On Wednesday evening, Americans citizens were ceremoniously presented the preferred platitudes of this election season. In the first presidential debate, major party candidates 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 honest, productive discussion on the issues that matter most to America’s future – issues like Mitt Romney’s tax returns, London’s Olympic preparedness, the pleasure of firing people, why airplane windows don’t open, the morality of various canine transportation methods, and whether or not you really “built that.”
Joking aside, American politics have become exactly that: a joke. Informed and intelligent people should be insulted by the complete absence of relevant, substantive discourse in modern political campaigns. How can it be that with so many urgent, pressing decisions facing our nation, none of them are being seriously discussed by those competing for our votes? All throughout the country there is a growing sense that something is seriously wrong with our democracy. This problem runs deeper than a sour economy, or the debt crisis, or unpopular wars abroad; although these are daunting challenges, America has survived worse. What sets our current problems apart is the pervasive lack of public confidence that our elected officials will be able to solve them. And if the past decade is any indication, why should people believe differently?
Each election seasons brings a fresh batch of meaningless, infantile banter about irrelevant distractor issues. Each campaign speech seems designed only to rile up a target audience instead of addressing the nation’s actual problems. 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 Americans lose faith in their leaders’ competence and motives. With so much misplaced trust in prior politicians, it’s no wonder that so many Americans are so utterly uninspired by either candidate this year.
What they’ve been told over and over again is that they should choose one of them anyway. The importance of that “choice” is constantly stressed by the media and by politicians from both major parties. “The outcome of this election”, they tell us, “is too important to waste your vote on anyone else.” To magnify the importance of that outcome, the parties exaggerate relatively small policy differences with highly polarizing rhetoric. They do this because their legitimacy depends on our belief that we have a meaningful choice in how we’re governed. To fuel that belief, the parties must preserve the perception that they are perpetually at odds with one another. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney want to convince you that they are two very different men, who will actually take America in two very different directions. They want to convince you that it really matters who wins.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. The two-party system has proven itself incapable of presenting Americans with distinct, adaptive, varied choices that respond to their evolving demands in a timely manner. Instead, it creates duopoly on the services government offers, which is used to prevent any alternate choice from serious consideration. As in most elections, the 2012 presidential candidates support a very similar set of policies, but shroud those policies in different rhetoric so as to make them sound appealing to different people.
Don’t believe it? Try answering the following questions. Which candidate advocates foreign military interventions to spread democracy abroad? Which candidate wants to keep the troops in Afghanistan? Which wants to continue foreign aid? Which advocates aggressive sanctions on Iran and hinted they might initiate military actions against it? Which wants to continue the oil embargo on Cuba? Which has flip-flopped repeatedly on social issues, and on gay rights specifically due to a supposed change in heart? Which has similarly flip-flopped on whether they support an individual mandate in healthcare? Which supports the NDAA, the Patriot Act, and the TSA? Which wants to keep marijuana illegal at the federal level and escalate federal enforcement of the drug war? Which supported the bank bailouts, and called for stimulus spending to jumpstart the economy? Which has proposed a long-term fiscal plan that comes nowhere near balancing the budget at any point in time? Which advocates miniscule spending cuts to portray themselves as frugal anyway, while stating that they will not cut Medicare or Medicaid? Which favors continued farm, ethanol and corn subsidies? Which supports crony-capitalism arrangements in which the government assists certain industries or companies through targeted tax breaks, regulatory exemptions or direct loans? Which supports tariffs and labor protectionism?
By now you’ve probably guessed that the answer to all of these questions is both of them. On these issues and many others, Americans don’t get a real choice, because no matter who they choose the policy outcome will be the same. This overlap is almost never brought up in modern political discourse, and stands no chance to change if people keep enabling the two-party system, actively or tacitly. There are of course some issues on which the candidates disagree. But the number, size and importance of that disagreement pales in comparison to the enormous area of consensus between the two. The vast majority of policies would be indistinguishable under either administration, because on the vast majority of issues, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney want to keep things exactly as they are. To get the country back on track we need a bold change of direction, but neither party is willing to provide it.
This problem is not unique to 2012. In almost every election, team red and team blue advocate the same core package in a slightly different format. They mask the areas on which they concur to hide the fact that the people have no real choice on those areas. They present a false choice between two inconsequentially different people every four years, hoping to win but caring much more about preserving the myth that only one of these two parties can win. If they can convince you that your vote is important, and then convince you that voting for anyone with any substantially new ideas is throwing away that vote, the myth lives on and their long-term stranglehold on power is solidified. It's a myth we need to break down if any true progress is to be made.
