Klaten, Central Java. Every four years, our country undergoes a prolonged period of insanity called a presidential election campaign. Why does this happen? And what can you do about it?

I don’t know why it happens. The two-party system (which took its present form when the Republican Party was founded as the anti-slavery party in 1854) seems more and more like a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. We have had two changes in president since George W. Bush terrorized his own populace with a “war on terror” but we’re still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Real wages per hour, adjusted for inflation, have been flat for decades. Democrats scream about the electoral college when they lose, but they remain mysteriously silent about changing it when they win, such as when Barack Obama enjoyed a supermajority. In other words, neither party has an incentive to take bold action when they can win elections by merely promising to change the status quo.

Is there anything you or I can do about it? Yes. Look for a meaningful choice: a third-party candidate whose viewpoints resonate with your own sense of what’s right and where our country needs to go.

Of course, it takes some courage nowadays to vote for a third party. Each of the two main parties has become increasingly shrill, with desperate calls to “vote for the lesser of two evils” (while oblivious to the fact that the other party is saying the same thing).

People who believe in this tiresome meme often become militant about alternatives and try to bully their friends and family with dire predictions about the Supreme Court. In fact, justices have a finite lifespan and odds are that every president will appoint at least one, so the composition of SCOTUS is always in flux.

One sign of bullying is when someone vehemently says to you, “How can you say that?” or “How can you not do this?” Neither of those sentences is an actual question but rather an imperative disguised as an interrogative. Instead of demanding conformity, a friend or rational acquaintance would ask, “What is the reason for your choice?”

A democratic election is essentially an exercise in the Golden Rule: you accept the result (respect the government’s legitimacy) if your candidate loses, because you expect that those who vote differently from you will accept the result if your candidate wins. But we don’t hear that nowadays. Instead we hear slogans like “elect/defeat X by any means necessary.” Any means necessary? That sounds like a fanatic whose ideology trumps all moral principles.

The simple truth is that the only way a new party can emerge is if enough people vote for it and give it strength. The past 108 years have seen four elections when >10% of the voters chose a third-party candidate for president. In 1912, the winds of change were so strong that incumbent President Taft came in third!

  • 1912: Theodore Roosevelt came in second after founding the Progressive Party, which won >27% of the popular vote, carrying six states in the north and west.
  • 1924: Robert La Follette reconstituted the Progressive Party and won >16% of the popular vote, carrying his native Wisconsin.
  • 1968: George Wallace of the American Independent Party won >13% of the popular vote and carried five southern states.
  • 1992: Ross Perot running as an Independent won >18% of the popular vote but received no electoral votes.

These examples of modest success, and even examples of lower vote totals, are often blamed for the loss of the “correct” candidate in certain elections. A prime example would be Al Gore losing to George Bush in 2000 “because Ralph Nader took away votes that Gore was entitled to.”

However, close analyses of the election, especially the disputed state of Florida, indicate that this talking point is false. In fact, 12 times as many Florida Democrats chose Bush as chose Nader, so the Democratic voters are the ones to blame for Gore’s loss of the state. Further, CNN exit polls showed that Nader took about the same number of votes from Bush as he took from Gore.

The concept of “entitlement”—the Democratic Party is entitled to your vote because you’re a minority, or the Republican Party is entitled to your vote because you own a prosperous business—suggests a kind of dullness on the part of the two major parties, who prefer to take voters for granted and not listen to their needs. In other words, the parties don’t change, except to resemble each other more and more as time goes on.

Supporting a third party, on the other hand, is one way of advocating for long-term, structural change. Here is a 2010 appeal by Chris Hedges to vote for the Green Party: “A shift to the Green Party … will not be a quick fix. It will require years in the wilderness. We will again be told by the Democrats that the least-worse candidate they select for office is better than the Republican troll trotted out as an alternative. We will be bombarded with slick commercials about hope and change and spoken to in a cloying feel-your-pain language. We will be made afraid. But if we again acquiesce we will be reduced to sad and pathetic footnotes in our accelerating transformation from a democracy to a totalitarian corporate state.”

