Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Myths and Realities of the Third Party Option

Last week I wrote about the various reasons to consider voting for McCain. A brief summary would include the following: one could choose to vote for McCain because he's more pro-life (if not perfectly so) than either Obama or Clinton; because he might appoint better judges; because he's less likely to create government-owned health care or similar behemoth institutions than the Democrats are; because he's at least sometimes likely to take conservative actions; and because we actually believe he will bring about an end to the Iraq situation sooner and more competently than the Democrats will. Any, or all, of these points can be argued, which is one of the many reasons I haven't made up my mind about him or anyone else yet (well, except Obama and Clinton; the only fun this election offers is the chance to vote against the Democratic nominee). You could, for instance, make a good case that McCain's not as pro-life as he says, that he'll be a disaster on judicial appointments, ruin health care in a way that's different but no less disastrous than what the Dems are proposing, untrustworthy on conservative issues, and likely to plunge us into even more military involvements in the Middle East. And the depressing truth is that you might be right; the recent history of the Republican party almost makes it easier to believe this dismal scenario than any hopeful ones.

Nevertheless, the posts I wrote earlier laid out some of the decision process, and some of the things people might be looking for to help them decide whether or not to support McCain in the general election. People of good will can disagree on this, after all; two different people might reach entirely different conclusions about whether or not to vote for McCain.

What we can't do, as Mark Shea continually points out, is choose to vote for the "lesser of two evils."

If we've reached the conclusion that McCain is actually an evil, albeit a lesser one than Obama or Mrs. Clinton, then we shouldn't vote for him. Note, though, that "evil" and "flawed" don't mean the same thing. One can decide that McCain is a flawed candidate, that he's not perfect, that he's barely passable, and still choose to vote in his favor; but once a person has decided that the things McCain wants, supports, promises, or backs are actually evil he's pretty much decided not to vote for McCain at all--or at least, that's what he should decide.

It's at this point that many Republican voters, especially Catholic ones, start to get a little bent out of shape, raising the following objections:

-We have to vote for a viable candidate, because we have a moral obligation to do as much as we can to promote good and stop evil.

-No candidate is really good. We have to choose the one who will do less harm.

-Voting for a third-party candidate is a waste of a vote. You might as well stay home.

-Voting for a third-party candidate is the same thing as voting for the more evil candidate.

-Though we'd like to have better choices, the reality is that we have a two-party system, and have had for a very long time. We can't ignore this, and voting in a way that tries to ignore this is ultimately a quixotic thing to do, especially when so much is at stake.

But each of these objections is not really considering the full reality of the situation, which is that we must never do evil, or give strong support to it. I realize that the Church permits us on occasion to vote for a candidate in spite of (but never because of) his evil position on an issue but I believe the situations in which one ought to do this are extremely rare: for instance, a race in which all candidates support the evil thing, but in which some of them clearly support it to a much greater degree, might provide such an occasion. But if there exists the option to write in a candidate that doesn't support that evil, isn't that the better course of action much of the time?

It is at times like these, when a strong candidate whose values are aligned with Catholic values isn't available, that the objections to the third-party or write in option begin to be heard; but I believe they can be addressed as follows:

We have to vote for a viable candidate, because we have a moral obligation to do as much as we can to promote good and stop evil.

We do have a moral obligation to promote good and stop evil; this is one of the reasons our civic duty to vote has moral aspects. However, to say that this duty precludes supporting a candidate simply because he is unlikely to win means that we define "winning" in an extremely short term and narrow way. Perhaps a real victory would be to break the stranglehold the two current parties have on our political lives, and to raise up at least one more party to be a viable contender in elections. It should be realized that even in earlier times third parties took a while to be established, with the possible exception of the Republican party, which took the presidency only six years after its creation. Did the people who voted for John C. Fremont in 1856 err by not supporting a viable candidate? Their actions directly led to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, so I would say they did something much more important than what they would have done had they stuck to the "viable" candidates in 1856. Granted, it's likely that a new party would take much more than six years to be established today, but it's not impossible, and no one who sees the future of politics branching out beyond our stifling two-party system errs by voting for candidates who don't have a chance this year, if their ultimate goal is to create a new party who will give the RepubliDemocancrats a real run for their money at some distant future date.

No candidate is really good. We have to choose the one who will do less harm.


