Politics is often about the messenger, not the message. Should third-parties be worried that non-traditional candidates like Vermin Supreme tank their chances of electoral success?
It’s a sad truth that politics is often more about personality than policy. Particularly in an era of partisan-based tribalism, there’s a greater perceived political reward in emotional victories than in intellectual ones: a point-for-point take down of a tax policy proposal is dry, complex and above the heads of most blue-collar, middle American voters. This is not to say that these voters are incapable of understanding, but rather that they’ve prioritized their own life goals over understanding dry academic treatises, a choice which is in keeping with the trustee model of representation. Under this model, constituents trust their elected representatives, who dedicate their time and energy to understanding complex policy issues, with making the choices that best represent their interests and preserve their livelihoods.
Understanding that your representative brought home a win for your district, on the other hand, is much more efficacious: it is not only a win in fact, represented by some sort of boon that demonstrably betters your living conditions, but a win in spirit. When a politician delivers, a voter’s judgment is validated: he feels he rightly identified a candidate who genuinely cares about the community. A sense of communal belonging is also fostered by this relationship: the constituent feels a sense of belonging because his representative acts on behalf of a definable people group.
Efficacy, after all is perhaps the apogee of virtue in the democratic lexicon. Efficacy in politics is about more than satisfactorily completing a task; it’s about seeing that one’s voice is being heard, that one’s vote has some influence within the broader political community. It’s about channeling influence up the avenues of power.
But how does one know when one’s voice is being heard? The political process is, by design, slow and grinding, so legislative victories are few and far between. It’s when a politician panders to a group whose welfare he has decided to champion that this connection is felt most poignantly, which often reinforces the prioritization of emotion over intellect in political discourse. It’s enough to be fighting for a faction because victory is never assured.
This focus on emotional gratification often means political attacks are focused on the messenger, not the message. It’s a lot easier to rip an opponent for being out of touch with the average Joe than it is to explain why his plan to increase marginal tax rates will slow economic growth from 3% to 2%. Particularly in an age of soundbite culture, attention to detail is not rewarded. A primal part of human beings responds to the assertion that action will hurt them. Whether this is true or not, planting the seed of suspicion has a palpable effect. People are not going to vote for Candidate Smith when they’re told time and again that his plans are dangerous and he’s out of touch with middle America.
The susceptibility of electoral success to attacks on one’s person, rather than one’s messenger, means people in the political orbit have a certain responsibility to behave in a way that insulates themselves from such criticism. Of course, going from one extreme to another presents its own set of weaknesses. Mitt Romney’s automaton-like stiffness and Ted Cruz’s alienating egg headery are potentially just as problematic for the voter as Joe Biden’s physical familiarity with women or Katie Hill’s inappropriate relationship with her staffer.
This is especially true for third-party candidates, of whom the vast majority of the electorate is already suspicious.
For example, Gary Johnson’s bid for the presidency in 2016 was less about the validity of libertarian ideas and often more about his bizarre behavior in media appearances. The story became not about the content of his speech, but the method by which it was delivered (see the interview in which he spoke with his tongue hanging out or his mouth) or gaffes he made (the infamous “What is Aleppo?” moment).
But there’s tension here between behavior and belief. Third parties tend to be more ideologically driven than their main-stream counterparts. They tend to be populated with people who don’t think that ideology should be tempered in favor of electability.
And sometimes, in a media climate already hostile to third-party ideas, the best way to make a point is through satire. The bizarre arrests people’s attention and humor, which breaks down’s peoples’ bugaboos, can allow points to be made that otherwise would be lost by defenses immediately invoked when one partisan attacks another.
Take, for instance, the following classic Monty Python sketch which mocks the seriousness with which political pundits take their election night roles, even in the absence of any meaningful information.
The current libertarian race has a candidate who looks very much like the Pythons’ Silly Candidate: Vermin Supreme, known, perhaps most famously for wearing a boot on his head. Long a staple on the fringes of serious politics, Vermin Supreme has made a career of using satire and humor to mock the flaws in contemporary party politics.
