Super Tuesday 5 confirmed the obvious as Hillary Clinton officially clinched the Democratic nomination after months of struggling to put away Bernie Sanders. Both parties now have their presumptive nominees; Donald Trump has been the presumptive Republican nominee since John Kasich dropped out back in early May, hitting the crucial 1,237-delegate mark a few weeks ago. Now that primary season is effectively over, we can turn our attention to the general election, where Clinton and Trump will face off in what’s sure to be a nasty campaign for the White House.
Since Sam and I started this blog back in February, I’ve provided ample election commentary. I’ve analyzed different potential scenarios, made a few
erroneous predictions, observed tendencies of certain candidates, and argued against some of their policies and stances. However, I’ve largely kept my personal ideologies out of my commentary, and throughout the entire blog writ large. Of course, I’ve briefly alluded to my political leanings. I mentioned in a previous post that I’m a staunch independent with some libertarian leanings, I’ve defended neoliberalism, pragmatism, and the establishment while criticizing populism and ideological purism, and I’ve taken shots at both sides for exacerbating this country’s problems. But I haven’t yet discussed which candidate I plan to vote for come November. This post intends to change that.
Because I’ve inveighed against both Trump and Sanders on multiple occasions, it would be logical to assume that I might cast my ballot for Clinton. But you know what they say about assumptions. Instead, on November 8, 2016, I’ll be voting for Gary Johnson, former Republican Governor of New Mexico and current Libertarian Party nominee for president of the United States.
I know, I know, I can hear your exclamations of dismay through the screen: “Third parties can’t win!” “You’re wasting your vote!” “A vote for a third party is a vote for Trump/Clinton!” I’ll address each of these remarks as I explain in great detail why I’m choosing the Libertarian ticket of Johnson/Weld over Trump or Clinton. My goal isn’t necessarily to convince you to vote for Johnson or any other third party candidate, or to eschew the Republicans and Democrats altogether for that matter. I simply ask that you keep an open mind and carefully consider all the options available in order to make an informed decision. I hope that by explaining my rationale, I can push everyone to think just a little bit harder about this whirlwind of an election cycle.
1. The case against Trump
Let’s face it: both presumptive nominees are objectively pretty awful. On the one hand, you have a “successful” businessman, reality television icon, political “outsider,” and populist demagogue in Donald Trump. Sam has discussed ad nauseam the dangers of electing Trump, from his deleterious economic proposals and incoherent foreign policy to his flip-flopping nature and looming governance predicament should he be elected, and I largely agree with him. From a policy standpoint, Trump could wreak havoc on this country.
On the economy, Trump is a charlatan, and some of the things he’s said make me question his business acumen. For a real estate mogul as wealthy and successful as he is, his knowledge of economics is shaky at best. On the financial side, this poor knowledge could translate into a massive recession. Trump recently announced that he would consider defaulting on the national debt, something that no graduate of the Wharton School of Business should ever be suggesting. Such a proposal would cause interest rates to skyrocket across the board because it would increase the risk of every other investment in the world; U.S. debt is one of the safest investments out there.
His positions on trade are also frightening. He’s railed against free-trade deals like NAFTA, TPP, and TTIP that offer huge economic benefits to America and the world, and he’s threatened hefty tariffs on goods from China and Mexico that could spark catastrophic trade wars and destroy the very jobs Trump claims he’d protect. In such a scenario, China would reciprocally raise tariffs, introducing massive hurdles to competing in Chinese markets that would cause American companies to suffer greatly.
With regard to foreign policy, Trump’s temperament renders him unfit to lead. Someone with as volatile a personality as his should not be chief diplomat of the United States, let alone possess the nuclear launch codes. Trump operates like the human version of the game tit-for-tat; whenever anyone gets under his skin or openly insults him, he reciprocates rather vigorously, and whenever anyone brownnoses him, he expresses gratitude and returns the favor. That could have profound effects on international diplomacy. If a diplomat representing one of our allies stood up to or offended Trump, they could risk setting him off, putting a strain our relationship with that ally and complicating American strategic goals. Likewise, if Vladimir Putin decided to charm Trump by wining and dining him and showering him with compliments, he could lull Trump into complacency, potentially manipulating him into making concessions or turning a blind eye on Russian transgressions.
