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Should I Be Voting Third Party?

Daniel Larison questions my reasoning in Monday’s symposium:

Noah Millman explained why he wouldn’t be casting a protest vote for Johnson:

I considered voting for Gary Johnson as a protest for these reasons. But Johnson’s economic ideas would be catastrophic if put into practice.

I have seen some version of this argument before, and each time I see it I am puzzled by it. The purpose of voting third party on foreign policy grounds is to register a protest against at least some aspects of the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy. Even if we were in a country where Johnson could be elected, it is extremely doubtful that most of his domestic policy agenda would ever become law. Noah seems to share Jim Antle’s objection to voting for a flawed third party candidate because, as Antle puts it, “Settling defeats the purpose of voting third party.”

I would argue that “settling” is unavoidable no matter what party one chooses to support, and the only way one can avoid settling for a flawed candidate is to avoid voting all together.

Three responses.

First, I did not primarily consider voting for Johnson as a foreign policy protest, but as a protest against the two-party consensus that civil liberties and restraints on Executive power are quaint anachronisms. I would prefer a substantially more humble and restrained foreign policy than Obama has pursued, but I’m more of a realist or “conservative internationalist” than a principled anti-interventionist. I am very happy to see Jeffersonians like Johnson gaining some traction, but I’m not coming from quite the same place he is.

Second, I don’t agree with Antle that while you may have to settle for a major-party nominee, third-party votes should be pure. The issue for me with Johnson isn’t that he’d be “settling” but that I disagree very profoundly with one of the centerpieces of his campaign, namely his economic agenda, which I reject completely. If he were merely wrong, or conventional, or didn’t have much to say on the budget or monetary policy, then a protest vote would clearly reflect a set of issues on which I think he’s making important points. But the gold standard and radical austerity are not peripheral to Johnson’s message; they are as central as anything else.

Imagine, if you will, a reversal of roles. Suppose I believed what Johnson believes across the board – and that, instead of Johnson, someone was running on a third-party platform of a return to the gold standard and the elimination of the welfare state (which this hypothetical me would support) and Rick Santorum’s foreign policy (which both the real me and the hypothetical me would find abhorrent). Would it be “settling” for me to vote for this candidate because of his brave stand in favor of hard money and austerity? Or should I avoid voting for him because, in foreign policy, I’d be sending exactly the opposite message of the one I believe in? I’d say the latter.

Third, and finally, I have a bias against third-party voting in general for several reasons. For one thing, third-party efforts in modern times have most often been either completely ineffectual (Nader, Buchanan) or have been vehicles for the realignment of the electorate between the major parties (Wallace, Anderson, Perot). Gary Johnson’s effort looks to me like the first, and Jill Stein’s and Virgil Goode’s efforts definitely look like the first. Relatedly, Presidential contests are probably the worst place to begin any kind of third-party effort. Given the sectional divisions in America, it might be a good idea for Northeastern Republicans and Southern Democrats to have regional parties in Congress that could sell their caucus commitments to the highest bidder. If the Senate is tied after the election, I certainly expect Angus King to earn Maine the largest lobster subsidies in its history – but if he had particular ideological commitments, he’d be in a position to bargain for those as well. Gary Johnson might have held some interesting cards as Libertarian Senator from New Mexico that he won’t have as failed Libertarian Presidential candidate. Because of this bias against voting third-party, the bar is higher, in terms of opposition to the major-party nominees and enthusiasm for the independent, to get me to vote third-party than it is for most of my colleagues here. (Consider that a partial explanation for why I also didn’t seriously consider voting for Jill Stein.)

Most people vote to affirm their identity, their membership in a political tribe. I try to actively resist doing that, and to vote for the person, among the choices offered, whom I actually would want to be President (very much including consideration of party among the characteristics of said person). That hasn’t stopped me from making egregious mistakes, but it’s the way I’ve gone about it, and I imagine I’ll continue to do so.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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