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Against Strategic Voting

2020 May 2319 min read

As an American citizen, I voted Green in the 2016 presidential election, and I'll be doing the same in 2020. I justify my decision, then and now, with what I believe to be an almost airtight argument; one that isn't too common, but that I think provides a clear-headed rational and ethical backing for third-party voting while withstanding all the most common criticisms of this position. My vote will not be a "protest vote"; it will not be motivated by "sending a message" or "holding the Democratic Party accountable". I recognize that it has no power to do any of those things. In fact, that's kind of the point.

A quick preface before we take off here: the first draft of this post was written in early March. In the time since, the discourse on third-party voting has picked up immensely, and seeing more and more of these discussions play out online has prompted me to revise, restructure, and expand this post in a way that will make it more relevant and impactful. I've seen various arguments on both sides of this issue and how each tends to pan out, and I've taken mine out for a couple test drives as well. All this experience has reinforced in me the idea that my perspective, in particular, can be useful, and I should do my best to outline it in detail here.

First off, I'll summarize the general debate going on, and then articulate and evaluate some of the more common arguments against strategic voting. Then I'll go through my specific argument step-by-step. I'll follow up with responses to the anticipated counter-arguments, trying to tie up as many loose ends as I can.

The purpose of this post isn't really to convince you to vote third party; I have no real beef with anyone who chooses to vote for the leftmost candidate with a chance of winning - provided you are honest about his shortcomings. I'm mostly trying to explain and justify my own position, as well as to provide a resource for myself and others to link to or draw from if the opportunity so arises in a debate about this issue. So let's get into it, starting from the beginning.

Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign was perhaps the greatest opportunity that the American left has ever had to advance their agenda on a national stage through electoral politics. By late February, despite facing universal hostility and sabotage from both the Democratic Party and the media, Sanders had the wind at his back thanks to a massive grassroots mobilization. He had won the popular vote in the first three primary states, the base was rallying around him, and his favourability was - as it has always been - exceptional for a US politician. To stop him, in an unprecedented series of strategic dropouts and endorsements, the opposition candidates and party leaders consolidated around Joe Biden, a candidate who is, suffice to say, so repulsive to many that his history of sexual harassment (which became a big topic of discussion in the following weeks) were but a single parenthetical in this comprehensive 12,000-word article from Current Affairs critiquing his 40-year record in the public eye.

In choosing to throw their full-throated support behind Biden, the Democratic establishment waved a giant middle finger not only to the progressive wing of their party, but to all women, racial minorities, young people, old people, people in debt, people without healthcare, nonviolent drug offenders, and especially, victims of American foreign policy; all groups of people who owe much of their suffering to the singular, concentrated efforts of one Delaware senator. Nominating Biden would have been vile and offensive enough even if he had been running unopposed, and not directly against a colleague with an equally long and consistent record of fighting to protect every single one of those victimized groups.

Understandably, many progressives are now publicly refusing to pledge their vote or their support to Biden in the general election against Donald Trump. Others are pushing back against this, stressing the importance of beating Trump and preventing - or slowing down - the United States' descent into right-wing dictatorship. In their efforts to get Biden elected, they are forced to defend him against attacks on his own record, his obvious senility, his outward disdain for millennials, his impotence on climate change, and particularly, his many sexual harassment and assault allegations. On the other hand, those who are abstaining or backing third parties are forced to defend their active role, however small it may be, in getting Trump reelected, with all the disastrous consequences this would entail.

It can be tough to argue against the "blue no matter who" mantra, because there are a lot of roads you can go down, and I think there's a tradeoff between logical robustness and practical efficacy where each line of argument sacrifices one in service of the other. I'll go through a couple of the common ones, and give my thoughts on each.

One argument I often see is very easy to make, and quite sturdy, but usually ineffective to those who aren't already on board, because it's both very combative and prone to bad faith interpretation. For lack of a less derisive name, I'll call it the "both sides" argument: both of the two major parties are instruments of the ruling class, and both candidates are racist sexual harassers who prop up imperialism and are complicit in genocide. If the two frontrunners in an election are Hitler and Mussolini, you can't exactly browbeat someone into choosing between them. And if you think this analogy is too unfair to take seriously, you probably don't live in the Middle East.

