So everyone in the news media has been remarking now for months about how unpopular both candidates for President are. The narrative is that it’s the candidates that are the problem. I’ve heard on multiple occasions that both of them are running against the only person either of them can beat. But I’m not sure that narrative makes the most sense, and I think it masks what’s really happening.
It’s important to remember that both candidates quite handily won their primaries. Trump got 13 million votes, almost twice as much as second place. Clinton’s margin of victory was narrower due to only having one rival, but she got almost 16 million votes.
The US population right now is roughly 318 million. That means they got about 4% and 5% of the population, respectively, to vote for them in primary season. Only about 18% of the population even voted in the primaries.
So the question we have to ask is, if these candidates are so bad, how’d they win? All a “good candidate” would have to do to win either party is get more than 5% of the population excited about them. 5% is a pretty low number.
Furthermore, how many people have you heard say “both of these candidates suck, vote Johnson”? A ton right? He’s basically the default for people who really hate both of them. And he’s polling at 6%. Sure, you can probably assume there are a decent amount of people who don’t want to “waste a vote” by voting for someone who can’t win. But still, 6%? If these two candidates are as reprehensible as people claim, this kitty with a Hitler mustache would be polling at least 10% if it were the nominee of the biggest third party.
So here’s where I think the conventional wisdom is wrong.
#1. The Libertarian Party is a Fiasco
The unifying theme of libertarian ideology is “less government” which in and of itself probably 95% of Americans would agree with. And yet, when it comes down to specifics the whole thing falls apart.
Take for instance the most polarizing issue (somehow) in American politics: abortion. The Libertarian Party can’t seem to pick a stance on this. Their nominees have been going back and forth for the last few cycles. Some people who want smaller government think it’s not up to government to tell people what they can and cannot do with their bodies. Some people want smaller government but think life begins at conception, and therefore abortion is murder, and they don’t want a government so small that it doesn’t prohibit murder.
Admittedly, it shouldn’t be this way, but you just can’t be a political party without a stance on abortion. It’s not a coincidence that every Republican is ostensibly pro-life and every Democrat ostensibly pro-choice. There’s a huge chunk of the voting block that just won’t vote for you if you disagree with them on that issue.
If you as a party keep switching your stance, you make it impossible to build team loyalty. Should team loyalty be the primary criteria for a huge chunk of the voters? Of course not, that’s insane. Nonetheless it is. Humans are intensely tribal, and if you keep redefining your tribe every decade you lose out on that.
And then there’s the dogmatism we so often find with libertarians. They’re dogmatically anti-government far past the point where it makes sense. If there’s one thing history has shown us time and time again, from the slave trade to private prisons hiring lobbyists to write laws to lock more people up (just to take a couple pages from our own country’s relatively brief history) it’s that corporations will do anything to make more money. Anything. They’ll destroy the environment. They’ll raise the price of their healthcare until consumers are broke. They’ll create complex, nonsensical financial instruments to bilk retirees out of their pensions. They’ll sell products they know kill people, hide the evidence, and sue anyone who tries to prove otherwise. They’ll literally impoverish, incarcerate, enslave, and outright kill people to make billions.
If you think the market cures all, you’re an idiot and you’re part of the problem. I’m not saying that we don’t have too many regulations in many areas. We do. I’m not saying that our government isn’t spending too much and getting too little. It is. Most people agree on those.
But we need something to break the short-term profit motive when the needs of the many outweigh the desires of the few. Government is the only tool in many situations. Both Republicans and Democrats understand that, even if they love to haggle over specifics, but Libertarians rarely do.
#2 Gary Johnson’s Kind of a Dud
Don’t get me wrong, I like the guy fine. He’d be welcome at my barbecue. He seems like a nice guy. It’d be a little awkward because he’d be getting high in the first 15 minutes and it’s not that kind of crowd, but still he’s friendly and he did make a killer corn salad. So what if he got a little pushy about how The Wall was the best double album ever? We all know it’s Exile on Main Street.
As a politician, he’s not the worst. He’s not as dogmatic as a lot of libertarians. He’s willing to admit that there are some things the government does better than the private sector. Even if I think he’s woefully underestimating them (he doesn’t seem to see why private prisons are a bad idea, for instance) just the admission that it’s possible makes him seem reasonable by comparison.
But he’s kind of an intellectual lightweight. He believes in the gold standard, which is the economics equivalent of being an anti-vaxxer. He doesn’t know where Aleppo is. He’s got the charisma of a tofurkey sandwich, which honestly shouldn’t be in the top 10 reasons why we vote for a politician, but is probably number 1.
Again, Kitler would be polling at 10% in his shoes. I have yet to hear a cogent argument in favor of Johnson other than that he’s not the other two. In fact, pretty much every ad he’s run just says “Vote for me because I’m neither of them!”
