Vote for Evil Too

Published 24. Jul 2016 by Sam Briesemeister.


Our election process, two-party system, and media involvement is (perhaps accidentally) a rigged game. It’s time we proactively make change, as the competitive environment of the two parties is doing us more harm than good. We have a duty to society, our own descendants, to stop voting for “lesser” evils and start voting for good.

This is a political reflection; I am not pushing the agenda of any party or candidate in this piece, only considering the state of our society and process. I welcome open discussion on how to improve our society going forward. I love solving problems.

Updates in progress. The original draft was rather long: I’m gradually slicing it into independent documents for easier reading.

The Lesser Evil

Several recent pieces have been published, by some quite notable persons in our society, on the subject of lesser evil voting (LEV). In general, you would vote the “lesser evil” when you believe there are only two options, and both are somehow undesirable to you. This is the opposite of sincere voting.

Consideration of whether lesser evil voting is a legitimate process for our society spans the political spectrium. Barry Donegan, a libertarian, admits the potential impact of LEV among swing states, though he also highlights the side-effects and possible benefits of sincere voting. This represents a kind of realpolitik, acknowledging the evident dynamics of our current political theater.

Most recently, in a recent and very eloquent brief, John Halle and Noam Chomsky extol the utilitarian value of lesser evil voting, especially in swing states, in pursuit of their openly stated agenda. Responding to criticism, they argue for pursuing a Democrat majority in congress, in part to “remove a smokescreen Clinton will have available for her inevitable failure to deliver on most of her campaign promises.” Fortunately, Halle and Chomsky eventually clarify their “optimal outcome” in 2016, both fending off a Trump victory and (as they perceive it) catastrophic side-effects, and solidifying the ongoing influence of a politically left segment of our population, inspite of the neoliberal trend among the Democrat party.

Sadly the most explicit statement of utilitarian good given by Halle and Chomsky amounts to “do[ing] less evil.” If we applied this thinking to the legendary Robin Hood, that’d be like saying we should favor decisions that steal less from the poor - reducing the net negative, and calling it a positive good.

Andrew Smolksi also rebutted Halle and Chomsky, in a similarly fascinating, and deeply concerning alignment of this election’s Republican and Democrat candidates, highlighting that in regard to the “lesser evil voting” paradigm,

It is to take the unknown and make it a bogey, when we know the known is already a bogey. … In this election there is no LEV, not even slightly… What we are deciding is to vote for the cause or the effect. Hillary and neoliberalism/neoconservativism in general are the cause of the Trump-style authoritarian populism that now haunts the US.

In short, Smolski asserts that third-party “unknown” candidates are effectively treated as more evil, even though the problems we hope to solve are largely created by the same evils we’re now choosing between.

It’s a Trap

A two-party system is necessarily evil - as long as our attention is fixed on only two parties, ignoring any alternatives, we’ll remain subject to the slow mutation of the party interests.

Modern U.S. political campaigns are finely-tuned marketing machines, driving to gain the interest of voters across many different demographics, regional and otherwise, as quickly as possible and with maximum long-term retention. To achieve this, the marketing teams constantly study polling data, financial and economic trends of cities and even individual families, to identify their political concerns and “hone in” to represent those issues as priorities of a particular candidate, in pursuit of seeming “relevant”.

The saying “jack of all trades, master of none” applies here; when a campaign is frenetically targeting all the issues and trying to reach maximum diversity, they quickly dilute their actual message (“brand” in some sense), and begin to lose relevance to the population as each issue’s position gets publicized. Often this targeting of each issue results in conflicting statements with positions previously held by the candidate. (That’s also a quick way to lose trust.)

Soon we end up with distrusted, unfocused candidates whose policies are unclear, (or even perhaps quite similar to their competition), that one could safely call the process a “race to mediocrity.” In our current political culture, people don’t want mediocrity. They [a significant slice of our population] want champions and heroes, which require trust, consistency, and committment.

Without champions and heroes, you have duds and losers, whose motives are questionable and whose voting records are often disagreeable to their would-be supporters. (They call that “[party] in name only”, right?)

So the choices, to most voters, now appear to be “loser 1” versus “loser 2”, and the singular choice is to waste four, maybe eight years on an agenda that will probably have unforeseen negative side effects and wasn’t what the voter wanted anyway. They may even be seen as catastrophic. Real problems won’t get solved. It’s hard not to call that evil, considering the atrocious waste of time and money compared to the needs of our local problems.

