Mike Rowe makes a good argument in support of the idea that if you cannot be bothered to educate yourself on issues and political worldviews, then perhaps you should not vote. He argues that voting is a right, like the 2nd Amendment; and, like the 2nd amendment, that right is not a duty. You are not obligated to own a gun that you do not know how to use, and you are not obligated to vote for leaders whose positions you do not understand.
I take a different view. It is perhaps not a coincidence that I think that gun safety training should be mandatory for all Americans. Because I believe that in a country where gun ownership is a right, you have the obligation to gain a functional understanding of what guns are and how they work even if you choose not to own or operate them. Likewise, I believe that all Americans have an obligation to educate themselves about our political system and to make their voices heard, even if they do not choose to vote for one of the two major party candidates.
Even if your vote goes against mine.
Even if your vote is for someone who can't win.
In fact, especially if your vote is for someone who can't win.
This is probably the image you have of US electoral maps. The 2004 electoral map that was seared into the American consciousness as the modern normal polarization. The common phrase in 2004 was the United States of Canada and Jesusland. For the last quarter century this has essentially been the political partitioning of the USA. In any given election there has been variation in battlefield states, but the essential shape of the geographic divisions stays pretty stable. 2004 was unusual in having all of the battleground states vote Republican, but this is essentially the electoral world that more than 60% of Americans have known. If you are under 46 then you have not voted in an election where the outcome was not dictated largely by geographically determined tribalism mixed with a smattering of battleground states. For most of us, presidential elections have essentially been the urban archipelago against the rest of the country.
Sure, in any given election there are factors that can sway certain individual states. Bill Clinton was able to swing more Southern States along the Mississippi than subsequent Democrats, but even in 2012's very lopsided electoral victory, the basic shape of the American divide remains visible.
But it wasn't always this way. The major parties did not always have the luxury of simply having to appeal to fractured demographics. Once upon a time Politicians tried to persuade the whole county that they were the better candidate. We used to see electoral maps like:
But this doesn't answer the question of who you should vote for, or why.
Obviously, if you feel that one of the two major party candidates truly represents a political philosophy that you support then you should vote for that candidate. However, since both candidates have majority unfavorable ratings, the chances are very good that you do not feel that either candidate is a good candidate.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I actually do like Hillary Clinton, and I think she is an excellent candidate, as I have written in the past. However, my personal support of Hillary in this election, and my abhorrence of Trump is not the basis for this post, nor is it tied to the party affiliation of either candidate.)
For a great many Americans pondering the candidates this election, the idea of choosing between the lesser of two evils has never been more extreme. If, as immortalized in the ERB between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the 2012 election was seen as choosing the "shiniest of two turds," the 2016 election is seen by many as choosing between two world devouring devils. Do you vote for the evil treasonous Killary, or the racist nationalist Drumpf?
My position is that, if you feel that way, you should vote Libertarian. It is never wrong to vote your conscience, and if you cannot bring yourself to vote for any of these three options, then feel free to write or vote for the candidate of your choice. But a vote for Johnson should not be viewed as simply a vote against either of the two main candidates, it can be a vote for a future in which the parties actually have to appeal to the country, not just their bases.
The widespread dissatisfaction with the two main parties is nothing new. And yet, despite quadrennial griping about choosing between the lesser of two evils, in election after election only two candidates get any electoral votes. The last time that any third party candidate got an electoral vote was 44 years ago. And in that election the American Independent Party (AIP) won as many states as the Democratic Party.
(If it is unclear what issue the AIP campaigned on, the 1968 electoral map should make it clear. The AIP began as a segregationist party working to undo the Civil Rights Movement.)
Both of these maps reveal a very different America from the one we know today. It should come as no surprise that rapid change in issues surrounding civil rights can cause major instability. The 1960's were marked by massive social changes and upheaval, and that upheaval marked the last time that large numbers of Americans were angry enough to act against the two party system.
