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“Dealbreakers”

[ 114 ] September 26, 2012 |

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.

Comments (114)

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  1. DrDick says:

    I would agree with that. I voted third party a couple of times in my youth, but quickly realized that you are simply throwing your vote away and the winners will simply ignore you. Given that third parties do well to garner even 10% of the vote in the last half century, the powers that be will decide that you are an idiot who is no threat to anyone.

    • Murc says:

      Off topic, but there can be some value in voting for ‘attached’ third parties who tend to endorse the major party candidate in statewide or national elections.

      I vote the Working Families line here in New York State whenever possible, and know people who vote the Conservative Party when THEY can.

    • Manta says:

      But every single vote is thrown away: what is the likelihood that your vote will make a difference in the outcome? Given the effort of voting, the rational thing to do would be to stay at home.

      • rea says:

        No survivor of the 2000 election believes that.

        • Manta says:

          (Why my previous answers don’t appear?)

          “As a student of voter behavior in general with a sub specialty in turnout, I can list at length how the costs associated with voting far outweigh whatever tangible benefits one might accrue.”
          – Dave Brockington

          On this same blog.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            I think it would be more like “tangible, direct, near term benefits”.

            Obviously, for a lot of people in FL it would have made a huge tangible, direct, near term benefit to have voted (for Gore).

            Much of the time you can more or less safely free ride (individually). However, the consequences to e.g., poor people of their low turnout is substantial, tangible, direct, and near term (though not immediate).

            • Manta says:

              Bjan: the part “direct and near term” are your additions, and I, for one, don’t agree with them.

              The point is: the single vote has negligible effect (short term or not), because the probability of a single vote of affecting the outcome is negligible (even in Florida in 2000). And a vote that does not affect the outcome is wasted: winning by one vote or by 1 million is winning all the same.

              A different kind benefit from the vote is “sending a signal”: a winner with a lot of votes in his favor would (presumably) be more bold in his actions than one with a narrow victory; other candidates will look at his awesome numbers, and try to adopt his policies. BUT this “signal” effect is also true for third-party votes.

              • Bijan Parsia says:

                Bjan: the part “direct and near term” are your additions

                I’m perfectly aware of that :)

                The point is: the single vote has negligible effect (short term or not), because the probability of a single vote of affecting the outcome is negligible (even in Florida in 2000).

                Sure, but that’s probably not the right way to look at it. But anyway.

                I mean, by this standard even if it did affect the vote, what benefit do I get from it that’s tangible and direct? After all, it’s not like the new person takes power tomorrow.

                The right way to look at it, imho, is as part of a collective activity. A chanting crowd doesn’t need my voice to be successfully hear from blocks away, but if we all use that calculus then we hit a free rider problem.

                (Of course, if I have a sore throat I can take advantage of the indivudalistic analysis.)

                A different kind benefit from the vote is “sending a signal”

                The probability that my vote will significantly strengthen a signal is exactly the same as the chance that it will affect the vote: effectively nil, esp. in an election where millions vote. Winning by a million and one doesn’t send an appreciable stronger signal, and winning by 2 instead of 1 (out of millions) also doesn’t.

  2. rea says:

    If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.–Churchill on Stalin.

    Given that either Romney or Obama is going to be president, and that Romney makes a point lately of complaining that Obama hasn’t been killing enough Islamics, not voting for Obama over the drone war seems a tad coutnerproductive.

  3. Murc says:

    This is something you’re going to get a lot of pushback on, djw, and rightly so.

    I don’t have much of a response to this besides “I think you are wrong.” Voting IS an affirmative endorsement of the overall governing position of the person you vote for, if not every clause and codicil of all their individual beliefs. You DO bear moral responsibility for the consequences of that endorsement. The fifty million people who thought George Bush would be a wonderful President bear some moral shame for either approving of his scumbaggery (or for being so dumb as to not be aware of it) and, despite the fact that I voted for him before and plan to do so again, I feel in part responsible for Obama’s awful civil liberties policies, because I helped make them possible. I voted them in. I will vote them in again. They are, in part, my fault.

    This isn’t to say that you don’t sometimes take this on yourself for the good of the Republic. You do also have a moral responsibility not to knock a hole in the bottom of the ship, and the Republican Party is so genuinely scary it would take something pretty bad to get me to not vote for a Democrat (with some specific exceptions; I have been in the same room with Andrew Cuomo and listened to him speak and I will never, ever vote for him for ANYTHING; he is both scary AND repellent) but you can’t just pretend that there isn’t moral weight on the other side of the scale too.

    Deciding that you don’t bear moral responsibility for your vote might make you feel better about it, but if you literally don’t feel any moral qualms about who you cast your ballot for beyond ‘I pick the person who is subjectively the best of the available lot’ and feel that fulfilling that single criteria absolves you of any blame for the objective evils you are endorsing, then I question your competence to vote at ALL.

