by Akim Reinhardt
I’ve never voted for a major party presidential candidate.
In 1988, the first time I was old enough to cast a ballot, I declined. Just shy of my 21st birthday, I was an angry young man living in a Midwestern college town. I was cynical. I was determined not to be anyone’s chump. I was convinced my vote didn’t make a difference. My older girlfriend (24) was riveted by the showdown between Michael Dukakis and George H. Bush, so I followed matters through her eyes. I remember Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” zinger to Dan Quayle in the vice presidential debates. And I remember it not being enough to overcome Dukakis’ disastrous campaign, which squandered a 17-point summertime lead. After it was all over, I eventually came to feel that there had to be a better way. Perhaps I shouldn’t simply sit on my thumbs just because I didn’t like either candidate.
By 1992, living back home in New York City, I was more engaged. But not in the manner that drove so many twenty-somethings into the arms of a young, smiling Bill Clinton, who was so keen to feel everyone’s pain, to “rap” with the kids on MTV, and barely kinda cop to maybe having once smoked cannabis. No, when I say I was more engaged, I mean I attended a Halloween costume party dressed as a young James Stockdale. For those of you who don’t remember, Stockdale was independent billionaire H. Ross Perot’s running mate. And long before John McCain ever made a run at the national ticket, Stockdale already had “Survived a Vietnam Prison Camp” on his resumé. At the time, Perot and Stockdale looked like the perfect vehicle for expressing my disgust with a broken, homogenized political system, and they got my vote.
In 1996, while living in Nebraska, I again voted for Perot. This time, however, it was more out of desperation than inspiration. The first time around I was eager to throw a monkey wrench at Washington. More than anything, I'd wanted to shake things up. I also hadn’t been alone. Perot scooped nearly a fifth of the popular vote in 1992, essentially clinching the election for Clinton. But in 1996, I punched his ticket out of exasperation. His crazy uncle routine, which had seemed charming in 1992, was tired and annoying by then (and apparently it’s since gotten worse).
And so I went into the booth, sighed, and pulled Perot's lever mostly because I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for either Clinton or Bob Dole. It was obvious long before Clinton ever stepped into the White House that he was a lying piece of shit. Four years in the White House had only further exposed him as a pandering, philandering, center-right, NAFTA-whoring scumbag (There truly is no joy in saying “I told you so.”). And back then, before the Republican Party went completely bat shit crazy, guys like Bob Dole and George H. Bush seemed pretty goddamned awful. Nowadays, by comparison they seem like old, white versions of Barack Obama.
In 2000, while living in Arizona, I voted for Ralph Nader. If you have a problem with that, you can go straight the fuck to hell. First of all, Arizona wasn’t in play. None of the states I’ve lived in ever were. Secondly, and much more important, the Democrats don’t own my vote. I own my vote. And I vote with my conscience, not yours or anyone else’s. That year my conscience was firmly dedicated to building a viable Green Party in the United States. In fact, I’m still a registered Green.
Of course George W. Bush turned out to be a disaster in most every way imaginable. And yes, Gore would probably have taken Florida if Nader hadn’t been on the ballot there. But Gore also would have taken Florida if the U.S. Supreme Court hadn’t issued a partisan 5-4 decision that handed the White House over to G.H.W.B.’s idiot son by a margin of just one electoral vote. Or, you know, maybe Gore could’ve just won his own home state of Tennessee, instead of losing it by 4 points. Or maybe he could’ve won any number of states where Nader was not remotely a factor. All he had to do was embrace his popular Clintonian antecedents instead of running from them, or take credit for a booming economy instead of the internet. I’m sorry, but that shit’s all on him, not Ralph Nader. Regardless, the bottom line is I’m not interested in those or any other what-if bellyaches. You got a problem with how the 2000 election turned out and wanna blame someone? Try laying it on the tens of millions of people who actually voted for Bush, if you’ve got the balls to have an actual conversation with any of the ones who aren’t related to you. I’m still proud to have voted for Nader in 2000.
However, I’m not so proud to have voted for him again in 2004. I wasn’t even proud of it at the time. By then we knew just what a monumental jerk-off Little Boy Bush was, dancing on the strings pulled by Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and the other neo-conservative blowhards. But I was living in Maryland, so once again it made no difference whatsoever. John Kerry won that state by a wide margin. So why was I reticent to vote for Nader again? Because he no longer was part of building something. If he’d taken 5% of the popular vote in 2000, the Green Party would have become eligible for public campaign funding. That was the real goal. Because if we’re ever going to have a viable national third party of any stripe, that will probably be the first step. But in 2004, Nader wasn’t running as a Green anymore. They’d moved on, yet he was determined to keep going. With no hope of winning and no party behind him, it seemed more like a vanity project than a candidacy with a larger purpose. Then again, Nader represented my beliefs far more than Kerry ever did, does, or will, so I shook my head and voted for Ralph one last time.
