The Election Of False Choice

If you ever want to get a feel for how American politics really works, volunteer to stand outside a polling place on election day. If you want to stay idealistic, don’t volunteer. If you do, you’ll learn what I did: Most people don’t vote FOR a candidate they want, but instead cast a vote against the person they hate most.

This is the lesser of two evils mentality, something that’s finally starting to come to a head this election. We can blame the rise of populism all we want but the reality is we created this problem.

 

We Wanted Our Names On The Ballot

In college, I was part of our campus Libertarian party. We did events on campus, but during the election season we made the decision to go out and try to get some voters to elect a local libertarian candidate.

Now, we didn’t really know this candidate that well. He came to campus and spoke with our group, but the main reason we wanted to support him was to give the “third voice.”  We knew that the chances of him getting elected were slim, but we felt that voting for him could still do some good.

See, like most states, Indiana had a law that said that if a party received a certain percentage of the vote, they’d get a guaranteed spot on ballots in the coming years. This vote requirement is one of the ways that the election season is rigged. The Republican or Democrat candidate always makes it on the ballot, anyone else has to get thousands of signatures to qualify. But, if a party received a certain number of votes in an election (generally around 10%) they’d get a guaranteed spot, just like the GOP and DNC.

So early in the morning, we climbed into our cars and drove to a small town in Indiana, splitting up into pairs to cover as many polling places as possible. I was assigned to stand outside of a school, and simply ask candidates if they wanted to hear about my candidate and what he was running on.

 

Reality At The Polls

I didn’t know what to expect when I spoke to people. I was hoping I’d get a few to stop and we could talk about the election, and maybe a few on the fence might change their mind. Like most counties, the candidates running weren’t really popular. The incumbent Republican made some questionable choices, and the challenging Democrat had his work cut out for him in red county in a very red state.

Since, in general, the Libertarian message resonated more with those from a conservative upbringing, like myself, I thought I could get at least a few people interested in speaking.  I was wrong.

For eight hours, I stood outside on a misty fall day asking anyone I saw if they wanted to talk about my candidate. While many stopped, this was, afterall, a small town so being polite mattered, as soon as they heard I was there representing someone who wasn’t one of the “big two” they moved on.

I asked them why, thinking I’d get a “I love my choice” answer. What I got instead was a variation of “I’m voting for (candidate they chose) because we can’t have (candidate they were against) in office”

Call me naive, but this was the first time I really saw the “lesser of two evils” mentality in play. Where you choose someone you might not like, but you think that at least they’re better than the alternative. Sure, we’d get the “your candidate can’t win/I don’t want to waste my vote” argument every once and awhile, but most were voting, not to put someone in office, but to keep someone else out.

It makes sense now. The more attention I gave politics, the more I saw the way we framed our arguments. Sure, a candidate might make a “we’ll fight for you” ad or two, but most of their money went to spots that tried painting their opponents in the worst possible light.

The message is clear. These ads said “You might not know me, or like me, but I’m not as bad as the other person.”

lesser of two evils ballot

 

No Lesser, Just Evils

I don’t consider myself a Libertarian anymore. I’ve experienced a lot more of the “real world” since graduating college, and my positions on a lot of things changed. But what really drove me away from the party was that they started using the same language as the major parties. It might be more accurate to say that they always used this language, I just noticed it.

That’s the thing about bad positions, you always notice when others hold them before you realize that you do.

I remember the push to get people who were “fed up” with the GOP or DNC to vote for the Libertarian candidates because at least there would be change. In the last presidential election I found myself drawn to the Justice Party, only to have friends who still aligned themselves with the Libertarian movement tell me I was wasting my vote by not casting it for their guy.

I continued trying to stay current in politics, and I got tired of seeing discussions about complex economic problems get derailed by some self-styled individualist posting a Free market meme. So I left.

 

A Slow Burning Powder Keg

This year, both major parties are in a state of upheaval, and for good reason. The economy sucks. The government releases labor statistics, showing a ~5% unemployment rate, but this is only part of the story. For workers who have a job, their wages are the same, relative to inflation, as they were decades ago. This means that people aren’t getting ahead so much as they’re treading water.

