An idealistic liberal college student—aggrieved by money in politics, disgusted by the mainstream candidates’ empty pandering, desperate for real change—is preparing to cast his first vote for president. Despite always expecting to vote for a Democrat, when faced with the prospect of voting for Clinton, he just can’t do it. He breaks ranks and votes third party.
That was me, 24 years ago.
I wasn’t alone. In 1992, independent Ross Perot performed best with voters under 30, winning 23 percent of the youth vote, compared to 15 percent among voters 50 and over.
If—and it’s a big if—current poll numbers hold up in November, it will be a sign that many young voters are flocking to third parties. A recent Quinnipiac poll, for example, pegged Hillary Clinton’s support with voters under 35 at a mere 31 percent, only two points ahead of Libertarian Gary Johnson. The combined vote for Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein was 44 percent. “Millennial Voters May Cost Hillary Clinton the Election,” blared The Atlantic’s numbers guru Ronald Brownstein.
The millennial-shaming sentiment has piqued The New Republic’s Brian Beutler, who correctly notes that those pesky Baby Boomers compose the strongest constituency for Donald Trump. But those older, conservative voters are voting to push the country in the direction they want it to go. The argument for blaming and shaming left-wing millennial third-party voters is that they are undermining their own political goals in the name of ideological purity.
Of course, old people blaming and shaming the young tends not to go over well. Your vote is your own, and you have no obligation to cast it for anybody. But this Gen-Xer can share the perspective of someone who once felt those third-party feelings, only to conclude four years later that his decision was not the best one.
The campus vibe of 1992 was very different than 2016. Bernie Sanders was two years into his congressional career; democratic socialism was not ascendant. Over the course of the 1980s, in increasingly nasty fashion, Republicans tore into Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis as pathetic liberals who would raise your taxes, spring murderers from prison, and surrender to the Soviet Union.
Many on the left were scared straight. If Bill Clinton had to execute a mentally incapacitated prisoner in the middle of the presidential primary to show he was tough on crime, if he had to pledge to “end welfare as we know it” to show he wouldn’t coddle the poor, so be it.
I was at Oberlin College, then as now a symbol of “politically correct” culture. Yet Oberlin was Clinton Country.
Being a contrarian sort, I was never sold. Clinton struck me as a soulless wheeler-dealer, whereas former Senator Paul Tsongas spoke to me as a truth-teller.
Clinton’s most significant break with the Democratic Party’s recent past was his support for a “middle-class tax cut.” Mondale had tried to shake up the 1984 race by predicting (correctly as it turned out): “Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.” Dukakis in 1988 wouldn’t rule out tax increases and even signed into law tax hikes for Massachusetts during the campaign. Both were hammered mercilessly on the issue. Taxes had become a Democratic albatross, and Clinton was determined to cut it loose.
This struck me as dishonest. What’s the point of winning if you can’t do what’s needed to be done?
Keep in mind that while today’s liberals have turned against the politics of austerity, Democrats in the 1980s chastised Ronald Reagan for running up massive deficits on behalf of bloated military budgets, and faulted them for weighing down the economy. Tsongas, in turn, derided the middle-class tax cut as originating from pollsters and not economists. “I’m no Santa Claus” was his unofficial slogan, daring to tell the public he wouldn’t give them everything it may want—and all in the name of fiscal responsibility.
Moreover, Tsongas, unlike Clinton, offered only limited support for the death penalty (in the cases of drug kingpins and deaths of police officers). And Tsongas was clear in his opposition to the first Iraq War, while Clinton painfully straddled, “I guess I would have voted for the majority if it was a close vote. But I agree with the arguments the minority made.”
My Democratic Party put principle over politics. Tsongas was in that tradition. Bill Clinton wasn’t.
But on the Oberlin campus, there was little appetite for Tsongas. I had tried to cobble together a student group for Tsongas, but our membership was minimal, and he dropped out before the Ohio primary. Some of us who were deeply resistant to Clinton switched to former Governor Jerry Brown, who was running a more traditional liberal campaign than the “pro-business” Tsongas and capped the size of his donations to $100. But our numbers were still paltry. Oberlin was ready for Clinton.
