In the last few weeks, I’ve seen a dramatic uptick in the number of tweets in my timeline bashing third parties in American politics, as well as those who vote for them. So far, these seem to fall into a couple of eigentweets:
- “I’d love to vote for a third party but it’s a waste of a vote.”
- “People who’re voting for third parties are just sore losers from the primary season.”
- “Third parties are for ideologues and fanatics; practical people know better.”
- “With the literal Antichrist standing by the seventh seal, now is not the time.”
The funny thing is, I keep seeing the same types of messages over and over again. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over. You’d think that if we were going to have changed our minds about this particular course of action, we would have by now. Yet we persist, as though we hadn’t heard these warnings day in and day out, with escalating frequency.
I say “we,” in this case, because I’m a registered Green and have been for several years. I’ve heard these warnings, and probably many more besides, for a very long time, and yet I remain in my seeming state of delusion. Am I insane? A raging nihilist out to watch the world burn? Some kind of political naïve engaging in a pollyannaish pursuit of ideological purity? As it turns out, no, there’s more to it than wishful thinking, or at least there seems to be from inside my head. To that end, since you’re here — and I’m assuming that you’re here and reading this, and that I’m not merely in a padded cell arguing with my own spleen again — I’m going to take a bit of time talking about why now, of all the damned inconvenient times, some progressives have plopped down like Balaam’s ass and refused to sign on with Hillary and jumped to the Greens; a bit about why third parties matter, even — especially — in the midst of an existential threat to the future of America; and a few suggestions and requests regarding this whole political mess that might actually move a few asses instead of digging in everybody’s hooves further.
As a warning, I’m going to make a few assumptions in all this. The first is that you, Dear Reader, are probably a Democrat, or at the very least an independent who mostly caucuses with them. The second is that you’re largely familiar with the current political landscape. The third is that you’re actually going to read the links I’m including, or at least skim them for high-level content. I know that’s a lot to ask here, but this article is going to be long enough as it is even without the references, and I would be remiss if I didn’t include the citations. You won’t need a thorough understanding of everything I’m linking in order to follow what I’m saying, but I am hoping you’ll at least familiarize yourself with the broad concepts I’m introducing, because we’re going to be heading through some pretty thorny theory on the way to our destination.
Before we get into the weeds, however, let me establish one thing up front for everybody’s sake. I have no beef with Clinton as a presidential candidate as compared to most other recent Democrats. Looking at Hillary’s politics in 2016 relative to her politics in 2008, there’s been a clear shift to the right, but that’s the trend of almost every Democrat that’s ever been elected. I don’t like her foreign policy; I’m actively uncomfortable with the fact that the US may have committed a war crime of its own on Obama’s watch, and that Clinton is likely to perpetuate Obama’s legacy of heavily expanded drone warfare. I think these things have actively destabilized the Middle East, made us less safe, and robbed us of a lot of the moral high ground, leaving us with little better than a “might-makes-right” approach that challenges foreign actors more than it scares them. I’m not happy with her stance on fracking at home or abroad; I think we need a clean energy policy that actually presents targets for ending our fossil fuel addiction, not just switching which ones we use, and I think we need an honest conversation with the American people about what it’s going to cost to do that. I feel like her recent embrace of same-sex marriage is less a matter of genuine support and much more a question of political expediency; there are any number of politicians who actively embraced the LBGTQIA+ community ahead of when they felt they had to do so because they felt it was the right thing to do, not just because it was safer than espousing half-measures to appease the various religious voting blocs. I’ve still got some serious concerns about her “superpredator” moment, and I’m displeased that Clinton seems to have learned all the wrong lessons about universal health care’s importance from her 1993 fight. I doubt she’ll make a real push for a public option, much less anything approximating actual universal health care, to say nothing of basic income or dealing with the impact of increasing automation on long-term employment. But even for all that, I don’t feel like Clinton will be a bad president. She can’t be worse than Bush was. She’d certainly be better than Trump would be.