If you're speaking as Our Lord did, then no, no candidate is really good, because none of us are. But if you're adopting a defeatist attitude that pretty much expects to see kakistocrats in power, and keeps electing them, then you can't be surprised when that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The trickiest part of this choice is the notion of "less harm." It could be argued that a Democratic president who is hemmed in by a strong Republican congress will do less harm than an iffy Republican eager to prove his bipartisan creds by supporting all manner of dicey Democratic initiatives; so deciding who will do the least harm becomes a matter more suited to psychic predictions or chaos theory than to mere reason.

Voting for a third-party candidate is a waste of a vote. You might as well stay home.

Strictly speaking, voting for anyone but the winning candidate is a waste of a vote; fortunately, that doesn't stop us most years from turning out to support the candidate whom we believe will best serve us. And that's the thing: voting for the candidate you believe in is never a waste of a vote. It may be that the candidate you most believe in is one of the dominant parties' candidates; but if he's not, vote for him anyway. When enough people do this maybe we'll have a chance at getting out of the death grip of, to misquote Pat Buchanan, the right and left talons of the same bird of prey.

Voting for a third-party candidate is the same thing as voting for the more evil candidate.


No, voting for a third-party candidate is voting for a third-party candidate. If the evil candidate is elected, it's not a failure of the good, no matter how much we try to spin things that way. And if both candidates are evil, how exactly is electing "our" evil candidate a victory? Most people don't vote third-party in a knee-jerk fashion; usually, all the ramifications have been carefully considered beforehand. When I chose not to vote for Bob Dole, for instance, it was because I saw his influence at the head of the party as being potentially a very deadly thing, to the extent that electing him might almost be worse than the alternative. If I reach the same conclusion about McCain, I'll vote accordingly, and I won't have any illusions that doing so is somehow voting "for" the Democrat. Any vote against the Democrat is a vote against the Democrat, regardless of who I choose to vote for.

Though we'd like to have better choices, the reality is that we have a two-party system, and have had for a very long time. We can't ignore this, and voting in a way that tries to ignore this is ultimately a quixotic thing to do, especially when so much is at stake.

This objection could be paraphrased as the "Now, More Than Ever, We Can't Afford To Tilt At Windmills!" objection. The earnest people making it are usually quite sure that refusing to support the Republican nominee is exactly the same thing as sending Lady Liberty alone, naked and unarmed into some hidden cave in Afghanistan where Osama Bin Laden and his men are waiting to abuse and murder her. They get pretty agitated if you even hint that you're not quite sure yet, or that you might vote for the Constitution Party candidate.

While I appreciate their sincerity and their patriotism, the "Now, More Than Ever" objection has really long whiskers--I believe it was first used during the election of 1812. The mistake this objection makes is to see a presidential election as the one thing that makes the difference between success and failure, good and evil, right and wrong. But to do that is to forget that God is in charge. A quick reading of several chapters of the Old Testament shows that time and again, God used the wrong king or leader, even pagan ones, to do His will. He will not do less with us, and while this reality shouldn't lead us to a fatalism about the whole thing it also should remind us that ultimately His will will indeed be done; and He certainly doesn't want us to vote for a candidate we've decided is, or supports, evil.

Plenty of people will decide McCain's not evil, and will vote for him accordingly. Anyone who finds him impossible to support should not be concerned that a vote for a third-party candidate is somehow not a legitimate moral option: it is. In the end we are voting not just for a candidate but for our own consciences and souls; and there's not an election in the world worth winning if we have to sacrifice those to gain the victory.




3 comments:

freddy said...

Well said! It's time someone explain that people considering a third option are not wild-eyed kooks, but rational human beings.

Oh, and kudos for working in that poor underused word "kakistocrat!"

Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

voting for the candidate you believe in is never a waste of a vote

This is really the crux of the whole matter, and you're completely right.

Neither party has a claim on my vote; my responsibility is to my conscience to make an informed decision on which issues are most important, which positions on those issues are the proper ones, and which candidate best aligns with those positions.

Picking winner, that is, predicting how a majority of other voters will vote and joining them, is not my task. Selecting who I think would be the best choice to win is my task.

Histor said...

"Picking winner, that is, predicting how a majority of other voters will vote and joining them, is not my task."

In other words, leave the compromising and political jockeying to the elected officials.

Histor