How Democracy Works: a Polemic Against Strategic Voting

n.1. A state governed by the majority of its citizens; 2. A belief in political freedom and equality, where every voice is equal

There’s been a lot of talk lately about strategic voting. Protest voting. Doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you’re on, this election seems to be careening inexorably towards the most “vote against the candidate you don’t like” in American history. And can you blame us? Given the two candidates on offer, how dreadful they both are, what more can you do? After all, one of them is going to win, so you’d better vote for the one you dislike the least, otherwise the country is going down.

So goes the narrative. But it’s not quite right, is it?

I mean, for starters, there are more than two candidates. And now I’ve brought that up, cue the “a vote for a third party is wasted” voices. “A vote for a third party is a vote for the other candidate!” “You have to swallow your conscience and vote for the lesser evil or the greater evil will win!” There are some who go so far as to say that voting third party is a “privilege.” Able to be done out of a sense of entitlement. “That candidate will be terrible to minority rights! You can only risk their presidency because you’re white/male/hetero!”

Bollocks, says I.

America is unique amongst world democracies in that it is dominated by a two-party system. While they have swapped most of their respective platforms in the interim, for a hundred and fifty-six years we have been ruled by the Democrats and the GOP. This is unlike any other Western nation — despite the worldwide use of First Past the Post voting, also known as “winner take all” or “FPTP,” every other country has multiple parties. Never mind that “strategic voting” is ostensibly just as prudent in all of those countries as it is in the US, it simply doesn’t happen — or if it does, not at a large enough scale to render all but two choices moot.

Yes, in England, or France, or Germany, or Israel, you can vote for the party you actually want and have a decent chance (depending on your surroundings) of getting them in. Novel concept, right? And you can’t even blame it on the ossification of time — Britain has been a parliamentary republic longer than the United States has been in existence, whereas Israel, despite seventy years of feeding at the United States’ teat, still has a lively, politically varied Knesset. This suggests that there is something fundamentally broken about the United States in particular, rather than the FPTP model (not to say there aren’t problems with FPTP, but that’s a subject for another essay.)

I do happen to think there is something fundamentally broken about America’s political system, and it stems from our culture. American culture is very binary in its thinking — something is either this or that. Coke or Pepsi, McDonalds or Burger King, good or bad, us or them, with us or against us. We Americans have a tendency to simplify complex situations into sound bites, into bullet points, into coin flips. The reductionist thinking that leads us to “a vote for a third party is a wasted vote” is symptomatic of this tendency.

The problem with this kind of compression is it’s lossy. It omits or glosses over contextual details, some of which are salacious but all of which are relevant. A sampling:

  1. One of the candidates is, by their own admission, a sexual predator — whether or not they are technically guilty of rape.
  2. One of the candidates is a sexual predator’s enabler, despite all their feminist talk.
  3. One of the candidates has a poor temper and says inflammatory things in public.
  4. One of the candidates has a poor temper and says inflammatory things in private.
  5. One of the candidates has repeatedly voted for and overseen military action in nations that are not the United States.
  6. One of the candidates has allegedly defrauded pretty much everyone they have ever worked with.
  7. One of the candidates willfully mishandled classified data in the interest of ensuring their own privacy (in contravention of national law), then lied about it to the FBI.
  8. One of the candidates can’t name a single foreign leader.
  9. One of the candidates is on record saying that politicians need to have “public” and “private” positions.
  10. One of the candidates is openly racist, sexist, and nationalistic.
  11. One of the candidates has a career history of oppressive actions towards minorities and non-Americans.
  12. One of the candidates has promised in public to engage in military action that has a high probability of leading to war with Russia, a belligerent, nuclear-armed power.
  13. At least one of the candidates is in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that would resoundingly fleece the American working class in favor of the corporatists.
  14. One of the candidates is illegitimate — their party clearly, admittedly, and documentably broke their own rules during the nomination process.
  15. There are, in fact, four national Presidential candidates able to secure enough electoral votes to win the Presidency, not just two.

I’m not going to name names, but doesn’t all of that seem at least kind of relevant? Isn’t it irresponsible to take a look at that list and still insist that we only have two choices?

Democracy is a system of government by the people, the body politic. The people we elect to govern us are, nominally, an extension of our will. Now, we can argue that they aren’t in practice, which is true — but that’s our fault. It’s our fault for not demanding better leaders, for not paying more attention, for having a short attention span, for not replacing our government when it became clear they weren’t acting in our interest. You can look at the United States government and denounce it, you can look at it and say it doesn’t work, that it doesn’t speak for you, but the fact of the matter is it got this way (and stays this way) because of us. It got and stays this way because someone, somewhere along the line, convinced us that voting for the “lesser evil” was the prudent choice. So we did it, and now we are ruled by evil.

The one thing that is certain is this: if you vote for the lesser evil, you will get evil. More to the point, if you vote for a candidate you don’t want, you are guaranteed to have a President you don’t want. I do not want Hillary Clinton as my President, nor do I want Donald Drumpf. My viewpoint is shared by the majority of Americans, if the polls are anything to go by, but the polls also say that one of those two people is going to be our next President. If you can’t recognize that system as fundamentally broken then I don’t know what to tell you, and participating, capitulating to the broken system, isn’t going to fix it — it will just make the problem worse.

Governments derive their mandate to govern from the voters. Democracy only works when the body politic is active, engaged, informed, and votes for what they want. There is no such thing as a “protest” vote — the idea of a “protest vote,” of saying “I’m voting for this candidate because I really don’t want that candidate,” doesn’t register when the votes are counted. It doesn’t matter if you’re voting “against” the candidate you perceive as worse, as history, the world, and most importantly the government will see your vote as “for” whomever you voted for. The only reason these people get to govern at all is because a majority of voters stepped into the voting booth and said “I want you in charge.” Look at that list again — do you really want to give any of those people your mandate?

In the end, that’s what it comes down to. The only meaningful voice you have is your vote, and your vote says “this is the person I want to represent me, my values, and my community to the world.” Whether it’s because you think the candidate best represents your interests, or because you think the candidate is most qualified, or because you’re scared of the other candidate, that’s what you’re saying. “This is who I want.” And this is why protest voting is fundamentally immoral — because it’s a lie. It isn’t who you want, you don’t want them, you just don’t want the other one. But that’s not a box on the ballot.

Thou art God. I mean this. Even though I am impatient and frustrated with the gantoviroj, even though I would rather the world be ruled by pensoviroj, it does not change the fact that we, all of us, create the world through our choices and our interactions with each other. All we can know about each other is what is said and what is done. It is therefore incumbent upon us to be honest in our words and deeds, for to act otherwise is to create delusion, both in ourselves and in others. This is a sin. You must vote for the candidate you actually, proactively want, because that’s what your vote says you’re doing. That is being honest, even though it may lead to undesirable consequences — which, I remind you, is what we teach our children to do.

Voting your conscience, voting for who you actually want, is a risk. You risk not getting what you want. You risk not averting what you believe will be a “worse” outcome. All this is true.

Life is a risk. Freedom carries risk inherent. Our responsibility as God is to not only see the world as it is, but to be the world as we want it to be. If you make your decisions out of fear, then the world you help create will be based on your fears. I choose to make my decisions from hope. Only when enough of us do the same will things actually change. Somebody has to go first.

Be the pebble that starts the avalanche. Choose hope. Vote your conscience, and create a world full of your hopes, not just absent your fears.

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