    • djw says:

      Shared responsibility, yes. Implied endorsement, no. Whatever share of responsibility I might bear for the wrongs of my government, it’s not the sort of responsibility I can alleviate by a course of action designed to give me symbolic clean hands while making no material contribution to stopping the wrong in question.

      • Holden Pattern says:

        And the fact that the ruler for whom you vote will claim your vote for an endorsement of their course of action? I mean, in theory you can’t be responsible for what they do, but what is your culpability when you know that’s exactly what they’re going to do.

        • Davis X. Machina says:

          And the fact that the ruler for whom you vote will claim your vote for an endorsement of their course of action?

          They can claim my vote is a head of cabbage, too. Doesn’t make it so.

          • djw says:

            Yeah, no course of action I can take enables me to control the dishonest rhetoric of others, so I’m not sure what to make of this observation.

          • Holden Pattern says:

            Well, that works for you, I guess. My view is that my vote is an endorsement of the policies of the person who gets my vote, and I bear some responsibility for what they do (especially if I already know what they’re going to do because they’ve been doing it).

            So although it’s a nice moral dodge to say “I’m not voting for this policy, I’m voting against that much worse policy”, it’s in my view a dodge. Your vote will be treated as support and endorsement, and that’s what it is. That may be worth the tradeoff against the much worse policy, and for most people it is, but it’s a dodge to say there’s no tradeoff.

            For some reason, this notion that one has moral responsibility for the leaders one chooses is derided as “narcissistic”. Not sure if I understand that — actually considering one’s moral responsibility in a world of bad choices seems like an adult and necessary thing to do, and shrugging it off seems like excuse-making.

            • djw says:

              To suggest that voting incurs a kind of responsibility is perfectly reasonable, and indeed correct. (It’s a form of responsibility you can’t evade by withdrawing from politics, whether by not voting or voting for a vanity candidate.) What’s neither reasonable nor correct is to suggest, as you seemed to be suggesting, that that responsibility has anything to do with the rhetorical choices of political actors.

              To be clear, what is narcissistic isn’t the notion that political participation involves substantive responsibility for political outcomes. What is narcissistic is to react to this by withdrawing from politics and imagining this cleans your hands and absolves you of responsibility.

            • Greg says:

              Your moral responsibility as a citizen in a democracy is to do everything in your power to minimize the harm and maximize the good your government does. If one candidate would do more good or less harm than the other, you have failed in your duty as a citizen not to support them.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              My view is that my vote is an endorsement of the policies of the person who gets my vote, and I bear some responsibility for what they do

              OK, sure. And, by the same token, by casting a protest vote or non-vote, you share responsibility for the consequences of the actions of the greater evil if he/she wins. You can’t evade responsibility by refusing to vote for a viable candidate.

              • James E. Powell says:

                The High Moral Plains Voter will not accept that the consequences of the election (Who rules?) is what matters and personal endorsement of a particular candidate (Who cares?) is not important for anyone but the HMPV who wants to add moral luster to his history.

                • arguingwithsignposts says:

                  The High Moral Plains Voter

                  From now on, can we just call them High Moral Plains Drifter?

                  I kinda liked that movie.

              • jbob says:

                Ok, sure, but how do you determine what the consequences of a particular vote, or electoral outcome, are? A bunch of votes for a third party running on its opposition to the consensus position (say, the Anti-Killing-Foreign-Babies-With-Bombs party) may throw the next election to the worse of the two viable parties, but it may also build support for a heretofore marginal position. By refusing to allow the rampant foreign bombings (or any other consensus issue) to affect your vote, you fail to impose any political cost on the two major parties for engaging in such bombings (or whatever conduct is of concern to you). There are two potential consequences to this, which you fail to consider: (1) one of the parties would be receptive to pressure on that issue, and while it might lose some elections it would otherwise have won, it will also shift policy on the issue in question, and/or (2) if the issue becomes sufficiently salient for enough voters, which admittedly may take several cycles and thus “throw” several elections to the worse of the two major parties in the interim without any progress on the issue of concern, a new (influential) party, or coalition within an existing party, may arise to similarly shift policy on that issue.

                The point is that the result of the immediately succeeding election, while of course relevant, is not the only consequence of one’s vote.

                Arguably, evengalical christians have been doing this for several decades now — they are certainly willing to support far less viable candidates at the primary level. I don’t know whether any appreciable number of such voters also abstain from the general election when their favorite primary candidate loses, but even if they don’t abstain, this strategy is similar to the general election strategy since it tends to reject the safe but flawed choice as between the two viable candidates in favor of a preferable but less viable candidate. I don’t know to what extent civil rights and anti-Vietnam voters employed this strategy as well, but I suspect it was a considerable number (i.e., a number of people refused to vote for the better or two racists or two war mongers).

