Ah, election season. If it happened more often than every four years, the country would likely tear itself apart. People lose friends, destroy relationships with family members, and create resentments that run for years. I try to stay away from mixing friendship and politics because I find the costs outweigh the benefits.
But this. This I can’t abide. I can’t stay silent and watch this go on without saying something.
President Obama has said that a vote for a third party is a vote for Donald Trump. He’s not alone. There has been article after article, one think piece after another, about how voting for a third party is tantamount to voting for the Republican nominee and therefore wrong, or unprincipled, or “the worst thing you can do for American Democracy.”
This line of thinking is cheap, manipulative, and wrong; liberals shouldn’t be peddling it, and third-party voters shouldn’t be falling for it.
The Myth of the “Protest Vote”
The argument that voting for a third party is somehow a petulant, petty, immoral thing to do rests on two big assumptions: First, that the people who are voting third party would have voted for Hillary Clinton if they didn’t have a third party option. Second, that the people who are voting for third parties are doing it to spite the Democrats for nominating Clinton (despite the fact that she won fairly).
Let’s tackle this second one first. While I know that Bernie supporters giving protest votes for third parties is a thing, there is no data right now that supports that said protest votes amount to a significant amount of third party votes.
Is there a contingency of former Bernie supporters who have now pledged their votes to Johnson or Stein? Definitely.
Do we know that all of them are doing it because they’re bitter about the Democratic primaries? Not in the slightest.
Let’s focus on Gary Johnson, because, frankly, Stein is not a factor in this election. What we do know is that Gary Johnson’s 2016 campaign has nearly 8 million dollars of funding, where his 2012 campaign only had about 2 million. The surge in funds has resulted in unprecedented media coverage, social media marketing, and general awareness that a Libertarian candidate has not had in my lifetime.
Maybe, just maybe, the 7.2% of voters who plan to vote for Johnson are doing so because they like his policies more than the others.
Maybe, just maybe, Johnson is seeing higher numbers than he ever has before because it’s the first time people have known they had another option (and are fully aware that their current options suck).
The killer is that at the end of the day, that is the exact same thing that many Hillary supporters are doing—voting for an imperfect candidate because they believe their other options suck. You don’t get to judge third-party voters for doing the exact same thing you’re doing just because their choice is different from yours.
The Myth That Those Votes Are Hers
The second assumption that people seem to be making is that if people didn’t have third-party options, they would be voting for Clinton. Thus far, that assumption is unfounded.
Americans don’t exactly have great voter turnout. Even if one takes into account marginalized communities who might otherwise vote if not for policies keeping them out, it’s clear that Americans have no compunctions about staying home when they don’t have a compelling reason to go cast their votes.
It’s just as likely that those 7.2% of voters would have completely unplugged from the election altogether as it is that they would have voted for the Democratic nominee.
And don’t forget: absent a third party option, these voters could just as easily vote for Trump. In fact, from what the last few rounds of polling show us, when people don’t have the option of voting for a third party, it either doesn’t have an effect on who would win, or it tips the sales in Trump’s favor.
Stop saying that a vote for a third party is a vote for Trump. That has no basis. If anything, third parties have just as much of a chance to save the election for Clinton.
No, Ralph Nader Didn’t Spoil the 2000 Election
The founding for the above two myths has its base in the idea that Ralph Nader caused the close runoff between George W. Bush and Al Gore in the 2000 election. Liberals in particular believe that, absent Nader’s influence, Gore would have won and saved America the next eight years of horrifying policies under George W. Bush.
This idea is simply untrue.
