We Need to Stop Scapegoating Third-Party Voters
Minutes after the news broke that Donald Trump had pulled off an astonishing upset in the 2016 presidential election, some Hillary Clinton supporters took to social media to publicly lambaste those who supported Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson.
Many of them channeled their anger into tweets and Facebook posts that called out third-party voters for their alleged complicity in Trump’s rise to power, while others set their sights on prominent public figures who voted for Stein or Johnson. One of those figures was actress and progressive activist Susan Sarandon, who endorsed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and supported Jill Stein in the general election. This past February, Sarandon revealed she’s been shunned by her peers in Hollywood and has been subjected to death threats because of her politics.
This backlash against third-party voters wasn’t exactly unexpected, nor was it anything new. In 1992, many Republicans blamed George H.W. Bush’s election loss on Independent candidate Ross Perot and labeled him a “spoiler”—a peculiar characterization given that Perot actually led in the polls at one point. Eight years later, Ralph Nader found himself on the wrong end of a massive left-wing backlash after he allegedly “robbed” Al Gore of Florida’s critically important 29 electoral votes. Gore lost Florida by a total of just 537 votes. More than 90,000 Floridians voted for Nader, provoking outrage from Democrats who believed that Nader’s absence would have surely tipped the scales in Gore’s favor.
I won’t argue that Perot’s candidacy didn’t cost George H.W. Bush the presidency in 1992. I also won’t argue that Nader’s candidacy didn’t affect the outcome of the 2000 election. Take Nader out of the equation, and Al Gore probably would have won Florida and New Hampshire. At the very least, he would’ve won one of those two states, giving him a by-the-skin-of-the-teeth victory on election night. But that, too, is beside the point.
As far as the 2016 race is concerned, it’s unlikely that either Jill Stein or Gary Johnson cost Clinton the election. Libertarian candidates tend to siphon more votes from Republicans than Democrats, and Johnson secured more than twice as many votes as Stein, so Johnson’s and Stein’s candidacies likely did no more damage to Clinton than they did to Trump. Though again, that’s not really relevant to the issue at hand.
Republicans and Democrats have both grown quite comfortable with the power imparted to them by America’s duopolistic two-party system.
The real issue is the rapidly swelling undercurrent of entitlement within both major parties in America. With each successive election cycle, there is an increase in the blaming and shaming of third-party voters—none of whom owe anything to the GOP, DNC, or any candidate.
As both major parties have moved further away from the center, and as the divisions between left and right have become more pronounced, a growing number of Republican and Democratic devotees seem to think they are entitled not just to the loyalty of their core constituencies, but also to the loyalty of anyone who leans even slightly to their side of the political spectrum. That’s why they often toss around words like “stolen” and “robbed” when discussing the electoral impacts of third-party campaigns. They speak as though a vote is something owned rather than earned. They see themselves as the rightful owners of the votes of their ideological allies and consider it an act of theft whenever one of those votes goes to a third-party candidate.
Republicans and Democrats have both grown quite comfortable with the power imparted to them by America’s duopolistic two-party system. In generations past, they have rarely had to concern themselves with being outflanked by some bold and thoughtful outsider, which of course means they also haven’t had much incentive to build bridges with the pockets of third-party voters who either reject the politics of the two-party system or feel neglected by that system. Consequently, they have forgotten how to talk to third-party voters and how to listen to those voters.
Some of them also seem to have forgotten that competition is a perfectly healthy and necessary component of democracy. Competition forces the negotiation of conflict between the ideological demands of purists in a party and the pragmatic considerations of moderates and centrists. It encourages leaders to renounce the comforts of the partisan enclaves they’ve grown accustomed to and discover how best to engage with communities far removed from their conception of mainstream society. It requires them to think outside the box and get more creative, lest some young upstart with a savory batch of fresh ideas come along and “steal” just enough of “their” votes to “take” a key swing state.
In other words, competition can teach better leadership—a decidedly positive thing.
Blaming third-party candidates and their supporters for a candidate’s loss is a little bit like blaming the referees when your favorite sports team loses the big game.
