One result of the widespread cynicism about public institutions that grew out of the Sixties era—combined with the thirty-year Republican war on government’s capacity to do its job—is a large number of people who state proudly that they do not vote, or who choose to vote for minor-party candidates who have no possibility of reaching office.
Typically, their arguments include one or more of these elements:
Conspiracy theory. “Shadowy Powers really call all the shots in our world, and the elections are just a show.”
Cherry-picking complaint. “My issue is X and the major parties are lousy on that, so if I vote at all, I’m voting for Righteous McFringerton of the Thoroughly Groovy Party.”
Overgeneralized false equivalence. “Both major parties are the same. They’re controlled by the same people, so it doesn’t matter who you vote for.” On the left, the supposed puppeteers are “the rich” and “corporations”; on the right you get “special interests,” which is code for racial and sexual minorities, public interest nonprofits, and unions.
Strategic fantasy. “I vote third party because we have to start somewhere, and the two mainstream parties are lost causes. One day, the Good Stuff Party will be a major force in this country.”
I’ve been asked by several people how I would make a case to such folk that there is good reason for them to vote, and to vote for a candidate with an actual chance of winning. This post is in response to these requests.
To begin with we have to recognize that people who make these arguments do so because at root, they feel powerless. They prefer to believe that they are “in the know”, unlike the “sheeple” that make up most of the public, because it allows them to feel good about themselves in the context of that powerlessness. They have chosen this stance as a preferable alternative to grappling with complex issues and an electoral system in which most of us can only play a tiny role.
So please read the following responses with the caveat that rational argument cannot trump an emotional impulse. Many who express these beliefs simply aren’t persuadable: they need their shelter too much to give it up.
On “they’re all run by the same Powerful Interests”: I don’t think anyone disagrees that there are powerful interests which swing disproportionate weight in this country. But 100 years ago, it was far worse: mining and railroads and heavy industry were completely in charge. They openly bought and sold votes…and politicians.
But somehow, voters managed to do a lot of things those interests didn’t want to see happen. They elected reformers who started regulating those industries. They passed child labor and workplace safety laws, and the 40-hour work week, and guaranteed insurance for our bank deposits, and legal equality for minorities, and air and water quality protections, and invented the national park. Those voters and the people they elected are the reason you don’t have lead pipes delivering your drinking water or arsenic dusted on your food to deter spoilage. They’re the reason we have Social Security and Medicare, which are probably keeping some of your relatives afloat right now.
Powerful interests fought against all of those things, but they lost. Just a couple of years ago, those big interests lost on issues like the health care bill and the Wall Street reform bill, even though they spent millions on lobbyists trying to stop them.
Did we get all of what we wanted? No. But what we got made things a lot better than they were previously, and those interests hated every bit of it. That is what can happen if we put people in office who feel more loyal to us than they do to those interests. And the only way to do that is to vote for them.
A lot of men and women were terrorized, jailed and murdered to get the power you’re saying there’s no point in using. They knew voting mattered. Getting the vote meant the difference between oppression and freedom, between hope and despair, and in many cases between life and death for those people and their kids. The interests who tried to keep them from getting it knew it, too, because sure enough, when those who had been shut out of the election booth finally got the power to vote, things changed.
Think about it: whatever your opinion of him, Barack Obama could never have been President if African Americans had never been allowed to vote or run for office. That proves that voting matters, even when powerful interests are on the other side.
Sure, Exxon and the Koch Brothers have a lot of influence in our politics…but so do millions of ordinary people, if they gather together around what they care about, and back candidates who mostly agree with them and have a chance of winning.
I’m not saying the system can’t be improved. But it could also be a lot worse. To me, the excessive power of the wealthy and powerful business interests is even more reason to work to elect people who will push back against them.
On the major parties (or the President) being wrong on My Pet Issue (usually, pot legalization): You know, you can’t expect the political system to be like a genie granting you wishes. You have to fight for what you want, and sometimes it can take a long time before you get it. In the meantime, the idea that just because your issue isn’t making much progress right now means that voting isn’t worth bothering with at all doesn’t make much sense, does it?
That’s like saying you’re willing to starve to death because your favorite food isn’t on the menu.
Look at it this way: there are more than 300 million people in this country. In anything even somewhat resembling a real democracy, government has to listen both to you and to people who completely disagree with you. So outcomes are going to be somewhere in the middle. Nobody gets everything they want.