However, just because I don’t think she’d be a bad president doesn’t mean I think she’d be a great president, which is why I’m not voting for her. Actually, I have a lot of reasons why I’m not voting for her, but they’re mixed and complicated and I’m going to get to them throughout this essay. If you want to vote for her, be my guest. In fact, I strongly hope that some of you do, because I’d hate to think that somebody fundamentally unqualified and utterly the wrong shade of orange gets elected to office. But before you point at me and say, “if you don’t vote for her, you’re voting for the Doompa-Loompa,” perhaps you’ll do me the courtesy of hearing me out. I think you can see by the scroll bar that I’ve got a lot to say here, and I’ll probably address most of your criticisms.
With all that said, let’s start by going back to George McGovern.
I know that sounds like a jump, but he’s important as an opening to this discussion because the 1972 Democratic presidential primary is where the modern leftist activist/establishment split really began. The progressive left pushed hard for a presidential candidate that represented them, over the objections of the party elites, who then proceeded to lose the election by a landslide. Even before the election, the ideological split before these two camps nearly split the party. Afterwards, the DNC created the superdelegates, a stable of non-elected positions within the party hierarchy, explicitly not beholden to the voters to ensure that activists couldn’t seize control of the nominating process again.
It wasn’t a very democratic move for the Democratic Party. Still, the pain of their loss was understandable and they were acting out their hurt and anger and doing what they felt they needed to do to ensure that they wouldn’t lose because of the activists again. Unfortunately, it’s left us here in 2016 with a mess on our hands. Up until this point, it really hasn’t mattered all that much what the establishment thought of the grassroots activists, because the grassroots activists didn’t really factor into the discussion all that strongly. Institutional memory is long, and the Democratic establishment hasn’t really been wondering what the progressives have been thinking all that much, because progressives have never really controlled the Democratic Party, certainly not the same way that conservatives can dominate the Republicans. The establishment, however, haven’t been counting on the impact that a character like Senator Sanders could have on the race, on on the millions of people who might suddenly show up out of nowhere and demand to be heard.
And from the looks of things, when that happened, the DNC did in 2016 what they did in 1972: they did their best to shut out the activist wing, fearing that an upset would screw up their plans.
Now, Clinton’s campaign and the DNC have tried to heal some of those rifts, but they really don’t seem to be doing a very good job of it. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that they’ve actually admitted that they screwed up, but at least Wasserman-Schultz stepped down as chair of the DNC. Of course, almost immediately after she did so, Clinton hired her to lead her campaign’s fifty-state program, so any goodwill that her departure might have netted the DNC, Clinton just pissed away. That, however, seems to be par for the course for messaging from the Democratic elites. As far back as October 2015, the Clinton campaign and the DNC — back while Wasserman-Schultz was still leading it — were both actively pushing the narrative that Clinton had a five-hundred superdelegate “lead” among people who wouldn’t actually vote until some time in August, a narrative which the media uncritically parroted throughout the primary season that likely further contributed to Sanders’ loss, on top of the bias at the DNC which has already been better and more widely reported than I can give credit. I know they gave Sanders’ campaign a third of the seats on the platform committee, an unprecedented move that they didn’t have to make given that Sanders lost the primary, but then the Clinton and DNC teams blocked Sanders’ supporters on many of their reforms, which was enough for no less a liberal luminary than Dr. Cornel West to abandon the Democrats and endorse the Greens. Even Clinton’s choice of Vice President has been called “tone deaf” in light of the ongoing kulturkampf.
Speaking of platforms, as an aside, I know there’s some anti-science planks in the Green platform. I’m not happy about them, and I’m not defending them, but by comparison, it’s nowhere near as bad as the Republicans’. Also, at the risk of dipping into tu quoque, the Democratic platform hands an awful lot of support to Israel, all while an Israeli rabbi who argued that military rape of gentiles was permissible in wartime has become the chief army rabbi, the current head of the Israeli army advocates disproportionate force against civilian infrastructure as a deterrent, and center-right Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon stepped down, saying he was “fearful for his country’s future,” after his job was offered to a far-right rival in Netanyahu’s cabinet, all against a backdrop of the UN finding evidence for Israel having committed war crimes against Palestine, but I don’t hear a lot of people saying “oh, there’s a problem with the Democratic party platform, I can’t vote for Hillary.”
