US Election 2016: Scarcity in the Land of Choice

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American grocery stores are season-less palaces, replete with six-foot sections of a single product in every hue or state of naturalness; catering to what seems to be a national pandemic of Celiac disease. Whether you want fruit that fell of its own accord or that boasts a color unseen outside a laboratory, there will be something for you. Choice, whether perceived or real, is an overarching and fundamental quality of American life and yet, it is a quality all-but absent from the political landscape, where power is a duopoly of Republicans and Democrats.

But what if you don’t care for Red or Blue? What if you see yourself more in Gold or Green? In a presidential election year where the candidates atop the tickets have also hit historic depths of unpopularity, there has been an emphasis on this dearth of political choice within the United States and a rise in the profiles of the country’s third- and fourth-largest parties: The Libertarian Party (LP) and the Green Party.

 

Ponies for Everyone!

The Libertarian Party has a distinctively American flavor. Birthed in a suburban Colorado living room partially in response to the politics of the Vietnam War era, Libertarianism has found footholds and niches beyond the West, growing into the country’s most significant “other” party, the only one present on all 51 ballots in 2016.

Gary Johnson, Libertarian Party

Gary Johnson. Photo by Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Generally, Libertarians are socially liberal (do as you will but not unto me) and fiscally conservative (particularly when it comes to military spending and social welfare programs.) Drugs and guns should be legal, the government has no place in the personal lives of the people, and whether government is of any value whatsoever is a question worth pondering. As the second-place finisher at this year’s Libertarian Convention, Austin Petersen, said, “I like to live in a world where gay married couples can protect their marijuana fields with fully automatic machine guns.”

Petersen was among the more polished of the Libertarian candidates, an array that included Vermin Supreme, a performance artist and activist known for wearing a giant rubber boot on his head and promising every American a free pony if elected, and John McAffee, who recently fled questions surrounding a murder in Belize and is best known for his eponymous anti-virus software program and strong interest in drugs.

The light of liberty attracts a diverse array of moths, and the vision of liberty as principle connects with people in varied geographies. While it has a natural home in big sky states like Montana and Colorado, the LP has also found success in the oddball of New England, New Hampshire, where many have taken the state motto of “Live Free or Die” as a call to Libertarianism. Although some single-issue folk may be drawn toward the Libertarians, the wide open definition of “liberty” has broad appeal, speaking both to fiscally conservative, small-government Republicans disgusted by Donald Trump and socially liberal Democrats distrustful of Hillary Clinton’s intentions, beliefs and record on criminalizing drugs.

 

Feel the What?

Despite this colorful buffet of candidates (although the Republican clown car of contenders gave the Libs a run for ‘most batshit’ in 2016), the Libertarian Party re-anointed their 2012 candidate—actual politician and affable façade, Gary Johnson, a successful two-term governor of New Mexico where he served as a Republican in a blue state.

Johnson is a generally well-spoken and experienced politician, although his standard expression is a just-below-the-surface smile bordering on smirk, recognizable in people who either believe their circumstances are ridiculous or who are incredibly high (he has promised not to consume marijuana during his presidency). Although he would prefer his success be grounded in belief in the splatter-shot principles of his party, his campaign has recognized the opportunities presented by the Bernie/Hillary split in the Democratic Party and the boundless buffoonery of Donald Trump. (Although it hasn’t always been able to exploit them. “Feel the Johnson,” an attempt to attract Bernie Sanders voters with a reworked version of “Feel the Bern,” was awkward, to say the least. He replaced it with the less suggestive, “Google Gary Johnson.”) Overall, the Libertarian Party has greater success with voters who might otherwise lean towards the GOP.

 

“And what is Aleppo?”

[…] Set you down this;

And say besides that in Aleppo once,

Where a malignant and turbaned Turk

Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,

I took by th’ throat the circumciséd dog,

And smote him, thus.

Othello stabs himself.

(Death scene of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’)

We may one day look back and say Gary Johnson had something in common with Othello, in that “Aleppo” was on both their lips at the moment of their demise—Othello’s theatrical, Johnson’s political.