I’m not endorsing the Green Party of the United States here. I’ve voted for some of their candidates in the past, but the party only seems to go for the gold ring of national office and doesn’t field that many candidates for local offices, in contrast to the much more successful Green parties in Germany, Netherlands, and other parts of Europe. To focus only on the big prize and not the intermediate steps of building strength seems arrogant to me.

Ironically, a more local approach to saving the environment was offered by the late British conservative Roger Scruton: “There is no political cause more amenable to the conservative vision than that of the environment. For it touches on the three foundational ideas of our movement: trans-generational loyalty, the priority of the local and the search for home.”

The reason I’m addressing this to people under 40 is that you might not have heard the dogmatic memes “vote for the lesser of two evils” and “don’t throw away your vote” enough times to realize they’re a form of bullying. If you don’t believe me, just test it—mention that you’re voting for a third-party candidate and see how your friends and family react. Vote your conscience. That’s the course of action that you will feel the most pride and least regret about as the years go by.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Years ago, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that when faced with two candidates, neither of whom have good answers to key questions like “what do we owe our children?”, the responsible choice is to choose neither. I can’t remember the name of the article, or
    I’d find a link, it was pretty good.

    Aaron

  2. When the magician tells you to pick one of the cards he holds out for you, he’s taking you for a sucker. You don’t have to play his game, and if you want to complain when the game doesn’t go your way, you have no one to blame but yourself.

  3. I am a Progressive, and the fact is the “lesser of two evils” *is* the inly choice. The danger of voting for a 3rd party candidate is those votes will invariably come from Left leaning/Democratic voters almost certainly ensuring a win for the untenable unbearable Right/Conservatives/Republicans. It’s already clear that Independent Bernie supporters cost the Democrats the election in 2016 and saddling us with this immoral demagogue. This is not the lesser of two evils by a small margin. This is a chasm of a difference. My conscience wants someone like Bernie, AOC, or Elizabeth Warren. Reality dictates not Trump.

    • As I tried to point out, “lesser of two evils is the ONLY choice” is in fact what that meme relies on, election after election. Ironically, the other side says the same thing about its candidate, but the followers of each party dogmatically think the meme is only working for them.

      Trump is a symptom, not a disease.

    • “The danger of voting for a 3rd party candidate is those votes will invariably come from Left leaning/Democratic voters.”

      Not necessarily. I know quite a few conservatives who would normally vote GOP but dislike DT enough to vote third party instead, or to simply sit it out. These people are not costing the Dems any votes because none of them, myself included, would ever vote (D) at the national level to begin with because of its leftward cultural commitments.

  4. I’ve voted for the lesser of two evils and I’ve voted for the third party candidates. Generally, though, a third party candidate is the lesser of three evils and an exercise in futility as the resounding silence of a less than 1% result echoes across the nation (or county). There is an alternative: vote against the party you prefer. Suppose I’m a Republican who is tired of the perennial sadness that comes from reviewing the candidates on my ballot list from top to bottom. Sure, it may not be as depressing as reviewing the candidates for the opposing party but the hypothetical fact is that the Republicans party doesn’t represent me. If the party keeps presenting the same old stuff (or new but utterly distasteful stuff) and keeps winning, or at least competing, then why would they look for a better path? If they get soundly trounced then maybe some lights go on suggesting that maybe they’ve lost touch with good common sense policy. So maybe the better vote is for the candidate you feel is most likely to beat the candidate from the party you would really like to love.

    This, conundrum, I think, is all really a symptom of a deeper problem: we seem incapable of living peacefully with people we don’t agree with. Both parties seem always pulled to the fringes demonizing the opposition and predicting a living hell if they win. We all want to get our way and use the government to impose it on everyone else. We’ve all decided that the other guy is either an idiot or evil and it is not worth the hard work of talking, listening and trying to understand and see someone else’s perspective.

