By now, you’ve seen Gary Johnson’s second “Aleppo moment,” from Wednesday night’s Hardball.
It’s embarrassing even to watch, like seeing someone who genuinely thinks he can sing butcher a song. As we know, it’s the second time Johnson has had such a moment, the first coming three weeks ago, when he obviously had no idea of what was happening in, or even likely the very existence of, the world’s most tragic city. Although both of those might still rank as less embarrassing than the MSNBC clip in which he quite literally bites his tongue to make...some point or other about the debates.
Ten days ago, I wrote a column that was an attempt to persuade swing voters that whatever their reservations about Hillary Clinton, her flaws paled in comparison to those of Donald Trump. I said then that I would write more such letters to swing voters, so let’s consider this column a second one: Please, don’t vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. Let’s start with Johnson.
I might think that the above two episodes are in themselves disqualifying. The man is putting himself forward to be president of the United States. He ought to know a little something about the world.
But maybe you think a president with a competent staff can get up to speed on such things. Fine. There’s more to think about here with regard to Johnson specifically and libertarianism generally.
Libertarianism in recent years has developed a kind of hipster cred. It seems to be against the man. Libertarians are anti-war, usually (the cred narrative started with Ron Paul’s scathing attacks on the Bush/Cheney crowd). They support abortion rights and gay rights. Live and let live. And most of all, libertarians want to legalize pot. I think that’s the big one, for young people especially. I readily concede it would have seemed pretty appealing to the me of 30 years ago.
But here’s the catch. The libertarian live-and-let-live credo doesn’t apply just to young people who’d like to blow a doob in a public park (that’s how we put it back in my day, sonny, and I’m not going to make any phony attempt to be hip). It applies to polluting corporations. It applies to corporations and individuals who want to make unlimited dark money contributions to political campaigns. It applies to the forces pushing free trade. It applies to employers who don’t want to be nickel-and-dimed over paying their workers a minimum wage. It applies to gun manufacturers, and to the National Rifle Association.
These are libertarian beliefs, and Gary Johnson adheres to them, as Eric Zorn just laid out in a crushing column in the Chicago Tribune, which is backed up by my own research and that of others. There’s also a ton of chapter and verse in this great Rolling Stone piece by Tessa Stuart. Johnson shrugs his shoulders at climate change and doesn’t think the government has any business addressing it. He supports the Citizens United decision and thinks donors should be able to spend “as much money as they want.” He backs the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which I would think most young people oppose strongly, after listening to Bernie Sanders inveigh against it for a year. Speaking of Bernie, Johnson opposes tuition-free college. He’s against a federal minimum wage—that’s right, any federal minimum wage (although sometimes his answers are so wandering and circumlocutory that it can be hard to tell). And as for guns, he told Slate in 2011: “I don’t believe there should be any restrictions when it comes to firearms. None.”
Go back over the above paragraph and think about the country and world we’d have if a President Johnson got his way on all these matters—the unchecked carbon emissions, the people sweating away in hard jobs for the least amount of money their employers can get away with paying them, the mass shootings that would surely result after President Johnson and a giddy GOP Congress wipe away the scant existing federal gun legislation that remains on the books. I submit to you it’s not the world you’re looking for.
The temptation among some folks is strong to swim against the tide and thumb one’s nose at the establishment, and obviously I’ll grant that no one is more establishment than Clinton. It’s a vote that is chiefly against something—in this case, her pro-corporate sail-trimming and all the rest. But a protest vote is never solely a protest vote. You’re also voting for something. And even if you rationalize that away by saying to yourself, “Ah, he’s not gonna win, I’m just having my jollies,” I’d urge you to bear in mind that jollies can have consequences, too.
This brings us to the Green Party’s Jill Stein. About 90,000 voters in Florida in 2000 thought they were just having their jollies. Instead, those Ralph Nader voters did end up doing their part in helping to give us George W. Bush, which in turn gave us Iraq and the Great Recession and all the rest of it. I really hope that people in swing states figured out post-2000 that all that did end up having consequences.
But I would extend the argument against Stein beyond swing states. Again, a protest vote is also a vote for something. So what is Stein for? A few progressive things. And a few things that sound progressive but aren’t—notably, forgiveness of all existing college debt. This sounds progressive, but as Jordan Weissman explained at Slate, it’s actually a huge giveaway to the upper middle class, who hold a disproportionate share of that debt.
But the weirdest thing about Stein is her apparent affinity for Vladimir Putin. You read that right. She went to Moscow and met with Putin, and was even seated at his table. Russian Green Party activists rebuked her for not even mentioning human rights and LGBT rights when she met with Putin.
I don’t know Stein, so I can’t say why, but I can tell you that in general terms, there is within the far left of Stein’s generation (she’s 66) an idea inherited from the Cold War that holds that to be too critical of Russia is on some level to endorse the presumptions and priorities of the American war machine. It’s for reasons related to this that you see a fair amount of quasi-apologetics for Putin on the American far left. Her own website boasts—actually boasts—that after Putin listened to her speech in Moscow, he responded: “What I would like to say, something really unexpected, when I was watching this material. When I was listening to your comments, politicians from other countries, you know what I caught myself thinking about? I agree with them, on many issues.”
Imagine the oily smile that lit across her face as Putin spoke these words, and please give some thought to the question of this being your progressive alternative.
A vote is not for a person. A vote is cast for a coalition of forces and interests that have a realistic chance of moving the country and world in the direction you prefer, even when the candidate is imperfect. If you make yourself a part of that coalition, you can be a part of a movement that can influence the imperfect candidate in a better direction.
That’s serious politics. Everything else just isn’t.