                My purpose here is not to equate drone bombing and other atrocities and civil liberties abuses with any particular past policy, or to rank the policies. I am simply saying that if an issue is sufficiently important to a voter (or, more importantly, a number of voters), it is not irrational for the voter(s) to refuse to vote from one of the two major candidates on the ground that he is bad on that issue.

                I suspect that one reason there is so much scorn for the discomfort with Obama and/or the Democratic party here is that you all are not much interested in the particular issue in question here. Erik’s post, in particular, was rather cavalier about the concern over the (indifferent, if not intentional) killing and maiming of thousands of usually poor, marginalized civilians. Especially given his usual sensitivity to the plight of the relatively powerless, I find his attitude especially distressing.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  The point that has been made before and ignored: If you’re in a safe state, it makes a great deal of sense to vote for the Anti-Killing-Foreign-Babies-With-Bombs party, because it does indeed send a message. If a solidly blue state delivers its electoral vote to the Democrat but has a noticeable turnout for the AKFBWB Party, then it becomes that much more difficult for the Dems to make the excuse that they have to Kill Foreign Babies With Bombs to get the vote. It certainly has some effect on the state party apparatus.

                • Vance Maverick says:

                  I’ll gladly vote AKFBWB for president (maybe Jill Stein?), but given the choice between Dianne Feinstein and a Republican, with nobody else on the ballot, what should I do? Write in Tom Ammiano?

                • rea says:

                  A bunch of votes for a third party running on its opposition to the consensus position (say, the Anti-Killing-Foreign-Babies-With-Bombs party) may throw the next election to the worse of the two viable parties, but it may also build support for a heretofore marginal position.

                  That was tried. It doen’t work.

                • djw says:

                  it may also build support for a heretofore marginal position.

                  It’s considerably more likely, of course, to further marginalize the position.

                  I suspect that the reason there is so much scorn for the discomfort with Obama and/or the Democratic party here is that you all are not much interested in the particular issue in question here. Erik’s post, in particular, was rather cavalier about the concern over the (indifferent, if not intentional) killing and maiming of thousands of usually poor, marginalized civilians.

                  Couldn’t disagree more. By ignoring the real differences between the two candidates on offer, it is those who make a big show of withdrawing because of this issue who are treating it cavalier about it; it’s not a occasion to attempt to minimize harm but an occasion to demonstrate moral superiority. That’s not what taking the issue seriously looks like.

            • my vote is an endorsement of the policies of the person who gets my vote

              ..as better than the alternatives overall. I reserve the right to disagree with candidates I vote for, and to criticize their policies after they win. And while I may bear some responsibility for policies that were discussed in the campaign, policies which were not significantly in play — or easily foreseeable — during the election are not my responsibility.

              How, in a two-party system — or even in a 10-party system — can anything else be true?

            • witless chum says:

              I think as a citizen of a democracy, you bear at least some moral responsibility for the actions of your government whether you approve them and voted for the leader doing them or not.

        • DrDick says:

          And not voting or voting third party throws the election to the worse choice. Does this not give you actual culpability if you knowingly make that choice.

      • policywank says:

        It’s not an implied endorsement. It’s an actual endorsement. It is stepping up and affirmatively choosing someone based on their record and promises. There’s nothing implied about it.

      • L2P says:

        Why don’t you share responsibility for not voting against the worst candidate?

    • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

      Well, djw never said one bears no moral responsibility for the vote. He did say that a self-indulgent protest vote that helps put some shithead in to power who then turns around and kills brown people (in greater numbers) or fucks over the poor (more explicitly) is not making the right moral choice.

      If you are to the left of Obama, and vote against him, have fun explaining the loss of the ACA to all those people who need it.

  4. calling all toasters says:

    The vote is a blunt, mute instrument, and one that exercises only very limited influence over the recipient. But if people focus on a single issue, that’s their privilege. I really have no problem (obviously) with the GOP being swept aside in the 1974 elections. The moral revulsion of the center towards Watergate had a salutary effect on the culture of DC. Is the ethical character of the government the deal-breaker now? Well, yes and no. For most of us the central issue is the lunacy and evil of the GOP. I frankly find it hard to come up with solid alternatives to that. But I don’t think that it’s impossible for the civil libertarians or the Greens to be right, and that 10 years from now it will be obvious that the Dems were no better than the GOP on what turned out to be the most important issue.

    This is is no way a defense of Friedersdorf, who is a porch-climber.

    • Davis X. Machina says:

      An issue can become sufficiently important to re-draw the map of politics.

      It happened to slavery, which destroyed the Whigs, destroyed the Democratic party in its original form, and spawned the Republicans.

      Managing the consequences of the end of slavery turned the Democratic party, to no small extent, into the Republican party, and the Republican party into the Democratic party.