    I would love to find a party that expressly wanted to pull us back to the middle, and to allow for the fact that we live in an amazingly diverse nation where it is not possible, or desirable, for everyone to live in exactly the same way. A party that resisted the urge to run to extremes and then try to impose them on the whole country.

    • “we seem incapable of living peacefully with people we don’t agree with.”
      True enough, though some friends of mine claim the media is hyping polarization beyond what actually exists in the populace.

      I wouldn’t vote for the party opposite of my inclination as a strategy for change, but it is quite possible that a pendulum swing will bring sanity to the Dems (if Trump wins) or Reps (if Biden wins) and we’ll have non-evil choices in 2024.

      • I hope your friends are right, and I believe it in part. The media surely does like to fan the flames. However, even in my own circles I find that few can approach a political discussion with questions, seeking understanding, rather than with preconceptions, seeking domination.

        I recently listened to part of an interview with D.C. Schindler on Mars Hill Audio that illuminated this to a degree for me. He asks the simple question, “What are words for?” and notes the most immediate answer, “Words are means of communication.” In practice, people think of this along the lines of having thoughts and judgments in their heads that they want to transfer to someone else’s mind. This, in its essence, is manipulation, trying to impose the thoughts in our minds on the minds of others.

        He then observes that for Plato, “Words serve a basic purpose of disclosing things.” This can appear to be a subtle difference but can be contrasted by imagining different cases of two people in a discussion. In the first case, they face toward each other arguing; in the second case, they face toward the object of their discussion learning. In the second, they face the object and use their words to describe, explain, or otherwise disclose the true nature of the object in hopes that they will both gain a closer knowledge of the truth. In the first, they each presume to posses the truth from the outset and hope to convince the other.

        We need more disclosure in our political discourse and less manipulation.

  5. Let’s get real – this election cycle we have two parties in the running. To say a vote for a third party isn’t wasted is to ignore the obvious. You’re free to do that, but that doesn’t mean it’s not stupid. Sorry to burst your bubble!

    And why do we always characterize our choice as “the lesser of two evils”? We’ve never had or ever will have an opportunity to vote for a “good” candidate belonging to a “good” party. Both parties are confused about some things and seem to understand other things. Which party has the most coherent view of what is good for human thriving? That seems a reasonable question.

    Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden seem to be assholes, but only one of them is an honest-to-God career politician. I’m running away from him and his incoherent, suicidal party, and that means I’m voting for Trump.

    I guess that makes me “a deplorable”. So be it.

  6. And since I have a little time this morning, allow me to pull on another thread.

    What does “the middle” look like that’s mentioned in one of the comments above? Are we talking about some average understanding of what’s good and what’s bad for human society?

    We seem to have lost our way (or maybe we’ve just given up that there even is “a way”). Does “the middle” try to stake out some type of “half stupid” or “semi-coherent” path?

    Maybe “the middle” is burning down every other structure in half the cities and towns, randomly selected by lottery! Yeah, that’s the ticket!

    Sorry this sounds so mean-spirited… I’ve been in a foul mood since reaching the age of reason.

  7. Ok, I re-read Daniel’s comment. Completely discounting my snarky remarks about “the middle” and burning down every other building, I humbly submit that the question still stands. What does “the middle” look like?

    And how exactly do “non-evil choices” ever see the light of day in a nation where evil is called good and good is called evil? “Good” is now punished, at the very least with legal fees to fight indictments or law suits that are utterly nonsensical, and at the worst extreme by an actual physical beating that could result in death. In the middle there’s loss of jobs, loss of clients or customers, etc. Don’t get me wrong – I actually think the martyrdom (white or red) is a sure sign of “walking the talk.”

    I certainly understand the frustration expressed here at FPR about Donald Trump and his approach to politics. He’s a brawler! He’s also the one guy who’s somehow (miraculously?) allowed the true scope of our particular moment to be exposed for all of us to see!

    I think you guys are missing something, but I can’t put my finger on it. Time for more coffee!