In 2006, UCLA professors Michael C. Herron and Jeffrey B. Lewis published a study examining votes cast in the 2000 election and showed that the idea of Nader “spoiling” the election is demonstrably false:
Only approximately 60% of Nader voters would have supported Al Gore in a Nader-less election. This percentage is much closer to 50% than it is to 100%. One might have conjectured, that is, that Nader voters were solid Democrats who in 2000 supported a candidate politically left of the actual Democratic candidate. This conjecture, we have shown, is wrong: Nader voters, what participating in non-presidential contests that were part of the 2000 general election, often voted for Republican candidates. Correspondingly, [Reform Party candidate Pat] Buchanan voters voted for down-ballot Democratic candidates. Thus, the notion that a left-leaning (right-leaning) third party presidential candidate by necessity steals votes from Democratic (Republican) candidates does not hold.
In the abstract, the author explains, “The other 60% did indeed spoil the 2000 presidential election for Gore but only because of highly idiosyncratic circumstances, namely, Florida’s extreme closeness.” Florida still would have been close, we still would have had hanging chads, the SCOTUS still would have completely gone out of its authority to choose the president, and we still would have been stuck with 8 years of George W. Bush ruining everything. Ralph Nader didn’t spoil the 2000 election.
Oh, and by the way, neither did Ross Perot in 1992.
Clinton is Not Doing What She Ought to Be to Get These Votes
Many of these articles seem to be related to the Clinton campaign strengthening its efforts to dissuade people from voting third parties. Appealing to some kind of “civic morality” is precisely the wrong way to do this. If Clinton wants those votes, she needs to appeal to what those voters want.
Third parties, though once a legitimate force in American politics, now largely function as a way to get radical ideas accepted by mainstream candidates. Rabble-rousing by third parties and populist movements have inspired many governments to take on policies they wouldn’t have done otherwise.
Like gay marriage (part of the LP platform since 1972).
Or marijuana legalization (part of the LP platform since 1972).
Or ending police brutality and police militarization (look up Radley Balko).
Or a less invasive foreign policy (part of the LP platform since 1972).
Many of the so-called “liberal” policies that people want to see that Clinton doesn’t or hasn’t supported have been promoted by Libertarians for decades, and their work and research towards these ends is a large part of why they’re becoming visible and desired. Libertarians unflinchingly keep to these parts of their political vision, even though they were ridiculed for them before they became mainstream.
These are big issues for many of the people who are moving to vote for Johnson. For someone who has been touted a “listening candidate,” she sure isn’t listening to what these voters want. If she wants their support, maybe she should embrace some of those values.
A Vote for Clinton Isn’t a Moral High Ground Vote
Now, even if all of the above were not true, voting for Clinton to save the country from Trump would still not make people ethically superior.
If voting for Hillary Clinton is the lesser of two evils, it is still evil, and you don’t get to escape culpability for that.
Do you kill one to save five? Even in the face of better yet harder options? Our culture doesn’t seem to have an absolute answer to this question. Good people come down on either side of it and we can understand both. We sympathize with the decision to kill that one person—right up until they are proud of it. When they are, our stories treat that act as a negative part of that character. Because it is. Murdering someone in order to save five others is doing something wrong. It’s still murder, and there should be some reticence to that, not the lambasting of others for choosing to do otherwise.
When you vote for Hillary Clinton, you are voting for a candidate who kills people. Plain and simple. Just two of her policies—the War on Drugs and her foreign policy—are responsible for the death and disenfranchisement of millions. Trump would kill more. Undoubtedly. I understand why people would vote for Clinton—or would choose to kill one to save five because the better options aren’t likely to pan out. I imagine that’s how many Clinton voters feel.
That’s fine. It is an understandable and respectable choice to make. It’s just wrong to pretend that it’s a clear-cut, obvious ethical decision for which you are superior.
Look, I’m not trying to convince anyone to vote Libertarian or for Gary Johnson. Johnson has a lot of flaws, and I know there are lots of Clinton voters who think that free markets kill more people than any of Clinton’s policies. They can be wrong about that; they can feel superior because of that, and others will feel superior in their corner and we’ll all be smug at each other together (she writes, tongue in cheek). That’s all fine. That’s politics.
The point here is that if you are voting for Clinton because she is the “lesser of two evils,” you don’t get to be sanctimonious about it. Neither the data nor the ethics back up such an attitude.