I’d love nothing more than to have something akin to the bright–green movement here, but I’ll take what I can get. The Socialist Workers are just too disorganized. The Libertarians are downright terrifying, in a “take-all-the-safety-labels-off-everything-and-wait-five-years” way. The Constitution Party… no.
Back on the main thread, Clinton, or the people running her campaign, clearly either don’t seem to understand that they’ve got a split that they to heal, or they don’t really think it’s their responsibility to heal it. And this has been the prevailing attitude within the DNC towards the progressive movement for a very long time. Everything I’ve mentioned so far is just two tiny slices, one from the past and one from the present, of a forty–year slow burn. Try to imagine, just for a moment, how it must feel to know that your theoretically politically closest representatives in elected office get don’t actually want you around, that they view you as an inconvenience at best. Imagine how it feels, to feel like you have no say in government, and haven’t for several years. Now multiply that by an order of magnitude, and you might start to understand why somebody might look at everything that’s happened and feel a little distrustful of, maybe even a little hurt by, any message that starts and ends with “get with the program”. I’d love nothing more than a program that wants to get with me, honestly, but the Democrats have made it amply evident that they don’t actually respect my politics, so sticking around and continuing to give them my vote in hopes that they’ll change their mind one day feels a little bit like sitting by the window waiting for senpai to notice me.
And all that assumes that there’s even a program to get with. Everyone loves to say that a vote for a third party is a wasted vote. There’s a false assumption in that statement, though, and that’s that votes for the Big Two aren’t wasted. The sad truth is that, if you’re not in a swing state, your vote stands a good chance of being “wasted,” too. If we elected the President by national popular vote, then there really wouldn’t be any such thing as a wasted vote, because every vote for candidate X would cancel out some other vote for candidate Y somewhere, and “who wins” would become purely a question of math. But we don’t, and it isn’t. There’s this thing we have in the United States called the electoral college, and it ensures that any state that votes reliably in one direction or another by more than about five percent of the state’s populace produces a large number of “wasted votes,” because every vote in your state that’s for your candidate over the minimum needed to win actually doesn’t do anything.
You probably haven’t heard of a court case called League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry. It’s okay, because neither had I, and this time I swear I’m not going to ask you to read the brief. It’s only the dozenth or so court case tackling gerrymandering at the federal level that failed this decade so far, and it in and of itself isn’t remarkable because it failed. However, what is noteworthy about it is that it opened a door we haven’t seen before in cases like this. In writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy said that the Supreme Court can’t strike down gerrymandering without a tool for telling them how gerrymandered a district is. And that’s interesting, because in another case that’s still up and coming, Whitford v. Nichol, a couple of real hoopy froods provided just such a tool: the efficiency gap.
I said I was going to ask you to read the papers, but this one’s important because a lot of my future arguments hinge on this concept, so I’m going to briefly digress and try — possibly fail, but try — to explain in plain English what the efficiency gap is. Vote “waste” comes in two forms: packing is when a vote is cast over and above the total needed for a candidate to win in a district, and cracking is when a vote is cast for a candidate that doesn’t win. Think of it this way: in a district of one hundred robots, everyone casts a ballot for “favorite gear type.” Forty vote for worm, and sixty vote for spur. All forty voting worm are “wasted” because worm loses. However, only fifty-one votes are needed to win, so nine of those spur votes are also “wasted” because they don’t actually contribute to “helping spur win.” A win with fifty-one votes and a win with sixty votes are identical outcomes, so those votes above fifty-one don’t actually contribute anything. So, out of the hundred votes cast in total, forty-nine of those votes were wasted because they didn’t change the outcome of the vote. It’s not just “nineteen votes wasted” — the number of excessive spur votes minus one to win — because, if I understand correctly, at the time the votes are cast, we can’t know the what the actual margin of success will be, but we can know what the minimum bound of a victory is, and that’s the metric that matters, and any vote that doesn’t contribute to the winning team crossing that boundary is functionally wasted because it didn’t ultimately impact the outcome of the race. It’s not about how many votes you needed in this iteration to beat the other teams; it’s about how many votes you need to cross the threshold of victory in this contest, independently of any individual outcome.
