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Let’s Talk About Third Parties

Let’s get it out of the way: the way we vote is stupid. I wrote a whole piece about that last year. The gist? Who we vote for is inherently limited by how we vote for. Our dumb system is set up to reward two-candidate elections and parties and to actively discourage third-party campaigns. That system, first-past-the-post, is used for the vast majority of American elections, from County Sewage Sheriff to President of USA. The annual electoral endgame is simple: you vote for one of two candidates, and you like it, because voting for anyone else is taking a vote away from the better real candidate.

Still, this year, some folks are considering doing just that. And some aren’t voting at all. What the hell? Why?

Sometimes it’s for third party rights/representation

In the United States, parties whose candidates earn at least 5% of the vote in a Presidential election qualify for matching funds from the federal government. Even if the candidate you select doesn’t win the election, helping them hit that 5% threshold can be a step toward securing those funds.

But this is super risky. The last time a third party received over 5% of the vote was in 1992, when Ross Perot and the Reform Party led an insurgent campaign and secured 8.4% of the total vote. This came after Perot previously received a more significant 18.9% in 1992. Perot chose not to run in 2000 and the party’s new nominee, conservative pundit Pat Buchanan, secured a measly 0.43% of the vote. The party effectively collapsed soon after, and in the years since, they’ve struggled to break past the 0.01% margin.

Similarly, in 1968, George Wallace (of “no black kids at white school” fame) earned 13.5% of the vote for his American Independent Party. In 1972, his successor, John G. Schmitz, secured 1.4%. That’s a no-go for President Schmitz. Since then, they’ve been stuck in the 0.2% to 0.0% range.

Before then, Robert M. La Follette’s Progressive party took 16.6% of the vote and disappeared shortly thereafter. 

The most famous example of a third-party shakeup occurred in 1912, when ornery progressive Theodore Roosevelt sought to reclaim the Presidency from his Republican successor, historical big boi William Howard Taft. His attempt brought him 27.4% of the vote. Honorable mention to Socialist Eugene Debs for also landing 6%. Neither party fielded a candidate in the next election.

In short, the idea that supporting a third-party candidate today could lead the party to later dominance seems inherently flawed, and for good reason: the system isn’t built to support it. Moreover, in most of these cases, support for the third-party insurgent meant a loss for the candidate’s closest ideological ally. Roosevelt’s Progressive Party loss led to the election of Woodrow Wilson, who ensured that the first movie played at the white house was Birth of a Nation, the classic tale of how great the KKK is.

What else?

They might win!

Unlikely. Actually, beyond unlikely. This is one thing polls are good for — telling us in advance how much support a candidate has. Sure, they can be off sometimes, but they’re not 46 points off, which is about how inaccurate they’d need to be to make a difference in this case. Even in 2016, when both candidates were famously “unlikable”, the Libertarian and Green parties couldn’t make a dent. Believe it or not, the Prohibition Party was even further behind.

It’ll teach the big guys a lesson.

Folks don’t talk about this point of view often, but I think it’s pretty common in some circles (leftist/🌹 Twitter). For advocates, the idea is that they understand the spoiler effect and how electing to vote for a third-party candidate (or choosing to not vote at all) does effectively act as a vote for the opposition, but unlike their uninformed brethren, they don’t really care. The logic? If we give in to a candidate who is slightly more like us, but still mostly unlike us, we’re rewarding the party that nominated him/her where we would be better off punishing them. That way, a candidate like Joe Biden may lose to Donald Trump in the short-term, but it’ll teach the Democratic Party a lesson, and maybe in 2024 they’ll nominate someone from the Sanders wing of the party.

It’s understandable, but it’s a hard sell. In 2016, the Democratic Party opted for a more centrist candidate over the left wing’s Bernie Sanders. That candidate, Hillary Clinton, famously lost the election to Donald Trump. This time around, Bernie ran again, and the party went with… the moderate candidate, Joe Biden.

A one-election test isn’t quite enough to totally dispel this idea, but we can learn a couple things from 2016 and 2020. First is that a party losing with a moderate candidate doesn’t mean they’ll be more likely to choose a more radical option next time around. Second, though, is the reminder that the Sanders campaign gained its initial steam, not in response to previous electoral failures, but instead on the heels of the highly-successful Obama years, suggesting that further-left candidates also don’t need to totally rely on the failure of their moderate cousins to potentially shift the electorate. 

