Cover image: With a large portion of the country lamenting the results of the 2016 election, many are wondering why thousands voted for someone who couldn’t possibly win. AP Images.
In the frantic aftermath of arguably the most contentious year in American political history, I fielded questions from a great deal of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances regarding my vote. When people inquire if I voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, my response is a simple “neither.” The reactions I received ranged from surprise, to understanding, to more than a few instances of confusion. What follows is an inside look at the thought process behind why I voted the way I did, and why it does not make me a terrible person.
I grew up in a decidedly middle class family in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Before I continue, I’ll answer a few questions you may have. Yes, it is a real city and not just a Bob Hope joke. Yes, I have seen the movie “Next Friday” and the show “Workaholics,” both of which take place in a fictionalized version of my hometown. My parents met in high school, married, moved to Rancho, and had two kids. They both emphasized the importance of education throughout my childhood and their persistence resulted in my sister and I both earning college degrees, the first two on either side of our extended family. I ended up becoming an educator after earning my MA while my sister went into the entertainment field.
My political background could best be described as that of a moderate conservative. I voted in my first election in 2004 at the tender age of eighteen for George W. Bush, and I later voted for John McCain in 2008. I found myself immersed in graduate school during the 2012 election, which resulted in me not having a clue on who to vote for by the time October rolled around. I did not find either candidate particularly offensive, but neither of them resonated enough with me to earn my allegiance. The Republican party had, in the past decade or so, developed a set of social stances that strayed increasingly farther from the center as the years progressed. The infamous Tea Party movement seemingly radicalized my party of preference overnight. I interviewed several members of a local Tea Party group as part of an assignment for graduate school in 2011 and realized that, while I understood their anger and frustration, I severely disagreed with many of their stances. The increasingly radicalized stances by the right and my general disagreements with political beliefs on the left put me in a kind of “political purgatory.” I believed in a smaller, more efficient government, while simultaneously and fervently believing that no one should be singled out or discriminated against based on sexual orientation, religion, or ethnicity. This left me with the realization that if I were to vote for either major party candidate, I would betray at least one of my major beliefs in doing so. With my political allegiance at a crossroads, I did what any self-respecting millennial would do: I used the internet.
I used a website that asked the visitor questions about their political stances and how emphatically they believed in said stances. The website calculated, based on those answers and the public statements of each major candidate on a given topic, which one most closely aligned with my personal beliefs. After completing the questions, my mouse cursor slowly hovered over the large “Submit” button on my screen. Would I finally discover that I was, in fact, a Democrat masquerading as a Republican all of these years, or that the GOP still aligned with my system of beliefs enough to warrant a vote? I clicked to the next page with great anticipation, hoping my questions would be answered. I looked at the top of my list and saw a name and party that I only faintly recognized. Gary Johnson of the Libertarian party. “Who the f— is Gary Johnson?”
Momentarily taken aback by the realization that neither major party candidate made it to the top of my list, I sat in my room staring in disbelief at my computer. “This can’t be right,” I thought to myself. “I’ll try again.” I completed the assessment once again, this time at a slightly faster pace, and hit “Submit.” Sure enough, the same name and party appeared at the top. Intrigued as to who this mysterious candidate was, I did my share of research over the span of the next few days. What I found was that, while Governor Johnson and I disagreed on a few things, a majority of his stances were ones that I found rather agreeable. He believed in personal freedom, smaller government, and he seemed to have a genuine personality. Having found a candidate that I could believe in enough to warrant a vote, I went to my polling place on election day and, for the first time in my life, voted for a presidential nominee that was not affiliated with either major party.
We all know what happened next. President Obama won a second term over Governor Mitt Romney, and my new political muse garnered little, if any, national attention. After the election, I resumed my life as a graduate student/substitute teacher without thinking much about the results. I finished school, found a job working as a history teacher, and moved to a new city and state. I remained moderately active in the political realm, insofar that I would post things on social media regarding events/opinions that I found either particularly insightful or infuriating. As the 2012 election faded into history and the 2016 version came into view, I thought about whether I would return to my Republican roots, or continue along the Libertarian path I had so recently forged. Surely, the GOP would be able to find a qualified candidate who could understand the progress made socially in the last decade, yet hold fast to the conservative touchstones that I had agreed with for so many years. Oops.