Now, the reason why the efficiency gap is interesting is because it doesn’t care about how a district is determined. It just cares what votes occur within it, and it can tell you after some mathematical tomfoolery whether or not and to what extent your “district,” for whatever loose definition of “district” we want to apply here, is gerrymandered. It also provides a formal definition of “vote waste” besides the simple one that everyone loves to throw around, because the simple definitions sound great but they don’t help us understand our problem space.
And because we’re talking about voting and presidents, you can probably guess where I’m going with this, and you’d be right: states look an awful lot like districts if you squint at them in the right light. If we apply those metrics of vote waste to some good hard data about the voting totals in the 2012 election, what you end up with is that about the Democrats wasted twenty-two million votes in 2012, while the Republicans wasted close to thirty-nine million. The Libertarians wasted about a million, and the Greens about four-hundred-seventy thousand. Remember, that’s votes either cast for a candidate that didn’t win that state, or above the total needed — in this case, the halfway point — to take home the electoral votes for that state or district. That means that if anybody around here is “wasting votes,” it’s the Republicans, which actually and terrifyingly says that the electoral map right now, or at least in 2012, carried about a ten percent net efficiency benefit for Democrats.
For those who’d like to see my calculations, I’ve uploaded them so others can see. The data are from Wikipedia and colored green; my calculations are in a different font but otherwise unremarkable.
Aside from bemusedly being able to claim that the Greens aren’t the ones who’re wasting votes, I wanted to point all of this out because so many of these pleas, cries, and jabs about “throwing our vote away” really does us a disservice in the absence of more detailed information. Somebody being told “for ghods’ sake vote for Hillary before we all die” does nothing for the person living in Wyoming or the one in Massachusetts; both are likely to take umbrage at the plea, but for entirely different reasons. One will likely feel despair, the other contempt, and neither is going to be any better off or favorably inclined afterwards.
That gets into another weird thing I’ve noticed: there’s this contradiction that crops up around third parties, especially the Greens, wherein that we’re somehow irrelevant and wasting our time, right up until we ruin it for everybody and we need to stop or be stopped. Remember Nader in 2000? We sure screwed that up, or at least I’ve been told we have, often and repeatedly. But did we? There’s a 2002 analysis of the aftermath that suggests that though Nader did change the outcome of the race, on the whole, Nader’s candidacy brought in voters that otherwise would’ve stayed home. Florida was, if anything, an outlier. Meanwhile, there’s so many controversies over how that process unfolded that it has its own Wikipedia page, of which Nader’s presence doesn’t even make the cut. But time and again, when people talk about the Greens, “Nader spoiled Gore” is the first thing, maybe the second, that I hear. I have to concede that Nader winning 97,000 votes had an impact, but you can’t assume that Gore would’ve gotten all those votes if he hadn’t run. Nader’s own take is that Bush probably would’ve gotten a quarter, Gore a third, and the rest would’ve stayed home, and the commission to which I linked corroborated those numbers. That’s about eight-thousand net for Gore, which gets about balanced out by the estimated loss Bush suffered because the network affiliates all forgot that the Florida panhandle’s in Central time and called the Florida race an hour early, suppressing his turnout. I know he’s a favorite target, and truth be told, even I don’t like him all that much, but hammering on Nader really doesn’t help anybody at this point.
Meanwhile, some of us are desperately trying to vote for a third party — the Greens, specifically — because we see it as the only real chance to break the stranglehold that exists on the process by which we got into this mess in the first place. This time, we have to go back before McGovern, all the way to the founding of the country. America doesn’t just have an electoral college standing in the way of a reasonable electoral system. It also has a first-past-the-post — also called FPTP or “winner-take-all” — voting scheme that, thanks to Duverger’s Law, effectively mandates a two-party system. This is, in turn, reinforced by a wealth of ballot access restrictions that make just getting in front of the average voter a Sisyphean task.