      It just doesn’t happen that often.

      Could the cost, fiscal and constitutional, of the national-security state become such an issue?

      Don’t see why it couldn’t — don’t see why it must, either.

      • agorabum says:

        Slavery was a major regional conflict from the time of the founding to the civil war.
        National security state? Bipartisan support.
        won’t become an issue.
        The options seem to be “a bit less war” or more war.

  5. Jeffrey Beaumont says:

    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 tell you otherwise. The moral purpose of democracy is the reduction of abusive power in the world.

    This is the best thing written on this very excellent blog in some time.

    • calling all toasters says:

      Seconded.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Yeah, I wish I had come up with that line.

    • jeer9 says:

      How is a vote for Obama the reduction of abusive power? He has no intention of changing course on civil liberty/security state issues and in fact is expanding the government’s power in these areas. That he’s the lesser evil on a majority of policies I grant you – but let’s not get carried away.

      • NBarnes says:

        You imagine that Romney will do better? Or that we’re likely to make a lot of progress on the issue of civil liberties under a Romney presidency?

      • Greg says:

        He’s hardly a “lesser evil” on a majority of policies. For one, ensuring that no one is denied health care because they can’t afford it is a positive good. If you live to be a thousand years old, you will not achieve nearly as much good for as many people in the world as Barack Obama did by passing health care reform, and preventing its repeal is reason enough to support him.

        • DrDick says:

          Please name even one issue where Romney is not at least as bad or, more likely, far worse. I cannot think of any where he is not measurably worse.

          • Tom Servo says:

            He means that Obama is *more* than just less bad than Romney (as in he’s good on some issues in the absolute, not relatively) NOT that Romney is better on any issues.

    • John Glover says:

      I agree as well. But I take it as a guide to what I think is important. Increasingly it seems to me that the “democratic” aspect of our system is failing. When you have polls consistently saying that vast majority of the public is for or against this or that – higher taxes on the rich and don’t touch social security consistently being in the 70+% percent range – yet both of our dominant political parties go against that, it raises the question: how do we have a system that so consistently fails to reflect the desires of large majorities of its citizens. Fixing that, to me, is the prime issue of our day. Frankly, neither party is going to do anything to correct that in the near future as far as I can see. But I’m quite convinced that the outcome of this election will determine how much worse it will get….

  6. Pinko Punko says:

    Always love reading your take on things, djw.

    • elm says:

      Yes. No offense to the other writers of LGM, but I wish djw wrote more often. Noon, too, but for different reasons.

      • James says:

        For me, these days its Farley. As well as djw; Noon writes so rarely I haven’t an opinion.

        But these days, I feel like Farley is the only one who genuinely expands my understanding of the world. He’s certainly the only blogger now active who regularly makes me wish to study his field more. (Sigh. I also deeply miss Hilzoy).

  7. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    So long as the president is chosen by the electoral college system, how one treats one’s vote ought to depend on where you are voting.

    Outside of battleground states, one’s presidential vote is 100% symbolic. And there’s no reason that you shouldn’t choose to use that symbolic vote on a third-party candidate. We don’t even need to talk about the kinds of thresholds djw discusses in the OP. I think it’s entirely defensible for a voter in a solidly red or solidly blue state to vote for whomever s/he think the best candidate on the ballot is, even if that candidate stands no chance of winning, and even if s/he doesn’t think that one of the less good candidates with a chance of winning is morally beyond the pale.

    Concerning battleground-state voters, however, I think djw’s analysis is essentially correct.

    • DocAmazing says:

      What IB said. In a solidly blue state, voting to send a message may well help, in the long run.

    • I disagree. Every vote individually is 100% symbolic except for the 50% plus 1nth vote that puts someone over the top.

      Voting is always and everywhere the collective exercise of power, and even when outnumbered, voting for the side you want to win is a good thing – it helps identify and locate other like-minded people, it demonstrates to those with few convictions that there are alternatives to the status quo, and it begins the slow process of building to that last vote.

      Let me put it this way: it is quite likely that in the next 10-15 years, Texas will become a Democratic state. But that won’t happen if the folks who are outnumbered right now don’t keep voting Democratic and persuading new voters to do so as well.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        Interesting pivot, SA. You start with the claim, that is perfectly reasonable, that no votes but the 50% + 1 count. By this measure, individual votes in Florida in 2000 didn’t count (and wouldn’t have even if the counting had been fair).

        That’s not an argument I’d make, but if you do make it, it’s damn hard to turn around and, in the next two paragraphs, spin all kinds of additional, long-term consequences from that vote that doesn’t matter.

