Last week, four third-party U.S. presidential candidates had a debate in Chicago. As is usual in American politics, third-party debates tend to be all over the map: a mixture of completely loony ideas and eminently sensible ideas that no major candidate dares touch.
On the surface, I probably look like the kind of voter third-party candidates would have a good chance of reaching. I'm liberal enough that Obama has disappointed me pretty often, and I live in New York, a safe Democratic state, so there's no chance of my accidentally spoiling the election. Besides which, there's a great deal in the Green Party platform that I like, and Rocky Anderson, the Justice Party candidate, identifies as an agnostic.
But I'm not voting third-party this year. I'm voting for Barack Obama, and I wanted to explain why.
First: however much I like a candidate's rhetoric, saying and doing are two different things. Of course, I'd enthusiastically support some of the policies that Jill Stein or Rocky Anderson proposed. But that's just the point: the third-party presidential candidates can promise anything, because they know they have no chance of being elected. They can freely make extravagant promises, pledge their absolute ideological purity, knowing that they'll never have to deliver. By contrast, a candidate who knows he has a realistic chance of being elected isn't going to spoil it; he's going to fine-tune his message to appeal to the broadest possible swath of voters, which inevitably means he'll have to make compromises that infuriate partisans.
The other reason has to do with legitimacy, and this is where the popular vote does matter even if it doesn't strictly determine the outcome of the election. The Republicans have shown Obama nothing but hostility and obstructionism since the moment he took office, but even this scorched-earth political warfare would seem like peace in our time compared to what they'll do for the next four years if Romney wins the popular vote but loses the electoral vote. I have no illusions that they'll cooperate with Democrats no matter what happens, but a clear Obama victory might stun them into silence for a while - or better yet, provoke a bout of soul-searching that might result in them casting off the wingnuts and becoming more moderate again.
I'm not saying I endorse the two-party system. I'd love to have real alternatives. But the constrained choice of American politics can't be blamed on the superrich or the corporate-owned media; it's inherent to the structure of our democracy. Our elections are first-past-the-post, a rule which inevitably causes the spectrum of opinion to collapse into two dominant parties. It's doubtful that this will ever change unless we radically overhaul our voting system, although even alternatives like instant-runoff elections aren't immune to strategic voting.
In any case, I'm of the opinion that whenever possible, it's usually better to work within existing institutions than to try building infrastructure from scratch. The Democrats are far from perfect, but they're vastly superior to the Republicans in just about every way that matters. I happen to think that progressive Americans can do more good by remaining in the party and acting as a loyal opposition, counterbalancing pressure on Democratic politicians to move to the right. Leaving the party altogether just means that those pressures will go unanswered. (I said the same thing to an atheist activist who encouraged atheists not to vote.) No doubt there will be failures and disappointments, but I'll take real progress, however incremental, over being able to say that my ideological purity remained unsullied.
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