In a lot of ways we are at a similar point today. We are a country locked into ongoing expensive foreign wars for opaque reasons. There is major conflict over civil rights, including friction over extending the definition of who can marry (back then it was about miscegenation rather than gay marriage, but the arguments on both sides were the same). And then, as now, unrest over police brutality and racism was leading to massive protests and frequent rioting (people opposed to contemporary civil rights reform like to pretend that the 60's civil rights movement was all MLK, sunshine, and rainbows, but that is a patently false misrepresentation).
In the late 1960's neither major party was willing to be the party of segregation and Jim Crow, and so that led to a fracturing and the emergence of the AIP. Whereas the Republican party has remained steadfastly against Gay Rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, women's reproductive rights, police reform, and addressing racial inequality. The Republican party has also been trading heavily on anti-Muslim sentiment. All together this has meant that the even though the Republican elites had maintained a more measured practical stance on governing based on small government and free market they were pandering rhetorically to a socially regressive base.
In this election cycle the decades of divisive rhetoric resulted in the Republican party nominating a candidate who is essentially running on an AIP platform. In fact, Donald Trump and Pence are in fact the AIP nominees in this election. Rather than trying to appeal to the majority of the population, the nomination process has become so centered on division politics that the Republican candidate for President is literally the same person as the American Independent Party candidate.
In a political ecosystem dominated by division politics, the extremists determine the shape of the national debate. Neither party is trying to represent the entire country. In earlier eras extremist and fringe political movements were the third parties. Today the major political parties pander to the Fringe elements while trying to actually nominate far more centrist candidates. The nomination of Trump and the major insurgent movement by Bernie Sanders illustrate the ways that the division politics ecosystem has made political positions that were once fringe into powerful elements of the parties' bases (I am not equating Sanders to Trump, but Sanders as a Democratic Socialist does represent a set of positions far to the left of traditional Democratic nominees for the last 80 years or so).
In the past third parties represented the fringe. Today the major parties represent the Fringe and no one represents the majority of the population. Today we need an empowered third party to drive the major parties back to campaigning on governance, rather than on division. The largest third party in the US is the Libertarian Party.
The Libertarian Party is not really very centrist, but if they can capture a significant portion of the vote it could force a more diverse set of voices into US political debate. The Trump campaign is seriously threatening the cohesion and viability of the GOP. The Libertarian Platform is in many ways closer to a traditional Republican platform than Trump's platform. If enough voters abandon the major party candidates it could lead to a fracturing of the Republican party. I doubt the GOP would be supplanted by the Libertarian Party, but it would necessitate a major shake up. My hope is that it could lead to a more powerful centrist party.
But the only way that we as a country can get parties that do not campaign based on dividing the country into Balkanized tribes is by forcing a realignment. The best way to do that is to vote in large numbers for a third party.
Realistically, barring some Earth-shattering revelations the chances of Trump winning are minuscule at this point. As of the writing of this post, Trump is polling so badly that Arizona is potentially in play as a battleground state, and Arizona has only voted for a Democrat once in the last half century. A vote for Trump is not realistically a vote against Hillary at this point, it is just a vote for Trump. But a vote for Johnson is a vote against the system that gave us the choice of Trump or Hillary.
I'll admit that Johnson has not shown himself to be adequately informed or prepared to be President of the United States of America, but I cannot conceive of a scenario that allowed him to win the election. But if Johnson could win a state it would be a major moment in US political history, and it could loosen the stranglehold of the current political system.
Why is this particularly important if you are Alaskan?
Alaska has a history of voting heavily for third party candidates. In 2000 a full 20% of the Alaskan vote was for Nader. That was 4 times as large a percentage as the closest state. In current polls Johnson is not far behind the two main candidates in Alaska, and by some polls third party votes might actually be beating Hillary. Johnson has a real chance to win Alaska.
Alaska is not likely to ever decide a national election, but if Alaska did vote for a third party it would send a very strong message, and it would change the nature of the the 2020 Presidential Race since it would show that third party candidates can win states in modern America.
So to sum up, if you actually support a candidate, vote for that candidate. If you like Trump, vote for him. If you like Clinton, vote for her. If you like Johnson or Stein, vote for them. But if you are really just angry at the system that gave you Trump and Clinton, I think you should vote for Johnson.