This perspective is particularly common among Indigenous peoples, for example in this article entitled "Voting is Not Harm Reduction", which argues that history has shown us the futility of trying to "decolonize the ballot box". (A prevailing narrative out there is that non-voters and third-party voters are "privileged", but in fact the opposite is usually true: this Fox poll indicates that, at least in this election cycle, they are predominantly non-white, female, young, and poor - if you have any of these characteristics, you're about twice as likely to vote third party.)

For those who accept the true scope of Biden's horribleness, this "both sides" argument probably goes down pretty well - although they probably aren't inclined to vote for him anyway. But Democratic faithfuls have been fighting fiercely, often admirably, against the combined forces of right-wing propaganda and widespread political apathy, to combat the "all politicians are the same" mentality as it manifests in disaffected voters of all stripes. They will not take an argument like this in stride, especially when they have so many easy "escape routes". "Enjoy the next four years of Trump, then", they might say, in between blaming you for 2016 and (probably) calling you a Russian stooge, or - if they're actually looking to convince you - they can bring up data on the very real, practical differences in the voting patterns of Democratic and Republican politicians, on bills that have genuine, lasting effects. Now, of course, your point wasn't that these parties are actually the same in every way, but all of a sudden now you're talking about the minutiae of congressional bills, and no progress has been made on the wider issues.

Another typical argument, which takes longer to fully articulate but which can be very useful in practice, goes like this. Every Democratic insider who was instrumental to Biden's primary victory knew what his weaknesses were: they had all the polling, they saw all the oppo research, they knew what the public opinion was. They knew more than anyone that Biden was a weaker general election candidate than Sanders, and if they cared at all about stopping Trump, they would have been celebrating Sanders' rise during the primary, not pulling out all the stops to defeat him. Sanders was the only candidate with the diverse coalition of youth, independents, Latinos, LGBT+ people, etc. to compete with Trump in key swing states, and if Trump gets reelected, the blame will fall squarely on Biden and the Democratic establishment for being so willing and eager to sacrifice this gift that Sanders was giving them.

Furthermore, one might argue, it is now the responsibility of those of us who were part of this "rainbow coalition" to show that we can't be taken for granted, to demonstrate that there is genuine benefit in centering marginalized and disaffected minorities in your political campaign - because if you don't, we won't vote for you. Collectively, we comprise a crucial contingency of the Democratic electorate, and in nominating Biden, the party is about to call our bluff - they don't need to fight for our votes, or acknowledge us at all, because if we're on the left, where else are we going to go? And if this mentality persists, then the Democratic Party, no matter how long they're in charge, will never save us from the accelerating societal collapse that is all but imminent at this point.

This is a broad, multi-faceted argument that connects with people, but it can be attacked from a few different angles. While the assumption behind it, that the aforementioned "rainbow coalition" is necessary for Democrats to win, is taken seriously by pundits on both sides of this debate, it's probably not true, given how much the electoral process is engineered to suppress those votes. This election is certainly not unwinnable for Biden, and it's entirely possible that the Democratic establishment genuinely favoured his chances over Sanders'. But this may be beside the point, because the more salient fact is that even if they thought Sanders had a better chance, they were still transparently "willing to risk party damage" to stop him, so inflicting party damage on them for doing so will not "teach them a lesson" at all, because they already knew what they were signing up for.

Aside from these counter-points, the "teach them a lesson" argument, especially in soundbite form, is easily misinterpreted as just petulance: "you didn't get the candidate you want, so now you're throwing a tantrum about it". It also does little to counter the typical "blue no matter who" (BNMW) soundbites, which usually take the form of "a vote for (X) is a vote for Trump", or "you're throwing your vote away on a candidate who can't win." These are not rebuttals of any of the anti-Biden arguments I've outlined, but neither do those anti-Biden arguments really address the content of these BNMW soundbites, and in practice this is how both sides of the debate end up just talking past each other. So I want to tackle those talking points head on, and explain - in perhaps too much detail - where I think they fall short. You be the judge.

