In 2004, the esteemed Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote a popular essay lamenting the lack of voter choice in the impending presidential election. Rather than recommending that voters cast ballots for the “lesser of two evils,” he admonished voters to abstain from voting altogether.
Believing that voting for Bush or Kerry amounted to an endorsement of the unpopular and unrepresentative two-party stem, MacIntyre concluded, “In this situation a vote cast is not only a vote for a particular candidate, it is also a vote case for a system that presents us only with unacceptable alternatives. The way to vote against the system is not to vote.”
While independents dissatisfied with the two-party system may be swayed by this argument, it is actually grounded on a false diagnosis of our political situation and thus offers the wrong advice to disillusioned voters. Voters, in fact, do have real choices on election day: the problem is they are all too eager to ignore them.
The best way to discredit and ultimately supplant the two-party system is not to abstain from voting or to vote for the lesser of two evils, but to have every voter vote his or her conscience. The first two alternatives only perpetuate the status quo.
Consider the 2004 election – the one which MacIntyre encouraged voters to sit out. In that election, nearly 80 million of the 200 million eligible voters did not vote. But because of these abstentions, President Bush still appeared to have won a mandate by receiving nearly 51 percent of the popular vote. Rather than denying Bush’s legitimacy, such high voter abstention actually gave Bush a veneer of popularity. Voter abstention, however well-intentioned, is counterproductive.
MacIntyre’s proposal is ultimately flawed because it misreads voters’ actual situation. While he appears to be a sage critic of the false dilemma, MacIntyre ironically offers one himself: one can either vote for a major party candidate, or not vote at all.
But these are not voters’ only options. Besides voting for a Republican or Democrat, voters can also vote for a minor party candidate, an independent candidate, or write in their own candidate. Indeed, more than a million Americans voted for a candidate other than Bush or Kerry in 2004.
Of course, most voters consider selecting one of these candidates to be a “wasted vote.” Citing the “spoiler effect” of Ralph Nader’s candidacy in 2000 – especially in Florida – many voters rationalize choosing a “lesser evil” major party candidate (say, Gore) with the hope that it will help keep the “greater evil” major party candidate (say, Bush) out of office.
But it is precisely this thinking and behavior that sustains the two-party system, which, despite becoming increasingly unpopular in recent election cycles, shows no signs of giving way. In 2012, for instance, 40 percent of voters said they were dissatisfied with their choices, and 46 percent said that they would be voting for the lesser of two evils.
As Albert Einstein famously said, the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If people are unhappy with and want to change the status quo, then voters must change their attitudes and behaviors regarding voting.
Voters, in fact, do have real choices on election day: the problem is they are all too eager to ignore them.
Such a display of principled defiance may be the only way to signal that the electorate is no longer willing to be complicit in supporting the reigning bipartisan regime.
Imagine, for example, the baffled expressions of CNN’s on-air team of political experts as they report with disbelief the latest state-by-state vote counts: “20 percent for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, 18 percent for Republican nominee Donald Trump…16 percent for Bernie Sanders, 13 percent for Ted Cruz…9 percent for Independent Jim Webb, 6 percent for Green Party nominee Jill Stein…6 percent for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson…4 percent for Veterans Party nominee Chris Keniston, 2 percent for Constitution Party nominee Owen Shuler…”
While voting one’s conscience might yield a candidate that many people are dissatisfied with, what mandate could the winner – whoever it might be – claim to have after acquiring only one-fifth of the popular vote? What other form of collective action would send the resounding and unambiguous message that voters are no longer willing to compromise their values and distort their true preferences in order to sustain an unpopular and unrepresentative two-party system?
In a democracy, voters get the government they deserve. A people willing to vote for candidates it does not want should expect to be disappointed with its political leadership.
As the American poet James Richardson wrote, “The first abuse of power is not realizing that you have it.” Using the power of the ballot and voting one’s conscience is the simplest and most effective way to discredit the entrenched political duopoly.
Then, the country as a whole can at last begin to discuss electoral reforms, like adopting proportional representation and fair representation voting, that will increase voter participation and ensure that our government is truly representative of the country’s diversity.