Why then do we tolerate a system that intrinsicly produces “evil”?

Update [2016-10]: a relative of mine, whose political alignment differs from mine, and whom I greatly respect, pointed out that many of us do not want heroes as our politicians. In stead, some would prefer to see intelligent, thoughtful, and deliberate leadership to materially influence global dynamics. I would also certainly prefer that, and this point is greatly appreciated, however I’d gamble to say that the ongoing support among the political right for Donald Trump demonstrates the desire for a champion (causes aside), among a significant slice of our voting population.

Gaming the System

We have, in our culture, a destructively competitive political discourse. This is a psychological phenomenon, well understood by game theory, a byproduct of disparate information, false choices, and perceived but imaginary threats.

There are two dominant categories of voters, and each voter must choose:

  • I’m with Category A
  • I’m with Category B
  • I’ll waste my vote (I’d rather be possibly irrelevant)
  • I’ll just not vote (I am irrelevant)

The specific risks and social penalties associated with each choice differ by voter. We observe in this system 40% to 50% of voters opt out of voting. In recent estimates, approximately 30% of (polled) voters are willing to “waste” their votes.

The “lesser evil” thinking fundamentally pits Category A versus Category B, and produces the “waste my vote” perception. There can be social penalties to any vote for Categories A or B, or “wasting” it on another option, whereas (currently) the social penalty for not voting is effectively nil.

Further, because common “lesser evil” mantra would effectively “blame” the sincere third-party votes for any catastrophe of the winning Category A or Category B, the social penalty of “wasting” the vote is (in terms of risk) the same as voting for the “greater evil” in such a scenario. Most people would prefer to avoid that blame by voting “in favor” of the lesser evil, inspite of misgivings that might lend a sincere favor to a third-party option.

When the risks associated with the two dominant categories approach equality, the third-party “wasted” vote becomes more attractive, as there is no differential social cost to voting third-party. Without a differential benefit between the two dominant categories, the perceived benefits of voting third-party become subjectively greater.

This “game” is governed, somewhat loosely, by media. Information conveyed about the state of our political process, significance of any particular candidate, their respective policies and positions influences the perception of each among the various subcultures in our nation. News networks are well-known to focus coverage on the issues they know their viewership is most concerned with. Parties evidently influence the media as well, sometimes through means that are socially unacceptable if not illegal.

Voter behavior is thus influenced by perception of any two options that are in the media spotlight (that false choice), at the whims of the parties it seems. The parties choose their prospects, work with media to spread the right message at the right time, and let the voters choose the candidate they fear least.

Control the options and you control the choices. Marketing indeed.

Fighting The Greater Evil

Notable among Halle and Chomsky’s remarks, I found this mind-bending assertion:

what needs to be challenged is the assumption that voting should be seen a form of individual self-expression rather than as an act to be judged on its likely consequences

I can see their point: that such expression has consequences that must be considered.

Perhaps Halle and Chomsky would call me a “moral witness,” but provided the reasoning of Smolski about our current two major candidates being equally catastrophic, the consequences may not differ much. [Update 2016-10] Surely their policies differ in extreme, aligned with their interests and sponsors, however the negative externalities of either choice would seem comparable.

Therefore the moral component is due for consideration: if our system of media, lobbying, campaign finance, and political process is corrupted by the influence of two-party thinking (indeed the parties themselves), and our “lesser evil” approach continually exacerbates the problem-state of our society, then we have a moral duty to seek alternatives.

Systemic shifts are going to be profoundly difficult to implement, so we should focus on making consistent, but (relatively) small improvements. Halle and Chomsky correctly regard the sincere vote against corruption as important in this capacity, however improvement must have observable effects. Per the agenda of the left, which Halle, Chomsky, and Smolski cite, this should yield some distinct change in fossil fuel consumption, military budgets, and quantifiable components of climate change policy implementation. We have to actually solve problems, even if perhaps incrementally.

Local and state elections matter even more: the governing principles of our nation are maintained in frequent sessions of Congress. Remember that it is we who elect them, who give them power. We have a duty to influence the political system in the direction we ultimately want, rather than the direction we fear the least.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is also a good sign: in time perhaps we will see a political culture with less stifling of the public will.

One can only hope - not fear.