Furthermore, Trump has repeatedly questioned the necessity for institutions like NATO and the UN because he thinks we get far less out of them than they get out of us. His doubts have no basis; as Sam has argued, these institutions are the very things that allow the U.S. to promote a liberal international order and maintain hegemony in the international system. Trump’s nationalist isolationism risks ceding global influence to states like China and Russia, weakening our leverage and undermining American primacy.
Economics and foreign policy are not the only reasons to dislike Trump as a candidate. I find it difficult to justify voting for someone who not only thinks we should default on our debt, wants to start trade wars, and questions our commitments to international institutions and free-trade agreements, but has also called climate change a concept “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” has incited violence with his inflammatory xenophobic rhetoric and his appeal to racial divides to attract disgruntled voters, has expressed admiration for autocrats and dictators like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un, and wants to build a multi-billion-dollar wall on our southern border—that somehow Mexico will finance—which would not only do little to stem illegal immigration but also create more problems.
What doesn’t often get addressed, however, is the nightmare scenario Trump presents for civil libertarians concerned about a growing police state. He’s no fan of the First Amendment, threatening to crack down on the press by opening up libel laws, which would prevent any meaningful dissent. He has repeatedly called for a “temporary” travel ban of Muslims entering the United States, a horribly discriminatory proposal as unenforceable as it is unconstitutional. He “wants surveillance of certain mosques” to ensure no Muslims are plotting terrorist acts on American soil, something reminiscent of interwar Germany. He also seeks to deport millions of undocumented immigrants by force, not only threatening to tear apart families and forcing them to live in constant fear, but also risking placing a major drag on our economy, which relies heavily on cheap labor from migrant workers. He’s even alluded to executing whistleblowers like Edward Snowden that keep the government accountable for its actions.
Beyond concerns about a police state taking root in America, civil libertarians have plenty of other reasons to be worried about a Trump presidency as well. Despite being more moderate on the issue of funding Planned Parenthood than his other Republican colleagues, Trump has jumped onto the anti-abortion bandwagon to pander to pro-life conservatives, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he signs into law bills sent to him by a Republican-controlled Congress restricting access to abortion if he is elected president. He’s also been a huge proponent of eminent domain, famously attempting to use it in the 1990’s to force a widow to sell her home in order to build a limousine parking lot next to Trump Plaza in Atlantic City; he could just as easily take someone else’s property to build his “magnificent wall.”
Finally, I question Trump’s authenticity. As much as people admire his candor and his willingness to break from the shackles of political correctness, Trump has flip-flopped on just about every issue in his campaign, from guns and abortion to healthcare and monetary policy. And, as much of an economic nationalist as he proclaims himself to be, Trump is on the record defending outsourcing as a good economic practice. His inability to defend a stable policy platform weakens his case to be president of the United States. At the end of the day, I don’t feel comfortable throwing my support behind an unpredictable candidate, especially one with no prior political experience, whose positions could flip the day he steps foot into the Oval Office, even if he could theoretically be constrained by congressional Republicans.
2. The case against Clinton
You’d think all of what I said about Trump more than justifies voting for a former First Lady, senator from New York, and Secretary of State, and that would make sense. In relative terms, Hillary Clinton is the lesser of two evils, and in a head-to-head matchup with Trump, I would vote for her. If you like the way things are currently going, you probably don’t have much of an issue with Clinton, who’s slightly to the left of President Obama, but more or less represents the status quo. She would likely continue, if not expand upon, many of the Obama administration’s current policies, both domestic and international. And if you’re anxious about Trump’s loose cannon approach, Clinton’s incrementalism and predictability offer a more palatable option.
But why choose between the lesser of two evils if both options are…well, evil? Of course, “evil” is definitely a stretch here, but under scrutiny, Clinton isn’t that much better than Trump. First of all, at the risk of sounding like I #FeelTheBern, and regardless of what her supporters or the media might tell you, Clinton isn’t the progressive she claims to be. During her days in the Senate, she more closely fit the profile of a moderate Republican than she did of a progressive Democrat. She supported the PATRIOT Act, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and various pieces of socially conservative legislation like the Family Entertainment Protection Act, while also opposing same-sex marriage, national gun registration, and illegal immigration. She even associated herself with religious conservatives as a regular participant in the Senate Prayer Breakfast.
