During the lead-up to the last Presidential election back in 2012, I responded to a question that is often asked of those of us who vote for neither Republicans or Democrats in Presidential and/or Congressional elections. And given the way this campaign season has gone so far, it looks like I will not be voting for a Republican or a Democrat again. So why would I waste my vote again?
It’s been explained to me that my vote for a member of a party other than those two parties is a waste because the candidate cannot possibly get enough votes to win, whereas either the Republican or Democrat has at least a chance of winning. This sounds perfectly sensible to most people, but I am not most people, and I see two major problems with the reasoning.
The first is that being on the winning side is not the purpose of voting. It might make you feel better (however briefly) to be a member of whichever political tribe captures the White House for the next 4 years, but that is not the telos of casting a vote. And while who wins is indeed very consequential, affecting as it does the way laws are enforced, diplomacy is conducted, and justices appointed, there will always be candidates who lose for as long as we remain a Republic and avoid a dictatorship.
Losing is just as inevitable a part of voting as winning, and if you can’t accept that the candidate you voted for will sometimes lose the election, then this whole voting thing may not be for you. But of course, almost everyone who votes agrees with this. There are plenty of Democrats and Republicans who live in states or counties in which their party has little to no power and the vast majority of voters support the other party.
As a result, they have no chance of winning. Nonetheless, I recommend that they keep voting, and not because they want to show loyalty to their political tribe or are angry at the other political tribe, but because informed voting is an important civil right and responsibility. And rights are like muscles in the sense that it’s often the case that rights atrophy and become useless when they aren’t exercised. If we leave a power vacuum open by not voting, then that power vacuum will be filled by undemocratic means, usually by an executive running amok.
If we keep the democratic elements of civil society strong, then there is less room for undemocratic elements to grow more powerful. In my view, this is a purpose worth voting for regardless of whether our preferred candidate wins.
But why not vote for the candidate who has a better chance of winning? In my current state of residence, the Republican candidate will win the electoral votes for the state by a large margin if trends continue as they have been. I could vote for the Democrat or the Libertarian or the Green, and my chance of voting for the winning candidate would be the same in each case: 0%.
If I lived in a swing state, then it might make sense to consider that my vote could determine the outcome of the election and worry about the relative chance of the candidates winning the state’s electoral votes. But even then, I don’t think it makes all that much sense to restrict our vote to 2 options when we can count much higher than that. Which brings me back to my second problem with the line of reasoning being examined here.
It’s circular reasoning and a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s true that a third party candidate cannot possibly get enough votes to win. But this is true precisely because most people think that a third party cannot get enough votes to win and so refuse to vote for a third party candidate. It’s true in the same way that it’s true that we cannot end Jim Crow laws, which is to say that it’s true right up until the point at which we decide to do it, because the only thing keeping us from doing it is that we refuse to do it.
There’s nothing in principle impossible about a successful third party campaign; the major barrier is that people believe that it’s impossible and never try. The minor barrier is the demographics of the U.S. in terms of the political views of the populace. It’s true, for example, that there just aren’t enough democratic socialists in the U.S. (even if Bernie Sanders does incorrectly label himself as one) for the Socialist Party USA to win a Presidential election with only the support of democratic socialists.
But that is not how parties work in the U.S. Here we have big-tent style parties in which people of many different political views work together for a few broadly agreed-upon political interests. There is no particular reason that American Progressives and social democrats and populists couldn’t work under a party’s big tent together. After all, they’re doing it now. And there is no particular reason that American neoliberals, fiscal conservatives, classical Liberals, and civil libertarians of all stripes couldn’t work together under the Libertarian Party‘s big tent together.
Well, aside from the fact that the people who ask me, “Why waste your vote?” have decided that they won’t vote for any other party. That’s what it comes down to and all it comes down to; the only thing preventing third party candidates from winning is the perception that third party candidates can’t win.
Just ask the Republican Party. They used to be a third party, and then the Whigs ran aground on the rocks of nativism and slavery, their party splintering over those issues. The Republican Party then starting doing a lot of winning, interestingly enough. It’s worth noting that American history shows us that not only can third parties win, but they can become a major party fairly quickly.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go choose between more than two beers. And no, I’m not worried about which one could win an election. That is not the telos of drinking beer.