Fifteen percent. That’s the level of national support it would take for a third voice to be heard from this fall’s debate stages. (Granted, it might only be a second voice if Donald Trump finds an excuse to not debate.) A third audible voice has long been missing in American politics. This fall, Presidential Politics of America is hoping that Gary Johnson will be that voice.
What follows is not an endorsement of him or the libertarian ideology. It is not a suggestion of who to vote for in November, particularly if you disagree with libertarianism. But if a pollster calls you between now and the end of September, when the first presidential debate is scheduled, PPFA is making a formal request that you say you’re leaning toward supporting Johnson. Today’s post is an explanation why.
Did you ever notice that whenever something bad happens, our two parties and their cohorts in the media are really quick to blame the other side for it? It’s always spun as more evidence that one side has been right and should be listened to, while the other side is wrong and we can’t believe anyone still listens to them. It’s always done with such incredulity, as if anyone could see it any other way, like our better judgement makes us superior to those who see things differently. (The Onion‘s most recent take on this phenomena: “When Will The Idiots On The Other End Of The Political Spectrum Wake Up And Have Every One Of My Life Circumstances, Daily Interactions, And Upbringing?”) American tragedy should bring togetherness, but we can’t embrace when we’re at each other’s throats.
Ultimately, the blame game is the most predictable post-story process in politics. But who do we blame for all the blaming?
The two-party system. (Clearly, PPFA is not immune to the blame game. Apologies.) When news breaks, members of both parties instinctively cling to their group. Strength in numbers. Forward the talking points. Check up on favorite websites and talking heads so they can help crystallize opinions. Most importantly, find a reason the other side is wrong.
Four years ago, in a piece for Construction Literary Magazine, I suggested that one way to calm the stormy partisan waters that drench our nation was to make voting mandatory. My premise was that since candidates and parties win elections by mobilizing the base (rather than recruiting Independents), they do what it takes to rally that base: throw red meat, make unrealistic ideological promises, take advantage of voters’ fears and biases about the other side, and so on. As a result, they maintain their two-party dominance while we’re coaxed by clans and poisoned by prejudice. This process turns off moderates and acts as a disincentive for the disinterested to pay attention, allowing the perpetuation of the party’s desired zero-sum battle; whatever is bad for your opponent is good for yourself, and in politics it’s a lot easier to make someone hate your opponent than to sell them on your own virtue. (Here we are, four years later, and the main reason to vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump seems to be blocking the other from becoming president. Mission accomplished!) Under the current system, one party doesn’t modulate its voice because it knows they’ve done such a good job demonizing the other side that few on their own side will defect.
I hoped that forcing the middle to vote, which curtails the voting power of the bases, would birth a viable, centrist third party that might actually induce some defections. This development could convince the two parties to soften their tone and work together instead of spending most of their efforts demonizing their mirror images. If all of a sudden voters’ choices aren’t binary, then the parties will necessarily need to take a more nuanced stance on the issues or fear being outnumbered by two dissenting groups. The mere existence of a third viable voice could do what all the two-way, self-serving cacophony has been unwilling to, and I thought compelling the center to show up on Election Day would get that third voice.
Perhaps, however, the 2016 election has removed the middle man. We didn’t need compulsory voting to get a bump in third party interest. Instead, the two major parties nominated the two most hated politicians they could find, and that has left about a fifth of the country refusing to pick between the two, with many clamoring for an alternative.
But don’t forget: we already have other choices. One of these choices is Gary Johnson and the Libertarians, and they give us our best chance to find a badly needed third competitive party.
I should first discuss another contender for that third option. I respect the Green Party’s efforts. I agree with their distrust and impatience with both major parties, their frustration that corporations and interest groups control those parties, and that we shouldn’t let the duopoly continue to put its own needs ahead of the needs of voters.
However, the Libertarians offer something the Greens do not, and I don’t just mean healthier polling nationally (though at 8.3 points to 3, the Libertarians’ Johnson polls nearly three times better than the Green Party’s Jill Stein, and this factor should be considered if trying to get a breakthrough third candidate this fall). The beauty of the American Libertarian movement — grounded in Constitutionalism, fiscal restraint, and social liberalism — is that it siphons positions from both major parties. Instead of voters thinking they need to walk in lockstep on one of the two major party platforms, the Libertarian ticket thinks that just because you are pro-X does not mean you also have to be pro-Y, because so many of the issues are unrelated. Maybe you want lower, simplified taxes for wealthy job creators and you don’t think marijuana should be any more illegal than alcohol is. Maybe you think debt control is important but so is defending the right of any two consenting adults to get married. And maybe, just maybe, as long as you’re not hurting your neighbor and he’s not hurting you, it doesn’t matter that you two disagree on political issues just as long as you let each other live.
