In 1992, Ross Perot, running on no party’s ticket, managed to capture 19 percent of the national vote, and who knows what he would have received had he not withdrawn from the race in July only to capriciously re-enter in October. At the high-water mark of his campaign, in June, he was polling at 37 percent and led the three-way field.
Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, the two minor-party candidates currently making longshot bids for the White House, will not be seeing numbers like Perot’s. Johnson, the Libertarian-party candidate, is currently averaging 7 percent support in national polls; Stein, of the Green party, is at 3 percent. That is in part a function of the candidates themselves. Johnson, the former (Republican) governor of New Mexico and the 2012 Libertarian candidate, is not running a campaign as much as whimpering to voters to “Be Libertarian with Me” (which, as slogans go, is not exactly “Morning in America”), while Stein, a physician, has spent the last week trying to explain what she meant when she said people have “real questions” about the safety of vaccines.
But it is also a function of our political moment. Perot’s success suggests that Americans are not, in principle, opposed to a third-party candidate. And this year’s race, more than any in recent memory, begged for a serious alternative. But none was forthcoming. The stakes are perceived to be too high.
Consider: The presidential nominee of the Democratic party, a haranguing schoolmarm who has spent the last 30 years exploiting her political connections to enrich herself, endangered national security in her most recent stint in public office, and would almost surely be in prison had she a different surname. When not breaking federal law, she promises to entrench and expand on many of the policies of Barack Obama, and almost certainly ensure that the Supreme Court has a secure liberal majority for the next 20 years.
Not to be outdone, though, the presidential nominee of the Republican party is a proto-fascist reality-television boss who defends the massacre at Tiananmen Square, mocks handicapped reporters, and attacks the parents of fallen American soldiers. When he is not attending to the woodland creature that perches on his head, he is proposing tariffs that, if implemented, would be economically ruinous; threatening to withdraw from the military alliance that is almost entirely responsible for the stability of postwar Europe; and retweeting white supremacists.
Most Republicans cannot stomach the idea of a Clinton presidency. Most Democrats cannot stomach the idea of a President Trump. Either would be “the end of America as we know it.” They have separately agreed on the same course of action: Defeat the other guy, at any cost.
This explains, at least in part, why the party apparatuses failed so spectacularly, effectively rubber-stamping two candidates manifestly unfit for office. This was especially egregious in the GOP, where there were a dozen qualified, conscientious, conservative candidates to whom the party could have turned. But despite polling showing that Trump would be the worst candidate to face Hillary head-to-head, party higher-ups rallied to him as the primaries drew to a close, systematically working to undermine any attempts to challenge his nomination. They apparently made their own calculations that failing to do so would seal the party’s fate in November. Likewise, the DNC quashed the enormous dissatisfaction within its own ranks by touting the need, the all-important need, to defeat Donald Trump.
What is more, this imperative has become a way not simply to corral votes but to crush dissent. Point out Trump’s flaws? “But Hillary!” cry Trump supporters. Observe Hillary’s failings? “But Trump!” cry Hillary boosters. Among conservatives, those who have said they will not vote for Trump are treated as traitors (“A non-vote for Trump is a vote for Hillary!”); something similar has happened to anti-Hillary liberals.
It is difficult to overstate the perversity of what has transpired this year. The loathsomeness of the candidate on one side helped fuel the support of a loathsome candidate on the other side, and box out any serious third-party alternative. The result is two small groups of extreme partisans fighting on behalf of horrible candidates, and a sea of voters in between disheartened by two miserable options. And that dissatisfaction is all but guaranteed to continue for the next four years, whatever the outcome in November.
If there is any lesson to take from this present disaster, surely it is that the place of the presidency in American life has grown too large. It has taken calm, rational human beings and turned them into fanatics; it has turned dispassionate observers into cultists. And we do desperately need Congress to reassert its role restricting the executive, and to devolve the powers that have been more and more centralized by higher and higher offices back to state, regional, and municipal governments.
But it is the case even now, after a century spent increasing the authority — including the extra-constitutional authority — of the president, that no occupant of the Oval Office is likely to be able to wreak the havoc that either side fears. Hillary Clinton will not ban handgun ownership. Donald Trump will not nuke Beijing. There are constitutional and institutional and bureaucratic and (yes) moral checks that are still likely to stay even the most muscular strong-arm.
Of course, it would be best if we did not have to put those checks to the test at all. Far more agreeable would be a quiet, do-nothing president, a president on whom very little depended. This year’s fiasco should encourage both sides to work toward that end. The belief that the country lives and dies on the shoulders of the president only makes it more likely that it will.