In a recent interview, when asked what he would do about the embattled city at the heart of the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, Johnson responded with the earnest sincerity of a good-natured child, “And what is Aleppo?”

The gaffe evaporated any momentum Johnson had generated toward that magic 15% rating in the polls (currently he polls just above 7%), the threshold for participation in the presidential debates. An appearance in the nationally televised debates would be a game-changer for Johnson, but neither he nor Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, has qualified. (The Aleppo gaffe has cascaded “down ticket,” with a Colorado Libertarian candidate for Senate, Tang Williams, doubling-down when asked about both Aleppo and Johnson’s gaffe by saying, “Yeah, right, that’s Middle East conflict. But how do you explain this word?”)

 

Greens Against the Green

The current record holder for the most votes received by a woman in a US general election is Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party, and she will be on the ticket again in 2016. A medical doctor-cum-activist-cum-politician who has never held a significant elected office, Stein, like Johnson, also ran in 2012, when she called the GOP candidate, Mitt Romney, a “wolf in wolf’s clothing” and President Obama a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” with respect to their corporate and Wall Street connections.

Jill Stein, Green Party

Jill Stein. Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, USA. CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is indicative of a mission beyond the social-environmental goals of its global sister parties—Green Party USA is emphatically anti-corporate, responding to the unbridled influence corporate money plays in American politics and lives.

In contrast to the Libertarians’ disdain for government, Green Party USA sees an even larger—and benevolent—role for government in the political-social life of the United States. Stein sees energy, health care and higher education (this last with an eye toward disaffected Bernie Sanders supporters) as human rights rather than sources of profit.

Student loan debt in the United States is estimated at $1.2 trillion, with two-thirds of undergrads graduating in debt. Most of this debt is saddled on the young, Millennials in particular, and it is getting worse. This was one of the clarion calls of Bernie Sanders’ “Revolution,” and Jill Stein agrees. Stein speaks the language of progressives, with calls for aggressive movement toward renewable energies (including a complete, federal ban on hydraulic fracking), single-payer health care, electoral reform (including ranked-choice voting and access to debates), massive cuts in military spending, action against structural racism in the US judicial system and greater investment in science.

Surprisingly, for a medical doctor, science was a source of controversy for Stein, thanks to statements she made about vaccines. While not endorsing anti-vaccine rhetoric, Stein equivocated on the issue, saying, “I’m not aware of evidence linking autism with vaccines.” This sparked criticism, which she characterized as a smear campaign, while declining to clarify her remarks.

Stein’s Green Party is registered on 45 of 51 state ballots (and D.C.), is a write-in option on three (including swing state North Carolina), and is absent from three others (including swing state Nevada.) Stein’s progressive appeal unnerves Democrats, who recall Florida in 2000, when votes siphoned off by Ralph Nader would have given the election to Gore and the Democrats.

 

Gluten-free, Cold-pressed

The irony of the increased interest in smaller political parties is that it stems from the thing they wish to escape: the “lesser-evilism” of votes against a platform or candidate rather than for a shared vision.

Still, it does help to build a platform. Despite the amorphous cloud of beliefs upon which Libertarianism floats, it continues to float—and to rise. And while the Green Party waivers between pragmatic ideas and Utopian fantasies, more voters are hearing some of its fundamental calls.

Unfortunately, the cast of the 2016 US presidential election in uninspiring all around. Despite the disdain for Clinton and Trump, neither Johnson, a genial doofus, nor Stein, who has a surprising narcissistic streak, are particularly well-placed to challenge them.

While America arguably has too much choice in some areas (wild, fair-trade, gluten-free, cold-pressed quinoa versus electric-blue, razzmatazzberry, bacon-infused pop tarts, for instance), this massive, diverse and diverging country could use a little more when it comes to choosing the occupant of its most powerful office.

 

Shay V. Carlstrom

 

Born in Walden, North Park, Colorado, Shay V. Carlstrom is an educator and writer living in Denver.

 

 

 

 

 

Featured image of Berkeley Bowl by Smerdis (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0,via Wikimedia Commons

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