Granted, none of that is reason alone to reject her as a candidate, and I’m not insinuating that you shouldn’t vote for a moderate Republican. And even so, she held all of the aforementioned positions before 2009. In the years since, Clinton has adopted more progressive policy stances, switching sides on the same-sex marriage issue, expressing regret for voting to authorize the Iraq War, and calling for stricter gun control. However, I can’t help but wonder if these flip-flops and many others were genuine changes of heart or just opportunistic pandering to progressive Democratic voters. Her refusal to take a stance on the Keystone XL Pipeline until she announced her candidacy and her unexpected opposition toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership lead me to believe it’s the latter.
Now, I’m the last person who should be criticizing Clinton for being too moderate or not progressive enough. If anything, her moderate stances and pragmatic attitude are a plus, especially when compared to those of Trump and Sanders. Of course, the libertarian in me would be remiss not to criticize Clinton’s economic policies; she wants to increase the federal minimum wage—albeit not to the level that Sanders prefers—something that a majority of economists and even the Fed have opposed on the grounds that it would increase unemployment and produce greater inflation. She also wants to expand on Obamacare, which is becoming more of a disaster with time, by increasing regulations on drug companies, stating, “As President, I’ll defend the Affordable Care Act, build on its successes, and go even further to reduce costs.” With regard to the deficit and our ballooning national debt, Clinton doesn’t seem to mind much, as she seems more focused on spending billions on infrastructure, clean energy, healthcare, and making college affordable—commendable initiatives no doubt, but ones we can’t afford at this time—than reining in excessive government waste.
On other issues important to libertarians and social liberals alike, like domestic surveillance, drug policy, and foreign policy, Clinton is still quite draconian; she supports the USA Freedom Act, a bill that reauthorizes essentially all portions of the PATRIOT Act except for bulk metadata collection. She’s only given lip-service to the issue of imprisoning nonviolent drug users after years of supporting “tough-on-crime” legislation like the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, and has been very non-committal on the legalization of recreational marijuana. And she’s known for her neoconservative and interventionist foreign policy that not only makes some Republicans look like doves, but also failed pretty spectacularly in Libya and Iraq while she was Secretary of State.
But my main issue with Clinton isn’t her policies; it’s her trustworthiness. It seems like no matter where they go, scandal always follows the Clintons, dating back to their time in Little Rock: Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, Vince Foster, Monica Lewinsky, the Clinton Foundation, Juanita Broaddrick, the paid speeches, Benghazi, the private email server…I could go on and on. Now, I tend to be skeptical of many of the allegations brought against them because I think the right-wing media will do anything and everything to smear them, even at the expense of accuracy. The Clintons didn’t kill Foster and cover it up in some House of Cards fashion, the paid speeches were simply a means of making quick money to pay off their immense legal debt after leaving the White House, and scandals like Whitewater and Bill’s extramarital tryst with Lewinsky have been so tired out after more than 20 years that it’s time to move on. Also, Hillary gets unfairly blamed for many of the things Bill did while in office, particularly his infidelity.
However, there are very legitimate ethical concerns surrounding Clinton that should dissuade people from voting for her. Benghazi and the email scandal both have serious implications on how Clinton might conduct herself as chief executive of the United States, from whether or not she’ll cut corners and compromise national security for convenience’s sake, to whether or not she’ll take responsibility for any mistakes made on her watch. Scandals involving Huma Abedin and Sidney Blumenthal, both top aides to the Clintons at one point in time or another, the alleged use of the Clinton Foundation to extract donations from friends and foreign powers in exchange for political favors and influence on numerous occasions, as well as Clinton’s strong ties to Wall Street raise plenty of questions about cronyism: is she seeking the presidency for her own personal gain? Is she beholden to special interests? Can she be bought out and influenced by external powers? As president, will she have America’s best interests at heart, or will she be focused on handing out special favors to her cronies as she’s done in the past?
Supporters in Clinton’s camp might be quick to dismiss these questions as either unwarranted or a “vast right-wing conspiracy;” after all, no politician is perfect, and many others are embroiled in equally serious scandals that get far less attention. And yes, a number of Republicans have gone on witch-hunts looking for anything to defame the Clintons. But is it really that far-fetched for her to be seeking the presidency for her own personal benefit? Is it that outrageous to imagine that Clinton would do anything, even ethically questionable things, to enhance her favorability, ascend to the highest office in the land, and cement her legacy? Should the office of the presidency not be held to the highest ethical standard?
