2016 is bringing us a very unusual presidential election. On the Republican side, we have an outsider with a decidedly politically-incorrect resume and stye has been nominated to be the party’s standard-bearer. On the Democratic side, we have the ultimate insider with an impeccable resume that lacks notable accomplishments who is out of sync with her own base. The party traditionally known for hawkish international exploits and free trade is arguing to build a wall and abandon treaties, while the party traditionally known for workers rights and domestic concerns is arguing for more open borders and focusing on international issues. Neither candidate is well-liked either within their own party or outside of it. In fact, both are most notable for having the highest negatives of any candidate their respective party has ever run.
While we have exceptional candidates breaking every tradition of politics, we hear the same old argument. “You have to vote with your party. A vote for anyone else is a vote for the other party!” Notables within the party power structures and outside of it are making the same point over and over. “We have a two party system. Choose one or the other."
But why? If both Coke and Pepsi both offered you an unacceptable product, you’d look to someone else to provide you with an alternative. Why should it be different in the political realm? In fact, the United States has a long history of third parties. And third parties serve critical functions in our Republic.
What is the function of a political party?
When the Constitution was signed and the first Federal government was formed, common wisdom said that political parties were bad and to be avoided at all costs. But it quickly became evident - much to the disgust of George Washington - that parties had a critical function to serve within our political system. Jefferson and Madison formed the first party - the Republicans (who, despite the name are the forerunners of the modern Democratic Party). And Adams and Hamilton formed their opposition - the Federalists.
Political parties serve important functions:
- They bring together diverse coalitions with diverse interests
- They advocate common goals
- They centralize fund-raising and communication
- They coordinate political actions for common benefit
How do political parties and presidential elections relate?
The creation of parties was not primarily about electing a president. But over time, the selection of President has become a proxy battle to decide the core values of the party for the next 4 to 8 years. The core values of the Executive become the core values (i.e. platform) of the party. Ronald Reagan’s election brought about the “Reagan Revolution” for modern Republicans The rise of Bill Clinton put the values of the “New Democrats” at the forefront of the modern Democratic Party.
Conversely, the defeat of a presidential candidate brings about the defeat of their core values as guiding principles of the party. No one is talking about “Romney Conservatism” or the “McCain Revolution” after their electoral losses. Winners run the party and create the future. Losers take their lumps and go home (though they are always free to try again.)
How do THIRD PARTIES influence the political process?
Since the very beginning, there have been two major American political parties. Republicans vs Federalists, Democratic Republicans vs Whigs, Democrats vs Republicans, etc. Instead of breaking up into a myriad of parties who form short-lived coalitions (as in the English system), we pull broad coalitions into long-lived major parties. These parties generally represent the majority of American voters and their interests, and the intersection between them is the “dynamic center” where the majority of voters generally agree on issues.
Third Parties exist to represent issues or positions which are unrepresented or underrepresented in the two major parties. These may be issues which have fallen out of favor (see: The Prohibition Party) or issues which are gradually rising in popularity in a major party but have not yet reached critical mass (see: The Green Party). Or they may be issues present in the platforms of the major parties, but not given sufficient priority in the eyes of the third party (see: Libertarian or Constitution Parties).
Overall, Third Parties serve a few key functions:
- They provide a place for new ideas to incubate which may eventually be adopted by the Major Parties
- They provide a place for old ideas to gracefully die out without bothering the Major Parties
- They provide fertile ground for new broad coalitions to form which will replace one of the Major Parties (the Republican Party was once a third party)
- They provide a place for protest votes when neither major party is representing a pool of voters
So why might I want to vote Third Party in the coming election?
This election is unusual in that neither major party candidate is considered the best person, the best philosopher, the most qualified, or the best representative of their parties values within their own parties.
- Donald Trump, Republican Nominee: A political outsider who has surfed a wave of populist discontent against both parties for failure to listen to their constituents and provide tangible advancements since at least the economic crash of 2008. Mr. Trump wasn't a political figure until fairly recently, has never held political office, does not appear to have firm philosophical or political views, and has supported the Democratic Party and its candidates publicly on numerous occasions. Mr. Trump has also had numerous public lapses of personal ethics and has a pugnacious and impulsive temperament. He is, however, the clear choice of the Republican nominating process.