Even if my argument hasn’t convinced you against the potential power of trying to teach the party a lesson, it’s worth asking how long you’re willing to wait in pursuit of that lesson. 2016 and 2020 are only two elections, so it’s fair to suggest future repeats of Clinton’s loss could have additional pull, but when? Is the pure potential of a Sanders-wing presidency worth four more years of Trump and 4+ years of Trump-kin?

It’s a frustrating space to be in, especially because the people in my position are usually super annoying about it. And that’s understandable. Voting for a Candidate A who’s boring at best, slightly regressive at worse out of obligation to save the country from a disastrous Candidate B is depressing as hell. Unfortunately, it’s also what makes the most practical sense this deep in the game.

Kanye West

Don’t vote for Kanye West. If I have to tell you not to vote for Kanye West, there’s a good chance you’re voting for Kanye West anyway. There’s not much I can do.

Realistically, we should ignore all parts of Kanye’s run, from the man himself to the insane amount of punditry he’s generated. Anyone worried a Kanye West candidacy will steal a large enough share of the black vote to bankrupt the Democrats should either meet a black person or live in perpetual fear of a Ben Carson presidency. 

Even if we’re not just afraid of the black vote, it’s kinda hard to believe Kanye’s campaign has the power of anything beyond name recognition on his side. Sure, people will vote for him, but would the memester vote otherwise lean heavily toward Biden? It doesn’t seem likely.

Not voting at all

Most people who can vote for President do, but it’s a narrow “most”. The last time over 60% of eligible voters cast their votes for President was in 1968. In 2016, it was only 55.5%.

There are a lot of reasons people might not vote. Many are systemic; a person who has trouble travelling to a polling place or whose ballot takes too long to arrive in the mail are prevented from voting by obstacles out of their own control. Sometimes these obstacles are put where they are on purpose, to restrict voting and make certain groups less likely to vote.

But there’s a difference between those who can’t vote and those who choose not to vote. In a year like this one, if the world itself hasn’t done a good enough job of compelling sidelined voters to push themselves to the polls, it’d be stupid optimistic to think I could do a better job. What is worth mentioning, though, is that whatever your reason not to vote, if you’re at all interested in changing the direction of the country, as miniscule as your individual influence may be at the polling booth, it beats the absolute lack of influence you’ll have committed to by choosing not to vote at all.

To be clear, there is no revolution to be had by not voting. No enemy is vanquished by doing nothing. Even if only twenty percent of the country sent in their ballots or went to the polls, there’d still be a winner. Again, if you don’t care, it’d be a hard job for me to make you, but you also wouldn’t have made it this deep in this nonsense piece. If you’re at all interested in improving some area or aspect of the country/government, you’re only hurting your own interests by choosing not to vote.

In conclusion…

Third parties aren’t worth it. That’s hard for some of us to hear, having grown up under the weight of a political system where the sustained dominance of two gargantuan parties feels like it’s led us straight into national ruin. It seems like a third option could be helpful, but the reason the two parties are so dominant is a self-sustaining one; third parties are locked out of the process by design, whether or not that design is purposeful.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we have to lower our heads and contend with the existence of the two party system for the rest of our lives. Systems can be reformed if reform-focused ideas become popular enough and win substantial legislative support. 

You shouldn’t vote third party if you want your vote to count toward anything. That’s how our system works. But our system is bad. Like, outlandishly bad. That it made it past 1800 is embarrassing. If you want third parties to have a chance, advocate for reform. If you want your voice to have a chance at being heard, vote for the better of the two options.

Moreover, vote, but remember that politics can be more than voting. If you’re not psyched as hell about Joe Biden, that’s okay. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the gaffe-prone former Vice President will be the one heroic figure to lead the country to its best possible future. Government’s more than one person, but the person who wins the Presidential election gets to choose a lot of the other people involved. Judges who rule on the country’s laws, Justices who sit on the Supreme Court, cabinet officials who lead all of the major government agencies — these are America’s clogged pores, seats that will need filling no matter who is elected. Come January 20th, it’ll be either Joe Biden or Donald Trump. We get to choose.

Try not to fuck it up, I guess.

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