Political Thought and America’s Presidential Election: Gary Johnson, ‘Third Party’ Candidates, Ending the Electoral College

The voters of the United Stated elect the President of the Union on Tuesday.  Well actually they do not elect the President, they elect an Electoral College, but more on that in the second half of this post. This is a post about political thought in the sense that I am concerned with reasons for supporting candidates and taking positions about political institutions, at a level less abstract then political philosophy, but much more abstract than campaigning political language.   So my most immediate hope for the election is a good result for the Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson.  My other hopes are for a good result for all third party candidates, and given that Gary Johnson will not be elected President, a victory for Obama in the Electoral College but a defeat in the popular vote.

What is the political thought involved? First Johnson.  Most activists in the LP would probably be far too hard core for me, but Johnson has a platform for plausible reductions in state power and the size of the state.  Johnson makes some nods to libertarians who hope for a pure nightwatchman state, and even the abolition of the state, but is not what his campaign has been about or his career as a politician which has include two terms as Republican governor of New Mexico at the time the state Congress was dominated by the Democratic Party.  His platform is that of ending the war on drugs, winding down America’s wars abroad, reducing the size of the military, an end to the violation of rights allowed by laws like the PATRIOT act a much more simple tax system with a much smaller share of national wealth taken up in taxes, less centralising federalism and less regulation.  It’s not a platform to end all state provided welfare and services, it is a platform for a more more narrow and clear sense of what the state is doing.  Of course, there are many who will see this as a proposal for the suffering of the poor, the decay of public goods and casino capitalism.  However, concern for the poor, public goods and casino capitalism is not at al incompatible with support for Johnson.  The welfare state, in the US as elsewhere, has increasing meant middle earners paying increasing taxes to get the money back in services and welfare, much of which disproportionately benefits middle and upper income groups.  It’s the middle and upper classes who use public services more, and even welfarism spreads upwards to them, as in tax credits and universal benefits.  Large scale state spending inevitably creates pressure towards ever increasing public debt since there is always a limit to tolerance for taxes, and that usually kicks in at a level much lower than can existing public spending at the current level in the US, or spending of that level in any country.  Increased public debt redistributes  wealth and income to those who buy government bonds (‘treasuries’ in the US), usually far from the most needy people, and increases inflationary pressure, which causes most pain to poor people who see their money run out more and more quickly.  Casino capitalism is increased by regulation, as financial institutions create ever more complex and speculative investment vehicles to get round regulation.  Some boom and bust is inevitable in a market capitalist economy, the only reliable means that exists for increasing prosperity, and associated social goods.  Boom and bust is not abolished by regulation, which in fact entrenches the interests of those financial institutions with most political power.  Despite fantasies about ‘neo-liberal hegemony’ and ‘market fundamentalism’, the fact is that the current Great Recession and preceding deterioration in the value of financial assets took place  in very regulated economies, including the United States which increased financial regulation before the Great Recession and also increased (military and non-military) public spending.  Regulation needs to be much reduced and properly focused on making sure that financial institutions do not make ever increasing speculative bets, while public assistance during a bust should be targeted at depositors of modest means, not insulating financiers from the consequences of their own mistakes.

Going back to Johnson’s candidacy, he will not win, and if he gets 5% of the vote that would be fantastically excellent.  What I hope for is a vote that exceeds the gap between Obama and Romney, and that this is the beginning of an evolution of the Libertarian Party from a collection of competing cliques of libertarian absolutists to a broad based party of libertarians, classical liberals and fiscal conservatives-social liberals (or what in Europe would mostly be called a combination economic and social liberalism), of all shades, aiming to compromise with the electorate rather than keep split the difference between minarchists and individualist anarchists.

I not only hope for  good result for Johnson, but also Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party.  Johnson, Goode and Stein, together are known as the third party or minority candidates.  Third party because they are alternatives to the the two state parties in the United States, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.  I say state parties, because they collude to make sure that only those parties will fill elected offices in the United States, and are frighteningly effective at doing so.  The means used include: gerrymandering, that is drawing the boundaries of electoral districts to suit the existing representatives; measures to make it legally difficult to get ‘third party candidates’ on the ballot, with Democrat and Republican legal pit bulls using those laws ruthlessly; making sure that different sectors of the economy know they need access and influence to at least one of the two state parties, which can only be guaranteed by  hiring lobbyists who are known to be part of the political machine of either of those parties, so that the economy is implicitly carved up between the two parties (e.g. tech, entertainment and trial lawyers for the Democrats; oil, arms, and the private correctional industry for the Republicans).