Normally, the responsibility for winning any competition falls squarely on the shoulders of the competitors themselves. In the context of an election, that responsibility is shared among the candidates and their staffers, advisers, and volunteers. By contrast, the American voter has just one responsibility: to select whichever candidate they believe is right for the job or, in the event they can’t find a candidate worthy of their vote, refrain from casting a ballot at all.
Blaming third-party candidates and their supporters for a candidate’s loss is a little bit like blaming the referees when your favorite sports team loses the big game; if your team isn’t able to overcome a couple of ill-timed penalties, the problem usually lies with the players and coaches, not the officials. Similarly, if a candidate in any election is as good as their supporters think, and if they have surrounded themselves with competent, trustworthy people, they shouldn’t have too much trouble overcoming a little extra competition from a third-party campaign. Should they fail to accomplish that, that failure belongs to them—not to the voters who passed them over.
One of the more common counterarguments to this logic is that the presidency of Donald Trump is not a normal presidency and shouldn’t be treated like one. To progressives—and to many moderates and centrists as well—the Trump administration is singularly dangerous in ways that no administration ever has been. It’s an existential threat not just to immigrants or women or minorities, but to the nation as a whole, meaning that Independents, Libertarians, and Greens have a moral duty to stand against it and vote for Democrats in this November’s midterm elections.
But to many Trump supporters, the opposite is true. In their view, globalization has devastated the middle and working classes. Free trade, they say, has been a net negative for the United States, and many of them believe that both Democrats and establishment Republicans have deliberately ignored the issue of illegal immigration. To them, a vote for Trump was a vote to save American workers, protect American values, and preserve American sovereignty, while a vote for Hillary Clinton was a vote for the continued disintegration of America’s most treasured institutions. When it comes time to cast their votes in November, they’ll almost certainly vote for candidates they believe will help President Trump move his agenda forward.
The problem is that we’ve been down this road many times before. In 2004, neoconservative Republicans tried to scare voters into supporting President Bush by implying that then-Senator John Kerry and the Democratic Party at large were simply too softhearted to be trusted with the responsibility of defending America against the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism.
In the 2008 election, prominent voices on the left insisted that a John McCain presidency would spell doom for women’s rights and result in countless unnecessary wars, while prominent voices on the right tried to use Barack Obama’s acquaintanceship with Bill Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, to justify their portrayal of Obama as a dangerously radical Marxist and Trojan horse candidate. In 2012, Joe Biden went so far as to claim that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney would put black people “back in chains” during a speech in Danville, Virginia.
Like the rest of America, third-party voters have heard it all before. Each and every election cycle brings with it a new round of bone-chilling predictions of chaos and disaster, predictions that almost never actually materialize.
No candidate or party is entitled to any American’s vote, nor is any candidate or party entitled to any elected office. Both must be earned.
Has that changed under President Trump? Depends on who you ask. His detractors say his administration’s family separation policy was a uniquely cruel and explicitly racist manifestation of the anti-immigration theme of his 2016 campaign. His leadership style also hasn’t won him many friends on the international stage, and his handling of the Charlottesville attack has evoked lasting outrage on both the left and the right. Those issues alone might be enough to convince a significant number of (normally reliable) third-party voters that Trump is indeed the disaster Democrats predicted and the only way to stop him is by voting blue in November.
Whether or not that happens, though, the left and the right have been habitually crying wolf for so long that they shouldn’t be at all surprised if and when third-party voters tune them out again this year. If Republicans and Democrats want that to change—if they want to find a way to effectively engage third-party voters and persuade those voters to change teams, even if it’s only for a single election cycle—they need to start putting in the work. Vowing to leave the insulting and ineffective scare tactics at home would be a wise step in that process. Following that up with the humble acknowledgment that no single vote should ever be taken for granted would be an equally wise step.
No candidate or party is entitled to any American’s vote, nor is any candidate or party entitled to any elected office. Both must be earned. Neither can be demanded. Republicans, Democrats, and their supporters would be wise to keep that in mind as we get closer and closer to what is shaping up to be one of the most important—and possibly one of the most dramatic—midterm election cycles in several decades.