The Greens, on the other hand, are basically Democrats, just more honest and hopped up on steroids. Greens think the Democratic Party, as a result of compromise and/or corruption, falls woefully short of its stated principles, and they want to root out the leftist movement’s ideological impurities. (Indeed, when Bernie Sanders said he’d do everything in his power to get Clinton elected, the progressive fringes turned on him.) Centrist and moderate they are not. They know what’s right for you and your neighbor, and they’ll let both of you know about it.
I don’t think, even in an election with two unpopular major party nominees, that the Greens’ message will capture much more than a few percent of the country: residual Nader voters and a handful of disaffected, purist Sanders supporters either too proud or too wounded to come around to she who vanquished him. The fact that Stein’s numbers have fallen since Sanders dropped out show not only that the Greens have a pretty low ceiling, but also that they’ve done a pretty lousy job of recruiting. It would behoove them for a third party — any third party — to first break through.
Ultimately, to capitalize on the fifth of the country that is so aghast at the two major nominees that they might vote for neither, it’s the Libertarians, which pull popular positions from both the Democrats and GOP, that has the best chance at siphoning disaffected partisans to make a run at 15 percent.
But can their nominee get to the magic number before the debates? Today, Johnson is attempting a big push with the numerical themed #15for15: he wants people to donate $15 on August 15 so he can earn $1.5 million to help propel him to 15 percent in the polls. (Is Herman Cain his campaign manager?) So far, Johnson is at 8.3 and climbing:
But he’s not climbing fast enough. Since June 1, his Real Clear Politics average has risen about four points in ten weeks, leaving him seven points short with just six weeks until the polling window, when he’ll need to get 15 points or higher in five different polls to make the September 26 debate. Put simply, he’s just not on track to get there barring a shot in the arm.
That’s where we come in. Can we get Gary Johnson the fabled and inestimable “PPFA bump”? Can we talk ourselves and others into Gary Johnson as deserving of being on the stage with Clinton and Trump? I say we can! Maybe these talking points can help:
- At their CNN Town Hall, running mate Bill Weld used a line that’s so straight forward that it’s hard not to love: “We want the government out of your pocketbook and out of your bedroom.” That’s the Libertarians in a nutshell.
- It’s the year of the outsider, which attracts many Independents. Johnson brings many of the qualities we want in an outsider, but he’s not anchored by what worries us about them.
- A two-term governor of New Mexico, he never spent a day as a Washington politician.
- But, like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan before him, he has valuable executive political experience.
- Plus, what could be more outsider than being the guy most effectively pushing back against the ultimate insiders: the two major parties and their nominees, each of whom has, for decades, rubbed elbows with the most powerful politicians in the country.
- There’s a lot to like in Johnson’s two terms as New Mexico governor, not the least of which is that he actually governed, unlike Trump, Clinton, and Stein. Consider that:
- “My overriding philosophy,” he said, “is the common-sense business approach to state government, period. Best product, best service, lowest price.”
- His accomplishments include “no tax increases in six years, a major road building program, shifting Medicaid to managed care,” and much more.
- The think tank CATO Institute, which evaluates the fiscal responsibility of America’s governors, favorably evaluated his tenure, awarding him a B and praising his fiscal restraint.
- Most impressively is that he did this all with a 60 percent Democratic legislature (and CATO noted that this legislature is the reason he didn’t score better than a B). PPFA loves it when governors have experience dealing with a state congress dominated by the opposing party, because that’s likely a situation they’ll be facing in a federal government before too long.
- The dude climbed Mount Everest.
- In a year where the two nominees have egos the size of the defense budget and seem relentlessly prone to lying, Johnson and Weld have come across a particularly humble pair. At their Town Hall, Johnson used language like “maybe I am wrong” and “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.”
- If you run up against a Democrat who thinks he’s too conservative, point to his foreign policy, which is much more in line with Bernie Sanders’s non-interventionism than what some call Clinton’s neoconservatism.
- If you run up against a Republican who thinks he’s too liberal, remind them that Donald Trump cuts against the Republican grain on many important issues, particularly on trade, American military leadership, eminent domain, Citizens United, affirmative action, and bedroom/bathroom issues. (This was not an exhaustive list.)
- Like #FeelTheBern, we could potentially have a new great hashtag: the even more brilliant #FeelTheJohnson.
Most important, we’d get a third voice. What’s the harm in letting him debate? You can still vote for Clinton or Trump (or Stein) in November, but can we get just 15 percent of Americans — just one in seven would do it — to want to open up the process beyond these two unpopular nominees? Can we get him the PPFA bump?? I sure hope so.
Let’s make it happen.