But the only people who get to make those decisions are the ones who are in office. If you help elect someone in the name of an issue you care about, that official has to pay attention to it. Being a part of a winning campaign puts you in a position to make progress on the things you care about.
Incidentally, what about everyone else? If politics are making progress on your top issue progress difficult, don’t you have friends or family who care just as much about other issues? Like a woman’s right to choose, or the environment, or civil equality, or the cost of a college education, or taxes, or war? Why wouldn’t you help elect someone who can help make the difference for them?
On “both major parties are the same.” You know, back in the 1990s this was somewhat true. But now it is completely untrue. The Republican Party has become a raving gang of right-wing extremists. On any major issue you can name, there are huge differences between them and Democrats.
If they’d had a Republican President, Congress would never have ended Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Republicans are trying to reinstate it right now, and permanently ban gay marriage anywhere in the country with a Constitutional amendment. Republican leaders complain that we ended the war in Iraq. They want to go back to a system that allows health insurance companies to drop your coverage if you use it. Their solution to all problems is to give more money to the rich, even though that’s been proven a disaster for most Americans. Many of them want to eliminate public education, take away any meaningful help for people in their old age, make homosexuality a crime, force women to have babies against their will, even if conceived by rape, and sell off most of our national parks and public lands. They deny that climate change exists. The list goes on, and it is ugly.
There is a difference. There is a tremendous difference, and pretending there isn’t doesn’t make you look smart or knowledgeable.
If nothing else, think about the Supreme Court. Republicans have appointed a narrow, 1-vote majority of hard-right Court Justices which handed the White House to George W. Bush even though Al Gore won the election, which have taken away much of our right to privacy, and which approved unlimited corporate expenditure in political campaigns. They’re getting ready to make important decisions on issues like abortion rights and even access to birth control. The next President will appoint at least one Justice to the Court, and maybe as many as three. That will lock in the direction of the Court—and our rights—for decades. Several of the current Court majority believe that government has every right to police what you’re allowed to do in your bedroom. If for no other reason, don’t you think that’s a good reason to vote for the guy on the other team, who doesn’t agree with that stuff?
On the fantasy of “building a national third party”. At the local level, sometimes third parties can bring new ideas and shake things up. That’s not a bad thing. But at the national level, history says they’re a counterproductive strategy, and a formula for failure.
The United States settled into a two-party system shortly after the Civil War, and the only effect third parties have had since was to split the vote and hand elections to the people the third-party advocates disagreed with most. Ross Perot and his Reform Party split the Republican Party twice, and gave the White House to Bill Clinton. John Anderson undermined Jimmie Carter, and we got Reagan. The Green Party’s Ralph Nader drew away enough voters from Al Gore in Florida to give the election to George W. Bush, thus providing us the unnecessary Iraq War, a draconian Patriot Act, a smoking crater of an economy, and a shameful reputation on the international stage, all of which wouldn’t have happened if Nader hadn’t been running. Heck, you can go back to Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party in 1912, which split the Republicans and handed the White House to Woodrow Wilson.
It doesn’t work. It’s been tried repeatedly. It’s a failing strategy.
Oh, and if you think you’re “making a statement”? You are, but it’s not the one you think. By and large, elected officials write off those who vote for third parties as fringe extremists and cranks who may safely be ignored. Voting for a third party makes you and your issues less influential, not more.
Please: think like an adult. You don’t get to have the ideal government in your mind. It isn’t the political process’ job to hand you your wish list on a platter. This is a complicated world full of shades of grey. It isn’t about “the lesser of two evils,” it’s about choosing the best of the available options.
Third party candidates aren’t real options. They’re castles in the air. The only possible effect of chasing them is to undermine the issues you claim to care about. In other words, to make things worse.
Finally, I find that this tends to make advocates of the conspiracy theory sit up and take notice:
You’re being used. The Republican Party has been encouraging cynicism about government and the political system for more than 40 years, because most of us disagree with their policies, and they can’t win if we turn out and vote for Democrats. And you’re playing right into their plan.
Why do you think they’re pouring so much effort into trying to suppress the vote in areas that vote Democratic? Why would they bother if the outcome isn’t important? C’mon: business guys don’t pour millions of dollars into something that doesn’t really matter.
So wise up: vote, and do it for candidates who 1) have a shot at winning; and 2) you agree with: not on everything, but on most things.
How hard is it, after all? What on Earth can it hurt?
At publication, the Dragon was PASSIONATE