For people just entering the workforce, like I did in 2008, finding a job is harder than ever. Previously “entry level” positions want years of experience, or they start you off at a pay rate that makes it difficult to afford an apartment wherever the jobs are. Then there’s the fact that the average debt per student continues to grow, with graduates in 2015 being near $35,000 in debt by the time they got their diplomas.

The “steady” job is a myth, and it has been for years. The average baby boomer worker will hold nearly a dozen jobs by the time they reached 40, and new workers should expect to change at least that often. It’s not because they’re lazy, or don’t want to have a steady paycheck, it’s that their bills will go up every year and their paychecks usually won’t go up fast enough to compensate.

We’ve been at war with terrorism since 2001. That’s Fifteen years. A decade and a half of sending out friends, family members, and loved ones overseas to fight a war that everyone knows is endless.  More importantly, we live in an age of instant information, and we know the terror that our presence causes others there. We see how our actions, no matter how justified, continue to spawn terrorists that strike back.

We know that we’re in trouble. No amount of slick slogans or reality TV can make us forget this, at least not for long. For every scandal that’s in the news cycle, stories about our failing cities, desolate factories, or uncertain job markets are just a click away.

America’s waking up only to discover that we’re the emperor without any clothes.

 

The Year Of The Outsiders

The Republicans have lost control of their party. Their front runner is Donald Trump, with Ted Cruz fighting him in every state.  Trump is a true outsider, someone who’s not a Republican, but finds himself running with them because it’s the easiest way to get his name on the ballot, instead of getting signatures.

Cruz isn’t a traditional Republican either. He’s one of the vanguards of the Tea Party movement, and if it wasn’t for Donald Trump’s popularity, it’s unlikely that anyone in the larger GOP would back him.

Democrats have their own problems.  On one hand they have Hillary Clinton, whose work history checks just about every box on the “ideal candidate” card. In a normal election cycle, she’d be the uncontested nominee.  But this isn’t a normal year. She’s facing off against Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t check off those boxes.  Why? Because people are fed up with voting for the lesser of two evils.

 

False Equivalence

For years, Republican voters voted for Republican leaders because they were told that the Democrats would come and steal their freedoms. But then Republicans voted for the Patriot act, Republicans started dictating what was or was not acceptable behavior in your own home, and it seems that every few months someone new from the party is caught in a corruption scandal.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats voted for Democratic leaders because they were told that the Republicans were going to plunge us into the dark ages, or create a police state.  Then Democrats saw their wages stay the same, or fall even as companies reported record profits.  They saw our military and surveillance network grow under a Democratic president, and an ever horrific drone war come into being.

As Americans, we watched our government get shut down because a group of senators decided to throw a temper tantrum about the budget. We find ourselves with an incomplete supreme court for basically the same reason.  I watched the State of the Union this year and saw people refuse to applaud when the President said he wanted America to be the country that cured cancer, just because he wasn’t a member of their party. I’ve seen Democrat officials do the same when a Republican makes a good point.  

Is it really any wonder that people are angry? We’re told to vote for the lesser of two evils, election cycle after election cycle, and a growing number of voters don’t see the point anymore. They see the things they were told would happen if the other party come into being at the hands of their own party. 

As a country, we’re not ok. What’s happening in our election cycle is a symptom of this, it’s not the cause.  People are going to the polls, and they’re angry.  Some really believe in what Trump, Cruz, or Sanders are saying, but a growing number are casting their votes for the outside because they no longer see their party as the lesser of two evils, they see only as evil.

 

Path Dependence And Revolution

I don’t know what’s going to happen at the primary conventions, or what will happen in the future. I don’t have any easy answers for how to fix this. There’s a very real possibility of riots, which is why Cleveland invested nearly $20 million in riot gear for the GOP convention.

What I do know is that “the way things are always done” won’t work anymore. The national parties are using every tool they can to try and bring the election under control, and these tools help show just how un-democratic our primary system really is.

Path dependence describes how our past choices influence the choices we take today. The parties created this mess by doing on the minimum amount they needed to stay in power. We created this mess by voting against someone instead of voting FOR someone.

This election, look at who you’re voting for. Find the person you want to have as President, not just the person you think has the best chance of beating whoever you don’t want.  There’s a lot of people who genuinely support the major candidates.