I laughed the first time I heard Donald Trump wanted to run for president. “Sure, and I want a back massage from Jennifer Lawrence,” I would snicker every time I saw him in the news. Surely, I thought, the man who once had to choose whether Cyndi Lauper or Bret Michaels would be a better CEO of a fake company would not be taken seriously as a candidate. As primary season approached, I waited to see which candidate the Republican voters would choose instead of Mr. Trump. What ended up occurring disappointed and confused me to a great extent.
I won’t go over the ascension of President-elect Trump, as it has been covered quite vigorously in recent days and weeks, and likely will be analyzed for several more months. As time wore on, Mr. Trump transformed himself from punchline to frontrunner. I realized that, unlike the previous election, I already had a candidate that I believed strongly in from the outset. Gary Johnson, in my mind, represented someone who I could see as a viable leader of the country. I possessed a great mistrust for Hillary Clinton, as her constant dismissal of every scandal, whether they be legitimate or not, struck me as incredibly elitist and made me believe she was rather out of touch with the pulse of the country. My refusal to vote for her had nothing to do with gender. I viewed her as a career politician who wanted to become president based on little more than the fact that she wanted to be president, and not because she had some unquenchable thirst to help better the country.
As the political fervor in the country reached its peak, I discovered that Governor Johnson was holding a political rally less than two miles from my apartment. He garnered attention in the previous weeks as a “fringe” candidate who possessed little knowledge of issues foreign and domestic. He failed to answer when asked to name an international political leader he respected and flubbed when asked about the situation in Syria. While these political missteps troubled me slightly, they paled in comparison in my mind to the seemingly constant stream of misguided and dangerous stances taken by Mr. Trump, or the “war hawk” tendencies exhibited by Secretary Clinton. Undeterred, I made my way to the rally in the hopes of seeing a presidential candidate in person for the first time.
The rally took place at a hotel ballroom at 4:00 pm in the afternoon on a Saturday. I arrived at 3:30 pm and found that I had to park nearly a mile away from the hotel and make the trek from there. Once inside, I was greeted with a sea of “Johnson/Weld 2016” shirts. The excited energy in the ballroom rivaled that of a sporting event, as I struck up conversations with people who had, like me, felt that both political parties had alienated them and their beliefs. I met people from a variety of different backgrounds and realized that I had found a community that I could agree with on many issues and I felt at home at my “Island of Misfit Toys”-esque political rally. Due to my tardiness and decidedly average physical stature, I did not exactly have the best view in the house, as I could barely see the stage. As the rally began, several local speakers came up, extolling the characteristics that made Governor Johnson an ideal candidate in their eyes.
After roughly twenty minutes or so, the final speaker introduced the man we had all come to see. Governor Johnson came up to the stage sporting a blue blazer, white shirt, and denim jeans. What astounded me was the fact that Governor Johnson did not have a tie, something that I had always figured was a requisite for any political candidate. He spoke charismatically about his beliefs and stances, going so far as to poke fun at himself for his recent political gaffes. The defining moment for me, however, came with just a few minutes left in his speech. Johnson began speaking about how fractured the political system had become, and that there needed to be a president who could unite the two parties who were now farther apart than ever. As he finished his sentence, a man jumped onto the stage and shouted, “Donald Trump can unite the country!” As hotel security quickly apprehended him, he repeated his statement. Without hesitation, Governor Johnson responded in a way that would be inconceivable for any major party candidate. He looked at the man and firmly said, “That is the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard! That is bullshit!” The crowd erupted in a mixture of laughter and cheers, as Governor Johnson chuckled at his own brazen statement.
The rally concluded and I made my way back to my car. When I got home, I couldn’t help but smile at what Governor Johnson had said. His statement wasn’t one of a thousand different platitudes I’d heard come from the mouths of both candidates in the preceding months. It wasn’t something rehearsed or prepared. It was an honest human moment, one that I couldn’t help but admire. At that moment, sitting on my couch in quiet contemplation, I felt at ease with my choice for president.
