Voting for a Third Party is Not the Same as Voting For Trump, and It’s Not “White Privilege”Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Politics Features Third Party
Why do you vote? It’s not a question people often answer, in part because we don’t generally ask. But think about it. What do you hope to get out of it?
Historically, voter turnout is highest during presidential elections, even though federal elections tend to impact the average person less than local elections. It’s irrational.
But god forbid you vote for a third party candidate, the punching bag du jour in the media over the last week. John Oliver took it on. My colleague Charles Dunst did as well. The basic formulation, fallacious at its core (more on this later) is a vote for a third party candidate is a vote for Trump.
What’s more, it’s white privilege. How nice it must be, the theory goes, to be so unaffected by policy that you can vote for a candidate who has no chance of winning. You aren’t affected by the racism, the bigotry, and the sexism (if you’re a white male). And that part is true.
But if you vote for Gary Johnson, you don’t also cast a ballot for Trump. That’s literally not how it works. Trump needs more votes than Clinton. Voting for Johnson means one less vote for Clinton, but it’s also means one less vote for Trump.
Therein lies the rub: The “your privilege is showing” argument really just serves to shame people into voting for Hillary Clinton. And that’s a potentially effective tactic, but let’s call it what it is. The irony is that the privilege lies with the (mostly white) writers who insist you vote for their preferred candidate or be ridiculed with accusations of veiled racism.
For the sake of argument though, let’s examine the practical claim further. In the Real Clear Politics polling average, Clinton leads 48.9% to 41.9%. In a four-way race, the poll is Clinton (45.9%), Trump (39%), Johnson (6.5%), Stein (2.4%).
The first thing that should stand out is that Clinton’s lead stays almost exactly the same with the third party candidates included, and is actually more valuable statistically since she and Trump are fighting for fewer people. This undercuts the notion that the third party candidates are siphoning votes from Democrats at some alarming pace.
Second, notice how the totals in each set change. In a two-way race, just over 90% of voter preference is represented. In the four-way race it’s 93%, implying undecided voters are the ones most likely to choose a third party candidate. This shouldn’t be a surprising result, given the polarized nature of our political landscape.
Not only does a third party seem to make it less likely, rather than more, that Clinton gets elected, but Trump is losing a bigger proportion of support to third party candidates. Clinton loses 2.5% to Trump’s 3% overall. It’s close enough to be within any margin of error, but that’s part of the point here: Third party candidates, at least this year, are most likely to take votes away from the candidates in equal proportion.
But a third party candidate can’t win, so why waste your vote? No, neither Gary Johnson nor Jill Stein have a snowball’s chance in the Electoral College of winning, but that’s not how democracy works.
I live in New York, where Clinton leads by 20 points in the Real Clear Politics average. In other words, a vote for Trump has almost no chance of being a factor. It would essentially be a protest vote even though he’s a major party candidate.
If I lived in Alabama, where Trump has a 24-point lead, a vote for Clinton has the same effect. Would those complaining about third party candidates likewise complain about a Clinton vote in Arkansas? Or Alabama?
Voting for a third party candidate isn’t any different in a practical sense from voting for any candidate. Unless you live in Ohio or Florida, any single vote is extremely unlikely to have a substantive impact on a federal election.
White privilege is erroneously thinking your vote matters at all. In practical terms, it doesn’t—you have a roughly 60-million-to-1 chance of casting a deciding vote in an election. The Electoral College was set up specifically to avoid such an outcome.
Whether you vote for a major party candidate or not, you are unlikely to affect the outcome, which means the outcome shouldn’t actually be a driving factor in your decision-making process.
Ironically, what commentators like Dunst are asking is for people to cast a protest vote for Clinton in favor of casting a protest ballot for someone else, potentially compromising their own values in the process.
Not only is it highly unlikely your vote will matter in terms of the outcome of an election, but it’s even less likely to have an impact on policy.
The last four years are a perfect example. Millions cast their ballots for Barack Obama, knowing full well a Republican majority in Congress was going to mean obstructionism. The GOP stated it outright.
Congress hasn’t made significant changes to Medicare or Medicaid, besides expanding them (the ACA), since those programs were founded. Social Security could be insolvent in my lifetime. Federal education policy is feckless when it’s not being harmful.