        Two other things:

        1) Our two major parties focus their presidential candidates on battleground states. They do so because they understand that marginal votes in those states matter in a way they don’t in solidly red and solidly blue states. Nobody complains about the logic of this because it makes perfect sense. Any consequentialist electoral argument that ignores this fact is patently dishonest. If the Obama campaign doesn’t think my (potential….and actual, as the case happens to be) Oklahoma vote for Obama matters, why are y’all so interested in it?

        2) I am not likeminded with the Democratic Party. That’s the whole point. I understand that they are the lesser evil and hope that they win rather than the Republicans. But to the extent that voting is about identifying likeminded individuals, I don’t want to be identified as a Democrat (which is one of the reasons I’m a registered independent).

        • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

          oh…and 2a) Voting should be about choosing our leaders. Our 18th-century (with some late 19th-century modifications like the Australian ballot), first-past-the-post electoral system does a pretty rotten job of converting voter will into electoral results. Many of these arguments over voting for the lesser evil would disappear if we elected presidents by popular vote with IRV or some other system of preferential voting. Though I suppose some Democrats would come up with other, strained arguments why it would be a no-good, very bad thing to vote Stein (#1) and Obama (#2) on such a ballot.

  8. Mcduff says:

    Ah, the old “but my shit sandwich has more bread” argument.

    I’d take this argument much more seriously if the person saying that we should engage in violent revolution or get ourselves to the polls (really? These are the only two options? Are we that unimaginative) didn’t have a certain air of shopping someone to the feds if they began to engage in violent revolution.

    Rebel or vote. I but rebelling won’t work, so vote. The democratic party owns your fealty.

    I don’t suppose it occurs to many people that if all you Democrats had voted for Nader, Bush wouldn’t have got in.

    • Greg says:

      Bread is important. People need to eat to live.

    • Ben Hosen says:

      Ralph Nader would have been/would be a terrible President anyway. Maybe even W. bad. He likes compromise almost as much as Mitch McConnell does, for starters. 0.00% chance of a successful Nader (or Nader manque) presidency, now and forever.

      Change takes work, not vanity candidates every four years.

    • Prodigal says:

      It would have taken 0.6% of the Nader voters in Florida (538 out of 97,488) instead choosing to vote for Gore, as opposed to the 93.3% Gore voters nationwide (47,573,048 out of 50,999,897) instead choosing to vote for Nader, to keep Bush out of office.

      Yeah, the Gore voters are so much more culpable.

    • McAllen says:

      You seem to imagine that the argument is that the only two choices are violent rebellion and voting for the Democrat while doing nothing else. Absolutely we should work on getting better candidates elected and electable (and this blog has offered a plan for that, namely paying more attention to local elections). IN THE MEANTIME, when we go to the polls we should do what we can to reduce the harm the nation inflicts.

    • djw says:

      really? These are the only two options? Are we that unimaginative

      Nope. Perhaps your vast imagination can conceive of strategies that can easily be combined with harm minimization voting. It only takes a few minutes once every couple of years, after all.

  9. Ben Hosen says:

    Help! They’re stealing my thoughts and writing them better with no creative profanity at all.

    That’s some shit-hot writing, thanks for scribbling it.

  10. [...] == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}Obviously, I concur with pretty much everything in djw and Erik’s posts about the inexplicably celebrated Conor Friedersdorf essay in which he [...]

  11. Christopher says:

    I skipped past the discussion of whether your vote is some kind of moral endorsement of the person you vote for, because I don’t believe it is. I’m not convinced voting for Obama makes you morally culpable for the drone wars.

    I still have numerous objections.

    1. It is apparently literally impossible to discuss this question without impugning the character of people who disagree. In earlier conversations I’ve tried to make it clear that I don’t think you’re a bad person for voting for Obama, but since that courtesy won’t be returned, I’d like to open the argument by officially calling you a doo-doo head.

    2. It assumes that you can’t vote against a candidate to change their behavior. I tend to think that if Obama knows that he can continue the drone war without loosing anybody’s vote that he’ll have less incentive to change. If the candidates know they can do anything as long as they’re still better on any one issue than their opponent, that seems to give them an incentive to behave very badly.

    3. It assumes that the “less evil” candidate is clear. Basically, and this is borne out by my conversations here, any leftist is required to admit that Obama is less evil than Romney. The idea that you could be down on drone warfare without also being convinced that Obamacare needs to stay is flatly rejected.

    My understanding is that Conor Friedersdorf is a libertarian of some sort. Why, he might not think that Obamacare is very important! Some of the things you think mitigate against drone warfare might not do so for Friedersdorf, or certain other voters.

    Your argument, assumes that your particular ranking of the relative importance of different issues is objectively correct, blindingly obvious, and only a narcissistic fool could have a different set of priorities than you.

    I absolutely reject that view.

    4. This is not an argument against you, but I would like to hear you say out loud that if both candidates supported the return to race based slavery, you would vote for the one with the better health plan, just so we know where we all stand.

