable number of American voters in any given year. Put differently, the only reason we have a two-party system is because we keep voting for the two major parties.
As we have seen, however, the barriers presented by winner-take-all representation, restrictive ballot access laws, a closed presidential debate system, a media network that clearly privileges the two major parties, the financial advantages of the two major parties, and the prevalence of binaristic thinking in American political thought appear to be almost insurmountable...and they are, if we restrict ourselves to the immediate future.
In fact, even if a third party candidate or a political outsider such as Donald Trump were to win the presidency in November, the enforced centrism of our legislative branch would very likely counter any truly radical departure from the norm, thereby reinforcing the widespread belief that third parties and other outsiders cannot succeed in our political system. The notion that Donald Trump is so horrible that his presidency would lead to real change is much less likely an outcome than that the old guard Republicans will appear to have been right all along, leading to a much more moderate candidate in the future. Likewise, a third party candidate lacking partisan allies in Congress would likely struggle to enact many of the key planks in a platform that would have differentiated them from the two major parties, thereby setting the "successful" candidate up for a spectacular failure in the eyes of the public, seemingly affirming the common dismissal of third party candidates as quixotic.
If, on the other hand, we take the long view and accept that we must slog through failure before achieving success, there is very good reason to vote for a third party candidate in this and any election.
First, if we want a viable third party, we must enable them to become viable by voting for them, particularly at the presidential level. We cannot vote for them only when it is convenient for the two major parties because voting in such a manner is precisely what prevents third parties from becoming viable in the first place. Rather than look to winning the presidency as the sole reason for supporting a third party presidential campaign, one must look at the other benefits their vote will provide a non-major party. As we have seen, even winning a small percentage of the popular vote in a given presidential election can ensure that a smaller party will secure ballot access in many state and local elections for its candidates. Likewise, when a third-party's candidate wins 5% of the popular vote in a presidential election, that party will be eligible to receive public funding
in the subsequent presidential election. While they will not qualify for the twenty million dollar grant awarded the presidential nominee of a major party unless they cross the 25% threshold, they could receive upwards of half that amount just for crossing the 5% mark
. Such funding will enable a minor candidate to have the resources necessary to build a network that will make it much easier for the party's subsequent campaign to secure ballot access and mobilize for the election. Even helping a party maintain or increase its share of votes below that 5% mark can help keep a small party afloat for future voters to support. Thus, your "wasted" vote could very well be a major factor in bringing more choice to our democracy...provided you look at the forest rather than the tree.
Of course, while I clearly disagree with their perspectives on third-party presidential runs, both Haim and Savage make a very good point when they argue for supporting third party candidates in local and state elections in order to build a firm foundation upon which to build a successful campaign for higher office. As above, the third party voter must take the long view towards electoral success when taking this approach because it will potentially take many years and several election cycles to earn enough popular recognition to have enough clout to compete with the two major parties. Here, we can turn to Vermont for a little inspiration. The Green Mountain State's General Assembly
is the only state legislative body in the country that has had a third party successfully maintain a presence alongside the two major parties. The Vermont Progressive Party
, which holds six seats in the Vermont House of Representatives and three in the Vermont State Senate has been large enough to have its own caucus in the legislature. In addition to statewide offices, the party has held and holds several local positions throughout the state ranging from city council seats to mayorships. The Vermont Progressive Party's growth is the ideal to which Savage and Haim would have third parties aspire. Bernie Sanders, notably, self-identified as a socialist when running for mayor in Burlington, which inspired the group soon to be known as the Vermont Progressive Party to form and run candidates to serve on Burlington's city council. With their success on the city level, Vermont Progressives began seeking state-wide offices while Sanders eventually headed to Washington. Thanks to the party's established status within Vermont, it was able to nominate Ralph Nader as it's presidential candidate in 2000
, suggesting that one path to electoral success nationally would be by uniting a network of locally successful and like-minded third parties in an effort to advance a presidential candidate on a national scale. Given the comparatively low voter turnout in local elections, the voter has perhaps a disproportionate amount of influence on the electoral success of third parties. For this reason, I urge those of you contemplating voting for a third party at the presidential level to consider voting for third party candidates down ballot. Remember, there is a degree of reciprocity here: supporting presidential candidates provides local candidates with important resources while local candidates help establish the infrastructure that presidential candidates will need to succeed.
When casting a vote for Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, or any other third party candidate in this presidential election, you will be accused of throwing away your vote, "giving" it to an undesirable candidate, or depriving a worthy candidate of your support. These statements are only true insofar as we accept the pessimistic fatalism of people mired in the linear manachaeanism of a Janus-faced two-party system. If, on the other hand, we keep our cool, look towards the future, and work in the present for the benefit of those who will succeed us, there is a path forward for a more inclusive democracy in the United States. While the grassroots model provided by the Vermont Progressive Party provides us with a blueprint for third party growth via local and state elections, we must not withhold our support for candidates at the top. Supporting third party candidates may not yield any representation in the immediate present, but winning races today is not the only--nor even the most important--goal to which we should aspire. Instead, we should lend our support in the voting booth to third party candidates over and over and over and we should encourage other sympathetic voters to do the same. Yes, unlikeable candidates will win elections in which we cast votes for other individuals, but unless we show that we can overcome the fear of a frightening candidate, the major parties have little incentive to truly listen to dissenters and will likely continue presenting us with choices we find limiting and, yes, terrifying. Building a successful third party will take constant pressure and will involve more disappointment than many people would like to admit, but we have milestones before us: winning local elections, achieving "party" status for minor parties in our home states, hitting thresholds for public funding, breaking into the debates, and landing television appearances (if the Libertarian
Town Halls hosted by CNN are any indication, we may already have made some headway). Someday, perhaps opponents of winner-take-all elections will have enough clout to alter the rules of the Electoral College or enable proportional representation. Those are the longest-term goals. For now, we are as the builders who placed the first stones in the Cologne cathedral in the thirteenth century. They did not look to the nineteenth century when their magnificent vision was finally complete. Like those early builders, we must content ourselves with laying the groundwork for the glory of that in which we place our faith, not expecting to see our work completed in our lifetime, but delighted if we are so fortunate.
The roiling emotions behind the Occupy movement, the Tea Party, the Bernie or Bust mentality, and the Trump phenomenon are both proof that Americans are deeply troubled by our government and evidence that, unless we work to build a positive outlet for their expression, they will only continue to fester and disrupt. The soaring success of the Sanders campaign was powered, in large part, by the same fuel as the Occupy movement while Trump's rise draws energy from the Tea Party's battery. As the Democrats and Republicans absorb and repackage that energy in distorted, diminished products, we see the inevitable result of working within the two-party system: Hillary Clinton is now the champion of all those who have suffered from Wall Street's abuses and Donald Trump is the champion of the poor American working class. Unless we vote for third parties and expand our democracy, the Democrats and Republicans will continue producing such underwhelming approximations of what Americans actually want in a candidate. Although I have always advocated voting for something in which you believe rather than against something, if you're going to vote against anything or anyone, perhaps you should start with them.