In 2008, there was no intriguing non-major party candidate. And I won’t cast a ballot for any candidate whose platform I don’t agree with just to make a point. Libertarian Bob Barr? Not a chance. Green candidate Cynthia McKinney? In my view she’s a prima dona with horrific priorities and a tenuous grasp on reality. And Nader’s third consecutive run was just pathetic. So I made a gift of my votes.
A dear friend of mine who had moved to the United States from Scotland in 1992, and was by then well on the path to citizenship (which he has since attained), had never been eligible to vote for the politicians who’d been spending his tax money lo these many years. So in 2008, I put a ribbon on my franchise and gave it to him. All of it. I brought him a sample ballot and had him fill it out completely, from President and Congress all the way down the line to local ballot initiatives and bond measures. He checked a box for every candidate and referendum, and on Election Day I cast votes according to his wishes. Whom we voted for that day shall forever remain between me and him.
Okay, it was for Barack Obama.
I watched the election at said friend’s house, cheering as one state after another fell to his column. It was truly remarkable. Even North Carolina? Indiana! The route was on. And afterwards we went to a great local bar where, as people danced in the streets, we had a toast and shed a tear.
Of course Obama’s been completely fucking mediocre since then. There have been some important accomplishments on gay rights and healthcare to name acouple. But then again, if you’re willing to look past his willingness to slaughter Afghani civilians, then your moral compass is so askew that I don’t really care what you think. Not that it has to preclude you from voting for him, but it is one glaring and horrific example of him falling far short of what I expect from an elected official.
However, at the time, Obama's 2008 victory was an important moment that we were honored to have played a small part in. It symbolized an incredible turning point in the sordid history of American race relations. I don’t regret the toast, and I’m still proud of that tear.
Anyway, I still think of it as my friend’s vote, not mine. I was going to do whatever he said no matter what, so as far as I’m concerned, I’ve still never voted for a major party candidate. And I’m proud of that too. But not for the same reasons as when this all began almost a quarter-century ago.
I no longer believe there aren’t any substantive difference between the Democrats and Republicans. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the differences were not terribly great except for a few select social policy issues like abortion and gun control. The Republicans were largely a center-right party and the Democrats were largely a centrist party. And with a government system predicated on compromise and dominated by a somewhat rational duopoly, policy shifts in most areas were often minimal regardless of who held power.
However, during the last decade, and particularly during the last several years, the Republican Party has gone off the rails. There’s no denying it anymore. And the scariest part is it’s not even issue-driven. This isn’t about the war in Iraq, or the economy, or abortion, or any of the other issues that generally contribute to the blue-red divide. This is about one of America’s major parties being overtaken by a wave of dogmatic anti-intellectualism. It’s about populism running amok. It’s about the lowest common denominator hitting rock bottom.
So will I finally vote, in earnestness and of my own volition, for a Democratic presidential candidate on November 6?
Probably not. I still live in Maryland, so it just doesn’t matter. Obama’s inevitable victory here may very come by a nearly 2:1 margin.
I don’t live in Florida or Ohio. Nothing’s riding on my presidential ballot. And that allows me the luxury of running with that small fraction of Americans still calling themselves “undecided.” However, unlike many undecided voters, my indecision doesn’t stem from not paying attention or having trouble figuring out whom I like better. I’ve already thought it through.
Truthfully, I don’t actually think Romney would be much worse than Obama if he came to Washington a split Congress. Mostly I think the guy stands for nothing; he’s a vain, shallow suit who’ll sign almost anything you put in front of him, and another split Congress would likely offer legislation very similar to most of the stuff Obama has rolled over for these last two years.
But then again, if Romney wins, it also probably means the Republicans have recaptured the Senate, or at least locked up 50 seats with V.P. Paul Ryan deciding tie votes. And that could be an utter disaster on many levels. So If you put a gun to my head, I’d punch a ballot for Obama in a heartbeat. But then again, it just doesn’t matter in Maryland, one of the bluest states in the nation.
So my undecided status isn’t the result of carelessness or confusion. Rather, it’s born from anxiety and ennui. Currently no candidate, major or minor, has captured my imagination. If we had a None of the Above choice on the ballot, as they do in Australia, I might very well go with that.