Voting for a third party candidate in an American presidential election is a unique experience, because you know going in that the odds of your candidate winning borders on impossible. A third party candidate had not garnered a single electoral vote since 1968 when Alabama Governor George Wallace ran as an independent candidate. So why, then, would I vote for someone who cannot possibly win?
The answer to that question is a simple matter of principle. In my estimation, a vote is a sacred right that deserves the upmost care and consideration. Men and women throughout history have fought and died for their right to vote. The generations before me have done so much to expand the electorate from a group of white landowners to every law-abiding citizen in America, regardless of their beliefs, gender, or background. I do not take the right to vote lightly, and I try to do as much as I can to make sure that when I vote now, it is for a candidate that I believe in.
So why do people consider my vote a wasted one? The popular theory surrounding this controversy stems from the fact that voting for a candidate that has no possible chance of winning produces nothing positive for the electoral process. It takes votes away from potential frontrunners and is essentially counted as a net loss for both major party candidates. Articles in the past few weeks cite close races in key states such as Michigan that saw a large amount of turnout for the third party candidates. Political pundits repeatedly chastise third party voting as irresponsible given the current political climate, and anyone considering a third party choice should vote for one of the major candidates in order to avoid “wasting” their vote on someone who possesses little hope of victory.
While I understand the argument against voting for a third party candidate, it has been my experience that few if any of these arguments take into account whether or not the person is simply voting “against” the other candidates or voting “for” their candidate. In my view, a vote for a candidate you truly believe in is not a wasted vote. Exercising your right to vote for a candidate you believe in is hard when the odds of them celebrating victory on election night are slim. But, I’m sure there are many stories like mine of disillusioned voters who simply wanted a candidate that they could believe in.
In my estimation, American democracy should not be about voting “against” anyone. One of the biggest problems I have witnessed in the past twenty years of American politics pertains to the oppositional mentality both sides possess. Everyone seems dead set against working with the other side and demonizing anyone who does not agree with their specific set of ideals. This frame of mind began with those holding office and has now trickled down into the voting populous. Too often now, people seem unwilling to see the world through any lens other than their own and refuse to see any other solution to a problem other than their own. What I see is an America so tense and angry that it seems ready to spiral into outright chaos.
So. I implore everyone to seek out their passion, rather than to seek out an opponent. Find things that can build connections rather than destroy them. The divisive, binary culture we see before us is our mess and ours alone. Go to a play. A ballgame. A park. Don’t sit back and add another layer of snark and divisiveness to our culture. We seem to have enough already. Find someone who you truly believe in, who inspires you, and someone who dares you to be the best version of yourself. The palpable anger and resentment we feel can only end when we decide to work together regardless of who occupies the White House. We can no longer sit back and point out our differences. We should celebrate our similarities that bring us closer together, rather than force us to drift apart.
The best part about living in America is that we have a choice. My U.S. history students once asked me what the “American Dream” is. I smiled and said there isn’t just one, and that makes this country special. I still believe that, even in these trying times. We can choose what kind of cereal we want from the dozens in the aisle. We can choose what kind of car we want, what kind of clothes we wear, and what kind of person we want to be. All of these choices aren’t simply between 2 options, but there are dozens of choices. Should we as Americans be forced to choose between only two people to run our country, when we have dozens of choices for so many other things that impact our daily lives? We need more choices, which is why I refused to believe my choice was between “the lesser of two evils,” as so many have lamented. In addition to my political beliefs, I voted for a third party candidate in the hopes that others follow my lead. I voted for someone outside of the establishment because the establishment needs opposition. And finally, I did it because if everyone in this country voted for someone they truly believed in, I highly doubt our democracy would be in the precarious position it is now. I voted with conviction and passion in my heart, not with hate, fear, and opposition. So when people ask me who I voted for and why, they laugh and chastise me when I tell them. They tell me they voted for either Trump or Clinton because they didn’t want the other to win. I just sit back and smile because while they may think I threw my vote away, they’re the ones who really did.