The first premise of my argument - and, I'll need to stress now, not the only premise - is that the chance of my vote actually deciding the election is so close to zero as to be negligible. If you're recoiling at this statement, it's probably because you've seen it used as flimsy grounds for staying home, and you're completely correct to say that it is inadequate justification for that. But its truth, in itself, is undeniable - it's a mathematical fact.

I'll explain why this premise is important, but just so everyone's still on board, it's useful to clarify specifically what I mean by "negligible". The "butterfly effect" tells us that we do countless innocuous things every day that turn out to have far-reaching consequences. If you decide to take a different route to work tomorrow, you might be seen and recognized by an old estranged childhood friend who happens to live nearby, who has fallen on hard times, and for whom the sight of you is so painfully nostalgic that it causes them to relapse into therapeutic drug use, prompting their reactionary parents, who happen to be in government, to renew their anti-drug crusade and slowly turn the country into a hypermilitarized police state. The chance of this happening is so astronomically unlikely, though, that it obviously shouldn't be a factor in which route you take to work. Otherwise, you'd be so overwhelmed in weighing hundreds of absurd hypotheticals like this against each other that it would be impossible to make any decisions at all.

As improbable as this cosmically tragic series of events is, the chance of an entire federal election coming down to a single vote, in a single precinct, in a single district, is probably even lower. It's another absurd hypothetical that should likewise not have any impact in what decisions you make. You're much more likely to get hit by a car or something on the way to the polling place (or contract COVID-19, for that matter, on your way to the mailbox), and that could have all sorts of cascading effects. If anything, your best bet, on a purely practical basis, is to stay home.

To be clear once again, I don't think this is justification for staying home and not voting. But what this whole reasoning tells us is that there must be some other reason to vote, besides evaluation of its direct, practical consequences. Why vote, if it's such an ineffective means of political action? And for me, it's simple: voting is a civic duty. If no one voted, our democracy (so-called, anyway) would plainly not work as intended.

By the same token, when we decide who to vote for, we also have to move away from these arguments of practicality and direct consequentialism. Why should you vote for X candidate over Y candidate, given that your vote has no chance of directly putting X candidate into office? And again, my answer is simple: because it is your civic duty to vote for the candidate you like best. The only way our system can work as intended is - pardon my word choice - if this maxim is adopted universally.

And by "vote for the candidate you like best", I mean just that, as opposed to "the candidate that seems most likely to win". The universal adoption of that maxim would, I argue, be detrimental to the very idea of representative democracy, which is that each candidate is evaluated and compared solely based on how many people like them best. For this to work, you - along with everyone else - have to vote for the candidate you like best!

At this point, you might be repeating, in response to this: "But what if they have no chance of winning? Isn't it more important to keep the fascists out of office?" To which I say, absolutely - but once again, your vote will not do that. Your instinct might also be to say: "Sure, your vote has no influence by itself, but what if everyone thought that way?" To which I say, my point exactly - if everyone thought this way, then third parties would be nationally viable and the US would be better off for it. And this is the principle that guides my decision.

Before I address a couple more lingering counter-arguments, I will say that there are strategic reasons to support third parties as well. Sometimes, a significant third party constituency can effectively send a message; Howie Hawkins, the presumptive Green Party nominee, credits his run for governor in New York with pushing Cuomo left during the race. If the Greens or the PSL got 10% in the upcoming election, or even polled that high in the run-up, it would be a remarkable indicator of public dissatisfaction in government, perhaps (I know, it's hard to believe) prompting Democrats to reflect and reassess their general election strategy of abandoning the left and chasing after that nebulous disaffected middle. But more than that, it would help that third party grow even stronger, get into nationally publicized debates, fund down-ballot candidates, and so on, so that by the next election they could be an actually formidable force.

