President Obama said in a radio interview, “If you vote for a third-party candidate who’s got no chance to win, that’s a vote for Trump.” But for those planning to vote third party, it’s not simply the prospect of a President Trump that worries me. It’s also the idea that voting Libertarian or Green actually sets back the hope of growing those movements. Worst of all, voting third party represents an inability to compromise—and the ability to compromise is perhaps the most important characteristic necessary for democracy to survive.
Let’s set aside the third party candidates—Jill Stein of the Green Party and the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson—and whether they have the abilities needed to serve as President. For purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t much matter—they both have their strengths and weaknesses, as does Hillary Clinton. But unlike voting for Ms. Clinton, voting for a third-party candidate constitutes a triple threat to democracy. Why do I say this?
First, because Donald Trump is, himself, a threat to our country’s democracy. I won’t rehash all the ways Mr. Trump is unfit to lead our nation. I doubt anyone who reads this blog supports his bid for the White House. But I will note that for people like my clients–immigrants and refugees from majority-Muslim nations–this election is about life or death. Mr. Trump has threatened that if he wins the presidency, he would return Syrian refugees to their war-torn region: “If I won, they’re going back,” he’s said. Scapegoating refugees and immigrants is nothing new, but as a Jew whose European relatives were destroyed by Hitler, I know very well where this type of talk ultimately leads.
Further, Mr. Trump’s repeated comments about putting Hillary Clinton in jail reveal quite clearly his fundamental inability to lead a democratic society. It’s not just Ms. Clinton, by the way. Anyone who disagrees with Mr. Trump on policy, or who stands in the way of his bid for power is “stupid” or a “liar” or “corrupt” or a “fat pig” or should be thrown in jail (or worse). Maybe an uncompromising bully can succeed in the world of business, but that’s not how politics—particularly democratic politics—works. As President, you have to be able to talk to people who disagree with you: Leaders of other nations, members of Congress, governors, civic and business leaders. Even with regard to rivals, you have to find common ground in order to make progress and keep our country safe. Also, in a democracy, you have to make arguments to convince your opponents that you are correct. You have to persuade them. It’s hard to get cooperation or build coalitions when you threaten or denigrate anyone who disagrees with you. Indeed, this approach to governing is antithetical to democracy.
Second, I believe that voting for either third party candidate will set back progress towards a more viable multi-party (as opposed to two-party) system. I felt the same way about Bernie Sanders, even though his policies more closely align with my own beliefs. For a third party candidate to succeed in office, he or she needs a viable foundation upon which to govern. I am a member of the Green Party, and I will vote Green for the down-ballot candidates. For a Green Party (or Libertarian) candidate to successfully lead our nation, we need third-party governors, mayors, members of Congress, etc. This is how a movement is built: From the bottom up. It takes time, patience, and commitment. More, it takes many people willing to devote themselves to lower-profile races. If we had dozens of elected officials from the Green Party serving in local offices, we would be more ready for a Green President (ditto for the Libertarians). Without that, a third-party President would have no base to build upon, and I believe such a President could accomplish little. In this way, the third-parties’ focus on the presidency distracts from the real work of building a viable alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. And this, I believe, is bad for our democracy.
Finally, voting for a third party candidate threatens our democracy because it represents an inability to compromise. Compromise being essential to any democratic society.
Jill Stein has argued that voters should not have to choose a “lesser evil,” that she—and presumably Gary Johnson—represent a third way. This is false. Polling and social science data demonstrate that neither third-party candidate can win this election. Indeed, Gary Johnson—who is more popular than Jill Stein—has less than a 2% chance of winning even one electoral vote! Maybe you don’t believe the polls. Maybe you also think that global warming is a fraud, that cigarettes don’t cause cancer, and that vaccines cause autism. If so, you are probably voting for Donald Trump already. But if you live in the real, evidence-based world, here is some (non) news: Global warming is real, cigarettes do cause cancer, vaccines do not cause autism, and neither third-party candidate has any chance to win this election.
Perhaps you see your third-party vote as a boycott of “The System.” But that argument fails as well. If you don’t like the corporate policies of, say, Starbucks, you can stop buying their coffee and hope that the economic impact of losing your business will cause them to change their ways. But that’s not how it works with elections. “Boycotting” the election because you oppose the “lesser evil” only serves to empower the greater evil. It’s as if boycotting Starbucks would encourage them to continue the very policies you oppose. In other words, boycotting the election will have the exact opposite effect of what was hoped for.
We live in a democratic republic. If we had a different system—like a parliamentary democracy—voting third party might make sense. Once the elected officials are in office, they themselves would have to make the compromises necessary to forge a ruling coalition. But in our system, we, the people, elect a President. We have to make those compromises ourselves. And of course, making compromises is not easy—not getting your way never is. But that is our system, and for now at least, this is our choice: Vote for Hillary Clinton or for Donald Trump. The others are just a dangerous distraction from reality.