    • Christopher says:

      Oh, and as an addendum, I agree with what the others have said about protest votes being sensible in safe states, something which your argument doesn’t address at all.

    • Dave says:

      In a situation where both major parties were seeking to reinstitute slavery, you would already be living in a country so far down the road to hell that quite literally nothing you did would matter, since clearly they would have decided that that policy was going to fly with the majority of the electorate. So you might as well find a convenient patch of wilderness and start sniping at passing police-cars.

      • Christopher says:

        10 years ago, I would’ve thought the same would be true of a world where both candidates agree that the President can use secret laws to kill citizens without a trial. Clearly not!

        In any case, you seem to think there are such things as dealbreakers, and thanks for your support.

        djw’s argument is that even if things are so bad that you’d be justified engaging in violent rebellion, you aren’t permitted to abstain from voting unless you are actually violently rebelling at that time. “Things are so bad there’s no point” is not a valid reason to abstain from voting for your designated candidate, by his lights.

        • rea says:

          both candidates agree that the President can use secret laws to kill citizens without a trial.

          You’re hallucinatory. Every president in history has thought there are circumstnances in which the armed forces under his command could kill citizens without a trial. Lincoln killed several hundred thousand.

        • Dave says:

          In this situation, as in all others, there are 3 ethically-credible options: exit, voice or loyalty. Maintenance of one’s personal sense of moral purity by abstaining from the political system while continuing to quietly enjoy all the social and economic advantages it gives you over most other people in the world is not and never will be an ethically-credible response to anything.

          And whining on blogs doesn’t count as ‘voice’, being the modern equivalent of harrumphing over the breakfast-table.

      • John Glover says:

        The vast majority of the electorate wants social security left along, but the leadership of both parties seems committed to tinkering with it.

        Just because both parties favor a certain policy doesn’t mean the majority of the citizens are in favor of it. I think the vast majority of Americans would like to see a swath of bankers in jail right now, but that ain’t happening not matter who wins this election.

    • djw says:

      I would like to hear you say out loud that if both candidates supported the return to race based slavery, you would vote for the one with the better health plan, just so we know where we all stand.

      In that circumstance, I hope I would be courageous enough to take up arms against the government. If I were too cowardly to do so (which, I’ll admit, is a real possibility) my decision to vote for lesser evil wouldn’t be my central moral failure.

      • Christopher says:

        So, are you arguing that everybody in the USA between our founding and the end of the civil war who wasn’t involved in active, armed rebellion against the government was a moral failure?

        Both you and dave seem to be making the argument that, well, if both candidates believed in something really really evil, it would mean the country was self-evidently beyond help and every lesser-evilist would agree with you not voting. This is contradicted by America’s past and present.

        I’m also pretty miffed that I wrote that whole thing and you’re so obsessed with moral purity that that’s the only part you addressed.

  12. agorabum says:

    If your candidate has to sneak you inside his house to avoid his mother… That’s a dealbreaker

    If your candidate owns a diamond necklace that says, “open marriage…” That’s a dealbreaker

    If your candidate writes off half of the country…that’s a dealbreaker.

  13. bradp says:

    The moral purpose of democracy is the reduction of abusive power in the world.

    This doesn’t feel right to me.

    What do you mean by this?

    • djw says:

      It’s a shorthand for my allegiance to the “democracy against domination” school of democratic theory (as opposed to deliberativist, communitarian, or common good-seeking models). Democracy’s opposite is domination (arbitrary, abusive power). Democracy imperfectly opposes and minimizes domination. First, by merely existing, it thwarts the potential abusive power of government by requiring government to seek the approval of at least some of the people they might abuse. Second, democracy is the mechanism by which we craft solutions to the problem of domination–abusive power–exercised by non-state actors in society.

      It’s perfectly fair to not that democracy (especially the unusually flawed version we currently have) is wholly inadequate to accomplish either of these tasks satisfactorily. But noting this inadequacy doesn’t lead to better tools suddenly existing.

      • bradp says:

        Democracy’s opposite is domination (arbitrary, abusive power).

        Democracy’s opposite is autocracy, and to me the difference is more pragmatic.

        In short, you can have an autocracy or a democracy that governs morally, but it is just simply harder to govern under a democracy.

        So democracy has value to us, but giving it its own moral weight is a step to far, at least to me.

        Anyways, kudos. Your posts are universally thought provoking.

      • Manta says:

        But isn’t be Somalia-style anarchy a better tool for that aim?

        It surely fully address the first point “it thwarts the potential abusive power of government”.

  14. bradp says:

    Gay rights is the easiest example.

    Gay rights on their own is not a “make-or-break” issue, but the issue is so cut and dry to me, that I cannot help but discredit any candidate that comes down on the immoral side of the argument.

