Believing There’s No Difference Between Clinton and Trump is the Height of Willful Ignorance

It’s back! After 16 ignominious years in hiding, the notion that there’s no difference between the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees has returned.

A common argument of 3rd party voters and undecideds, and popular among young Americans, it never made sense and makes even less sense now.

In the Year 2000

The leader of the Green Party insisted there was no difference between an environmentalist and an oil man. The Green Party. No, seriously, that happened.

“The only difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush,” Ralph Nader argued in 2000, “is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when corporations knock on their door.”

In fairness to anyone who agreed with him, the 2000 campaign was pretty boring. Both candidates promised to cover seniors’ prescription drugs, both proposed tax cuts, and both campaigns moralized about Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior.

The candidates differed in some areas, such as environmental and energy policy, but they didn’t emphasize them. We had a federal surplus, the internet boom, and international peace. Times were good.

Things didn’t get interesting until after everyone voted. Bush v. Gore, the dot-com crash, 9/11.

Any president would have invaded Afghanistan. A group based there attacked the United States, the Taliban government denied American requests to turn over the perpetrators, and most of the world supported the US-led invasion.

But Gore wouldn’t have invaded Iraq.

Prominent Bush administration officials, most notably Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, believed George HW Bush made a major error when he declined to overthrow Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War. In 2001, they came into office hoping to rectify that mistake, and then, after September 11th, channeled concerns about terrorism into concerns about Saddam.

Voters couldn’t have known it in 2000, but the outcome of that incredibly close election created a historical inflection point. Bush chose to invade Iraq, Gore wouldn’t have, and the consequences will reverberate for decades.

The 2016 Election

This election is not like 2000. The two candidates could hardly be more different. Their policy proposals, backgrounds, demeanors, and supporters are so incredibly unlike that detailing how would be a mind-numbingly obvious waste of time.

Instead, let me address three related arguments put forward this year by 3rd party advocates:

I supported Bernie Sanders and now I’m backing Gary Johnson

This makes some sense if your only concern is non-interventionism. For those who prioritize reducing America’s military presence in the world, starting with Rand Paul, shifting to Bernie Sanders, and then settling on Gary Johnson is logically consistent.

But anyone who supported Bernie because of economic issues and is now supporting Johnson has no idea what they’re doing.

How does this thought process work?

-We need more intervention in the economy.
-No, never mind, we need less.

Sanders devoted his campaign to inequality, arguing for more government measures to support the poor and middle class, and “revolutionary” government intervention to reduce the power of the 1% (e.g. break up the banks).

Johnson’s campaign advocates the precise opposite. Big cuts to programs that help the poor, big tax cuts for the rich, and eliminating banking regulations.

If you actually know what Johnson stands for and genuinely believe the country needs to move in a more libertarian direction, you should vote for him. If you’re just a disillusioned Bernie supporter that meant even a little of what you said about inequality, you shouldn’t.

You’re only attacking Johnson (and Jill Stein) because Hillary Clinton is a weak candidate

Yes, of course.

If the only person standing between America and President Donald Trump were a political phenom like 2008 Obama, no one would care about 3rd party voters.

But since this will be a close election, and since the differences between Clinton and Trump are massive, voters who at this stage are undecided or supporting a 3rd party candidate hold American history — really, world history — in their hands.

We need to break the two-party system, so I’m sending a message by voting 3rd party

The notion that voting for a 3rd party candidate will lead to a multiparty parliamentary democracy, or in any way change the two-party system, is misguided.

There’s no evidence that 3rd party candidates who got over 15% of the vote moved the country even a tiny bit in that direction, let alone candidates that couldn’t crack 10% like Johnson and Stein.

Parties aren’t presidential candidates. They’re huge national organizations, running candidates in towns, cities, counties, states and Congressional races. They advocate for local referendums and school boards.

But building a bottom-up organization like that takes a lot of work. It’s much easier to pretend that popping up every four years to vote for a candidate with no chance of affecting anything will do it.

The Disease of Me

Notice how this only happens after a two-term Democratic presidency?

It’s a great example of what Pat Riley calls the “Disease of Me.” Basically, after an NBA team wins the championship, it’s hard to get excited for another. Individual players become more concerned with themselves — their playing time, their touches, their stats — and less willing to sacrifice for the team. They forgot how much they dislike losing, and stop doing what they need to do to win.

Similarly, many American liberals have become so used to a Democratic president that they’ve forgotten about the alternative. They compare Obama to their imaginary ideal, rather than to George W. Bush, and find him wanting. They get caught up in intramural arguments (“not progressive enough”) rather than focus on the bigger picture.

If you think Trump would be a better president than Clinton, vote for him. If you think Clinton would make a better president, vote for her. If you’re actually a Libertarian, go ahead and vote for Johnson.

But if you’re insisting that Trump and Clinton are the same, or would somehow be equally bad, you’re working really hard to delude yourself.