    • “What does ‘the middle’ look like?” This is a great question and probably would take a lifetime or more to really work out. I’ve only been thinking in these terms for a few years myself. It might help to contrast two different principles of government.

      The operating principle we currently have seems to be that our country is governed according to the wishes of the majority. Whoever gets the most votes gets to set up the rules of our society as they see fit. This is a drastic oversimplification of course but I think it is the principle at work. So each party gathers people around a set of positions on platform issues and when elected they work to enact their positions as best they can. In reality, however, the country is fairly evenly split between the two parties, and many levels of majority are required to actually be able to enact a policy at the national level (Senate, House, President) so the majority control is in constant flux leading to a mishmash of liberal and conservative policies that don’t really make for a very effective government. Animosity is increased at each cycle because the majority of the day tries to undo what was done by the previous majority. It is a constant back and forth of each of the two parties trying to impose their will on the other.

      An alternative principle is that the government is established to serve the whole population, not simply the majority. The election serves to decide who best can serve the whole country. This might sound like saying the same thing as the first principle above since obviously the majority always thinks their platform is best for the whole country. But in practice it is not. Here I’m going to take the risk of bringing in a real controversy as an example: gun control. Whatever your position is on gun control, I think it should be relatively easy to come to agreement that what makes sense for rural Nevada, Texas, etc. does not make sense for urban New York, Los Angeles, etc. On my friend’s farm in Nevada it is important to have a riffle with you when working the farm because it is an effective way to keep the jack rabbit population from getting out of control and destroying the farm. Similar with wild hogs here in Texas. However, firing a riffle at rats in a New York or Los Angeles neighborhood to keep the rodent population in check might be well intentioned but is probably not a great idea. So under this principle of government we would look at the needs of the whole country and try to find effective ways to allow peaceful and secure life across the nation not just in a particular locality or for a particular segment of the population with certain views and values.

      The “middle” takes a lot of work to figure out and is not necessarily easy to sell since people don’t have the satisfaction of feeling like their ideas of ideal culture can be imposed on everyone. However, I think it could be a much better path than the current seesaw of opposing majorities. I also think that the fringe extremes on both sides would have a lot less influence on the country if there was a party that offered to most people a reality they could live with even if it was not their own personal utopia.

      Another set of questions that I think is worth asking is “What would it look like if the two parties were not quite so closely balanced? What if one of them consistently won for an extended period? What if it wasn’t your party? How would you like them to govern?”

      • These are both thoughtful comments, Chris and Daniel. I don’t think anyone favors “let’s compromise” as the definition of middle. I once heard that platitude (in English) while attending a tropical forestry conference in Tokyo and later pointed out to the Japanese man who uttered it, “If I choke you with both hands and you say STOP, should I continue to choke you with only one hand?”

        To me, “middle” means flexibility and tolerance for a broad range of ideas, feelings, and behaviors, depicted generally by the famous bell curve. It wouldn’t be a fixed position; it probably would entail pendulum swings; and it shouldn’t be something we expect a candidate to identify in specific terms (I know this is problematic, considering how vague politicians like to be).

        Democracy still works if “throw the bums out” is an option, but less gets done and the slogan still “works” when the government has become polarized. And not just Congress. I recall not too many decades ago when an incoming President would appoint some cabinet members from the other party.

        Daniel’s last paragraph is also thought-provoking. It sounds like an inverse of Rawls, who defined fairness as a willingness to consider “what if you were in the worst position produced by the policy?”

  8. Some random thoughts:

    The Second Amendment is not about hunting.

    Donald Trump is a more successful Ross Perot. He is a third party candidate who hijacked the Republican Party.

    There is no homogeneous American People.

    Each member of the House represents about 750,000 people. I think it was about 20,000 in the first Congress.

    Senators used to be selected by and represented their states. Now they are just representatives of the state voters who elected them. Not an improvement.

    I could go on and on. I suggest you all read Sam Francis.

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