    A candidate may align perfectly with my own opinions in every other way, but if they fall on the wrong side of gay rights, then none of their good positions matter because the candidates moral faculties are completely discredited in my eyes.

    Some of the more hypocritical and virulent opinions on the drug war are similar: If one can be so immoral and inhumane on one issue, how can one be trusted on any other?

  15. Bijan Parsia says:

    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.

    Doesn’t it need to be the case that my participation in the armed rebellion effectively precludes me from voting? E.g., I’m in the field or on the run or underground in a way that voting would risk blowing my cover?

    If I’m in the plotting stage and there’s an election, aren’t I obliged to vote for the lesser evil?

    I can see not voting if there is no lesser evil of course.

  16. Joe says:

    Similarly, today we have a political environment in which most Americans are indifferent to or actively in favor of drone wars in Pakistan.

    Yes. And, many of them, unlike Obama, didn’t do some good things that are significant ala gays, health care, reproductive rights, etc. But, he is so lousy on “civil liberties.” These in effect are crap. That is what it comes off as.

    “Obama” isn’t to blame for the drone wars. If on balance you think him not being a profile in courage by being in the minority on this issue (while pushing back in small but significant ways even on the position of his own party, see trying to try KSM in civil court etc.) while doing other good things means you can’t vote for him, so be it. Be honest about the reality of the situation as well as the whole package.

  17. actor212 says:

    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.

    And you voted for Nader. Sounds like you succeeded.

  18. [...] is completely absurd. Yes, voting is about, in part, a moral calculus. But to quote djw, The moral purpose of democracy is not to keep my hands clean and feel good about myself, no [...]

  19. policywank says:

    I will say the same thing here that I said to a friend in a recent debate on this. Is one a Democrat because it’s tribal or is one a Democrat because they have specific policy positions to advocate? I would still vote for a Democrat. I just can’t vote for one who sanctions murder of US citizens. Once you’re okay with that, there’s really nothing you won’t support as long as it’s coming from your side. If one is a Democrat simply because it’s their team, their tribe, then I have nothing to say to the person. If it’s because of policy positions, then why be a Democrat when that party or its candidate(s) embrace the things you fought against when they were coming from the other side? If a policy is ineffective, destructive, or morally wrong, then it is so whether it is my team or the other team that is advocating it. There’s a certain level of disagreement with your party that you have to accept to be in the game, but there should also be bright lines that you do not cross. If the conspiracy theory crap about Obama were true, if he confiscated all the guns and then declared martial law, would you support him, would you also sell his rationalization for that simply because he’s on your team?

    I say all of this as someone who worked my ass off to keep my friends from voting Nader in Florida in 2000, who has harangued my friends who voted for him –anywhere- that year about it ever since. I’ve spent most of my life in the “hard nosed realist” camp, but if you’ll accept any evil perpetrated by your side simply because it’s your side, you shouldn’t be involved in the process. You (generic you in all of this) are a detriment.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      I don’t get his. Lesser evilism doesn’t look to whether your side is evil or not, but whether “your” side is less evil.

      I wholeheartedly support Democrats across the board because they are hugely less evil than Republicans. Hugely. The destruction that Republicans inflict on the world is almost certainly an order of magnitude worse than what the Democrats do. Certainly over the last 20 years. Furthermore, the Republicans have pulled the Democrats to the worse. So even when they aren’t in plausible control they make things way horribler.

      And they keep decending. Their mainstream is so fringe as to be extremely disturbing.

      If they parties flip in their predictable level of destruction, then I’ll flip too.

  20. Greg Sanders says:

    I’d agree with this, although I’d add a caveat that this argument should be premised on a secret ballot. If the dictator is going to send a deathsquad to your house if you’re cutting into his 95% vote total, then I think you might be legitimately excused from voting regardless of whether you’re involved in a violent revolution at the time.

    • djw says:

      Of course. And, I would add, voting for a lesser evil (as a hedge against the possible failure of your rebellion) while simultaneously going to war with the government is certainly a viable option as well.

  21. Bill Baldwin says:

    I feel this response begs the question. It begins with the premise that voting third party is not one of “the tools available to make better/reduce the harm of the current state.” And it argues from that position–the very position under discussion–to the conclusion that voting third party is not one of “the tools available to make better/reduce the harm of the current state.”

    Well, yes. If I agree with the premise, I will agree with a restatement of that premise labeled as a conclusion. But I don’t agree with the premise.

    • mds says:

      Since you don’t agree with the premise, could you detail how voting third party in the US is one of the tools available to make better/reduce the harm of the current state”? Because the absense of any details about how that would actually work in practice is usually what leads to it being dismissed.