The duopoly is in no way compensated for by inner party democracy as both parties since the 70s have been holding completely stage managed conventions with dissent excluded; and both parties have a machine of full time senior staff and major backers to squash dissent.  ‘Insurgencies’ like Obama taking the Democratic Party nomination from H. Clinton, and the Tea Party within the Republican Party just providing cover for the extent to which conventions and nomination procedures narrow choices and squash debate.  The Tea Party ‘insurgency’ has not prevented the Republican machine from keeping Ron Paul on the margins, or using ruthless means to prevent Paul delegates from being seated at the Convention.  Much ‘insurgency’ against Republican Congress members has been replacing a long standing representative with someone whose recorded views hardly differ, or do not differ at all, but who is ambitious and manipulative.  Any minor difference will inevitably be eroded by the compromises of Congress, however much that is concealed by oppositional gestures, pre-electoral pledges to Grover Norquist (anti-tax campaigner), and the ritualised appearance of intransigence when it makes no difference.   Equally the Democratic Party has been well able to exclude any real discussion of winding down American military adventures abroad, ending bans on medical marijuana, and repealing anti civil liberties laws.

Another part of the state party duopoly is the Electoral College, which is what voters elect in the ‘Presidential’ election.  This two stage election reduces the chances of third part candidates further, since with a very small group of voters it is hard for third parties to get get a foothold.  The Electoral College essentially  means that voters elect an assembly to elect the President, and since that assembly is is no elected by a proportional representation system, the relation  between the votes cast in the nation as a whole and the Electors is not at all exact.  There are four occasions in which the Electoral College has failed to give a majority to the candidate who won the popular national vote, three occasions in the 19th century and then in 2000.   So not  a frequent record of appointing the losing candidate, but it has happened and it will happen again.  This is just not democracy working properly.

The standard answer to this has three aspects; 1. the Electoral College protects federalism and therefore the rights of mall states, because candidates need members of the College from minor states; 2.  America has been a republic not a democracy since the its foundation, which is good because a republic is better than a democracy; 3. the Electoral College  is in the Constitution which should never be changed in major way, and because a republic is better than democracy.  These are not convincing  arguments .  In reply to 1, a popular majority across the nation will sill need votes from minor states, and may lead to more competition for them than an Electoral College which exaggerates the winning majority in any one state.  In reply to 2, there is no meaningful difference between democracy and republic, since any distinction rests on the idea of a pure democracy with no constraint on the acts of temporary majorities, and such a situation has never existed with the possible exception of a few short lived anarchist communities.  In reply to 3, there is nothing good about preserving substantially unchanged a late eighteenth century constitution designed for the benefit of a community of states which were largely rural, had very slow communications by modern standards, were divided between slave owning and  non-slave owning elites, only men had political rights, and  free men were overwhelming white, Protestant and northern European; the Constitution is a great historical document and a great political text for its time, but is full of language and assumptions, which it is difficult to apply today, and which had variable meaning at the time, whatever ‘Originalists’ may like to claim;  if we look at surrounding assumptions such as the wish to revive the Republic of Ancient Rome, we  have even more difficulty in finding appropriate application.

The point of the above is that the more elections in which the candidate who won the popular vote loses the Electoral College, the more chance there is of change, and this even more the case then the winner in that situation  is Democrat.  The sort of people who most venerate the constitution of the 18th century ancestors, and think it would be a crime against constitutionalism to modify the constitution in a massive confusion between ancestor worship and the proper design of political institutions, are far more likely to vote Republican than Democrat.  So every such result will erode their belief in non-change and erode the base for non-change.  It’s not very likely that there will be  a long succession of such results sufficient to change assumptions on its own, but anything that undermines such assumptions is good.  At the very least I will enjoy a good laugh at the expense of Originalist pseudo republicans, trying to explain that one away.


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