This, meanwhile, is before any question arises of media access or finances. The Republican National Debates had seventeen people on stage at one point, and while I don’t want to accuse people of exploiting the process for a book deal, there’s some evidence that some candidates weren’t just there because they thought they’d make a good president. Ask if Gary Johnson or Jill Stein can participate in the presidential debates, though, and suddenly we’re wasting people’s time. Vote for the Greens downticket, I hear, but leave the Presidency alone. It’s too big, too important. We have no chance to win. We’re just a distraction from the real players.
I’m going to let you in on a little ugly dirty secret. I wrote this on my Twitter stream, but I’m going to collate it here for everybody to read it, so I don’t have to type it over and over again. I don’t think Dr. Stein’s going to win. I don’t even think she’s competitive. That’s not why I’m voting for her, and that’s not why I think she should run. I think she needs to run, and I think she or somebody like her needs to run every four years, regardless of whether she’s “competitive” or not. I wish that I didn’t have to say that, but I do. It isn’t about whether she can win. It’s about conservation of attention span. Most people only have so many emotional resources to spare; life is nasty, brutish, and short for a lot of folks. In this country, we haven’t gotten sixty percent turnout for a presidential race since before McGovern, and that’s a high-water mark. A lot of local elections are decided by a quarter of eligible voters. People just don’t look that far down the ballot paper. They’re tired. We’re tired. We’re all tired.
We’ve only got a limited number of chances to get our message out in front of people. We have a limited number of opportunities to feel like we’re going to be heard, so we have to deploy them strategically. The major parties have told us they don’t want us. The voting system is biased against us. We barely have a national party. We don’t have any big national donors because we’ve committed ourselves to playing by a set of rules that limit corporate cash, because that’s not the kind of party we want to be. We can’t get the media to take us seriously. And in a very real sense, we’re fighting the burnout of the American people at large. And that’s not the fault of any one of you out there, because we’re all like that. We all skip the races we don’t recognize, or pull our voting guides from the only local paper, or vote based on party affiliation rather than issues or candidates. We’re fighting an uphill battle, every step of the way.
So what do we do? Give up? Slink back to the Democrats and hope they don’t pull away the football again? Or do we, paradoxically, go for the most counterproductive option and shoot for the one race wherein, if we nail five percent of the popular vote, they have to take us seriously next time? The one race wherein we’re guaranteed some level of equal access and fair treatment? The one shot we have at making sure everybody’s paying attention and we can make a pretty big stink if we don’t get respect because it says in the rules that you at least have to play fair for some definition of “play,” “fair,” and “rules”? Is it a waste of time? Absolutely. Do we have a hope in hell of winning? Not at all.
Is it the most logical play on the board? You bet.
It’s not the only move, to be sure. It’s got to come with all the others. We do need to run local races, and we’re running candidates all up and down the ticket all over the country where we can recruit people. But yes, the focus is on the Presidential race, because that’s where America’s eyeballs are. Whether we like it or not, if we want to have a hope in hell of capturing anybody’s attention, we need to go where people are looking, not just where we want to be found. It’s a little like advertising that way. If you want us to stop running for President until we can actually hope to win it, I think it’s only fair to ask you to commit to helping us fix the ballot access and voter attention deficit issues that keep us from having a reasonable chance on the downticket races in the meantime.
Frankly, I’d love nothing more than to fix the whole electoral system. If we could get rid of FPTP and replace it with something sane like Single Transferable Vote, that would allow third parties to run any race they like without having a spoiler effect, since we could simply list the Democrats as our second choice. However, I honestly think getting this passed, especially at a national level, would be harder than getting the National Popular Vote. Why? Because this would require the existing political organizations to explicitly yield power and to admit that they aren’t — and haven’t been — representative of the entire spectrum of political thought. I don’t see them doing that gracefully or easily. In fact, I don’t see it happening until a third party does well enough at the polls that one of the Big Two offers STV or Instant Runoff or some other proportional system as a way of keeping the reins of power just a few more years, just like how the Republicans discovered how evil the Electoral College was once they realized how badly long-term demographics were against them.