  22. Matt McIrvin says:

    I think there are probably dealbreakers. I do, however, think it’s mighty weird that the big moral dealbreaker this cycle that is apparently absolute and non-negotiable just happens to be (1) a thing that could break the progressive coalition apart, but (2) prominently advocated by a libertarian/conservative.

  23. Alan G Kaufman says:

    I haven’t been following the comments, so forgive me if this has been already provided:

    Purists might wan to read this:http://www.lawfareblog.com/2012/09/charlie-savage-on-romney-team-memo-on-interrogation/

    and then think about the meaning of choices and consequences

  24. C.A. says:

    I apologize if this has been asked and answered; commenting isn’t working quite right on my computer.

    At this moment in time, it seems like Republicans’ strategy is forcing the entire country to the right by running absurdly wingnut candidates and relying on the Democrats to run “center” candidates. Over time, that center has become increasingly center-right. Moreover, this works precisely because they assume people will vote for the “least-bad” candidate.

    How, exactly, does this approach NOT feed into the GOP’s overall game plan? I’ve been pondering it for a while, and I can’t figure it out. Despite the fact that I’m an unemployed Latina, I just can’t endorse this approach. It’s not going with the lesser of two evils; it’s doing exactly what the worse evil wants you to do and moving the country steadily rightward.

    I, for one, will be sitting out elections until the Dems figure out why they were really successful in ’08 and run a real liberal. YMMV.

  25. Dilan Esper says:

    This is stupid.

    Of course there are dealbreakers that don’t involve violent revolution. I don’t think any Republican should have to vote for David Duke or Todd Akin. The statement that there can be no dealbreakers short of when you are willing to violently revolt is an ipse dixit– no reasoning whatsoever is given in support of that position.

    The fact of the matter is that it is possible for the political system to produce people who are ostensibly on your side but who are wholly unqualified to hold office. (David Duke, for Republicans.) It can also produce people whose actions are likely to be so bad that they can destroy the things you fight for. (Lyndon Johnson after he escalated the Vietnam War.)

    This whole issue is nothing more than a bunch of people who want to feel superior to the DFH’s by saying how great they are for being more “pragmatic”. It depends entirely on your preexisting value system. And many leftists have different values.

    I will repeat what I said at the very beginning of this discussion. Leftists refusing to vote for your favored candidate are a political fact of life. You have only two choices. Ignore them, or move to the left to get their votes. That’s it. If you don’t like it, whining about it isn’t going to change the matter. Nor is it going to make you superior– they vote against your candidates because they have different values and preferences than you do. As Dylan said, “don’t criticize what you can’t understand”.

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      Of course there are dealbreakers that don’t involve violent revolution. I don’t think any Republican should have to vote for David Duke or Todd Akin.

      But…I don’t think they should vote for Romney either. Or Republicans for that matter. Indeed, I think Republicans should vote for the least bad Democrat. Indeed, in this election and for the past 4-5 at least it’s brutally obvious that everyone should vote against Republicans.

      But if the Republican’s mistakenly believe that the Democrats as destructive as right wing radio says, then their political calculus should be the same. The main difference is that Duke is, and Akin was, so toxic that you were better off with out them. (Cf. Trent Lott.)

      • dilan esper says:

        Now we are getting somewhere.

        A lot of Nader voters thought Gore and Lieberman circa 2000 were pretty toxic too.

        You may think that they were not so toxic, but that is an argument you have to win on the merits rather than categorically denying the legitimacy of refusing to support candidates who are bad for your cause long term.

        • Bijan Parsia says:

          A lot of Nader voters thought Gore and Lieberman circa 2000 were pretty toxic too.

          Sure. Me too.

          But that’s not the point. Republicans shouldn’t vote for third party candidates, they should vote for the least bad Democrat (or person who would caucus with the Democrats).

          It’s not about “not supporting” it’s about supporting the better option. I can imagine races where Akin would be my vote. I’d vomit, but there you are.

  26. [...] tried to lay out some of my reasons for this view in my post earlier this week, but it obviously wasn’t persuasive for many. I’m going to try again from a [...]

  27. [...] and in particular his drone war in Pakistan morally disgusts Friedersdorf. On the other hand, djw at LGM figures such a stance to be misguided, for the reason that voting is always a choice among evils. [...]

  28. dino says:

    Why did you regret your vote? It is not as if it had any real effect on the outcome of the election.

  29. [...] once again DJW’s re-telling of hilzoy’s wonderful response: I can’t recall when or where, but I believe it was hilzoy who gave the best answer I’ve ever [...]

  30. [...] each generation doing better than its parents to each generation struggling to stay afloat. •A post from awhile back on LGM discussing the question I touched on before the election, when you give up [...]

  31. [...] the last election season, djw wrote a superb post about the illogic of using “dealbreakers” rather than a holistic evaluation of [...]

  32. […] And once again DJW’s re-telling of hilzoy’s wonderful response: […]

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