As Americans, we like having choices … just not too many choices. People in general, but Americans in particular, have a serious penchant for partisanship. This shows up all across our culture; we insist upon having the binary debates of “Coke vs Pepsi,” “skiing vs snowboarding,” “east vs west” and “Timberlands vs Bean boots” – a favorite here at Colgate. Such a “me and mine vs you and yours” approach is unequivocally entertaining and at times even appropriate (e.g. modern sporting events), but when the complexity of political discourse is reduced to that of a football game, everyone loses.
On Monday, Real Clear Politics aggregated Donald Trump’s average unfavorable rating at 58.6 percent. Hillary Clinton’s was 52.8 percent. You read that correctly, a minority of Americans are comfortable even calling either forerunner “favorable.” Additionally, USA Today made the claim before the first debate that “seventy-six percent of voters would like to see third party candidates on the debate stage.” After the second debate, this sentiment seems unchanged. The distaste for our intrepid two-party nominees has gotten to the point where a parody Twitter account, known as “Sweet Meteor of Death,” has gained traction as a presidential contender – the assumption being that a cataclysm bringing about the end of humanity would save us all from the inevitably revolting acts we will be forced to commit in the voting booth a month from now.
Not only are voters presented with two candidates whom they woefully disdain, they are now being told that refusal to support one of them is the equivalent of endorsing the other, which ultimately amounts to defection from their party. Sanders supporters chanting “Hell no DNC, we won’t vote for Hillary” at the Democratic Convention this summer were met with staunch disapproval from the party’s establishment and silenced into submission by Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the like. Republicans have had an even more difficult time “unifying” under a candidate whom many feel is fundamentally opposed to most of their values. Nevertheless, the Trump camp has consistently and caustically attacked their conservative opponents. Many have criticized Trump and his lackeys for attacking opposition on the right more than on the left.
This despondency in civic life is entirely the fault of the two-party system. Voters should not feel obligated to “fall into line” behind someone they dislike or disagree with for the sake of a party they also may at times disagree with. In June, Jonathan Rauch of The Atlantic famously wrote in favor of “smoke-filled rooms” used to broker compromise between two major parties, but failed to acknowledge the masses of disenchanted constituents and the animosity this creates. Further, the idea that a vote for anyone besides Trump is a vote for Clinton, and vice versa, is absurd. My vote for Gary Johnson is a vote for Gary Johnson, just as a vote for the ghost of Barry Goldwater would be a vote for the ghost of Barry Goldwater. There is no subversive implication, there is only you, a ballot and your conscience.
Lastly, the idea that a third party could never win in the U.S. is circular and factually inaccurate. A third party did win under the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, and the modern progressive movement was born. Ross Perot came fairly close to repeating this success in 1992. If the thought is that a third party can never win, then no one will ever bother voting for one, and they will actually never win. This is a self-defeating prophecy, and, as we have seen in the last 18 months, we have all been
John Adams once said, “there is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.” I’m sorry to say, John, we have failed you.