Even though I’m paid to be a political philosopher, there are few things I dislike more than talking about American politics. When it’s not depressing, it’s infuriating. I’m angry about my president killing foreign and American people at his discretion; I’m angry that we continue to ruin young people’s lives, destroy communities, and spend billions of dollars fighting a war on drugs that can’t be won; I’m angry that our government subsidizes big banks, big agribusiness, and big pharmaceutical companies while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet.
And I don’t like to be angry. Accordingly, I prefer to spend most of my time thinking about happier things: my family, my friends, my work. Even the new season of “Dexter” is cheery stuff by comparison.
So it takes a lot to get me to hold my nose and find my way to a polling booth. But this year, there’s someone running for president for whom I’m positively happy to vote: former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who, after an abortive and little-noticed attempt to secure the Republican nomination, is now running as the candidate of the Libertarian Party. He’s the only person running for president who opposes bombing Iran; he’s the only candidate who supports marriage equality as a fundamental constitutional right; he’s the only candidate who supports the immediate repeal of the PATRIOT and National Defense Authorization Acts; and he’s the only candidate who’s serious about fighting crony capitalism. I’m also pretty sure he’s also the only candidate who’s crowd-surfed at a campaign-related event. That seems like it ought to be worth something.
Of course, Johnson is running as neither a Democrat nor a Republican, which means that he’s almost certainly not going to win the election. And so, people tell me, I’m wasting my vote. Sometimes they’re even angry about it. How dare I waste my vote when so much is at stake in this election? A vote for Johnson might as well be a vote for that other guy, and we all know what a disaster it would be if he wins, right?
I don’t buy it. The idea seems to be that even if I like Johnson’s policies I should suck it up and vote for the lesser of two evils because 1) it matters a great deal whether Obama or Romney wins the election, and 2) my vote plays an important role in determining which of these two outcomes occurs. But both of these claims are flat-out wrong.
Regarding the first, it’s worth bearing in mind that differences in rhetoric do not always add up to differences in policy. Republicans talk the free-market talk, at least during primary season. But a different story emerges when we look at the actual policies they tend to produce. Sure, there are differences of degree. Obama would probably be a bit better on the war on drugs, immigration, and civil liberties (but still pretty awful, especially on that last one), while Romney might be a bit better on tax policy and, I don’t know, looking presidential. But taken as a whole, the policy positions of the two major candidates are close to indistinguishable. And it’s not an accident. It’s essentially a permanent feature of our first-past-the post political system, which gives candidates every incentive to cater to the whims of the median voter precisely because they feel safe that their more conservative (or more liberal) base will vote for them rather than waste their vote on a more radical but unelectable third-party candidate.