Bad Politics Depends on Bad Voting

I can't recall where I found this, but tl:dr answer is "get out a pencil and draw another option."

I can’t recall where I found this, but tl:dr answer is “get out a pencil and draw another option.”

Yesterday, a friend asked me this question about voting:

So, if you reject the ‘lesser of 2 bought and paid for evils,’ what do you do?”

I admit this seems somehow fake, at least to me; even with the context that led to it, the innocence of this question took me by surprise. But I assure you that this is a direct quote. I suppose that even in this day and age, not everyone keeps his or her mask of cynicism up all the time, and occasionally someone will still ask an honest philosophical question that isn’t accompanied by sneering or part of a set-up etc.

This was my answer(1):

First of all, per the old saying “I wouldn’t start from here,” I advise not beginning at the general election ballot. We have a sort-of-kind-of run-off system in America, via primaries, though this system is to a proper run-off system kind of what the ACA is to single-payer.(2) But it’s what we have, and more people should take part in it rather than just waiting until November to consider who “they” chose for you.(3)

Second, if (and often when) primaries result in both major parties running bought-and-paid-for pod people anyway, look down-ballot. There is often at least some alternative.(4) If there isn’t… or if all of them appear genuinely as bad or worse than tweedle-D and tweedle-R… well, go fish. Many times life is, indeed, a menu of only bad options… but it still isn’t as narrow a menu, as frequently, as most people take for granted.

Elaborating on a few points…

1) This post is written from a US-based perspective, though it has varying degrees of applicability in other countries. (This suggests that many of these points are potentially relevant even in a multi-party parliamentary democracy, e.g.)

2) i.e., a kludge-y, distant second-best at best, that nonetheless is and is likely to remain what we have for the moment, even though personally I strongly endorse a transition to the relevant alternative with all deliberate speed.

3) Per the graphic at the top of this post, “they” are indeed entirely ready to surround you with a world of two (or fewer) pre-selected choices for every race. But in most cases it isn’t real; it only exists in any sense because people accept that it does. Moreover, even as individuals we have a lot of power to reject that false choice, right now. Yeah, as noted, the primary system (or systems, as it varies considerably among the 50 states) is not very user-friendly. Outside of the presidency, journalism rarely offers any help (even by their standards) in evaluating primary contests (or third-party options). Plus, in too many states, making it more difficult to vote at all has basically become an upfront, openly advocated objective for Republican legislatures. Odds are still good, though, that you can overcome all of these obstacles if you’re willing to do so. Or, you can just settle for that pre-selected option in the above graphic.

4) I can hear the retort now, probably in almost the exact same words and even voice as you: “vote for a third party? Oh, sure, throw your vote away!” The fact that people seriously think this way is, I think, partly the consequence of a poor grasp of statistics. The simple fact is that even in a close election in a small district, the odds that a race will be decided by one vote are too small to take seriously; how often do you hear about this happening? (As for why you should, then, vote at all, that’s really another post, but briefly: at an individual level, voting is an expression of opinion, rather than a click on a “buy” button. Given that, unlike in the latter context, you have no direct control over what’s delivered to you, I submit that you ought to focus on expressing the preference in which you really believe most because otherwise you’re the one keeping you down, without The Man even having to lift a finger!) Nonetheless, I have encountered this kind of “unintended outcome” anxiety even from an xkcd-level PhD, so I recognize that there’s something else at work, too. I suspect that many people feel an instinctive aversion to being an outsider; here, I guess, my entire argument is that you should overcome that instinct, or else get used to an unsatisfactory “insider” menu of options, forever. A visceral fear and loathing of one or the other “big two” parties probably plays a role in many cases, as well; much of our modern political culture emphasizes voting as an expression of what one dislikes most, rather than what one likes at all. Here, again I suppose I can just point to statistics. Is a .0000000001% chance of casting the deciding vote between “uggh” and “aaaccck!!!!” really worth going on record to declare “I support scenario ‘uggh’ more than any of the other options in front of me?”

(Also, anyone who is familiar with the “oh, sure, throw your vote away” quote and its context and would still not only object to voting for third-party candidates but also use that quote…? You’ve failed, and need to start over, pretty much completely. I mean, really start over with everything you’ve learned since potty-training, frankly, because you have seriously missed some important lessons.)

Update: I believe Ezra Klein’s latest item at Vox sums up my argument pretty well: “So yes, the game is rigged… But ultimately voters are the ones who have rigged it. Politics often gets explained in the passive voice. But passivity is a choice. And a lot of what’s wrong in American politics could be swiftly fixed by an active electorate.”

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