The historically flawed notion that third party candidates cannot win has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the pervasiveness of this belief is the only thing that makes it true. Certainly, the status quo is not preserved because it is popular with the voters. On many of the above issues, American opinions are in stark contrast to those advocated by their representatives. Almost 80% of Americans want to reduce foreign aid or end it entirely. Increasing majorities want to legalize marijuana and end the war on drugs. But these ideas are simply off the table until the major parties are given an incentive to put it on the table. Congress’ approval rating slipped into single digits in August, and has been below 20% for years. And yet in 2010, the House of Representatives had an 87% retention rate - the lowest that rate had been in 40 years! The Senate had an 84% retention rate, and it would be highly surprising to see these rates dip much lower in 2012. How can it be that 90% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, and yet over 80% of Congress is perpetually reelected? Gerrymandering is one reason – the tragic but deeply embedded mindset that voting for anyone other than a Democrat or a Republican is “wasting your vote” is another.
If everyone who has this mindset discarded it simultaneously, the nation would be ripe for a realigning election. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that self-titled independents make up 38% of the electorate, outnumbering both Democrats (32%) and Republicans (24%). All across the political spectrum, there is broad consensus that America needs a drastic change of direction. And all across that spectrum, it is widely, silently agreed is that neither of these two candidates will actually provide that change. Americans are beginning to recognize that contrary to mainstream rhetoric, the problem isn’t that one side is right while the other side is wrong. It’s more accurate to say they’re both wrong. It has become abundantly clear that whatever ails our nation cannot be fixed by either of these two parties as they currently operate. Although we claim to live in a democracy in which the people decide how they’re governed, there is a significant discord between what the voters want and what their government gives them. This is the deep-rooted problem that citizens have detected with American democracy.
How can we solve it? People who recognize this problem can react in three different ways. The first is to vote for whichever major candidate they feel is the least bad, and hope change will eventually come. Although this is tempting in the short term, over the long term it only endorses, incentivizes and encourages the behavior of whoever you voted for. The second typical response to this realization is apathy. If we can’t change the outcome, why should we care? Why go through the hassle of voting and participating in the political process if the decisions we make don’t matter? Many Americans are so discouraged and frustrated by the lack of progress that they’ve become indifferent to political affairs entirely. Although this withdrawal is tempting, it is also the worst possible reaction if we are to make a difference, because if you don’t vote, politicians ignore your opinion entirely. Those who care govern those who don’t. If you send the signal that you don’t care, then politicians won’t care about what you think, and they won’t court your support when shaping future party platforms. Too many people have been so apathetic about their lack of choice in politics for so long that they are simply ignored by the major parties.
Voters, however, cannot be ignored by any politician looking to stay in office (read: all of them). Large numbers of third-party voters would force both Democrats and Republicans to adjust their strategies accordingly. In the best case scenario, this would enable the rise of a third party (or several) in future elections. These new options would enhance choice and increase the diversity of viewpoints represented in our government. But even in the worst case scenario, voting third party this would provide incentive for the two major parties to adopt some of the most popular tenets of those third party campaigns into their own plans, enacting real change and breaking up entrenched traditional viewpoints in the process. Either way it would inject some much needed creativity into our stalemated political world by providing fresh perspectives on old problems. And even if that shake up has minimal effect, you get the satisfaction of actively participating in our democratic process without having to hold your nose in disgust at the person you vote for.
No third party candidate will win the 2012 election, but significant progress can be made even short of that benchmark. For instance, what if the portion of Americans who voted third party exceeded the margin of victory between the other two? Mathematically, this would mean third-party input potentially changed the outcome of the election. It would send a powerful message to the losing party: if they want to win, they need our support, and if they want our support, they need to actually address our concerns. By contrast, voting for Romney or Obama even though you don’t really like them sends politicians the message that they can do whatever they please without jeopardizing your support, so long as they abuse you less than the other guy.
If for no other reason, a vote for a third party candidate is valuable in that it helps break down the myth that nobody else can win. It rejects the false choice presented to us by the two-party stranglehold that gives us two very similar status-quo candidates each year. It sends a message to those parties that if they want to keep our business, they have to actually be responsive to our concerns. Just as the prospect of customers leaving for elsewhere incenses private businesses to make better products at a cheaper price, taking our political business elsewhere realigns politicians with the incentive that should be guiding them: keeping their constituents happy.
If you’re a Hopkins undergraduate reading this article, chances are that this election will be the first in which you’re old enough to vote. In making your decision, remember that it will not be your last. If either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney is everything you’ve ever dreamed of in a candidate, then by all means vote for them. If not, then 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’ll be governed these next four years. Set aside any lukewarm preference for the side you dislike 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. Instead, vote for real change by sending a message that you expect a real choice in the future.
Halfheartedly picking the lesser of two evils will do little to truly change our nation’s course. Americans deserve a better choice than that, and there are better options out there. Although it’s too late to realistically elect those options this year, if we want them to improve in the future we must communicate that desire now. If we value the ability to make meaningful democratic choices tomorrow, we must reject the false choices presented to us today. If we want real change, we must make our leaders confront new ideas instead of dodging them. If we want our voices to be heard on important issues, we must start voting for whoever truly engages with those issues. If we want our politicians to be responsive to our concerns, we must make them compete for our business by demonstrating a willingness to take our business elsewhere. In other words, we must start voting for third party candidates.