3. The case for Johnson
Despite what the media might want you to believe, Trump and Clinton aren’t the only two options available in this year’s election. Enter Gary Johnson, who served as the 29th governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003. A Republican at the time, he campaigned on a low-tax platform and defeated the Democratic incumbent in a state with two times as many registered Democrats as Republicans. His accomplishments include shrinking the scope of government by cutting the 10 percent growth in the annual state budget, cutting the state income tax, gasoline tax, state capital gains tax, and unemployment tax, and using his gubernatorial veto approximately 700 times while in office, allegedly more than all 49 other sitting governors combined during that time. He dedicated most of his second term in office to an aggressive school vouchers campaign, but it was met with backlash in the Democratic-controlled legislature, where it ultimately failed.
Johnson initially ran for president in 2012 as a Republican, but after failing to carve out a niche in the party, he sought—and ultimately won—the Libertarian nomination, earning more than a million votes in the general election. This time around, he beat out founder of The Libertarian Republic magazine Austin Petersen and computer scientist John McAfee for the Libertarian nomination, and named William Weld, former Republican governor of Massachusetts, his running mate.
What does Johnson bring to the table? Well, for one thing, he’s not Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. In an election cycle where both major party presidential nominees are more unfavorable than any other two candidates in history, Johnson offers a fresh alternative with bipartisan appeal; he’s as socially liberal and non-interventionist as Bernie Sanders and as fiscally conservative and small-government-oriented as Ron Paul without a real partisan affiliation. He supports reproductive rights, marijuana legalization, criminal justice reform, a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, action on climate change, and ending police brutality and mass surveillance, while also supporting gun rights, lower taxes for all, cutting spending, and a common sense approach to regulations. And as far as civil liberties are concerned, Johnson is about the only candidate committed to protecting them.
Disaffected conservatives fleeing Trump’s takeover of the GOP can find solace in Johnson’s similar economic agenda, real executive and governance experience, bona fide belief in small government, commitment to bipartisanship, and proven track record with balancing budgets and cutting spending and taxes, none of which Trump has. Disaffected progressives upset by the nomination of a scandal-ridden lightning rod over a political revolutionary can turn to a candidate who sides with Sanders 73 percent of the time, that’s not beholden to special interests, and doesn’t believe in mindless interventions around the globe. For populists that yearn to break down the Washington class but don’t feel comfortable voting for Trump for any myriad of reasons, Johnson is as anti-establishment as they come. And for those of you that generally just don’t want to be coerced into voting for the lesser of two evils, Johnson is someone you can choose in conscience.
Admittedly, Johnson is eccentric, and I don’t agree with all of his stances. His desire to abolish all income taxes and the IRS is nonsense, his call to audit the Fed is misguided, his plan to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid by 43 percent and transition each program over to block grants to the states is infeasible, and his foreign policy is questionable and lacks nuance. However, I think Congress would water down the more extreme elements of his platform. I highly doubt that even a Republican-controlled Congress would allow Johnson to implement things like a very regressive FairTax or major cuts to entitlements, which would force compromise, especially considering Johnson would essentially govern as an independent. Additionally, a team of qualified advisors would help him to add nuance to policy areas where he lacks expertise.
But I’m not voting for Johnson wholly because of his policy platform, even though I do feel it’s better than that of Trump or Clinton. I’m voting for him because I want to seize an opportunity. In an election where both candidates are unfavorable and plenty of voters have expressed disillusionment with their respective parties’ presumptive nominees, now more than ever is the time to introduce an alternative. Of all election cycles, this is the one where a third party can actually make a difference. Do I think Johnson can win? No, I’m under no illusion that he’ll be moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on January 20, 2017. But he doesn’t have to win in order to effect meaningful change or pave the way for viable alternatives down the road; let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that voting for a third party is inherently a waste of a vote.
First of all, when any minor party’s presidential candidate garners 5 percent or more of the national popular vote, that party receives guaranteed public funds to use on campaigning and a national convention in the next election cycle, in direct proportion to how many votes above 5 percent that candidate received. FEC regulations dictate that once a candidate crosses that 5 percent threshold, their party gains access to millions of dollars, which is a gold mine for a minor party that often cannot compete with the coffers of the Republicans and Democrats. Assuming Johnson hits that threshold this year, the Libertarian Party would be able to spend those taxpayer dollars—ironic, isn’t it?—in 2020 to generate exposure and media attention and actually play a pivotal role in the election.