But we need to have a conversation, and it’s not going to be a comfortable one. Our election system is broken, and it’s going to take some serious change to fix it. Most importantly, it’s going to take people who disagree on some pretty major issues working together to find a solution that works. It’s going to take getting more people to vote, and we’re all going to make mistakes. But we won’t find a way out of this mess without some stumbling.

It’s time to make is so we don’t feel forced to pick the lesser of two evils. We need Revolution. Not in the Boston Tea Party sense, but a revolution of thinking. That’s my goal for November, and the difficult years to follow.

The Dangers Of Dismissal

It’s easy to make jokes about Donald Trump. He’s a caricature, spouting the toxic opinions expect to find buried in YouTube, spoken by a man who seems like he escaped from a bad 80’s Wall Street Sitcom.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump is not a joke; he’s currently one of the strongest voices in the Republican primary. In fact, if he has his way, Donald Trump could be the next president of the United States.

We don’t really like thinking about that. Well, unless you like Trump. I’m sure that Donald Trump’s supporters think about him becoming president a lot, just as I think about what my preferred candidate would do if they won the Whitehouse. But Trump? It’s so tempting to write him off as a joke, someone to tolerate until he fades back into obscurity. After all, it’s not as if anyone takes him seriously, right?

But, people are taking him seriously, and it’s not just nameless commentators online. He fills stadiums with supporters, including fellow alumni from my university and other evangelical schools. People rally around him, even as he says things that, if someone else were to say them, would be unacceptable.

Donald Trump supporters aren’t foreign to me, they’re not unrecognizable. They’re faces I saw every day at school, people I spoke to, worked, and studied with.

Donald Trump isn’t terrifying for what he says, he’s terrifying because he has so much support.

 

Outliers Are The Exception That Make The Rule

I went to Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU), a conservative Christian university in the Midwest. Our student handbook outlined what the college defined as “acceptable” behavior. We had to agree to avoid pre-marital sex and smoking on campus, but we also had to agree to not dance, or drink, at all, while we attended the school. This included holidays, summer break, and weddings. We had a strict dress code, and we couldn’t watch an R rated movie unless it was on the “approved” list.

I don’t mention this to discuss how crazy some of my schooling was. To borrow a phrase from my girlfriend, I did live the movie Footloose. Instead, I mention the crazy rules I agreed to highlight the fact that I went to a very conservative school, one where most of the campus identified as conservative, and the largest organization at my school was the College GOP.

But even in the heart of the Midwest, at one of the most conservative Christian schools in the country, you had outliers. I was one of them, as a founding member of our campus libertarian party, as well as a few brave students who tried forming a college democrat’s party. But outliers can come from within a party as well, and at IWU, that outlier was “Pete.”

 

Pockets Full of Walnuts

Pete isn’t his real name. I lost touch with him soon after graduation, and I don’t know how much he changed, or didn’t change since then. Calling him out for something he wrote more than a decade ago won’t really accomplish anything, and I think that our culture is a little too addicted to the “gotcha” of public shaming as it is, and I’ll try to avoid contributing to it whenever possible. If you went to IWU from 2003-2008 you know whom I’m talking about, for everyone else, he’s Pete.

I first learned about Pete when he wrote a letter to the editor about a recent change to our chapel dress code on campus. Like many conservative Christian schools, we had mandatory chapel three times a week. Our school had a campus-wide dress code, but for chapel, they expected students to dress with a higher standard in mind. In 2006, they updated their dress code to allow men to wear shorts.

Pete didn’t like this change, and he felt that the old requirement of khaki or dress slacks was more than appropriate, so he wrote a letter to the editor. Unfortunately, my school’s campus archive won’t go back far enough for me to quote him exactly, but in this initial letter Pete asked why men would want to wear cargo short, insisting that the only reason he could think of was that we wished to keep walnuts shoved in the pockets.

It was outlandish, ridiculous, and well received. Most students didn’t agree with his opinion, but they found the letter amusing and for the better part of a week, you couldn’t grab a drink at the campus coffee shop without someone making a joke about having walnuts in their pockets. A large number of students, myself included, thought that maybe Pete wrote the letter as a piece of Satire, because no one really thought that way, right?

Pete did.

In the weeks that followed, Pete wrote a series of articles commenting on what he saw as a troubling trend of liberalism on campus, from changes to student policy to the formation of campus Democrats and Libertarians. In one letter, he called out the campus “Acting On Aids” group as encouraging sinful behavior.

