26 October 2012

A late reply to Erik Loomis on LGM

My dear Dr Loomis, let me just first say right off the bat that I am a great fan of your writing on Lawyers, Guns and Money generally, and that I appreciate the point you are trying to make with this post. That said, my absentee ballot has been written up and is waiting to be mailed in, and my fill-in-the-blank for President / Vice-President does not read Barack Obama / Joseph Biden, but rather Jill Stein / Cheri Honkala. I do this with my eyes wide open to the implications, and with full appreciation of the meaning of my act and its place in the broader scheme of American politics. Because of this, I must respectfully demur from the conclusions you are drawing. First of all, you quote djw:

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.

Let us stipulate that this definition of the moral purpose of democracy is correct. Who is presently abusing that power in the United States with regard not just to drone strikes, but also with regard to civil liberties and economic structures at home? I agree that Mitt Romney will be far, far worse - indeed, I have explicitly said so right here on this blog multiple times. But the person whose abusive power we need to curb, ultimately, is that of Mr Obama. In the American political system, there are two ways of influencing a politician’s behaviour in the public sphere, which really ultimately boil down to one: a politician is after votes, and a politician uses money to buy advertisements in order to essentially buy votes. So we can either choose to not favour Obama with our pocketbooks (in which case he merely goes to the nearest investment banker who will give him orders of magnitude more than we could have hoped to do in the first place), or we can choose the more direct method of not favouring him with our votes.

If we continue voting for him, all the protests and all of the strongly-worded letters to the editor and comments on news websites, that is all merely (as economists like to put it) cheap talk. The institutional Democratic Party knows this, and indeed banks on it. It is an oft-bemoaned fact that the Democratic Party does not respect left-wingers: the reason is, because we left-wingers are always won over with the same logic - and that is, where else can you go? You know the only other ‘viable option’ in our current system is far worse! So, instead of campaigning to change the rules of the system, we merely buy into it more, with both our pocketbooks and our votes. Behaving thus on the grounds that it is the only ‘realistic’ option on the table has gotten us... where, exactly? A Democratic president who behaves only superficially differently on the world stage than the last Republican president did.

That’s completely messed up. But there’s nothing I can do about that with my vote. There are other issues where I wish greater differences separated the parties. Agricultural policy, defense spending, etc. But on these issues, I have to accept that I sit in a deep minority here. I could file a protest vote but that’s pure narcissism unless one is truly committed to building party structures that would transform American politics.

However, there are very real differences between the two parties and their candidates on a whole host of issues where my vote might matter.

Hear that thumping? That was the sound of my head hitting the desk. Repeatedly. Dr Loomis, I expected better of you than this sort of argument.

Like you, I am a Rhode Islander. And I am sure that someone as well-educated and well-spoken as you is not unaware of the fact that Romney’s chances of winning Rhode Island are somewhere south of zero. Yes, the election is close, but there is not a single thing either you or I can do about it with our votes! If I were still voting in Pennsylvania, sure, I would be taking the above logic into account and voting for Obama, because Pennsylvania is a battleground state. It would indeed be reprehensibly selfish of me to vote the way I am voting - if I were still a registered PA voter. But really, Dr Loomis - pretending, as a Rhode Islander, that ‘your vote might matter’ is truly more narcissistic (not to mention delusional) than anything I am doing over here. In Rhode Island, the only thing I can do is file a protest vote. And there is not a snowball’s chance in hell that my vote will count as half a vote for Romney; not here, nor in a good three dozen other states where I might register. So why not file it to help someone from a third party gain more prominence, and perhaps a greater airing for views on changing electoral institutions and campaign finance rules in the United States such that we are not always faced with this dilemma of voting for the lesser of two evils?

This is not about making myself feel morally pure or holier-than-thou. I have said already that the way my vote goes would largely depend on where I live and what my situation is. This is a legitimate question: what is wrong with casting a protest vote in an election district where the outcome is already a foregone conclusion?

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