So, with all this having been said, I have only a few small favors to ask:
- Please, please, try not to contribute to the circular firing squad. I’m serious on this one. I’m pretty sure I do this myself, and I need to stop, too. I’m not saying I’m great at it, and I’m right now admitting I kinda suck at not pointing the finger at my own team first. I don’t have a lot of expectations for my actual political rivals; I expect them to cheat, lie, and steal. The folks in my camp, though, I generally hold to a higher standard, because I believe we’re trying to claim not just the logical right of way but the moral high ground as well. That means holding ourselves accountable to a higher standard of behavior, especially when politics is concerned, precisely because it’s so easy to give into mudslinging and negative campaigning. I’m not saying this is easy. I probably fail it myself all the damned time. All I can do is ask that you be aware of this. If you have to talk trash because you need to scream into a bucket for self-care, I totally understand that, but consider getting a friends-locked feed so other people don’t mistake your therapy-tweets for public discourse.
- If you see somebody else making with the circular firing squad, please don’t spread it. I know it’s probably funny, and I know you probably think somebody in your circle of friends needs to see it, but please realize that you do actually want Hillary to win, and that means you actually need the progressives and the Greens that you can convince to join you to do so in the long run. That means not alienating them by cracking jokes at our expense or repeatedly telling us that we don’t know how to politics. Trust me, we’ve probably already heard somebody else say it, and we probably didn’t find that convincing then either. Resist the urge to spread wrong-headed humor further and wider, and try to get the people who are spreading wrong-headed humor to realize that they’re actually hurting their cause more than they’re helping it. Remind them — politely, gently, and privately if possible — that they’re contributing to the sense of alienation that made a lot of us want to leave the Democrats in the first place.
- Please, please, pretty pretty please, don’t retweet this stuff just to call it out or put it down. That just makes everyone mad.
- If you see somebody in your timeline that’s advocating for a third party, before you go in for the snide comment or the reprimand, ask them why. Engage with questions first. Find out if they live in a swing state. Find out if this is their first election. Understand their story. Ask them what they’re hoping to accomplish with their vote. Ask if they’ve considered what the possible outcome of their vote could be if they win. Above all, recognize that they’re people, with lives and stories and goals and dreams inside them just as you are, and that there isn’t a one-size-fits all narrative that’s going to explain the motivations of the people you’re tweeting at. Come on, folks. Most of you reading this are writers. If you read a story in which the author made universal assumptions about motivation, you’d throw the book across the room and say the writer needed a lesson in realistic characterization.
- If you must get involved in this field, understand that there’s a lot more complexity to the story than you’re probably capturing, and at least make an attempt at grasping the nettle and admitting that you don’t know all the ins and outs of the situation into which you’re about to thrust yourself. You’re human. Very likely you’re a liberal. Quite possibly you’d even like to think of yourself as progressive. That means that admitting you don’t know what you’re doing should be second nature to you by now. It’s certainly become one of my most common activities. Here’s an example tweet to get you started: “If you’re in a swing state and thinking of voting third-party, please consider voting for Hillary Clinton (https://www.hillaryclinton.com/).” Fits in 140, targets your audience, gives the URL. Not punchy enough? How about “If you’re in a swing state and thinking of voting third-party, please consider Hillary Clinton. We’d like to live to see 2017.” Start with “If you’re in a swing state and thinking of voting third-party, please consider Hillary Clinton. ” and you’ve got forty-four whole characters left to make a snide anti-Trump joke.
I know a lot of people don’t believe me when I say I’m just as scared of Trump as the next progressive. However, I’m capable of being scared of — and acting upon — more than one thing at a time. Not only am I terrified of Trump winning, but I’m scared of what happens if we don’t fix the process by which we pick our president. I’m not sure we get too many more chances to get this one right, I don’t think the Democrats are just going to voluntarily hand over the reins, and I know the Republicans aren’t going to play along. I think we have to fight on multiple fronts at once, both struggling to get Clinton elected but also to push for “better than Clinton.” More importantly, “better than the process by which we ended up with Clinton as our only option for defeating Trump.” And that is why I’m voting for Stein and the Greens in 2016, even if I know she can’t win.
There’s nowhere to set my aim
So I’m everywhere