Pete didn’t keep his opinions limited to paper. I remember in one of my classes where he stood up and asked the professor why the USA didn’t just “carpet bomb” the Middle East and be done with it, and I heard similar stories from other students who shared classes with him

When he spoke up in person, we didn’t really know how to respond. Professors would say whatever they could to get him to sit down, and we’d continue with the lesson. The idea of such an extreme ideology, even on our conservative campus, was one that people didn’t really know how to deal with, so we just tried to ignore it.

 

Evangelical Blinders

Ignoring what makes you uncomfortable is natural, particularly in an environment what most people have (or at the very least claim to have) a similar worldview. In Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christian culture, there’s also a strong sense of “us vs them,” encouraging you to accept words and actions from someone that you’d find unacceptable if they didn’t share your faith.

When you’re that sort of insulated culture, you see the “world,” which is anyone not like you, as an oppressive, secular majority who wants to destroy your culture. You have this instinctual urge to protect those like you, your fellowship, at all costs, even if they’re doing something wrong. You’ll find justifications or ways to minimize an issue. After all, if you attack one of your own, you’re helping outsiders tear your community apart.

This isn’t something unique to evangelicals. Look at any community that has a clearly defined ideology, whether it’s religious, political, or cultural, and you’ll find something similar. It’s a tendency exploited by people within the community, allowing them to continue saying something, or doing something, far longer than they should have. It’s easy to point out the sins of outsiders. It’s harder if it’s someone you consider family.

On paper, things were a little easier. Students wrote into the campus journal, questioning his apparent unwillingness to consider different viewpoints. A growing number of my peers found his letters troubling, but we still laughed about having pockets full of walnuts.

Pete didn’t find our critiques amusing.

 

The Reckoning

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This is a photograph of one of Pete’s last letters in our school newspaper. I have a copy of it because I was so surprised when I read it that I took a picture of it so I could send it to my friends who weren’t on campus.

No one was laughing anymore. The president of the College Libertarians responded with his own letter, challenging Pete to a live debate. Pete accepted and the debate drew one of the largest crowds of any event hosted by the student government organization.

Pete’s rhetoric didn’t stand up in the debate. He had his talking points, but when someone responded to them, challenged them face to face, he didn’t know how to respond. He was a broken record of bluster.

After his performance in the debate, either he stopped writing letters to the editor or they stopped publishing them. Pete stopped being a topic of daily conversation, deflating until his positions became a punchline, and we just referred to him as the “walnut” guy.

 

A Broken Record Of Bluster

After watching Donald Trump in the first presidential debate, and hearing the things he says on stage get increasingly extreme, I thought about Pete for the first time in a few years.

I dug through my photos until I found that old clipping and the similarity in the anger resonated with me. I searched for Pete and found that he’s a lawyer now, but before he passed the bar, my Alma Mater hired him as a political science adjunct professor.

My school had someone who advocated nuking the Middle East teaching political science. I don’t know if he still held those views. Maybe his opinions changed. I know mine have. Nevertheless, there are thousands, if not millions of people who would still nod their head in agreement to the arguments he made in “The Reckoning.”

That’s why I can’t make fun of Trump. Because, at the end of the day, the things he says really don’t matter. He can be as racist, sexist, and xenophobic as he wants to be. The true danger of Trump is that he found an audience.

He routinely fills stadiums, where he can blithely joke about shooting a man in the middle of Manhattan, or use “pussy” to insult one of his rivals. He can imply that a female reporter who’s critical of him is just a “bimbo,” and his loudest response is one of laughter.

People who disagree with him, me included, wrote him off as a clown. We thought that there was no way he could find an audience, and that he would soon fade back to the world of Reality TV.

Now it’s 2016, and Trump isn’t going away, his support is growing. On Facebook, I saw some of the same names that initially supported Pete talking positively about Trump, trying to justify his crazier statements. I see my friends who made jokes about walnuts sharing memes of Trump and laughing about how “ridiculous” he is.

As American’s, we see our fellow citizens saying horrible things about others, things we know we’d never accept if someone said them about us. This is our reckoning. Will we take care of this issue on our own, getting our own house in order? Or, will our cultural blinders help Trump’s hatred fester until our community becomes one that no one should be proud of?

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