Riding my bike in my Michigan neighborhood, I came upon a lawn sign. Well-designed, immaculately produced, it was an incongruous sight this early in the election season. Actually, it was an incongruous sight, period. It read "Kennedy 2024!"
Referring, of course, to the purported candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr, ostensibly for the Democratic nomination, but more likely for a third-party run at the presidency.
Either would be quixotic, but there are plenty of fools out there who’ll be happy to give him money. Which — Kennedy wealth notwithstanding — he reputedly needs.
This seemed a good starting point for a rant I’ve had in mind for some time.
Once again, third-party candidates are rearing their ugly heads. And once again, we have to worry that too many of our fellow citizens will get hornswoggled, to the detriment of the rest of us.
Under our warped presidential election process, with its deeply undemocratic electoral college system, the most a third party can do is screw up another party's chances. And when an election turns on the fortunes of five or six "battleground" states, that can be fatal.
Consequently, the motives of these candidates are inevitably suspect, and their candidacies tend to resemble scams. They take advantage of the perceived grievances of people in the “sensible center,” usually by staking out some “middle path” that avoids “the extremes on both sides.”
These are messages that suck people in, separate them from their money, then fail completely at the ballot box — if they even get that far.
You can take it as a given that third parties fail. The only question is how loudly do they fail.
Ross Perot failed loudly in 1992. He won a few counties. He put a scare into both major parties. And he spent a huge chunk of his own money on what amounted to a vanity campaign.
Ralph Nader’s candidacy might not have tipped the 2000 election in favor of George W. Bush, but the numbers were close enough, especially in Florida, to make you wonder what the world would now look like had Al Gore won that race.
In the blighted election of 2016, Jill Stein might not have won enough votes to actually flip any states to Trump, but we still wonder what she was doing in the race at all. We especially wonder what she was doing in Russia for that famous photo-op dinner with Putin and Mike Flynn. From what we’ve since found out about Russia’s role in that particular election, the words ‘useful idiot’ come to mind.
So when I hear about some cynical third-party movement — RFK Jr, say, or the No Labels cabal — flexing their muscles in public, I try to ignore them and hope they’ll go away.
But third parties are seductive to those who don’t think it through. They latch on to glittery ideas that are appealing on their face, but deeply dangerous underneath.
The worst of these ideas is that "both sides are equally bad." There are people who will say, almost by rote, that “politicians are all the same,” that they should “reach across the aisle,” that they should work to "find a middle ground."
It all sounds high-minded and common-sensical, but it's utter bullshit. It’s a narrative concocted by the media to gin up controversy, and it’s a key part of virtually every third-party pitch.
The media will never acknowledge that we already have a middle ground. That we, as a society, have long agreed on a set of fundamental values. They might not be precisely defined, but they are no less powerful for that. And most of us buy into them.
Most of us want to see democracy, for all its flaws, continue. Most of us want to see basic fairness, rule of law, economic security, and a set of rights we can depend on. Most of us want a planet we can pass on to our children without embarrassment.
This is the middle ground. There's nothing radical, nothing leftist, nothing that would even be controversial, had Republicans — aided and abetted by a 24/7 propaganda machine — not made it so.
So next time someone tells you that some third-party candidate “will look to find the middle ground,” ask them how it got lost in the first place.
Which brings us to a related fallacy. How many times this week have you heard one pundit or another lament how “polarized” we’ve become as a nation?
They’re being paid to say that, of course. They know perfectly well that we’re not polarized, we’re manipulated.
There is nothing outrageous about the values most of us share. But we’ve been manipulated into thinking those values are somehow suspect. That things like reproductive rights and concern for the environment are radical ideas that need defending, or need to be tempered by more “reasonable” voices.
And it works. It’s amazing how progressive minds can so often be swayed by what is essentially right-wing propaganda masquerading as conventional wisdom.
To see with utter clarity how this has shaped even liberal thinking, look no further than the thirty-year hatchet job that was done on Hillary Clinton.
From the minute her husband took office in 1992, they went after her. The GOP, the right-wing media, the whole slime machine. They couldn’t stand the idea of a smart, politically savvy woman, and they sponsored the undermining of her every public — or private — moment. They impeached her husband over nothing and, over the years, they made up one fake “scandal” after another, convincing the more gullible among us that she must’ve been guilty of something, and therefore couldn’t be trusted.
In 2008, she was by far the more qualified candidate — and arguably the better choice — but we fell in love with Barack Obama instead.
No regrets about that. We needed him for reasons beyond his qualifications. But while we were choosing between them, many of us would come to think, even out loud, that Hillary Clinton couldn’t be trusted. Which was exactly what we were conditioned to think after three decades of right-wing smears. Through sheer repetition, perception had become reality. Even on the left.
In other words, by the election of 2016, thirty years of baked-in lies had taken their toll, and there were plenty of Democrats who held their noses as they voted for Hillary.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was that too many of us went all blasé about politics, and just couldn’t be bothered to vote. We told ourselves that all politicians are the same, that Washington is fucked up, that "I don’t like Donald Trump but I can’t bring myself to vote for Hillary."
Far too many of us stayed home. And far too many of us got conned into voting for “green” Jill Stein or “libertarian” Gary Johnson. I’m guessing there was — and still is — a ton of buyer’s remorse about those votes.
Because people now understand that they didn’t take their civic responsibilities seriously in 2016, and we’ve all paid a huge price for it. We need to think about that, next time some “outsider” promises to “work with both sides” to “end the deadlock in Washington,” or something equally shiny and insipid.
Maybe someday a third party will make sense in this country. But in the here-and-now — and for the foreseeable future — our choices couldn’t be more binary:
Democracy on, democracy off. Let’s not get sucked into thinking there’s some magical third way that we’re all, somehow, missing.