By the time you read this, tens of millions of Americans will already have cast their ballots. Tens of millions of Americans will be standing in line outside churches, schools and community centers. Millions more will be sitting in their offices or homes waiting, hopefully in vain, for those long lines to dissipate. More than 95 percent of voters will choose either Obama or Romney — leaving a scant few percentage points for Gary Johnson, Jill Stein and Virgil Goode to squabble over.
This picture of democracy — one in which two parties dominate the electorate at the expense of all else — strikes many as unfair. For every two votes Libertarians cast, one particularly disenchanted ideologue will stay at home. He or she (probably he) will refuse to play an electoral game that to him or her is at once tilted, dishonest and decidedly undemocratic.
And in a lot of ways, this person is right. The Electoral College is second only to the U.S. Senate in its contempt for democracy. Our politics is tilted to make any third party’s quest for public office downright quixotic. America has had two stable, inerrantly dominant parties since the mid-1860s. The two-party system, for reasons inscribed in our constitution but also by the sheer inertia of history, is here to stay.
So there’s a choice to be made by disenchanted Libertarians and disillusioned Socialists: Play the game, or pack up and go home. Fight within a system you despise, or defect to a third party and leave your country to its fate.
For any true patriot, this is no choice at all. When Pat Robertson was disenchanted with Barry Goldwater’s hands-off approach to God in the public sphere, did he found the social conservative party? No. He joined the Republican Party and worked his tail off to convince Republicans they cared about the legal standing of a fetus. Fifty years later, Republican politicians either pledge allegiance to the anti-abortion orthodoxy or embrace irrelevance. When homosexual rights became a political issue after the Stonewall riots, activists worked within the Democratic Party, not outside of it. It took decades of sacrifice and frustration, but a similar orthodoxy has prevailed.
Ironically, it is the Libertarian hero du jour who best embodies the proud tradition of creating change within the two-party system. Ron Paul had strong disagreements with the Republican Party, disagreements that guaranteed his defeat in the 2008 and 2012 primaries. But by working within his party, he reached out and inspired a new generation of activists — activists who hold within them the ability to transform the Republican Party into a party that respects civil liberties and the rule of law.
Yet this ability might go to waste because libertarian activists learned all the wrong lessons from Ron Paul. They adopted his ideology but not his methods. They learned from him the flaws in the Republican Party and promptly gave up any hope of fixing them. As a partisan Democrat, I encourage all Ron Paul supporters to cast their vote for Gary Johnson. As a believer in democracy, I find third-party support deeply frustrating.
You’re not happy with your two-party system? You don’t like Mitt Romney or Barack Obama very much? Fine. It’s hard to blame you. But don’t vote for Gary Johnson. Don’t vote for Jill Stein. Please, for the love of God, don’t write in Ron Paul. Vote for the candidate who agrees with you the most and has a chance of winning. And as you watch the election returns and become angry with the leaders America has chosen, understand the real work happens outside the ballot box. Choosing a government requires only your vote. Changing your government will require a great deal more.