Dear Libertarians: Stop Saying Abraham Lincoln Was a Third Party Candidate
So, the latest ridiculous thing to infect my Facebook newsfeed these days is this video by a guy calling himself Dead Abe Lincoln . It’s created by a group called the Balanced Rebellion, which very much wants Gary Johnson to be elected president. Their idea isn’t that bad, honestly. Democrats and Republicans worried that their third-party vote is essentially a vote for their political opposite can find a “match” on the other side to cancel each other out. Bearing in mind this probably is not seriously taking into account the demographics of individual counties it’s sort of a novel approach to third-party politics.
On the other hand, the video is pretty much a collection of “equally bad” fallacious nonsense. Hillary Clinton is labeled corrupt by begging the question and without any citation of evidence, and she is accused of rigging the primary election despite being comfortably ahead nearly the entire race. So it’s not surprising that the other favorite (incorrect) Libertarian talking point came up, that Abraham Lincoln was a third party candidate who had become president.
Guys, just… no.
Let’s look at some history, and for the record, I’m drawing most of my knowledge here from Richard Shenkman’s Presidential Ambition: Gaining Power at Any Cost, which I cannot recommend enough for those interested in seeing how the presidency has evolved.
In 1850 the traditional balance of power between slave states and free states that had held since the previous century was upended when California became the 16th free state in the union. By 1854, the decision to admit Nebraska and Kansas came up, and Democratic senator Stephen Douglas drafted a bill that would allow those states to decide whether they would allow slavery when they joined.
This whole mess is all super complicated, and this article is already going to run long, but it ultimately shakes out like this. By the presidential election of 1856 The Kansas-Nebraska Act had made no one happy. Anti-slavery Democrats considered it a repeal of the Missouri Compromise and revolted, splitting the party into northern and southern factions (a big problem for Democratic president James Buchanan, whose power base was in the South). What few Whigs there were left in Congress followed suit, and their party collapsed, joining the Know-Nothings or the newly formed Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln, was one of the latter.
Buchanan turned out to be a terrible president. After the election an amazing amount of corruption was uncovered, including registering huge numbers of immigrants who tended to vote Democratic, and using money derived from Wall Street to do it (basically every conspiracy theory between right and left today nicely combined). He tried to stave off the secession of the South over the issue of slavery by directly interfering with the Supreme Court over the Dred Scott case, which is against the rules, to put it mildly. Votes for slavery were taken in the new states, and every one of them involved remarkable-levels of vote fraud (McCoy County, home to 20 registered voters, cast more than a thousand pro-slavery votes). In the middle of all this Buchanan and Douglas went to bloody political war against each other, further destroying the Democratic Party whose members would not hold the presidency again until 1884.
Now, here’s the important bit and why Gary Johnson is not in any way in a position similar to Lincoln. In 1858 we had a mid-term election, and it was a doozy. The Democrats, who had the majority in both houses two years before, lost the House and were reduced to a slim majority of just four Senate seats. This was also the year that Douglas and Lincoln famously squared off in their debates for Douglas’ seat, and though Douglas did win, Lincoln’s political capital had never been higher.
In short, Lincoln was not a third party candidate. He was part of a new, and very successful political party that had just taken over a chamber of Congress when it made him its presidential nominee in 1860. On top of that, he’d been a workhorse and Representative for the Whigs his entire adult life. He only abandoned the party when it became clear being a Whig from Illinois was not ever going to put him back in a seat of power. He did the exact opposite of what Gary Johnson is doing.
On top of that, we are nowhere near the conditions of the 1850s and ‘60s. There’s no national issue under debate now that can in anyway be compared to slavery. Americans may be more politically polarized than at any point in living memory, but there’s no one, single issue dividing us as violently as did slavery. There’s no regional power structure being thrown out of balance, and the sitting president has competently steered the country through its upheavals over the last eight years in a way James Buchanan could never have dreamed of. The United States political landscape is simply not going to fundamentally change form this year over legal weed or free trade agreements or Hillary Clinton’s emails or not even over Donald Trump’s empowerment of white nationalism.
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The memes all say, “Gary Johnson would win if everyone voted for him.” Well, if I got a good Kirkus review on my book I might be the next Suzanne Collins, but I don’t have $500 to find out and Johnson doesn’t have the votes or party presence in Congress to be president either. Lincoln surfed the wave of America’s slavery crisis to become one of the greatest men in history. As far as I can tell Johnson and the rest of the Libertarians are still paddling out into the water.
Now, not all hope is lost, y’all. Donald Trump may be the death of the national Republican Party, even though they will almost certainly survive hunkered down in the state races where they are doing better than they have since Prohibition. The odds of Trump’s dumpster fire of a campaign flipping at least the Senate for the Democrats are getting better every day. That’s possibly a power vacuum Johnson could step into, or barring that, one that prominent Republicans could break free of and land with the Libertarians.
I know a lot of Johnson supporters desperately want to see him on the debate stage with Trump and Clinton (so do I, if only so Clinton has an actual person with elected position experience to talk to). He’s unlikely, based on current polling to make that 15 percent threshold. However, FiveThirtyEight is keeping an eye on Johnson, and he’s got some remarkable staying power for a third-party candidate this late in the race. What he might actually accomplish that is worth something is that if the Libertarians capture 5 percent of the vote in November, they get federal campaign funding next time they try. That’s not a small deal. After Ross Perot’s Reform Party crossed that threshold in 1996 (he had no party in 1992), they put Jesse Ventura in the governor’s mansion in Minnesota two years later.
But please, stop figuratively putting your affairs in a dead man’s mouth. It’s only slightly less gross than doing it literally. Abraham Lincoln was not a third party candidate, certainly not as we would recognize Gary Johnson here in 2016. The guy you’re thinking of is John Bell of the Constitution Union Party. You haven’t heard of him, and if you keep up with this inaccurate and wrong line of thinking, no one 150 years from now will have heard of Gary Johnson either.
Jef’s collection of stories about sharks and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is available now.
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