I'll take a moment to talk about Howie Hawkins specifically. He's a bona fide leftist organizer and writer, whose book "The Case for an Independent Left Party" details the history of working-class political parties around the world and the many lessons that their legacies can teach us. As a co-founder of the Green Party, Hawkins is using his campaign as a platform to fuel grassroots local activism, much like the Sanders campaign did. People who have no idea what political action looks like have heard of the Green Party, and Sanders' campaigns in 2016 and 2020 have shown us that the high profile of a presidential run, even an unsuccessful one, can be what awakens a generation. Much of the material on the Green Party website is specifically written for local organizers, including those working outside of electoral politics.

But all of that is window dressing for my primary angle here, which is that even if none of this were true, I'd still vote for the candidate I like best; simple as that.

I completely understand why this argument isn't more common in public discourse. It's paradoxical in a way: the argument hinges on the fact that one person alone will not decide the election... but if that one person shares the argument with enough people and convinces them, they could, collectively, decide the election, by voting for a spoiler candidate and handing Trump a second term. While I think my argument is sound, it's also uniquely dangerous, which is why I only ever use it when I really have to rigorously defend my own third-party votes (and even then, it never works, so I'm not entirely sure why I'm writing this).

The other arguments I've gone through in this post are definitely more impactful, more informative, and more useful in practice than a detached seven-paragraph essay about the fundamental nature of democracy, but objectively, I don't think they're sufficient justification by themselves. I believe that if the only choices in the 2020 general election were Joe Biden and Donald Trump, then Biden would be the clear choice and I would feel an obligation to vote for him. (Wouldn't it be great to see Trump supporters lose to this guy?) But luckily for me, they're not the only choices.

It goes without saying that I also abhor the first-past-the-post system and I think our electoral process in general needs a huge overhaul. I also think that representative democracy itself, at least under capitalism, is inherently flawed, as it creates an inevitable antagonism between representatives and their constituents. You might wonder why I'm bothering to write this post about such a comparatively pointless debate when I could at least be spending my energy pushing for electoral reform, if not something even more direct. And to that I say, why are you bothering to read this post instead of helping starving immigrants in the Arizona deserts? There's always a bigger fish to fry, and quite honestly it's impossible for us to expend our energy in direct proportion to the severity of whatever problem we're facing. Political action is often haphazard and bumbling, but it's better than sitting around doing nothing. But if your point in bringing up FPTP is that it forces our hands, then I disagree, and I see that as a non-sequitur that doesn't counter my argument in any way. In fact, one way I might want to show my support for electoral reform is to vote for a party that supports it.

The last pervasive talking point that I'll briefly address here regards the Supreme Court. The next president will likely be in charge of appointing Ruth Bader Ginsburg's replacement, and if it's Trump, the replacement will turn the Court solidly conservative for a good long while, while with Biden we at least have a chance to keep it relatively "balanced". This is a good argument, especially given the disastrous potential ramifications of a 6-3 SCOTUS. There are a few responses: you can bring up Biden's role in the Anita Hill hearings, you can talk about the unpredictability of Supreme Court voting patterns through history, or you can talk about packing the courts - an idea that, funnily enough, really gained steam in the wake of Kavanaugh's confirmation, and might well do so again with the next buffoon Trump picks. But if you're on board with my general argument, there's a much easier response: a Hawkins judicial nominee would be even better than a Biden one, so this is just more reason to vote for him.

Another question I've anticipated - but haven't gotten yet - is why I would have even voted for Bernie Sanders in the general election by my own logic. He's certainly not as far left as either Hawkins or La Riva, his Green New Deal is hardly enough to tackle climate change, and his foreign policy, although far ahead of the mainstream, is still quite imperialistic. And it's a very fair point, I think, to which my only response is that Sanders, despite all of his flaws, has one strong selling point: the unprecedented grassroots organization behind him. He has, almost single-handedly, re-energized the American left and cultivated a movement that will be integral in carrying out any of the "bottom-up" political change that is truly necessary in this moment. This would have made him, in my view, the best candidate in the race, but if you disagree I have no solid arguments against your view either. Vote your conscience, I won't stop you! :)

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