A Third-Party Voter Makes His Case (and I Dissent)

The Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson. (Jim Young / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader in New York writes about the way he is casting his vote. He also asks a question, for which my answer is below.

From the reader:

As a two-time Obama voter and Obama fan, I am not at all enthusiastic about HRC and plan to vote Gary Johnson to register my unease with her. Your views on Trump are well known, but I would like to know: what do you think of HRC, not as an alternative to Trump per se—who’s obviously so much worse—but as an affirmative choice for president?

Put another way, if you set aside the idea of influencing the outcome / blocking Trump and instead focus on voting as an act of affirmation, do you actively support HRC despite her flaws and why? Do you think we should feel good that she will be president? I have seen no evidence of her having “learned” from past ethical missteps or foreign policy misjudgments. My own views are below, and I see three main negatives in HRC.

  1. Her poor judgment and paranoid streak (see: email fiasco) are not just unappealing, but undermine her effectiveness when they blow up in her face. This pattern will continue into her presidency.
  1. The nexus of public service and personal enrichment known as Clinton Inc., regardless of whether it rises to the level of actual corruption. (That they’ve figured out how to land just shy of criminality almost makes the whole thing worse.)
  1. Her foreign policy will be conventionally hawkish, with all the unnecessary / counterproductive use of resources that entails. Her presidency will be paralyzed domestically by unprecedentedly fierce opposition, so foreign policy will be the only arena where she can demonstrate “effectiveness.” This increases the risk of ill-conceived misadventures abroad for the sake of “doing something”—e.g. I expect the U.S. will be dragged into a morass in Syria that Obama has largely resisted. Her clearly telegraphed Syria policy will cost a lot of money; American servicemen will die; and it will worsen terrorist blowback from the Middle East. And this is to say nothing about new crises she’ll be faced with.

These negatives bother me very much—but they’re livable.

***

The negatives against Trump are overwhelming and intolerable, and stem only partly from his policies (which I do believe will be worse for America). Cracking down on immigration, banning Muslims or “extreme vetting” of foreign visitors, trade protectionism, massive unfunded tax cuts, haircutting the national debt—all of these will be worse for the country IMO….

But I’m even more swayed by Trump’s farcically, outrageously unfit temperament for the presidency. As prolifically chronicled in his Twitter feed, in the context of the U.S. presidency, Trump is a man of unprecedented pettiness, vulgarity, sensitivity to perceived slights, and emotional immaturity.

Yes, Clinton’s administration will be 50%+ preoccupied with fending off sundry investigations, inquiries, commissions, inquests, and controversies—some her own fault, others concocted by detractors. But President Trump will be 50%+ preoccupied with obsessively reading his own press, answering slights, and settling a continuous flow of spats, feuds, arguments, tizzies, vendettas, quarrels, and brouhahas—whether with b-list celebrities like Rosie O’Donnell and Alicia Machado, members of the press, bureaucrats and elected officials, or foreign leaders.

Why is that significant? Because it’s a near-certainty that he will re-purpose the powers of the presidency in general—most ominously including the U.S. military—as a vehicle for settling disputes, saving face, getting the last word, and asserting dominance. And he’ll be equally pliable by flatterers and favor-curriers, within his administration or without, domestic or foreign—including foreign despots much cleverer, more strategic than he is.

His decisions will be guided by emotion, vanity, and ego first, and a rigorous calculation of the national interest only a distant second. Not because he wants them to be, but because he can’t help it. By its very nature, this setup makes it literally impossible to predict what those decisions may be, except that they will bear only an incidental relation to what’s best for the country.

With Clinton, you know what you’re getting: a basically conventional policy offering—left of center domestically, relatively hawkish and interventionist abroad—combined with likely ethical and/or legal lapses; an unhealthy degree of secrecy / paranoia; probably some fresh embarrassments courtesy of Bill’s sex addiction (which I assume is alive and well); and maybe even health problems of some severity.

