Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Settling for the Lesser of Two Evils is the Greater Evil

Posted by: Liberal Arts Dude

As a voter and citizen in a democracy I should be able to vote my conscience and beliefs in elections. At its core this involves voting for candidates which represent my beliefs.

Absent any palatable candidates, I would like to have some sort of mechanism to register my blanket disapproval such as a “None of the Above” option. Having such an option would put political parties and elected officials on notice that they aren’t up to snuff and the general public expects a lot more than what they are currently offering. These suggestions promote choice and competition in politics — that’s the American way right?

To my surprise, I get a lot of resistance from people whenever I broach such issues. People typically agree with me about how much our choices in elections in candidates and political parties are inadequate. But when the discussion veers towards answering the question of what we can do about it and I broach the third-party and independent option this is where I encounter resistance.

Some objections:
I will try to address these issues one by one.
Voting for third party and independent candidates will only result in siphoning votes away from the major party candidate you most agree with, resulting in a win for the major party candidate you most oppose. Therefore, your vote for an independent or a third party only increases the likelihood of the major party candidates whom you most disagree with winning and is wasting your vote.

This is the old “spoiler” argument which asserts that the way the current American political system is structured, that if you deviate from voting for major party candidates it will result in disaster. The example of Ralph Nader’s candidacy allegedly contributing to the Democratic loss in the 2000 elections giving us eight years of the Bush  Administration is always brought up whenever someone wants to make this point.

The most obvious counter to such an argument is if we continue voting for major party candidates even though we all agree they are doing a bad job nothing will change. The major parties have no incentive to take our wishes, ideas and perspectives into account because they will get our votes regardless of how much they screw up or how much they put their partisan and insider interests above the national interest. Following the advice above we as citizens are reduced to passive observers in politics whose sole job is to rubber stamp choice a or choice b and nothing more. I don’t know about you but that doesn’t sound very palatable or remotely democratic to me.

If a choice c or choice d exists which I feel better represents me and my perspective why shouldn’t I practice my freedom and right to choose? Does it result in siphoning votes off either choice a and b — so what? My vote doesn’t belong to either major party by default just because I hold certain beliefs. If the major party closest to my beliefs demonstrate time and time again that they are not willing or able to adequately represent my beliefs it is insanity to argue that my vote still belongs to them. That is putting party interest — THEIR party interest since I am not a member of either major party — over my own.
Will this result in the short term to electoral victories to major party candidates whom you most disagree with? Did it result in disasters like the Bush presidency?

Ralph Nader costing Gore the presidency is  a myth that deserves to be  challenged whenever it is invoked. Even if I had voted Democratic in the 2000 elections, Bush still would have likely won the elections. Because there were a heck of a lot more Democrats who either did not vote or who voted for Bush than the measly total of votes Ralph Nader got in the 2000 elections. If those Democrats only voted or had not crossed party lines to vote for Bush, Gore would have become President instead of Bush. If Bush won it had nothing to do with Nader being on the ballot and everything to do with Democrats’ failure to attract enough voters — Democratic  voters — to vote for their own party’s candidate. To blame independents and Ralph Nader for their loss is the height of dishonesty and arrogance. If Democrats can’t even get Democrats to vote Democratic what reason should independents have to vote their way?

America is supposed to be about choice, competition and the giving individuals the power to choose. Why can’t we practice those principles in politics? I favor giving the major parties good, solid competition. That’s the only way they will listen to the voters. Besides, if minor parties and independents can do a better job at the helm why shouldn’t they be given a chance to lead?

Politics is a game where you can’t always get what you want. Winning elections always involves some sort of compromise.

Is all politics reducible to the single goal of “winning elections?” I don’t disagree that winning elections is important. But more important in my mind, especially for independents and third party advocates, are goals such as movement-building, public education, political reform and establishing a foothold in the electoral arena. Absent viability to win elections on the short term, independents and third party advocates should set their sights towards the long term. And yes, that means participating in, voting in elections and losing. Perhaps repeatedly. But as political outsiders develop the infrastructure to compete with the majors victories will come eventually.

As a voter I would much rather throw my support towards these long-term strategic objectives for potential gains on the long-term instead of wasting my vote and compromising my beliefs for candidates and political parties who do not truly represent my interests just for the sake of winning one election for the short term. To me, voting for a candidate you don’t agree with or who has zero interest in representing you is the real wasted vote.

Having a None of the Above option is stupid. Voters should just choose between those who are on the ballot. If they disagree with the choices, they should be active in the stages of elections before the candidates are chosen such as party primaries, to make sure candidates of their choice will be represented on the ballot.

Following this advice effectively hogties independents and third party advocates to participating in politics only as members of either the Republican or Democratic parties. Primaries in most states nationwide are closed — meaning independents and unaffiliated voters can’t participate in them. Declaring myself a Republican  or a Democrat just so I can vote in their primaries doesn’t make sense to me — I am neither a Republican or a Democrat and declaring myself as such is an act of dishonesty and I believe, a big compromise of my beliefs as an independent.

There are efforts existing to make primaries open to independents and those I fully support. But I think putting the onus on independents to change the composition of major party candidates through the primary system is too cumbersome, roundabout and really isn’t a suggestion at all but merely a way of telling independents to abandon their beliefs and principles, play exclusively in the major party sandbox, and don’t deviate.
Moreover, just because you join and vote for a major party doesn’t necessarily mean you will have influence in it. Political parties are closed societies comprised of party professionals, politicians and their staff. Very rarely do  actual voters have an impact in anything that happens in the operations of the major parties or the behavior of the party insiders.

It would be much easier and more democratic to shift the power away from party insiders and into the hands of actual voters in elections. One of the ways this can be done by giving voters option to collectively say None of the Above to candidates and political parties on the ballot — it puts party insiders on notice about who the boss in a democracy should be — the general public of active voters.

If incumbents are doing a good job or candidates ran a good campaign, they will have the votes and have nothing to fear from the None of the Above option. But having this option in play gives voters the ability to send a powerful political message to the parties. If they are screwing up imagine the embarrassment if None of the Above gets more votes than them. Having that as a threat is a mechanism to keep political parties in line and gives the power in elections back into the hands of voters.

I hope that I addressed the three main points above adequately. My perspective is coming from the need to put authority and power back into the hands of voters and away from major party insiders. These suggestions are designed to give the ability to voters to put those who are in power on notice if they are doing a bad job. Ordinary people should have a strong voice and say in what goes on in politics and government. These suggestions are examples of ways these can be accomplished. But they require that the individual voter cease thinking of him or herself as a captive of either major party who cannot deviate from either one or else disaster will strike. That puts the power — too much power — voluntarily in the hands of the major parties and their insiders and away from voters and ordinary citizens. That doesn’t seem very democratic to me.

To me, voting and elections are supposed to be about democracy and putting decision-making power into the hands of The People. Democracy and democratic participation should be much more than a tired ritual and exercise of ratifying the pre-packaged decisions of party insiders — decisions largely out of the control and purveiw of ordinary citizens. To accept what passes for elections and democracy today as the only “realistic” and “pragmatic” option for voters and citizens and that they shouldn’t demand anything more is quite sad in my opinion.

There is a world of solutions out there to reform our political system ranging from campaign finance reform, voter registration, ballot access, voting methods, etc. and there are many activists and organizations working on these issues mostly under the radar of public consciousness. These groups are working on solutions designed to put democracy back into the hands of voters. I am an advocate of making these efforts more well-known and spreading the word that real, people-powered democracy is possible and politics need not be solely an exercise of holding our collective noses and settling for the lesser of two evils. That, to me, is what American democracy and being an engaged citizen is all about.

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