I do realize that the two parties are in fact drifting further and further apart on basic issues. Furthermore, I believe that the Republicans are not only championing very bad economic policies, but are also increasingly giving themselves over to lunatics and ignoramuses. And for the record, I’m talking primarily about their candidates, not their voters.
At the same time, however, none of that changes the larger, systemic problem: Both parties are still part of a lockstep duopoloy that maintains a vicious stranglehold on American politics.
So while for many people, the Republicans’ ongoing descent into madness reinforces the need to support the Democrats, I’m not there yet. Because I still think, at least for now, that the bigger problem than the Republicans themselves is the larger system: the Coke/Pepsi style duopoloy that the Republicans and Democrats mutually maintain, enriching themselves at the expense of the nation. I believe the ideological split between them is not yet as important as the endemic incompetence and malfeasance that they jointly propagate.
The problem isn’t that the two parties are the same. They’re not. The problem is that both parties belong to and thoroughly dominate the same broken system. I really do believe that their actions and interactions with each other are a big, perhaps even the biggest, obstacle to fixing the American political system. Together they form the tragic dialectic of American politics.
Of course there are limits. If the Republicans continue spiraling out of control, eventually I’ll come over to the Democrats as a practical matter of responsible behavior. However, I’m not quite there yet. I have yet to reach the point where I think we need the Democrats to ride in on their white horses to save us. Far from it.
Perhaps that’s because I’ve never, ever bought into the fear mongering that both parties love to indulge in: Vote for us because the alternative is too grim to consider.
I’ve never voted out of fear, much less the blind loyalty by which too many citizens treat politics like sports, supporting their team come hell or high water. Rather, I think it’s better to assess the situation with some courage and sobriety. I’d rather be pensive than panicked.
Of course that approach doesn’t make me right about any of the individual issues. But it does make me less likely to ignore just how broken the duopolistic American political system really is. I’m very troubled that it is still all but impossible for a third party candidate to get anywhere in American politics. That this remains truer than ever, even as one of the two major parties becomes a haven for the ignorant and the unhinged, only underscores the problem: The system is so thoroughly rigged in favor of the two major parties that the obstacles to entry are nearly insurmountable.
Most every other functioning democracy in the world has multiple parties represented in its national and regional legislatures, instead of just the same two over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. At the most basic level, there’s something very wrong with American politics, and voting for the Democrats won’t fix it.
But many people will continue to vote Democratic because they see it as a vote against the enemy. To me, at least for now, it’s just another vote in favor of a broken system.
If you live in a swing state, that’s one thing. But I don’t and neither do a large majority of Americans. Most of us can vote for whomever we want on Tuesday, including a smattering of minor league candidates, comfortable in the knowledge that it won’t affect the electoral outcome at all. Though if enough people do so, it has the potential to contribute to fundamental changes down the road. Sadly, however, most folks, even those unhappy with both the Dems and the Reps, just keep tossing votes at candidates and parties that don’t inspire them.
And boy are there a lot of Americans unhappy with both parties.
Get this. Nearly HALF of all Americans polled in July said they would be voting for “the lesser of two evils” in the upcoming election. Forty-six percent of them to be exact. That was one percentage point more than the amount of people who said they were actually excited to vote for one candidate or the other (the margin of error was 3%).
Despite everything, including the growing divergence between the parties, this is how half of the nation feels. And I’m with them. But the difference between most of them and myself is, I just can’t bring myself to do it. I can’t pull the lever for Barack Obama on November 6. Because not only has he been a mediocre president, but as a loyal Democrat he’s a big part of the duopolistic nightmare that is forever plaguing American politics.
Voting for the lesser of evils is still a vote for evil. And voting means too much to me to do that. I’d rather go back to being cynical and disengaged than vote for a candidate or a party that I don’t believe in to save me from exaggerated nightmare scenarios.
I’m not looking for purity or perfection. I understand that electoral politics is about compromise. But I simply refuse to vote for a party that I think is mostly hurting the country and degrading the political system, even if it’s better than the other party.
The system is broken and I refuse to contribute to its ongoing decline by voting for any of the perpetrators. Yes, the Republicans are doing more damage than the Democrats right now, I firmly believe that. But they’re both bad. And tens of millions of voters agree with me, even if we disagree on the solution.
But the current duopoly is not the solution. It’s the problem.
Akim Reinhardt blogs regluarly at The Public Professor.