This past Wednesday evening, Americans were ceremoniously presented with the preferred platitudes of this election season. In the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama predictably talked past one another, evaded the monitor’s questions and stuck to tired campaign catchphrases in search of the ever-elusive “zinger”. The debate capped off a long summer of productive discussion on the issues that matter most to America’s future – issues like Mitt Romney’s tax returns, the pleasure of firing people, why airplane windows don’t open, whether you really “built that,” and the morality of various canine transportation methods.
Joking aside, American politics have become exactly that: a joke. Each election season brings a fresh batch of meaningless, infantile banter to rile up a target audience, while substantive policy issues are eschewed. Each party blames the other for all the nation’s woes, and yet no matter which party wins things only ever seem to get worse. Time and time again, bold promises become bald-faced lies, and the people lose faith in their leaders’ competence and motives. Americans have a growing sense that something is seriously wrong with their democracy, and a prevailing lack of confidence in both parties leaves many voters utterly uninspired by either major candidate.
Next month, these voters must make a decision: do they vote for whomever they honestly like the most, or for whichever major candidate they dislike the least? In some elections, choosing only among those with a chance to win makes sense. But in 2012, Americans who want real change should instead vote for their favorite third-party candidate, for two main reasons.
First, the effective difference between the candidates with a chance to win is negligible. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have remarkably similar policy positions, such that it doesn’t really matter which man becomes president. Economically, both supported the bank bailouts and called for stimulus spending during the recession. Both favor tariffs and labor protectionism. Both propose a long-term fiscal plan that comes nowhere near balancing the budget, but tout miniscule spending cuts anyway so as to appear frugal. Both offer government handouts to preferred industries in the form of subsidies, federal contracts, targeted tax breaks, regulatory exemptions or direct loans. On foreign policy, both candidates will continue military interventions abroad. Both will keep the troops in Afghanistan, continue foreign aid, continue the Cuban oil embargo, push for aggressive sanctions on Iran, and threaten military action against it. Both have flip-flopped repeatedly on social issues, their support of an individual mandate, and states’ rights. On civil liberties, both support the NDAA, the Patriot Act, and the TSA. Both will keep marijuana illegal and escalate federal enforcement of the drug war.
On these issues and many others, Americans don’t get a real choice, because no matter whom they choose the policy outcome will be the same. Of course, there are some issues on which the candidates disagree, but exaggerating these differences with polarized rhetoric only masks the larger consensus between the two. On the vast majority of issues, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney want to keep things exactly as they are. They are Coke and Pepsi: team red and team blue, advocating the same core product with a different marketing strategy. Contrary to they’d have us believe, the problem with American democracy is not that one side is right while the other is wrong. More frequently, it’s that they’re both wrong. Americans across the political spectrum have detected a lack of responsiveness by either party to their concerns. There exists a significant discord between what the voters want and what their government gives them, limiting public discourse and restricting electoral choice.
This brings us to the second reason Americans should vote third-party: it sends an important message that the status quo will not be tolerated any longer. Although no third party candidate will win the 2012 election, significant progress can be made even short of that benchmark. High third-party vote totals erode the myth that nobody else can win, which in turn affects the behavior of both voters and politicians. For politicians, the threat of losing support provides incentive to adopt the most popular tenets of third-party campaigns into their own platforms. For voters, this change in perspective could eventually spark a realigning election, enabling the rise of a credible third party to provide voters with more adaptive and diverse options. Either way it breaks down entrenched party gridlock, provides fresh perspectives on old problems, and injects some much needed creativity into our stalemated political world. Competition realigns the interests of politicians with those of their constituents, keeping government in sync with the evolving demands of its people.
Any who value the ability to make meaningful democratic choices tomorrow must reject the false choices presented to us today. If you’re a Hopkins undergraduate reading this article, chances are this is the first election for which you’ll be old enough to vote. In your excitement, remember that it will not be your last. If Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is everything you’ve ever dreamed of in a candidate, then by all means vote for them. But if not, I urge you to look at the bigger picture this November. Ask yourself if you’re really satisfied with the amount of choice you have in how you are governed. Set aside any lukewarm tolerance for the side that annoys you the least, and objectively ask yourself whether either of these two candidates truly deserve your vote. If the answer is no, don’t give it to them. Halfheartedly picking the lesser of two evils will do little to truly alter our nation’s course. Instead, vote for real change, and send a message that you expect a real choice in the future. Vote for a third party candidate.