But the negatives are known and bounded. Either she has a decent, effective, scandal-free presidency; or she engages in various scandals, whether or not she gets away with it. But that’s the range of outcomes. Not all are desirable, but all are survivable. She may well blow up her presidency, sure—but what could she conceivably do that would be catastrophic not just to her legacy, but to the country? HRC’s range of outcomes is between “tolerable” and “pretty shitty,” with a non-zero if remote chance of “good.”

With Trump, we have no idea what we’re getting. The range of outcomes is unbounded and skewed to the negative. He could be great—one of the best. He could be Reagan Redux, as some have hoped. But he could also be catastrophic. Almost nothing is too far-fetched, too fantastical, to put in the realm of possibility. He could be the most negatively consequential president of the post-war era. Why not, given that he gets into 3 a.m. Twitter feuds with 1990s Venezuelan beauty queens while ostensibly running for president?

Forget about his hucksterism, his profound vulgarity and tackiness, his trail of credible sexual assault accusers, his policy ignorance and lack of curiosity… All bad things, but the dispositive issue for me is the signature Trump constellation of vindictiveness, vainglory, impulsiveness, and an ultra-fragile sense of pride. He could offer the best set of policies imaginable, and it wouldn’t matter. Those traits alone still make him a gamble that neither the status quo nor the many flaws of HRC are so bad as to justify.

So, if I’m casting the deciding vote, there is no contest: in this particularly loathsome election, HRC is the only sound choice. Thankfully, I’m not in that position and I do consider a third party vote a perfectly honorable thing to do in this cycle.

***

Like the reader, I vote in a jurisdiction whose Electoral College result is not in question—for him, New York; for me, D.C. Unlike him, I think it’s important to cast a vote for one of the two candidates with a chance of becoming president, which in my case means voting for Hillary Clinton.

I didn’t write The Atlantic’s unusual (third time in 159 years) editorial endorsing Clinton, but I agree with its logic. Essentially: Hillary Clinton is a candidate of clear strengths and some very well-known weaknesses. Her foreign policy instincts and record are more hawkish than I would choose, which is the main reason I preferred Barack Obama in the Democratic primary eight years ago. In principle, it would be better if two families, Bush and Clinton, had not supplied four out of five successive presidents, which will be the case if she wins. But also in principle, it is long past time to have a female president, and if it doesn’t happen now it could be quite a while.

Most of all, as the reader points out, her weaknesses are known. Apart from a million such discussions from other people, I wrote about them recently here and here. There’s zero risk they’ll go undetected. There is a non-zero chance she might adjust and learn.

In contrast, her strengths have been taken for granted or under-appreciated. For evidence I’ll rest my case on these past three debates, since I’ve written so much about them. In terms of knowledge, she was never at a loss. In terms of poise and under-stress self-control, she had it while her adversary manifestly did not. (“Such a nasty woman.”) In terms of strategic planning, she had a plan and carried it out, as opposed to Brownian Motion on the other side. And all of this, “backwards and in high heels”-fashion, while dealing with judgments of her as a “shrill” or “harsh” woman that would not have been made of a man.

She was popular with her colleagues of both parties when she was in the Senate. She had a sky-high public popularity rating when she was Secretary of State:

Gallup poll in 2011

As president she would do some things that I, personally, would be enthusiastic about, and others I would not like. But in all cases, from my perspective, she would be competent, intelligent, and serious about the job.

Since the real-world alternative is a someone who is ignorant, impetuous, and contemptuous of both the rules and traditions on which our democracy is based, with no hesitation I say: vote for her, and work out the problems later on. They’re the kind of problems our political system is supposed to cope with. The alternative is a problem for the system itself (as Conor Friedersdorf has argued here).

And to my taste, the third-party alternative of saying “Oh, there’s something wrong with them both, I’ll vote for this other person” is wrong on the merits (Gary Johnson has his obvious weaknesses) and also in its long-term implications. Hillary Clinton, with her strengths and flaws, is the alternative to Donald Trump six days from now. Voting for her is a recognition of that reality; it adds to her popular vote as well as Electoral College strength, both of which matter for her (sure to be challenged) legitimacy; and it gives the voter better karmic standing to hold her accountable afterwards.

My vote in D.C. doesn’t “matter,” but it matters to me.