I was not, and Ross Perot’s entry in the race ensured I didn’t need to be. The Texas billionaire may have sounded like a conservative, but he embraced the Tsongas view on budgeting, with higher taxes on the wealthy and on gas consumption. He also opposed the Iraq War, proposed military spending cuts, and was pro-choice to boot. A liberal Clinton-hater could jump ship without feeling like he was betraying his principles.
Of course, to do so meant ignoring some obvious flaws. He had zero experience in elected office. There was no way to know what kind of people he would put on the Supreme Court. He trafficked in right-wing Vietnam prisoner-of-war conspiracy theories. The company he ran fired an Orthodox Jew for violating a policy against facial hair, and routinely fired people for marital infidelity.
Instead of being scared off by these red flags, I focused on the things with which I agreed and blocked out anything that didn’t fit my preferred narrative. In prioritizing certain issues over others, I was practicing the politics of compromise without acknowledging it.
Such cognitive dissonance is something we all do. Many conservative Donald Trump supporters excuse his past support for single-payer healthcare and abortion rights. Many Bernie Sanders supporters, more pacifist than he, look away at his support for gun manufacturer immunity, counter-terrorism drone warfare, and an expanded military role for Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. No candidate lines up with us on everything. We choose what to care about the most and skip the rest.
During a summer stay in Washington, D.C., I helped collect signatures to get Perot on the ballot, until his abrupt mid-July withdrawal. When he returned to the race in the fall, I was back on campus and did a little informal Perot advocacy. But I didn’t bother to create a formal organization. Oberlin was a monolith for Clinton, in a state that Clinton won by less than two percentage points. If memory serves, the school paper found that nearly 100 percent of the student body voted for Clinton, with Perot and President George H.W. Bush splitting the leftover crumbs. Students cheered at the Election Day results while I feared economic disaster.
Four years later, despite it being the issue that distinguished himself from his primary rivals, Bill Clinton scrapped his signature middle-class tax cut. Instead, in the name of deficit reduction, he took on enormous political risk and muscled through a tax increase on the wealthy by one vote in each house of Congress.
Much of his first term was rocky. Other proposals were stymied by Congress—such as his Keynesian stimulus package, his energy tax, and, of course, Hillary’s plan for universal health care. Then upon losing control of Congress in 1994, Clinton was stuck playing defense, including his acceptance of a Republican welfare reform bill harsher than what he had envisioned.
But he throttled the bulk of what the Speaker Newt Gingrich put in his right-wing “Contract with America” midterm election platform. And most importantly, the growing economy allowed Clinton to bury the false notion that tax increases were job killers.
I came to the conclusion that I had read Clinton wrong. I still wasn’t a superfan. But he stuck his neck out enough that I recognized the man took governing seriously. And considering he won while many of my favorite Democrats preceding him had lost, I had to concede that his political instincts were what gave him a chance to govern at all. I became one of the many Perot voters who ditched the billionaire in 1996, boosting Clinton’s vote share from 43 percent in 1992 to 49 percent.
Young Millennial Person, hear this from your ol’ Uncle Generation Xer. The siren song of the third-party routinely resonates loudly in young ears. You see the world with fresh eyes. You have no reason to accept reduced ambitions without a fight. You have yet to form partisan allegiances. A third-party vote can be exhilarating. You will have registered your voice against a status quo bestowed upon you by your elders.
I felt that feeling, only for it to melt away four years later. Fortunately, I was only an Ohio Perot voter. I didn’t have to live with the lifelong regret of being a Florida Nader voter. I can even rationalize my Perot vote as strategically useful, prodding Clinton into being a tax raiser instead of a tax cutter. But I still have to accept that for my first vote for president, I didn’t vote for a person who deserved to be commander-in-chief.
My path toward political pragmatism need not be yours. You may still believe in your heart of hearts that Hillary Clinton is no better than Donald Trump, and that a blow must be struck against two-party duopoly. It’s your job to weigh the likelihood of achieving your desired policy outcomes against the risk of a President Trump, not mine.
All I can do by sharing my experience is note that your assumptions today may not bear out four years from now. Politicians can disappoint, and surprise. (So can economic trajectories.) You might believe a third-party vote is necessary to stave off certain doom. But little about our political future is ever certain.