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Voting for a third party candidate in this election is the worst thing you can do for American democracy

By Paul Smalera
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Dear Millennials and other well-intentioned citizens:

Let’s leave aside the fact that Gary Johnson couldn’t name a single foreign leader on TV yesterday. And let’s forget that Jill Stein is squirrely about her feelings on vaccination science. Any vote for a third party candidate this election–whether Johnson, Stein or Mickey Mouse–will be doing a horrible disservice to American democracy. Allow me to explain.

I was in college during the 2000 election cycle. In Washington, DC, no less. It felt like tough times for America. We were coming off a government shutdown, the Lewinsky affair, and a sense that the dot com bubble was creating a strange phenomenon in our society: inequality. How quaint that all sounds in 2016.

At the time, many of us young voters viewed Al Gore as the antidote to both the problems of the late-era Clinton administration and the Republican-led Congress. He wasn’t slippery like Bill Clinton. Rather, he seemed to be a paragon of moral virtue—and smart to boot. His personality was a bit wooden, but, he was, well, likable enough.

Al Gore didn’t do himself many favors in his campaign or during the debates, nor could he really call on the then-toxic Bill Clinton to rally Americans to his side. But he was probably the most prepared candidate for the presidency we had ever had. He won the popular vote. But he lost the election after losing Florida in the electoral college. The state’s contentious recount was halted by the Supreme Court, leaving George. W. Bush ahead by just 537 votes.

Meanwhile, almost 100,000 people voted for Ralph Nader in Florida.

You’ll hear many people, including Nader, dispute the claim that those votes tilted the election for Bush. But the votes for Nader were undeniably consequential. They put George W. Bush over the top, and into the White House.

Voting for a third party candidate in this election will similarly put Donald Trump one vote closer to the White House. Enough of those votes could put Trump into the White House. As president. Of the United States of America.

I remember sitting in college lamenting Bush’s election, but failing to grasp its full significance. I couldn’t know at the time how his eight years in office would completely upend the America I had grown up in, transforming it into something that no longer feels familiar and safe, the way it once did. The attacks of September 11th happened during Bush’s term, and the response–two largely unrelated wars that drained America’s treasury and goodwill–is a reminder of what can happen when an unprepared president is faced with an international and domestic crisis.

Bush legalized unprecedented domestic surveillance, the torture of civilians, and created the Hellscape of Guantanamo Bay, where our enemies, many radicalized by those two spurious wars, are held as living martyrs. They inspire a new generation to attack western liberties and American soil.

Meanwhile, the massive Bush tax cuts for the wealthy turned the Clinton era budget surplus–yes, we had a budget surplus!–into a massive new deficit, and gave rise to the 1%, whose wealth and influence has distorted our economy and society in untold ways.

Bush’s economic policies caused the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression; a crash in which millions of people lost homes they could not afford, fueled by a banking industry that operated without meaningful oversight or regulation. A crash, by the way, that Donald Trump rooted for. This crash also led to the rise of the Tea Party and the alt-right movement, which hopes to win this election with the help of white, disaffected voters whose lives president Bush made demonstrably worse.

His administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina was criminally inept. At least 1,836 people, many of them poor, black, sick, very young or very old, died unnecessarily. Hundreds of thousands of others were displaced for years—some permanently. I visited the Ninth Ward a year after Katrina. It was still the kind of scene that isn’t supposed to happen in America, and yet, it did.

It’s very hard for a president to effect positive change on society–progress is halting, grinding work. Political coalition building—the kind that involves people, not fighter jets—is hard work. But as we’ve seen, it’s incredibly easy for a president’s policies to completely unravel the fabric of nation, to alter, perhaps forever, what our country is, and what it stands for in the world.

Bush’s successor was a transformational candidate. Barack Obama has spent most of his time in office attempting to undo Bush’s disastrous foreign and domestic policies. It turned out he wasn’t a perfect politician. And even he has admitted that he has not done enough to help rally a new generation of young Democrats to inherit his mantle. Instead, the Democratic nominee this year is the most prepared candidate for the office ever (including Al Gore), but also someone who also comes with the baggage of the 1990s and the Clinton administration. Does all this sound familiar?

Hillary Clinton is losing millennial voters–i.e., you–to third party candidates, the way Gore lost young, idealistic voters to Ralph Nader nearly a generation ago. Many of these young people seem convinced–as many were in 2000–that neither major party is interested in sound policymaking or really cares about their plight. That they are the same. After two terms of George W. Bush and two terms of Barack Obama, this is demonstrably wrong, in every area from foreign policy to the protection of our Constitutional rights.

Michelle Obama hugging George W. Bush for a second does not mean her husband has suddenly embraced his policies and worldview. That the Clintons have a family friendship with the Bushes is not a valid policy argument against a Hillary Clinton presidency–it’s an indication of basic civility between professional colleagues. It’s getting a drink with Steve from sales, even if you don’t really like the kind of music he listens to.

The choice in front of Americans today could not be starker. A vote against Hillary Clinton is a vote for demagoguery, for racism, for inequality, for xenophobia, for white supremacism, and for hate, no matter who else you mark your ballot for.

Yes, our system of government is clearly in need of reform–gerrymandering, campaign finance, the lobbying revolving door, and much more that needs to be addressed. But our society does not need to be destroyed for that reform to take place.

The idea of third party candidates is not wrong. But America can’t afford votes for doomed third party candidates during the most consequential presidential election in its history. If I may offer a suggestion: vote for third party candidates for a state or local offices–run for those offices yourself–and then work to build a grassroots movement that may one day lead to fielding a viable national contender.

In the meantime, please take it from someone who remembers a different time in America–a time that had its flaws, but also benefitted from a profound sense of patriotism, compassion, fairness and decency—who you vote for as our next president, especially if they have no real chance of winning, matters far more than you may think.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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