WASHINGTON, D.C., November 6, 2012 — In a close election, third-party candidates can make all the difference. Democrats were furious at Ralph Nader for costing Al Gore the 2000 election, convinced that his supporters would have supported Gore.
It’s already being argued that Gary Johnson might cost Mitt Romney the election, as Nader did to Gore. The argument is based on a faulty assumption. Nader’s voters were never Gores, and Johnson’s were never Romney’s.
Johnson will not cost Romney the presidency. If Romney loses, it will be because President Obama beats him, not because some of his supporters absent-mindedly forgot that the election was close and voted for Johnson. If, knowing that a big-party candidate is in an extremely tight race, a voter opts for a third-party candidate, the big-party candidate has been rejected as much as the third-party candidate has been chosen.
Johnson voters in swing states aren’t just wandering to Johnson because they like Romney but like Johnson more. They’re voting for Johnson because they reject the other candidates. They aren’t just choosing Johnson; they’re rejecting Romney and Obama. If they really preferred Romney to Obama or Obama to Romney, they’d vote for Obama or Romney. In Ohio and New Hampshire, it would make a huge difference. Knowing that, they vote for Johnson.
Likewise, Nader’s voters weren’t going to vote for Gore if Nader hadn’t been in the race; for them a vote for Nader was a rejection of Gore. They weren’t sorry that Gore lost. They knew the race was close; they knew that if they didn’t vote for Gore, he might lose. They voted for Nader anyway.
Johnson’s voters aren’t rooting for Obama, but they won’t be sorry if Romney loses. They were never his.
Much of the discussion about the effect of third-party candidates is predicated on a false assumption, a false assumption shared by the major parties. The Democrats were furious at Nader and the Greens for not supporting Gore, but it would have made as much sense for them to be angry at Republicans and Bush because they didn’t support Gore. Likewise, if Republicans are angry at Johnson for stealing votes from Romney, they might as well be angry at Obama for stealing votes from Romney.
That’s absurd. You don’t assume that people who didn’t vote for you were ever yours; if you want their votes next time, you figure out how to be the party that they prefer. If Republicans think that Johnson voters are natural Republican voters, they should ask what it is about the GOP that should make it attractive to Johnson voters, then ask whether they wandered away from it. Why did “green” voters reject Al Gore? Not because they felt sentimental attachment to Nader, but because Gore and the Democrats didn’t convince them that Gore was worth voting for.
Third-party candidates should not just be spoilers in our system. They should provide us with useful information, letting the major parties know who’s rejecting their messages and why, offering a corrective on their policies if the third parties grow to rapidly. They don’t do this well, but the failure isn’t theirs. Its a failure of the news media, who prefer easy ideological labels and whose members want to follow winning candidates.
A constant complaint of the Ron Paul campaign was that the press refused to cover Paul seriously and intensively. If the Liberty Movement had been better covered, they argue, Paul would have been a real contender for the GOP nomination.
We can disagree with the belief that Paul would have won the nomination while agreeing with their basic premise: The American people should have the information and make their choice. It isn’t the job of the media to be the gatekeepers who decide which candidates, policies, and ideas we’ll hear about.
Do you know who the Green Party candidate is this year and what her platform is? The Justice Party? Do you know which candidate was endorsed by the New Whig Party? Do you know what the Whigs stand for? Probably not, and that’s unfortunate. You may not agree with what they have to say, but they provide diversity in an increasingly monoclonal political landscape. Just as with biological diversity, ideological diversity is healthy for our political ecosystem, which instead is being tamed and reduced to a very restricted approach to our political problems.
Let’s be clear: There are some real differences between Democrats and Republicans, but they rest on similar assumptions about the way our political system should work. Neither side rejects the existence of a national bank and a national fiat currency, the right of America to project power into other nations and interfere in their affairs, the need to keep the income tax as a major source of government revenue, and so on. They differ in degree and in approach, but not in fundamental assumptions.
In times of stability, simplified ecosystems can work well for extended periods of time. When faced with sudden crises, they’re fragile. America’s political ecosystem is showing itself less and less able to handle change, and that should concern all of us, including Democrats and Republicans. We need new ideas and new assumptions as vital parts of our politics. They aren’t spoilers or distractions, but a critical element of our political health. They should receive serious attention from the press, not as political curiosities, but as political necessities.
The GOP and the Democrats should no more be blamed for their opposition to third parties than wolves should be blamed for wanting to keep other predators away from their food supply. The media have been on the side of the wolves. It’s time they were on the side of a healthy ecosystem. It’s time they were on the side of America.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. His vote belongs to no one but him, and he’ll cast it for whom he pleases. If anyone else thinks he deserves it, he’ll have to earn it. He tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
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