Presidential candidate John Vail does not want to be president. It’s all over his website; his candidacy announcement reads, “An important task for the ‘campaign’ will be to make it abundantly clear that Vail is not an ideal candidate for the job”. Instead, Vail wants voters to reframe their mindsets entirely. “I’m not running for president”, says Vail. His pseudo-campaign is entirely symbolic; Vail acts as a ballot line for citizens who agree that money has no place in politics.
I asked Vail how he would explain the ramifications of Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court case that cemented corporate influence in politics, to a campaign finance novice. Vail responded that he would not ever have to. Money in politics, Vail claims, is a universal issue that Americans at large agree on. He isn’t wrong; according to a 2018 study done by the Center for Public Integrity, 60% of Americans feel strongly that the influence of big campaign donors in our elections should be reduced. Likewise, 28% feel somewhat concerned about the issue. Down party lines, the issue remains relatively universal, with an aggregate of 84% of Republicans and 92% of Democrats indicating at least some concern regarding the issue.
Given the current political climate, Vail is aware that this year will be tough for such a message to spread. Originally, Vail had hoped that he would be able to get 50 candidates from all 50 states to run on the same platform as him. While he recognizes it would be too late now, Vail remains hopeful that this goal can one day be fully realized. As far as this election goes, Vail only hopes that Biden be chased out by Democratic voters. Despite being a lifetime Democrat, he feels recently that the party has “shoved Biden down his throat.” Vail is reluctant to vote for Biden again, claiming that if he does end up voting for Biden, he may throw up leaving the voting booth. He joked as he said this, but there is undoubtedly a truthful sentiment to be taken from Vail’s words. He is not alone; a CBS news poll from late 2023 found that nearly 40% of Democrats do not think Joe Biden should have run for reelection. As Americans across the political spectrum grow disdain for a second Biden term, the strategy for Democrats in defeating Republican front-runner Donald Trump is going to have to pivot. What that pivot looks like is uncertain, but candidates like Vail speak to larger issues within our political system.
Vail grew up around Philadelphia, Penn. His faith is important to him; Vail has a master’s degree from a since-defunct Divinity school in Cambridge. He also has a B.A. from Trinity College and an M.Ed from Boston University. Vail has spent much of his life working in social services, with a specialty in delinquents and troubled kids. His choice to double as a carpenter reflects his commitment to being a self-made man. During the Vietnam War years, Vail worked on Fort Bragg with an army buddy, Dave O’Brien, as part of the GI’s United movement. Vail recognized the problematic nature of the Vietnam War and sought to drive up anti-war sentiment among GIs by publishing articles and bringing activists to the base such as the notorious Ronnie Davis, Jane Fonda, and Barbra Dane. O’Brien referred to Vail as “a solid person, both with papers and with friends.” On other issues, another one of Vail’s lifelong friends, Keith Miles, told me that Vail is an ardent advocate for women. The same friend gave the following comment when asked about Vail’s mission: “Living the life he espouses–simple, unassuming, non-capitalistic–John firmly believes that money is the root of much that is wrong with our politics. Recognizing his limits, he advocates voting for ‘what, not who’, and his campaign is dedicated to getting money out of politics, and could personally care less about his winning any election unless it results in that goal.”
If your instinct to support Vail is to send him money, don’t bother. Vail does not accept campaign donations. The domain for his website and blog is quite literally sendnomoney.org. Reading through Vail’s blog helps gain an understanding of his mission more than anything else. Readers may find Vail’s rhetorical choices to be unconventional (which he attributes to his time at boarding school, where he was taught King’s English), but I found there to be a wealth of ideas in each of his word choices. Notably, Vail calls the American people “anesthetized” in one of his blog posts. Any politically savvy individual will tell you that calling the American people anything other than fine, upstanding citizens during campaign season is a death wish for any presidential hopeful. However, with this metaphor, Vail is comparing Americans to the mice in the famous “Rat Park” experiment. He argues that similar to the mice in the experiment, we choose to drink from the tube that kills us, the drinking tubes in this metaphor being the internet, media, shopping and overconsumption, too little face-to-face communication, and an overwhelm of ‘bad news’. “We’re distracted, fearful, angry, worried, and we’re not awake or alert,” he says.
But, if not to win, and if raising awareness is off the table, then why would Vail waste $1,000 securing a place on the ballot? All Vail hopes is that he will make enough of an impact to change the way the discussion on voting is conducted in this country. Vail wants to say, “I don’t care who wins. I don’t care who the president is.” Instead, he hopes to inspire voters to do the same thing that he has, which, according to him, is using his fraction of democracy strategically and to say “I want money out of politics.” He further clarifies that when voters vote for him, they won’t be voting for the guy who will get that job done. Vail will not be president, and he is the first to admit that. Voters who support Vail will not be supporting the notion of “Vail for President” at all. Instead, they will be taking a firm stance on an issue that has long plagued American politics.