Can We Please End the Delusions About Voting Third Party?
October 14, 2016
In 1980, my first opportunity to vote in a presidential election, I defiantly cast my ballot for the independent candidate, John Anderson, rather than Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter or Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. A veteran congressman from Illinois, Anderson was a moderate Republican who occupied the middle ground and demonstrated a reasoned approach to the issues.
Nearly four decades later, I would suggest that none of the four main candidates of 2016 could hold a candle to Anderson’s integrity and common sense pragmatism. Yet, I long ago regretted casting that 1980 vote. Sometimes, I think the only accomplishment achieved was the ability to righteously thump my chest and proclaim, “I didn’t vote for either one of those other two.”
As Election Day 2016 approaches, faced with two highly unpopular presidential candidates, a disturbing number of voters across Michigan and the nation turn to two highly unqualified third-party candidates for the White House.
Such is the nature of this surreal 2016 election campaign. Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein ride a boomlet of popularity even as they have no place in the tangled mix of issues facing the next president and Congress.
Obviously, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton both generate an unprecedented level of disgust, on a personal level, among a wide swath of voters. But let’s remember that both Johnson and Stein were on the ballot just four years ago and each captured less than 1 percent of the national vote.
What has changed? Stein dabbles in conspiracy theories and Johnson repeatedly embarrasses himself with off-the-wall responses to media inquiries. Yet they somehow grab onto a political position in which they could shape the election outcome and alter the next four years of life in America.
The latest statewide poll by EPIC-MRA of Lansing shows a surprising 21 percent of 18- to 34-year-old voters supporting Johnson and another 3 percent backing Stein. Many of those contrarians consist of former backers of Bernie Sanders who are in search of a candidate other than Trump or Clinton. But this is not history repeating itself.
Past Politics was Deadly Serious
In 1980, Reagan and Carter were both highly unpopular among a bloc of voters in the months leading up to the November election. Today, Millennials and hipsters seem to occupy an electoral territory a bit like the Anderson crowd. But 1980 was a different time – shortly after Vietnam and Watergate, in the midst of a new phase of nuclear threats and an evolving Cold War with the Soviet Union. Politics was deadly serious for us all.
Four decades later, young voters seem willing to spin on a dime when choosing a candidate, with little reference to past or future.
For example, how can a Millennial voter switch from a candidate (Sanders) who endlessly preached during the primaries in favor of Medicare health coverage “for all” to a different candidate (Johnson) who seeks to decimate funding for Medicare and all federally funded health programs, plus eliminate Obamacare? How does one make that leap? Is that intellectually honest, or just “trendy?”
The reality is, on a national debate stage both Johnson and Stein probably would have imploded within 60 minutes. I’m reminded of this past summer’s unhinged Libertarian Party convention where an 11th-hour debate among the five candidates took place. Johnson engaged in typical party doctrine but he was booed by the audience because he refused to adhere to dogma that the government has no right to require driver licenses for motorists.
Since then, Johnson demonstrated, with his infamous “What is Aleppo?” remark and his inability to name a single world leader that he is a man who is such a neo-isolationist that he apparently pays little attention to the outside world, or to the fate of the earth. He has comically claimed that climate change is not a worry because scientists say the sun will eventually engulf and burn up the earth – in about 5 billion years. What’s more, he essentially embraces the standard Libertarian mantra that EPA regulations are not needed because victims of toxic pollution – or their surviving relatives after they have died — can sue the corporate polluters for the damage done.
The former New Mexico governor advocates dramatic cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, privatizing Social Security, ending all campaign finance restrictions, and eliminating minimum wage laws. His deep-rooted preference is for a laissez faire (dog-eat-dog) world of economics.
An Even Quirkier Candidate
As for Stein, she is an even quirkier candidate who focuses on pet issues related to pseudoscience. A medical doctor, she panders to “anti-vaxxer” parents who believe childhood vaccines create autism. She rides on the superficial path of hysteria over genetically altered foods (GMOs). And she favors government funding for research into thoroughly unproven “alternative” health care such as naturopathy and homeopathy.
Critics on the left have proclaimed that her understanding of broad-based economics is incomprehensible and that her derogatory summary of eight years under Obama is replete with eye-rolling moments. Her running mate, Ajamu Baraka, labeled the president as an “Uncle Tom,” an assertion that Stein has declined to criticize.
She may be at just 3 percent in polls but that represents a quadrupling of her 2012 support, but based on what? For disgruntled young voters, Stein apparently serves as the Michael Moore-style ultimate anti-establishment progressive. And Johnson is the pot-smoking, New Age oracle, a Renaissance Man who stands above the fray of realpolitik.
As we face a constantly changing Electoral College map, this flirtation with the fringe is not about the tens of millions of distrusting independent voters in the moderate middle struggling to make a choice. This is about extremes. Firmly located on the far fringes, Johnson and Stein two have no chance of getting elected and even less chance of compiling a coherent White House agenda for the next four years. Both stand as unserious ideologues contending for the presidency, given the vast array of issues that seep into the Oval Office on a daily basis.
In a sprawling, diverse nation of more than 320 million people, it should be folly to think that every voter fits into one of two categories – Republican or Democrat. But it is equally specious for Millennials to assert that wacky left-wing theories or right-wing attempts to dismantle the federal government represent mainstream views being held back by a “rigged” system.
To be fair, my Baby Boomer generation made mistakes along the way and dumped long-term public policy problems into the laps of our kids. But at least we realized the stakes in each election. John Kennedy once famously said that, “to govern is to choose.” No way around that. And the Boomers realized that to vote is to choose. You can’t punt or plunk down a self-serving vote on the periphery.
Pity Parties of Elections Past
Over time, we’ve all seen pity parties of elections past, where eager young voters decried the choice between the lesser of two evils. Carter vs. Ford. Bush 41 vs. Bill Clinton. Gore vs. George W. At one point, a billionaire businessman, Ross Perot, in 1992 captivated disgruntled voters seeking a viable alternative. It took four years, but the electorate finally realized that Perot personified a clownish Plan B.
I would never say that a protest vote amounts to throwing away an individual voter’s franchise. But practical matters should prevail, as Green Party nominee Ralph Nader unknowingly demonstrated in 2000. Undoubtedly, without Nader’s spirited, quixotic campaign approach, that highly consequential New Millennium election would have gone the other way, with Al Gore winning over George W. Bush—for better or worse.
In retrospect, perhaps my first presidential vote for Anderson accomplished nothing other than to make me feel better. Idealistic. Even selfishly superior. Yet, there’s quite a bit different about the political mess of 2016. In less than a month, one of the flawed major party candidates, Clinton or Trump, will become our next elected president.
This election is not about childhood vaccinations or eliminating foreign aid to obscure nations. The November vote is not about demonstrating your cool factor or displaying a narcissistic defiance of the political system.
It is about so much more.
A freelance writer from Macomb County, was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.