osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Voting strategies

A rather long discourse on the much debated question of whether it is inherently superior to engage in party-line voting or to catagorically reject party-line voting under all circumstances. My analysis as to why no voting stratgy is inherently more "rational," "right" or "worthy of respect" below.

As an aside, let me put in a plug for philosophy, political sceince, and the other humanities that tend to get treated by some folks as intellectual whanking. If you don't understand what you are doing or why, if you don't even have a vocabulary to think about it, you can really screw yourself up.

This election in particular prompted considerable debate on what is the “right” way to vote. Some people, believe one should evaluate each candidate for suitability for the office on the basis of each individual’s credentials (what I will call the “individual candidate” voter). With regard to party affiliation, the individual candidate voter may consider party affiliation one relevant factor, may reject the idea that party affiliation is ever relevant, or fall somewhere in between. These voters may register as members of a political party or as independents. Nevertheless, in the general election, the individual candidate voter makes a fresh determination as between the competing candidates (at least of the major parties).

Others always support one particular party over another, and will vote the party slate without considering the relevant merits of the specific candidates (what I will call a “party line” voter). For the party line voter, the relevant election is the primary. Once the party selects a candidate, however, the party line voter supports the party’s choice.

Finally, there is the “protest voter.” The protest voter may, under other circumstances, be an individual candidate voter or a party line voter for the other side, but is urged in this specific election to vote on a particular party’s slate platform. The protest vote is designed to illustrate mass disagreement (or agreement) with critical issues advanced by the parties or a general repudiation of one party.

Each approach is, in fact, quite logical and has both benefits and costs. Unfortunately, it has become the case that those who follow one strategy tend to regard those who follow other strategies as irrational, inappropriate, failing to understand how to carry out the responsibilities of the franchise, and generally calling those who engage in other strategies all manner of nasty names.

To take the logic of each first. The individual candidate voter proceeds from the premise the that the purpose of voting is to select the “best” candidate for a specific position. There may be some debate as to what qualities constitute “best,” but the idea of voting for an “inferior” candidate who will do a “worse” job (by whatever criteria) is anathema to the individual candidate voter.

The party line voter regards voting as a means of advancing important philosophies of governance, and that these philosophies can only be effective when the entire apparatus of the government is ideologically unified. Thus, if one believes the Republicans govern with a particular ideological viewpoint, e.g., a preference for deregulation of business and industry, a preference for lower taxes, etc. it is important to te party line voter that the entire structure of government reflect these values. Thus, whether the state comptroller for the Democrats is somehow a “better” comptroller by some hypothetical objective criteria, or whether the Democratic candidate for Attorney General has more trial experience is much less important than insuring that all organs of government reflect the important Republican values the Republican party line voter prefers. The loss of efficiency at the individual office holder is more than compensated by the “force multiplier” for the desired ideology, which in turn yields superior governance over all.

The protest voter is, definitionly, an extraordinary case. The purpose of the protest vote is not merely to endorse a particular philosophy or select the best candidate. The logic of the protest vote is to reach the otherwise unreachable party leadership by making the policies they pursue too expensive. This is a recognition of the fact that party leaders, particularly on a national level, often come from “safe” districts or states and cannot be reached by the usual means of voting against them directly. But unless party leaders face unpleasant consequences fr their actions, they have no incentive to change course, even if the broader population expresses strong dissatisfaction with the policies or ideologies pursued by the leadership.

The logic is similar to a boycott of a national chain to force that corporate office to alter policy. For example, in 2000-02, many Jews felt that National Public Radio covered Israel in an unfair manner. They reduced or stopped their contributions to local NPR affiliates in protest. The NPR affiliates countered that they were merely retransmitting programming developed by National Public Radio and Public Radio International. Why punish me, says WAMU Washington DC, because NPR gives me programming you don’t like? Answer: Because I cannot reach NPR. But I can reach WAMU. And if WAMU and its sister stations are sufficiently unhappy, they will use their influence on NPR to change programming (which, in fact, is what happened).

