As the US goes to the polls, there is not exactly a shortage of commentary telling people how important it is that they vote, and so it’s been almost traditional (by which I mean, I did it at least once) for me to provide a small voice for the forces of apathy. This year, though, I want to address a particular and in my view rather pernicious species of electoral wowserism – the belief on the part of the Democratic Party that it has something approaching property rights over the vote of anyone to the left of, say, the New York Times opinion page.
The argument I want to establish here is that the decision about whether or not to vote Demcrat (versus the alternative of abstaining or voting for a minor party) is a serious one, which is up to the conscience of the individual voter to make, and which deserves respect from other people whether they agree with it or not. Obviously in making that argument, I’m going to have to venture into a number of unpalatable home truths about the Democrats as they are currently organised (abstract: ineffectual, cowardly, surprisingly warlike, soft-right, generally an obstacle to the development of social democratic politics), but let’s get this clear right up front – voting Democrat might often be the right thing to do in any given case, depending on local conditions; it might even usually be the right thing to do. What I’m not going to accept, however, is that it is always or definitionally the right thing to do.
Given that, it’s also the case that (because what we’re talking about here is largely the electoral politics of a protest vote), a mid term election in which control of the Senate (“Control” having an unusual and specialised meaning here – the Democrats have after all had “control” of the Senate for quite some time, and even enjoyed a “filibuster proof majority” for about a year, and see how much good this did them ) is unlikely to change is about the lowest-stakes environment there could be. Barack Obama, the popular and world-historical leader will not be standing; the somewhat less attractive Democratic slate will in general consist of “a bunch of old white guys, most of them rather rightwing”. Not only is it highly unlikely, for paradox-of-voting reasons, that yours will be the crucial vote, but even if it is, it will have elected a candidate who is then highly unlikely to be the crucial vote on any proposal of interest, and who cannot even be relied upon to vote the right way if he is. So given the generally lower level of stakes, an election like this one is likely to be a happy hunting ground for protest votes. And so this is a serious business – I really do think that more likely than not, most CT readers with a vote to waste should be giving serious consideration to wasting it. On with the show …
The Bait and Switch
The key point I want to make here is that when major party activists put the guilt-trip on supporters significantly to their left, they engage in what looks like very fallacious reasoning. The point is that a voter considering a protest vote against the Dems from the left has three options on election day:
First, stay at home
Second, vote for their minor party or abstain
Third, vote Democrat
And the thing is that the major party activist has to steer them between the Scylla and Charybdis of the first two choices, both of which might superficially look more attractive than voting for a candidate you don’t support. To do so, they need to make two contradictory arguments.
Obviously the problem to overcome in getting you to drag your ass (note American spelling) down to the polling station is the Paradox of Voting. Which isn’t really a paradox; it could more accurately be titled “The Actual Extremely Low Expected Value Of Voting”. This requires an appeal to your civic sense of duty; remember Martin Luther King, etc. In other words, they need you to see it as your duty to society to vote, or alternatively to see your vote as an important form of political expression.
However, once your ass is duly dragged and you’re in the voting booth, the last thing they want you to do is your civic duty (which would be to vote for the candidate you think is the best; that’s how voting systems work, strategic or tactical behaviour is a pathology of a badly designed system) or political expression (which also wouldn’t have you voting for their guy). Once you’re there, they want to argue in purely instrumental terms – you have to vote for the Democrats because if you vote for your minority party, you have no chance at all of being the marginal voter.
It looks inconsistent, because it is. Particularly in a midterm election, when you have a very small chance of being the deciding vote for a Congressman who in turn has a very small chance of being the deciding vote on an issue of importance (and given that this is the Democrats we are talking about, you have to take into account votes of importance where your congressman is the swing vote for the wrong side), the expected value of your vote is very small indeed, and the costs of it are the psychological toll on your own morale, plus the opportunity cost of whatever else you might have done with the time.
The mistake here is in treating a descriptive model (the spatial competition framework underlying the median voter theorem) as a normative one. It’s a model which is meant to predict which ice cream cart you choose out of two, not one that’s meant to persuade you to buy an ice cream if you don’t want one. There is no such political or obligation; I know that there are some souls in the grip of the model who probably would vote for a policy of exterminating X puppies over a policy of exterminating X+1, but it seems pretty clear that there is some point at which it becomes obvious that a morally and politically valid response is simply to declare that the fundamental basis of the implied contract has broken down, and that it’s a reasonable choice to simply refuse to participate further. (Simple proof by reductio ad absurdum: if this wasn’t the case, then the government of Myanmar could sponsor a local branch of the Khmer Rouge to stand against them on a Year Zero ticket, thereby obliging Aung San Suu Kyi to vote for them).
Put simply, however much worse the Republicans are than the Democrats, this isn’t a reason for voting Democrat unless you have good reason to believe that your vote will make a difference. Which the Paradox of Voting shows that it generally won’t, and therefore a decision to vote Democrat ought to be justified with positive reasons why it’s a good thing to be identified with.
So what’s the alternative?
Basically, non-electoral politics. For someone whose politics are to the left of the mainstream of the Democratic Party, time and effort spent on getting Democratic candidates elected has to compete against the opportunity cost, which is usually a single-issue group of some kind. And in this competition, the Democratic Party has two big handicaps. First, on an awful lot of key issues for people on the left (gay marriage, environmental regulation, redistributive taxation), its policies aren’t very left wing. And second, whatever its policy agenda it has next to no party discipline and very little in the way of efficient organisation for achieving its goals. Unless the issue closest to your heart is “more money and job security for incumbent Democratic politicians”, it is not all that likely that the Democratic Party is the best vehicle for its pursuit. I think that the case for spending time and money on supporting the campaigns of Democrat candidates (unless you actually like their politics) is very hard to make when one considers the opportunity cost.
But is there an argument in favour of withholding one’s vote for the Democrats on specifically progressive grounds? Well maybe. The direct opportunity cost of doing so is much lower than the opportunity cost of spending time, money and mental energy on campaigning for an unattractive candidate. The only benefit of specifically refusing to vote Democrat on political grounds is a quite nebulous strategic one – that a large part of the problem with respect to the current situation of the Democrats is that they take lots of their voters for granted, and that as a result they represent the interests of a set of people really quite unlike their typical supporter. This is probably true, but it seems to me that there’s only a very unclear and twisty path between this fact and any strategy of moving the party to the left in order to pick up the Daily Kos vote. There are so many slips twixt that cup and lip that there probably wouldn’t be any tea left at all.
But … although the expected strategic value of withholding one’s vote from the Democrats is pretty close to zero, so is the expected value of voting for them. Although party promotional material always wants to turn every election into a direct plebiscite on the next Supreme Court Justice, with Dick Cheney standing against the late Fred Rogers, actually it isn’t. And since the entire case for persuading you to use your vote for a party you don’t support is a strategic one, it’s hardly possible to then claim it illegitimate to bring other possible strategies to bear. The strategy “always vote for the Democratic candidate, no matter what” is a corner strategy with no sensitivity to conditions – it’s very unlikely to be correct in all possible cases.
This is a grown-up calculation for everyone to make independently. Good luck to all our readers and however you choose to use your vote, use it. For values of “use it” which include the making of a conscious choice not to do so.