This year, the likely presidential candidates of the major political parties are two of the less savory individuals ever to run for office in a country whose Wikipedia entry doesn't feature periods of military rule. The Republicans seem poised to give us a crony capitalist who admires authoritarian foreign governments, views constitutional safeguards with contempt, and encourages his followers to stomp opponents. The Democrats are ready to coronate an authoritarian former secretary of state who fairly reeks of influence-peddling and is the subject of an FBI probe into the mishandling of classified information that passed through a private email server she set up to avoid freedom of information inquiries.
Yet Americans are urged to pick between these two candidates as the only two "serious" options for occupying the White House. We're told by frantic partisans that voting for a presidential candidate running on another political party's line or as an independent is really a vote for whichever of the two leading candidates the speaker finds more terrifying.
That's a particular concern for Republicans this year, since Donald Trump has not only tenuous connections to their party and its supposed ideas, but also an antagonistic relationship with the norms of a functioning liberal democracy. Democrats, too, are urged to rally around Hillary Clinton, despite widespread perceptions that she can't be trusted to tell the time of day unless a few minutes are kicked back, let alone to break a twenty without pocketing a couple of bucks.
Yes, it's true, that neither Trump nor Clinton have technically locked up their nominations. Either or both could lose the prize to a rival.
But Clinton's only remaining opponent is Bernie Sanders, a life-long socialist and independent who entered the Democratic race as a matter of convenience. Sanders doesn't seem aware that his frequently touted "socialist" model, Denmark, is actually a welfare state sustained (barely) by being grafted on to a market economy ranked comparably with that of United States in terms of economic freedom. Perhaps his cluelessness is a saving grace, explaining how he's the closest thing to a civil libertarian (and foreign noninterventionist) still aspiring for a major party nomination, despite his attaboy fandom for bread lines and press censorship in truly socialist countries.
The Republicans have a more fundamental problem even if they head off a Trump coronation. The party is ideologically adrift and alienated from its grassroots, making it a natural target for a thuggish demagogue in need of a vehicle. "He's not the cause of a GOP implosion," Reason's Nick Gillespie recently noted of Trump, "but the final effect of an intellectual and political hollowing-out of any semblance of commitment to limited government, individual rights, and free markets."
Even if the GOP successfully resists the current takeover attempt through a desperate surge for Ted Cruz or a contested convention that sees the candidacy wrested away from the popular choice by party elders, it has thoroughly disappointed its base and is held in roughly the same esteem as a nasty rash by younger Americans. Regaining credibility and scraping the tarnish off that brand is going to be a long-term project—if it's even worth the effort.
"The state of the Republicans is particularly parlous," The Economist recognizes. "But the contradictions among Democrats, though less obvious, also run deep." But parties have morphed and transformed before in our country and in others—The Economist goes on to point out that America's two major parties have effectively swapped positions on some important issues over their histories.
Parties have also disappeared. The Republican Party famously replaced the Whig Party in the U.S. after the earlier organization failed to come to terms with the slavery issue. In our neighbor to the north, grassroots disappointment with the Progressive Conservatives, who held a majority in Canada's parliament as recently as the early 1990s, led an insurgent party to rise and replace that organization on the center-right of the country's politics. The new Conservative Party absorbed its predecessor's shriveled remains and held the prime minister's office from 2006-2015.
Whether the Republican Party–and possibly the Democratic Party—are in the process of transforming or collapsing, looking elsewhere for political options just makes good sense. At least until the wreckage has settled.
And it's not as if there are no credible options even as far up the ballot as the presidential line.
Just in terms of political credentials (and yes, there's plenty more to consider), the major parties have no special advantages. In 2008, when the Democrats successfully ran a first-term U.S. senator for the presidency, the Green Party offered Cynthia McKinney, a former six-term member of the House of Representatives, while the Libertarians nominated Bob Barr, a four-term occupant of the same body.
In 2012, the Constitution Party ran six-term former U.S. representative Virgil Goode, while the Libertarians nominated Gary Johnson, a former two-term governor of New Mexico.
Johnson is likely to represent the Libertarian Party again this year against Clinton, Trump, and other hopefuls. A successful entrepreneur before gaining executive-office governing experience, Johnson might actually strike a foreign political correspondent unfamiliar with the American aversion to voting for anybody not affiliated with the letters "R" or "D" as the most qualified candidate in the race.
During past election cycles, most Americans accepted that aversion and let themselves be shamed out of voting for a "spoiler" who could only throw the election to the more awful major party candidate.
But Democrats and Republicans seem locked in a downward spiral, shedding any pretense of honesty or ideological coherence while taunting voters with the knowledge that they can be induced to vote "D" or "R" anyway, even if the parties run, well, a thug against a crook. It's easy to believe that, if technology allowed, party apparatchiks would set undead Mussolini against zombie Capone, just to laugh and laugh as we argued over their relative merits.
But there's no actual obligation to play into that horrible choice. The major political parties have outlived their sell-by dates and grown corrupt, unresponsive, and complacent. They've turned into hollowed-out vehicles to be hijacked by populist demagogues when not being ridden to office by sticky-fingered functionaries. The Republicans are in worse shape than the Democrats, but only in relative terms.
Which is to say, until they reform or die, the major parties are no longer serious choices. Their train-wreck presidential nomination races offer clear evidence to anybody who hasn't drunk the major party Kool-Aid that it's time to look elsewhere for real ideas and credible candidates for political office.
It's time to admit that, in 2016, so-called third parties are the serious choices in politics.