By Finbarr Curtis
When members of the People's Party debated whether to endorse the 1896 Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, some Populists worried that a fusion ticket with the Democrats would compromise the core principles of the movement. Like many third parties in American history, the People's Party had to make a decision between maintaining a radical critique of the political system or trying to reform from within. Those who feared that endorsing Bryan would spell the end of the People's Party were right. The party never again matched the independent electoral success that it had when James B. Weaver won 8 percent of the vote in 1892. Furthermore, Bryan lost the election in 1896, and again in 1900 and 1908.
One problem for third parties is that as long as centrists in a two-party system can take their votes for granted, they have little electoral clout. If the number of third-party voters was large enough to cause a major party to lose, however, it might be forced to move further to the right or the left. This was in some ways the strategy of the Ralph Nader Green Party candidacy in 2000, which was premised on the idea that the two candidates (sometimes referred to as "Bore and Gush") had moved so far to the center as to be indistinguishable. A third party movement could disrupt this complacent consensus.
In 2016, Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party allowed voters to avoid choosing between the "lesser of two evils." As I write this late on the evening of election night, the combined votes of the parties was enough to swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania into the Republican column, thereby swinging the election. Of course, it is entirely possible that the Johnson campaign depressed the vote for Trump as the Libertarians provided an option for never-Trump Republicans who might have otherwise voted for the GOP nominee.
The biggest impact on the election probably had less to do with vote count, however. Rather, the most pronounced effect on the race is that Green and Libertarian supporters sustained a narrative that two equally evil people were running for president. There was an intensity to the attacks on Clinton that went far beyond Nader's critiques of Clintonian economic and military centrism. The intensity of these attacks, whether justified or not, contributed to a wide perception that there was more at stake than just a political disagreement between left and center. Instead, repeating that was a Clinton was a criminal helped to give credence to specious scandals about Benghazi, emails, and charitable foundations that reinforced undecided voters' impressions that Clinton's candidacy represented a comparable threat to the misogynist and white supremacist campaign of a lifelong con artist. This served to neutralize Clinton's successes measured by conventional political criteria like her victories in the three debates, her extensive political experience, and her promise to carry on the policies of a popular incumbent president.
It is possible, however, that a Trump presidency might indeed further the goals of more radical political critics. If Trump delivers on his campaign promises, he will unsettle the centrist status quo. One potential result of a Trump victory will be a Brexit effect on the global economy that would include losses in domestic and international markets. This might not be immediate as was the case with Brexit as some on Wall Street might welcome the possibility of tax breaks, but the eventual decline in global markets is inevitable. The United States economy, however, is much bigger than the United Kingdom's and so the negative effects will be larger and more widespread. Furthermore, Trump's economic and immigration policies are more radical threats to global trade than anything in Brexit. Trump's proposed 40 percent tariff on China and promised trade wars with Canada and Mexico will further depress the American and global economy. His improbable slate of tax cuts will create budgetary crises that will gut public infrastructure and result in the loss of millions of jobs of public sector employees in fields like education and law enforcement. We could also witness increasing instability abroad as Trump cedes hegemony over the Middle East to America's newfound Russian ally Vladimir Putin and proposes erratic displays of power for no purpose other than asserting American dominance. There are also likely to be unprecedented legal crises as Trump has promised to use institutions like the Attorney General's office to pursue criminal cases against political opponents and to restrict journalists' right to report on what are likely to be corrupt financial dealings within a Trump administration.
All of this taken together could cause a significant recession over the next 12-18 months. This will be a major shift from the last eight years of economic growth resulting in a 4.9 percent unemployment rate, a thriving stock market, and an expanding health care system that has insured an additional 20 million people.
When people are relatively economically secure, they tend to attribute their success to their own work habits and blame things like taxes, health care costs, or government regulation for impeding their access to even greater economic prosperity. When the economy turns for the worse, however, people blame the government. For this reason, George W. Bush's one time approval ratings of 90 percent fell into the 20s in the wake of the 2008 housing crisis. Trump is already one of the most unpopular incoming presidents and the likely prospect of double-digit unemployment and cratering stock markets will reduce his approval rating to record lows. As the country turns against Trump, his hard core of supporters who voted for the restoration white supremacy will become increasingly embattled and angry. This will intensify their resentments against racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities in a way that raises the specter of communal violence not seen since the days of Jim Crow.
Therefore, it is possible that a Trump presidency might create the kind of economic, military, legal, and social instability last experienced in the United States in the 1850s, and can then produce an electorate more receptive to a radical third party agenda. In other words, the rationality of a vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson is that it could create the kind of tangible human suffering that might finally disrupt the centrist two-party system. The idea that a Trump crisis might have revolutionary potential informed Slavoj Zizek's suggestion that a Trump presidency might be preferable to a Clinton administration that would further normalize the Neoliberal status quo.
But this could also backfire. Trump's unpopularity could inspire such vehement opposition to the GOP that it results in Democratic electoral landslides in 2018 and 2020, creating virtual one-party rule. Some Stein supporters might be okay with this in the not unlikely circumstance that it produces a President Elizabeth Warren in 2020. However, this new Democratic supermajority could include traditional Republicans like the Romneys and Bushes, thus including their policies rather than a more radical leftist or libertarian agenda. It is one thing to create a third-party alternative that results in a presidency like Mitt Romney's; it is another matter to put into power an ethno-nationalist movement with an appetite for authoritarian power.
In some ways, the biggest electoral losers are likely to be traditional Republicans in the vein of the Romneys or the Bushes. The GOP to which they dedicated their lives is gone. If they had voted for Clinton over Johnson, a resounding Trump loss would have made the case for a return to conservative principles within the Republican Party. For that matter, a Clinton victory might have itself resulted in a relatively unpopular presidency with the prospect of GOP electoral gains in 2018 and 2020. In the meantime, they would have enjoyed the benefits provided to wealthy white people in a strong economy instead of losing money under a Trump presidency.
To be clear, third party voters in the 2016 election were not source of the Trump phenomenon. Trump's victory came from his ability to mobilize support among white Americans who felt slighted in an increasingly diverse country and who never adjusted to what they saw as the indignity of having to suffer under an African-American presidency. But regardless of the cause, everyone will feel the effects of a new Trump dispensation.
But who knows? America might also become great and everyone will be happy in a new era of peace and flourishing.