It reminds me of my favorite marketing slogan of all time: Rally’s “You Gotta Eat.” Is there anything more defeatist than that in the entire world? They’re basically saying “hey, you’re required by the laws of basic biology to consume some amount of food pretty much every day. Technically the product we sell is food!” They’re not really trying to convince me to eat at Rally’s, because that’s impossible and they gave up on that years ago. So instead they’re just convincing me to eat in general, then slap their name on the screen and hope some of my eating might occur there just due to subconscious recognition that the product they sell is technically food. I can just see someone in their marketing department going “Well, we tried convincing them our food was good and that didn’t work. But what if we can just get ‘em to eat 20% more food in general….”
Gary Johnson is the Rally’s of politics. Trump and Clinton might suck, but they’re still at least trying to get you to vote for them instead of against someone else.
#3 Don’t Hate the Players, Hate the Game.
It’s not that Hillary and Trump are the worst candidates ever. Well, Trump might be, but Hillary isn’t much more popular than he is. Every single election cycle everyone says “I just don’t like either of them” while sipping their pumpkin spice whatevers and I want to punch them in the face for being that much of a cliché. For how many years now has South Park been trotting out the Giant Douche/Turd Sandwich trope? This is, at most, a slight exaggeration of the normal level.
It’s really the entire system that is broken. Like I said earlier, it would only have taken 5% of the electorate to actually like one politician to have them on stage right now. If it weren’t for term limits, Ronald Reagan’s corpse could have done that.
Quite simply the minute you label anyone a politician, the American public will hate them and start debating whether or not they’re worse than the alternatives. We don’t give people a chance because we see the whole system as hopelessly corrupt.
And if there were someone so popular they could overcome that, and so smart and competent that they actually should have a position of such great power, they’d probably not want the job. The CEO position of any publicly traded company is easier to obtain, requires less work, pays ten times as much, doesn’t require every detail of your life to be made public, and carries a substantially lower risk of assassination. Your private jet and bodyguards aren’t as cool, but you don’t need them to be because about a billion fewer people want you dead.
#4 The Republican Party is Hopelessly Broken
You already knew that. I’ve mentioned it before. When your party basically exists to make 1% of the population wealthy, and you need half of the voters to vote for you, you have to appeal to a lot of crazy people.
Hillary said half of Trump’s supporters were in the “basket of deplorables”. I don’t know if it’s really half, but that seems correct to within a reasonable margin. There are a lot of reasons to not like Hillary, and to be honest I’m not insensitive to the idea that the whole system is so hopelessly lost right now that just nuking it might be the best bet, so we can’t by any means chalk them all up to that. But a quick perusal of your Facebook feed will show it’s at least a good number of them.
That’s because quite simply you need the deplorables when your party really exists to lower taxes on the wealthy. Mitt Romney or John McCain probably had almost as many “deplorables”, they just were smart enough not to make it their strategy. They dog-whistled with abortion and guns like a good GOP candidate is supposed to. By actually just coming out and saying racist stuff, instead of just playing the old “Democrats are gonna take yer guns!” card, Trump’s been their favorite candidate yet.
I have to give credit to Romney for battling Trump every step of the way. He chose his loyalty to his country over his loyalty to his party. He saw what Trump could do to both and decided not to fall in line. Not endorsing Trump was literally the only thing I liked about Ted Cruz until he caved.
#5. When You’re At Rock Bottom, You Can’t Get Any Lower
On the plus side, the GOP has nowhere to go but up! The problem is it’s a hard climb.
When half of your support is the same “basket of deplorables” that make it impossible for you to win a general election, you’re in between a rock and a very racist hard spot.
See, the deplorables are as sick of the Republican Party as they are the Democrats. They hate gay people, and now gay marriage is legal. They hate minorities and we’ve got a black President, probably followed by a woman. They hate abortion and Roe hasn’t even come close to being overturned. They hate non-white, non-Christians, and yet both are growing demographics. They think our country should be Christian, but they’ve been watching biblical verses get removed from courthouses.
The Republican leadership, who again care only about making the ultra-wealthy ultra-wealthier have only been paying lip service to those ideals for decades. They use the deplorables’ religion to whip them into a fervor when it suits them, such as when climate change threatens oil company profits, and then give them nothing back at all.
So where do they go from here? My thought is quite simply they detach from both groups. They focus on sane smaller government. Reducing the military, reducing agricultural subsidies, making government agencies more efficient, privatizing the few that make sense, etc. It’s scary to them, because they risk losing both a chunk of their funding and a big chunk of their votes.
But they can also make a play for the middle. There are a lot of Americans who believe in smaller government but not total anarchy. Most Americans probably believe we need to get spending under control.
Let the deplorables try their hand on their own. They’ll fail. They just don’t add up to enough of the electorate and their influence is shrinking over time. As a poker player I knew used to say “In order to live, you must be willing to die.”