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“Dealbreakers”

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In the thread on Connor Friedersdorf thread below, Stephen Frug asks a question:

Do you agree with Friedersdorf’s premise, namely that there are *some* issues which are dealbreakers, moral issues so stark that you couldn’t vote for a person who supported the wrong side whatever their advantages over the other candidate (and, thus, the moral thing to do would be to support a protest candidate)? Or do you think that it is *always* right to support the better of the plausible candidates, however odious their positions on any given question?

And if the former, *what* issues do you think would be too immoral for you? Again, given something like the current choice on other issues. What issues would drive you to a protest vote? Or would none do it?

I can’t recall when or where, but I believe it was hilzoy who gave the best answer I’ve ever heard to this kind of question, which I wholeheartedly endorse. It was, essentially, that she would be indifferent to voting for the least bad viable candidate when things had gotten so bad that she was actively involved in violent rebellion against the government. Significantly, this is a higher threshold than “things are so bad violent revolution is justified in the abstract, but I’m not currently doing it”, but actual active rebellion. This seems exactly right to me. Either you should use the tools available to make better/reduce the harm of the current state, of you should begin engaging in a plot to overthrow it, or find a way to contribute to an ongoing one. If the latter is not to your taste because you have other priorities, or you (probably wisely) deem it unlikely to be unsuccessful and as such not a reasonable risk of life and limb, you have no reason to avoid the first strategy, and you get no credit for moral high ground for avoiding it.

Perhaps because I indulged in such an attitude well into my 20’s, I’m always a bit embarrassed when I see someone much older than my students employ the “voting as moral approval/endorsement” paradigm. But it’s particularly cringeworthy when applied to an issue like, say, excessive state violence in Pakistan. Erik’s recent post got me thinking about my own vote for Nader in 2000 (which, like Erik, I soon regretted). I had decided to vote for Gore weeks earlier; I’d gone to the polls with every intention of voting for Gore. I was near the end of five years of irrational rage about the Welfare Reform act, and since I couldn’t take it out on Clinton again, I took it out on Gore. That was, at the time, my “dealbreaker.” In hindsight, my rage was deeply irrational not because I was wrong about the evils of the policy, necessarily, but because I was irrationally and single-mindedly focused on Clinton. The first alternative, which I barely acknowledged at the time, would have been to focus my rage against Republican legislators, who obviously passed the damn bill. But more importantly, my rage should have been directed to a significant degree against my fellow American citizens, whose political attitudes and values rendered Clinton’s decision to sign that bill a canny political move. Similarly, today we have a political environment in which most Americans are indifferent to or actively in favor of drone wars in Pakistan. That doesn’t make it right, or absolve those who engage in it. But it’s the first fact someone horrified with it should confront. Meaningful, serious opposition by a majority of Americans to such a policy certainly wouldn’t be sufficient to end it, and might not even be necessary, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. When there’s a broad bipartisan consensus on a particular policy, it’s probably a good place to start.

More centrally, though, the Friedersdorf-on-drones/youthful djw-on-welfare reform mentality on the purpose of voting is based on an indefensibly narcissistic account of democracy. The moral purpose of democracy is not to keep my hands clean and feel good about myself, no matter how much politicians and other demagogues claim otherwise. The moral purpose of democracy is the reduction of abusive power in the world. Unfortunately there’s a lot of it, and democracy’s pretty clearly an insufficient tool to address it, but that’s no reason not to use the tool, when and where you can.

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