One day and counting. In thirty-six anxiety-soaked hours we are likely to have an idea of who will be the next President of the United States of America and, quite possibly, an indication of whether the “Great American Experiment” has failed. It is not an exaggeration to consider that the viability of long-term, large-scale representative democracy faces a symbolic referendum when the polls open tomorrow morning. Really.
Full disclosure: while Hillary Clinton wasn’t my original candidate of choice, I’ve come to respect her for her dogged perseverance in the face of ludicrous assaults — most notably the Benghazi embassy attack (blamed for security lapses following years of repeated funding reductions dictated by Republicans) and even more absurd email server hyperbole (in which her actions were perfectly legal and in keeping with historic precedents set by preceding republican administrations) –and, from her opponent and his allies, an unceasing hurricane of foaming-mouthed lies and invective. Through it all she stuck to her points, refused to sink to the barbaric tones being vomited from the other side, and maintained her dignity. She is a solid, if not particularly exciting candidate, and I mean her no disrespect when I say that I would vote for just about anyone standing against the craven demagogue the Republicans shat out as their choice this time around.
What I won’t be doing is voting for a third party candidate, nor can I respect the naive idealists determined to write in Bernie Sanders, or the clenched-jaws anti-system warriors getting ready to darken the oval next to Jill (Who?) Stein, that Libertarian guy, the other libertarian guy, or anyone from any hopped-up semi-serious party with an ax to grind and an interview to give — not even New Hampshire’s Vermin Supreme who, despite his considerable list of eccentricities, would still make a far superior President than would the Republicans’ resident Oompaloompa.
I just can’t help but look down my nose at the hubris of candidates, and their supporters, who materialize from the deep ether every four years as candidates for “third” (or fourth, fifth, sixth…) parties, but not because I’m satisfied with the very, very limited menu we’re given.
The idea of an outsider candidate, and the daydream of tearing down American political orthodoxy and building anew in the shadow of its ruins, is enticing, even intoxicating. Given the success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and its progressive influence on Clinton’s centrist core, I know I’m not alone. Sanders was, of course, the ideal candidate — a morally clean, long-tenured independent with a track record of walking the walk and a willingness to brandish big ideas. It may take another 20 years before we see someone possessing anything close to his tangibles — and therein lies the problem.
That person is surely not Jill Stein or Gary Roberts any more than it has been Ross Perot or the boob from Sunday morning television — what was his name? Pat Buchanan. Or Jerry Brown, or Ralph Nader, who despite being the best of the bunch, fell far short of what was needed to grind out a viable candidacy. Some of these people may have made perfectly adequate leaders, but the problem isn’t really them. They’re guilty by association. Who walks into an office and expects to be considered as a contender for any job with no experience and no background?
Some (mostly young) friends still chide me about “making a stand” and “sending a message” about the two-party system, and tell me that the stakes are always going to be high, and that at some point we need to accept short term losses — and the disastrous administrations that follow — as inevitable examples of losing battles but winning wars.
My grandfather would have called that a cockamamie idea. To me, it is just misguided, ignorant bullshit. Not only does that philosophy overlook the long-ranging tumult that would follow a Trump presidency — the likelihood of three (3!) far-right supreme court justice appointments alone would generate waves of regressive, authoritarian influence thirty years into the future, the repeal of Roe v. Wade, the adoption of climate change denial as a federal policy, the dissolution of military and trade alliances and alienation from those allies, increased economic stratification, and — though it is seldom talked about — the chilling revocation of first amendment free speech rights, the very cornerstone of our nation. Not only are these things — and the many other frightening changes that will quickly go into place — not worth the dissolution of the two-party precedent in American politics, they are changes from which a society never recovers. Indeed, we are facing the prospect of Trump’s “America Is Not Great” mantra as self-fulfilling prophecy.
None of this means that we do not desperately need louder and more varied opposition. I’m skeptical of multi-party governments in general, given the necessity of building political alliances and coalitions — a process that is somewhat approximated by the state elections and nominating conventions — but clearly we will benefit, particularly on the left, from more influence going to viable outliers, much in the way that the Republicans have their Teabaggers and their Evangelicals. Still, it is arrogant for advocates of these factions to demand a seat at the big table “just because.”
Voters will start taking third parties seriously when they begin to take the process seriously. That means no candidacies that are “sending a message.” When I see a viable candidate, with a history of vigorous civic engagement from the ground up, I’ll listen. In the mean time, I demand more work earning this legitimacy and viability. That means serving on local and regional commissions and boards as volunteers, running for and winning local elections right down to the level of school boards and town councils, mayors and commissioners — while identifying themselves and proponents of their ideologies. That is how the parties can be built, by legitimizing them in the community’s perceptions while building candidates who rise into state houses, leaderships, then congress, then the Senate, governorships, and on. Throwing out a didactic intellectual every 4 years to keep up the status quo really isn’t striving for much more than meeting the lowest requirements for parties to remain on the ballots — which is good for those working for a party, but gives nothing to the folks who support it.