- Hillary Clinton, Democratic Nominee: A political insider nearly her entire life, Mrs. Clinton lost to Barack Obama in 2008 but survived politically by becoming Secretary of State within his administration. She defeated insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders and laid claim as Barack Obama's heir to win the primary. Mrs. Clinton has an impressive resume - lawyer, First Lady of Arkansas, First Lady of the USA (under President Bill Clinton who called her his “co-president”), Senator, Secretary of State, etc. But she is hard-pressed to point to specific victories or accomplishments. She has been dogged by scandals throughout her career - both her own and her husband’s - and as her party has moved Leftward she has remained a New Democrat staying close to the left side of Center. Recent leaks of DNC e-mails raise questions of whether there was a level playing field for her nomination and thus whether she is a "legitimate" candidate
In short, we are being asked to choose either:
- Republican: An unethical narcissist with no Conservative resume
- Democrat: An unethical scandal-plagued candidate whose values are not in line with her own party
Either choice requires voting for “the lesser of two evils” by the voter’s conscience. Either one is sure to put someone in the White House that will likely be a disappointment to their party and to the people of the USA.
This seems like the best possible time for a protest vote to a Third Party candidate which would:
- Clearly communicate to the leaders of both parties that the nominees are unacceptable
- Demonstrate a rejection of the candidates’ platforms and personal pedigrees
- Potentially keep one of the major parties from adopting the platform and identity of an unacceptable candidate
But what about all the arguments against voting Third Party?
There are plenty of arguments being floated by party leaders on both sides worried about voters abandoning their candidates. Let me address just a few:
- Voting Third Party is throwing your vote away and the equivalent of staying home on Election Day.
- Election Day is about far more than the President. By not staying home, I still decide who are my local, state, and national representatives which is more likely to impact my daily life.
- A vote cast for a third party is a protest vote. And by voting for a candidate which better reflects my values and priorities, I send a message that party leaders can easily read by poll results. They can then factor that into the next election.
- If both candidates are completely unacceptable, what advantage is there to voting for a “lesser evil”? If leaving by the front door will get me eaten by tigers and leaving by the back door will get me trampled by rhinoceroses, I am wisest if I find a third option.
- Voting Third Party could get the other guy elected!
- If I distrust both candidates equally, then either one winning is a loss for me.
- If I repudiate both candidates equally, then either one winning will be a loss for me.
- There is still the potential - however remote - of a third party candidate gathering enough votes to capture the presidency. Our system allows for it and even presupposes it. If enough Republicans and Democrats walk away from the nominee to someone else, then that someone else could win.
- What about the Supreme Court? The winner of this election will decide who serves and could swing future cases!
- The Supreme Court is designed as the last line of defense of the Constitution. A bad law should first NOT be passed by Congress, then SHOULD be vetoed by the President, and only should reach the Supreme Court if everyone else failed. It is better to focus on getting the right people into Congress in the first place, and in putting pressures onto the President to toe the line.
- If I do not trust either candidate, then what assurances do I have that the “right one” will nominate justices who reflect my political and philosophical opinions? George H. W. Bush was a great man and a moderate Conservative, but he nominated David Souter who has consistently sided with the Liberal wing of the court.
- If a bad justice if nominated, the Senate can still shut them down. Again, better to focus on Congress.
- The court should not serve one party or the other, regardless. Their role is to be an impartial interpreter of the Constitution. They can’t help but bring their own world views to the table. But ultimately, a good justice is better than a bad justice, regardless of their political affiliations.
- What about [Insert Favorite Issue Here]?
- If I do not trust either candidate to do what they promise, then my favorite issues are already in jeopardy. Neither major party candidate has a resume showing faithful support for the issues closest to the heart of their base.
- There are few issues so dear to me that I would abandon all else for them. And none of those issues are obviously more or less safe with either major candidate.
So are you saying everyone should vote Third Party?
Not necessarily. Voting is a grave civic duty that calls upon the best intentions of every citizen. Each of us should make their own determination and vote their conscience. If you like and trust Donald Trump, then cast a vote for him. If you like and trust Hillary Clinton, then cast a vote for her.
But stop acting and speaking as though a Third Party vote is irrational or unethical. And if your conscience is calling upon you to vote that way, strongly consider it.
Thank you for your attention.