It would also help to break down the wretched two-party system by providing a viable third option. Too often, third parties are the subject of a vicious catch-22: to have a shot at winning elections, third parties must have adequate exposure, but in order to have adequate exposure, third parties must have a reasonable chance to win. They also fall victim to a classic collective action problem: while a majority of voters may crave an alternative, few are willing to defect from either major party in standard election cycles because the transaction costs of voting for a third party or independent candidate—including possibly skewing the election to the less desirable of the two major candidates—outweigh the marginal benefits. Instead, most people engage in tactical voting by choosing the lesser of two evils. Since voters believe that third party candidates do not have a legitimate chance to win elections, defecting would ultimately be a wasted vote. Guaranteed matching federal funds in 2020 would give the Libertarian Party the opportunity to escape the catch-22 and offer a solution to the collective action problem by generating the necessary exposure and increasing the Libertarian Party’s odds of victory—in effect, lowering the transaction costs of defecting from either major party.
And at the very least, even if the Libertarian Party can’t establish itself in future elections, much like the Reform Party USA couldn’t in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s despite Ross Perot’s successes in 1992 and 1996, exposure resulting from even modest electoral success can help set the agenda for libertarian policy goals like criminal justice reform, ending the War on Drugs, cutting the federal budget deficit, protecting the right to privacy, defending property rights, stopping police brutality, and preventing mindless interventions abroad. Libertarians have been vastly successful over the last half-century at pushing for libertarian reforms, some of which people wouldn’t think are libertarian reforms given that most people associate the movement with its fringe elements and the “cult of Ron Paul:” marriage equality, free-trade deals, the slow process of drug decriminalization, ending the military draft and rent controls, etc. If given a platform on which to address crucial policy issues that don’t get as much attention as they should, libertarians could be a significant force for good in American politics by fighting to protect our civil liberties.
A few of my relatives with right-leaning political views have expressed the concern that a vote for Johnson, or any third party, is essentially a vote for Clinton, so they would prefer to vote for Trump instead. No, a vote for Johnson is not the same as a vote for Clinton—or Trump, depending on your point of view. This assertion would be true if presidential elections were decided by the national popular vote in a first-past-the-post format, but they’re not; the Electoral College determines the outcome of presidential elections, and thus makes the picture a lot more complicated. Candidates aren’t competing for the most popular votes as much as they’re competing for electoral votes. The current makeup of the electoral map makes it such that only a handful of states—e.g. Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire—are actually competitive, which means that election results in the vast majority of states are essentially predetermined. Indeed, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Texas will allocate its electoral votes to Trump just as California will do so with Clinton.
This has two implications: first, in these “safe states,” the margins of victory are so large that a handful of votes for a third party candidate would essentially have no effect on how those states ultimately allocate their electoral votes. This is enhanced by the fact that Johnson draws roughly equally from both Clinton and Trump, which means he wouldn’t skew state election results one way or another unless he outright wins some states—and again, I’m under no illusion that he will. Second, those margins of victory mean that voters in these states have an infinitesimal chance of affecting the outcome of the general election. This basically renders your vote irrelevant if you live in one of the 40-ish safe states in the Union; statistically, it will have absolutely no bearing on the outcome of the election. However, if you’re like me and focusing on the long haul, voting for Johnson makes your vote intrinsically valuable because it directly increases his popular vote total and pushes him closer to crossing the ever so important 5 percent threshold.
A recent Fox News poll has Johnson polling at 12 percent, compared to Clinton’s 39 percent and Trump’s 36 percent. Polls this far out are generally off the mark because they don’t take into account shifts that happen between now and November, but Johnson’s numbers should instill plenty of optimism in those that want to see the end of Republican and Democratic duopoly. Assuming these numbers are at least somewhat accurate and that they hold, Johnson only needs 3 more percentage points to hit the 15 percent threshold required to be included in national televised debates with Trump and Clinton. Johnson’s relative anonymity leads me to believe that a bit more exposure could push him over the edge and put the Libertarian Party in the spotlight.
This election presents a rare opportunity. Not since 1968 has the political landscape been so fractured, and never has the opening been better for a third party to jump into the fray. Gary Johnson offers a chance to seize that opportunity, and if successful, he could have far-reaching implications on the American electoral system for many years to come. But he needs support to capitalize on his growing momentum and exposure. If he crosses the 5 percent threshold, a serious possibility even if polls have slightly inflated his numbers, it could spell the beginning of the fall of the two-party system. That’s why I intend to vote for Johnson this fall.