Democracy Doesn’t Need Independent Candidates Like RFK Jr.


Presidential Candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Announces His Running Mate

Is Kennedy a real alternative to the two parties or just a floating cult of personality helping Trump?
Photo: Thos Robinson/Getty Images for The Democratic National Committee

There’s a certain snob appeal associated with self-proclaimed political independence from the two major parties. Independents often think of themselves as more discriminating people who “vote for the candidate, not the party” and even as freethinkers not bound by family tradition, ethnic group, or past loyalties to ride a donkey or an elephant.

Now a ton of research has established the inconvenient truth that most independents are no such thing; they vote habitually for one major party or the other but choose not to identify with it. A major Pew study in 2019 suggested that 81 percent of self-identified independents strongly lean this way or that. This is why many polls lump together “leaners” with partisans as pretty much the same kind of people.

It’s possible, of course, to argue that leaners are picking the lesser of two evils and would oscillate toward a third option if there were one. (It’s typically assumed that this would be a “moderate” or “centrist” option ideologically between the two parties, though in reality your average independent holds a hodgepodge of views, often “populist” in nature.) And thus occasionally we have the phenomenon of independent candidates who troll for votes among those alienated for one reason or another from the major parties or their candidates in particular contests.

I won’t go down the rabbit hole of state-level independent candidacies, other than to note that on the rare occasion they are successful, particularly when they involve well-known incumbents who lost party primaries (e.g., the Senate candidacies of the late Joe Lieberman or the still-in-office Lisa Murkowski).

This year, we have the even rarer spectacle of a major independent candidacy for president featuring ex-Democrat Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who now proclaims himself fully detached from and hostile toward both parties. Kennedy abandoned his family affiliation with Democrats after making very little headway in a primary challenge to Joe Biden; now he refers to the “Biden-Trump uniparty” as though there’s no real difference between these intensely polarized entities. (There is another significantly less viable but notable independent candidate, Cornel West, who is essentially a left-bent protest candidate.) We also nearly had a more exotic independent presidential effort from the nonpartisan group No Labels, which chose not to run a “unity ticket” after all because it could not find candidates with the name ID and street cred to command anything like a viable campaign. What made No Labels interesting is that it disclaimed any interest in forming a third political party but argued its success would force Democrats and Republicans to work together on a centrist policy agenda.

Something Kennedy and No Labels had in common before the latter got out of the presidential-candidacy market is the claim that they were responding to popular demand and had a right to a spot on the November ballot based on what amounts to a mandate from voters. Indeed, No Labels asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Democratic groups opposing its ballot-access program for criminal racketeering and violation of voting rights. Kennedy is being equally accusatory, NBC News notes, which is natural given his tendency to advance conspiracy theories on practically every subject:

[Kennedy] is accusing Democrats of being un-democratic and blasting out fundraising emails calling himself “the Democrat Party’s worst nightmare.” 

“They are using a vast network of shadowy dark money groups and vicious attorneys to keep Kennedy/Shanahan ticket off state ballots and spread malicious smears,” he added in one missive.

The obvious question is this: Does any self-proclaimed tribune of the people have some sort of inherent right to appear on a general-election ballot? Should there be a threshold for ballot access, and if so, what’s wrong with the state requirements that candidates like Kennedy complain about and that rivals insist on enforcing? Are polls enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, and who will police that alleged qualification?

Representatives of parties that have shown appeal in the past are a different matter. Parties also represent a coherent point of view over time rather than this year’s wisdom from individual aspirants for office representing themselves. For all the abstract claims that independent candidates are essential to give the people what they want in times of disgruntlement with the major parties or with the direction of the country, there’s no reason democracy cannot function quite well with an array of candidates representing the Democrats, the Republicans, the Libertarians, the Greens, and a handful of fringe parties. If existing parties do not adequately address the major issues or leave large quantities of voters politically homeless, it may be time to form a new party, much as the Republicans once competed with and quickly supplanted the Whigs, or Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressives forced new viewpoints into the parent GOP.

Independent presidential campaigns are invariably a vanity project for their candidates and provide a unique avenue for wealthy narcissists like Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 and for demagogues marketing conspiracy theories and cure-alls, arguably like RFK Jr. this year. Democracy doesn’t need them, particularly given their tendency to spoil major-party outcomes in ways that may thwart the will of the electorate and give minority vote-getters a path to unearned power. Kennedy is not going to be elected president in November, but there are ample signs he may elect Donald Trump.

At a minimum, there is plenty of justification for challenges to independent ballot access and questions about indie-candidate legitimacy. No one should chastise the major parties for resisting rivalry from candidates who cannot win and who mostly represent themselves.

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