Executive and congressional economic policy has done little to ameliorate the concerns of working and middle class Americans. Cultural and racial divides have been exacerbated rather than mitigated. Myopic foreign policy has led to myriad humanitarian crises in the Middle East.
It turns out, the federal government is a highly inefficient, slow-moving governing body.
So if my vote is unlikely to affect the outcome, and unlikely to matter anyway, then what I’m truly doing is voting for values. I’m voting for the candidate who best represents my vision for government and for the country.
If that’s true, then there’s no intellectually honest reason to attempt to persuade people against voting third party.
Trump deserves much of the criticism being leveled upon him at this point. A number of polls indicate Trump getting literally 0% support from people of color in certain parts of the country, which is almost certainly based on his indefatigable racism and bigotry. His support among women, cratering as his misogynistic actions and words burgeon, will likely cost him the election. He’s even underperforming Romney among non-college educated whites, which is basically a death knell.
He’s a terrible candidate, and has always been one. That’s a reason to vote for Clinton. But it’s also a reason to vote for Jill Stein. It’s a reason to vote for Gary Johnson.
The “if you don’t vote for Hillary, it’s a vote for Trump” notion is steeped in the liberal tradition of bed-wetting and faulty identity politics.
It’s incoherent for liberals to criticize Republicans for their attempt to suppress opposition voting through voter ID laws that disproportionately affect minority voters, then turn around and say, “But you have to vote for this candidate.”
The sub-text aims directly at Bernie Bros. These are people who supported Bernie Sanders and believe the system is fundamentally broken. What’s more, they believe Clinton is the living embodiment of that broken system, a big-money politician with deep ties to corporate interests, the big banks, and Wall Street. Might those people stay home? Might they vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson? Possibly, and that’s exactly the point the “Vote Hillary or else” crowd is trying to make. They need Sanders supports to win the election.
Not only does this miss the criticism entirely, it serves to support the underpinnings at their core. How can someone who already believes the system is fundamentally unfair be asked not only to play a game within the confines of that system, but support someone who perpetuates that very system?
We have a two party system because it’s easier, not because it’s fairer. And it’s only easier because it’s become culturally accepted and institutionalized. If enough people voted for a third party candidate, they would be part of the conversation.
“Don’t vote for a third party because they don’t matter” is a bad argument against something that only fails to matter specifically because not enough people vote for it. There are myriad reasons people support candidates. Painting with such a broad brush about that context usually results in erroneous conclusions.
As an example, I have a friend who lives in the South. Her family relies on the coal industry for their livelihood. She doesn’t like Trump, but a Democratic president’s energy policy could put her family at risk.
It’s not white privilege for her to believe she has to support a different candidate: It’s the height of rationality. Why is her perspective less important than yours? She gets one vote, same as you, and the most important constituency for any voter usually runs from lot line to lot line.
All politics is local, and it doesn’t get more local than your literal backyard. But no two backyards are exactly alike. Trump often runs in fourth place among black voters, meaning a greater number of black voters make up the constituencies of both third party candidates than they do a major party one. Gary Johnson has polled in the mid-teens among Latinos.
This notion of third party white privilege relies on the stereotype of overeducated middle and upper-middle class whites who fancy themselves progressive intellectuals or libertarians. And to be sure, Stein and Johnson likely have that cohort sewn up.
But it completely delegitimizes the voting preferences of people of color and women who support those candidates because they agree with them. That’s still a thing.
In an election where my vote is going to be as insignificant to the result as it will be to actual policy, then the only thing I have to grasp onto is my personal views. If Clinton doesn’t align with my views as much as another candidate does, then I owe it to myself and a more esoteric sense of democracy to cast my ballot accordingly.
More complaints than ever have been filed about the garbage plate of candidates we have to choose from this November. Shunning a third party candidate only makes that worse.
It’s this type of political condescension that leads people away from Clinton and toward an alternative candidate.
Trump rose to the fore by being an “alternative” candidate. Bernie Sanders did the same. It’s clear that Americans, in huge numbers, are rejecting the status quo. Asking them to ignore their own values to achieve some other political outcome goes against the very definition of a government by and for the people.
Democracy is the ultimate meritocracy: You get the government you deserve.