Another unconventional candidate is John McAfee, known less for his policy positions than for being an international fugitive, who regularly posts drug-fueled rants on social media.
This week saw McAfee, to no one’s surprise, end his bid for the presidency. He posted on Twitter that he was instead seeking to become the vice-president on Vermin Supreme’s ticket.
Vermin Supreme responded to this with his inimitable humor:
The humor of this response, with its clever word-play and tongue-in-cheek jab at federal agencies, plays to libertarian skepticism of government power and demonstrates that Vermin Supreme is more than just a silly caricature. He’s thought seriously about shortcomings in the political landscape, even if his responses are veiled in non-serious jokes.
But his antics, entertaining as they are, also raise the specter of Gary Johnson.
Satire is an important element of political dialogue, but does the lack of seriousness it sometimes conveys hurt a candidate on the national stage? The fate of Gary Johnson suggests that it does.
In an election where the two major party candidates were viewed with the highest unfavorable ratings ever seen in a presidential election, the libertarian party should have been poised to receive Ross-Perot size chunk of the vote. Instead, they received a piddly 3.27% of the national vote. Is this the result of Johnson’s goofy antics? It is, of course, impossible to know. Voting rationales are as unique and numerous as the number of people who participate in elections. But it cannot be denied that the media used these antics to reinforce the skepticism it already had towards the seriousness and feasibility of libertarian beliefs.
There was never any serious chance that Johnson could win the presidency, but nation-wide elections, when voter turnout is at its highest, provide another opportunity for libertarians: gaining automatic ballot access, a major step forward in the party becoming more mainstream. Again, 2016, in which the two major party candidates were largely viewed unfavorably, was the perfect moment to lobby for votes. The two-party system had obviously failed to provide good candidates; why not vote for a party that could provide an alternative?
But this message may have been blown dead in the water by Johnson. Do voters really want more choice when it comes from a party that nominates gaffe-riddled candidates like Johnson? How is that any different than what the two major parties provide?
And that’s the problem with candidates who use unconventional means to deliver a message: the means is often spun into the message by another actor.
So, what should this mean for the libertarian party and its voters? Should they take a hard-line stance against candidates like Vermin Supreme, whose oddities can be divorced from their context and used to portray the libertarian party as non-serious characters from a Monty Python Sketch? Maybe, if greater electoral success is their goal.
But among the greatest attributes of the party is its refusal to behave like the two major parties, who often ostracize and alienate their more ideologically driven members, whom they see as a threat to electoral success. If the libertarian party excludes candidates like Vermin Supreme, it’s not only stripping its voters of choice but losing some of the attributes that make it unique and viable, even if at a low level.
Whether the libertarian party, which emphasizes local control and individual autonomy, should even desire to be a force in national politics is also a legitimate question.
The presence of oddball candidates who make non-traditional arguments using non-traditional rhetoric will always be a point of weakness, easily exploitable by other parties desperate to collect every vote they possibly can.
But to what degree should parties be focused on the actions of outsiders? True, political power is not attainable without the support of great swathes of the voting public. But how likely are candidates to vote for parties that do not have the courage of their convictions? Part of the soul of the libertarian party is in its embrace of the weird and unusual. How seriously will it be able to make its argument if it marginalizes the people who defy convention and choose to embrace the freewheeling view of individual liberties the party supports?
The place in the party of candidates like Vermin Supreme hinges on the type of party libertarians want to have. Do they truly want to be a party that embraces individual rights — and all the diverse lifestyle choices this allows to flourish — or do they want to be a more sanitized party focused on winning? The two may be mutually exclusive; they may not be. Electoral results will have something to say about this. But electoral results aren’t everything. Politics is much more than elections. And libertarians, perhaps because of their relative lack of electoral success, have always been well-aware of this.