Gary Johnson has seen better days. After stumbling over a basic foreign policy question regarding the ongoing refugee crisis, Johnson’s campaign went through the media gauntlet, enduring harsh criticism and questions of whether he was prepared for the presidency.
Coupled with his low polling numbers and the reality that he most likely won’t make the debate stage on Sept. 26, it’s fair to say the libertarian bid for the presidency has once again fallen short. Nonetheless, this gaffe is a perfect example of the biased expectations of the media and electorate, and it shows us how skewed our standards are.
Consider, for instance, that rival candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have regularly been engulfed in scandal from the onset of their campaigns but continue to be the only candidates with a realistic expectation of winning.
When Trump displays his appalling ignorance of the nuclear triad during debates, for example, or when the former Secretary of State says she doesn’t understand that a “C” marking means classified, little attention is shed on whether this disqualifies their candidacies. This isn’t to say that Trump and Clinton receive no criticism for their flaws, but when they do receive criticism, it’s underwhelming when compared with third party candidates such as Johnson. More often than not, gaffes are framed in a more forgiving light when committed by major party candidates this cycle.
This is in no way a defense of former Gov. Johnson’s mistake — the error was egregious and raises legitimate questions about his ability to lead the United States abroad. Yet the sad truth is that we’re so eager to disqualify long-shot candidates that we engage in hypocrisy. We readily dismiss the mainstream candidates repeated blunders and flaws while obsessing over mishaps such as this, for which Johnson readily apologized. How often are we lucky enough to hear “I’m sorry” from the lips of Donald J. Trump or Hillary Clinton?
At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves if we have a dual political standard. Democracies cannot afford to lambast certain candidates over minor blunders while largely ignoring (or belatedly starting) legitimate reporting on competitors’ larger mistakes. If mistaking the city of Aleppo for an acronym is disqualifying, shouldn’t claiming to know more than the generals be similarly invalidating? Shouldn’t colluding with the DNC against your opponents be invalidating?
This is not to imply there is no candidate fit for office in contention. Rather, we must understand that holding one candidate up to a different standard than another is not only unfair but also dangerous. The results of our elections have massive consequences in the real world, making it imperative they are carried out fairly and legitimately. We simply cannot afford to play politics and skew our attitude on what gaffe is and isn’t acceptable based on which candidate committed it.
When weighting who to vote for in the coming months, keep in mind that not all flaws are covered equally. Biased reporting and sensationalist headlines threaten to turn voters’ attention away from more pressing issues. And in our race to disqualify our opponents, we often succumb to hypocrisy and refuse to acknowledge our own legitimate critics.
The solution to this, thankfully, is rather simple; we must start holding all of our candidates and politicians to a higher standard. When we elect politicians to office, we entrust them not only with the ability to make decisions, but to set an example for the rest of society. Perhaps this is why I find Johnson’s quick admission of fault and apology so appealing; in a political cycle of scandal, dishonesty and outrage, it’s refreshing to see a candidate admit when he erred, rather than deny, or worse — pivot to slandering his or her enemies.
As November draws ever closer and the heated dynamics of the race continue to produce inflammatory soundbites and embarrassing missteps, remember to carefully consider each headline, its context and what it means for our democracy’s future.