So too here. Assume a state with a large percentage of individual candidate voters who usually vote “split ticket” so that Republicans control some offices and Democrats others. A protest vote against the Republicans in this election basically says “To the Leaders of the Republican Party: Because I and other voters who usually consider voting for Republican candidates are very upset about your policies, we will no longer even consider voting for Republicans until you change policies. If you ever want a Republican to ever get elected dog catcher in this state, let alone to serious state or federal office, you will stop doing the stuff I am upset about.”

Unfortunately, these strategies (and their rhetoric) get a lot of misinterpretation and heat. Those who resist protest voting tend, IMO, to fall into the falling errors:

Fallacy #1 “A Vote For X Party = A Vote For Derogatory Thing” is the same as “All People who vote for X Party actually do or support derogatory thing.”

That is to say, some object that “A Vote For The Democrats Is A Vote For Murder” (from an anti-abortion R party line voter) or “A Vote For The Republicans Is A Vote For Torture” (from a party line D voter) is the equivalent of “All Democrats are murderers/support murder” or “All Republicans torture/support torture.”

To assume this equivalence is a significant error from a failure to understand the nature of the party line or protest vote. The point of the Party Line voter urging a protest vote is that “whatever the moral attributes of the particular candidate or his or her particular actions, a failure to repudiate that party utterly via a protest vote (or generally supporting a party line vote) means the nasty thing I despise will happen.” So to translate for the anti-abortion R: “If you support democratic candidates, they will support abortion rights. Thus, if you vote for the Ds, it is the inevitable result that we will continue to see murder in the world.”

Similarly, in this election, the D that proclaims “A vote for the Republicans is a vote for torture” is not proclaiming all Republicans torturers – a demonstrably false statement. Rather, they are saying “Failure to vote a protest vote will allow the Republican party to legalize torture of captives.”

Please note there are still many objections. In the first instance, one need not agree that abortion is murder or that the interrogation techniques authorized by the Rs are “torture” (or, alternatively, that even if torture, they are justified). One may also disagree with the underlying assessment of the party line or protest vote. For example, “Bob is a ‘pro-life’ D or Mary is an R that condemns use of these interrogation techniques, I want to change the internal dynamic of the party and reward competence by voting for Bob or Mary.”

Further muddying the water, of course, is the fact that many people do, in fact, say that ALL Democrats hate America, love terrorists and lust to murder pre-born babies, and that ALL Republicans want to restore slavery, reduce women to the status of chattel, and lust to make “hamburger helper” of anyone earning less than $100K/yr. One can only hear so much of that crap before the nuances get lost.

There is a side issue, of course, as to what is the appropriate level of rhetoric in campaigns. I had no problem with Bush saying “If the Democrats win, America loses.” He’s the head of the other party for goshsakes! What’s he supposed to say “sure, vote either way, it’s all good.” He has as much right to say “A vote for a Democratic majority is a vote for higher taxes, more regulation, and less security” as Howard Dean has to say “The Republican party doesn’t care about poor people” or “the Republican Party doesn’t care about how many civilians die in Iraq.” Those are questions of policy outcomes. It is very different (to me at least) from “Democrats hate America” or “Republicans want to murder innocent Iraqis.” And I get far more irritated with the mock shock at forceful statements than with people speaking plainly. But that may just be a consequence of my day job. I like my opposite numbers at PFF, but I think their economic policies are a disaster for the country – and they feel the same way about me and mine.

But I digress....

Fallacy #2 Protest voting is a form of collective punishment.

To my mind, this confuses the nature of voting. A vote is not a “reward” that denying it to someone for a particular reason related to extraneous factors constitutes a “punishment.” But I confess that I am horribly utilitarian these days (within the scope of my ideological principles).

Fallacy #3 It is impossible for the party line or protest voter to cooperate with the other side after the election.</u>

This is sometimes advanced by party line voters or by individual candidate voters as a reason not to adopt a party line or protest strategy. The fallacy is that it fails to appreciate the nature of voting and its role in civic engagement. Even if I believe that The Other Party has an awful governing philosophy, it is still incumbent on me to participate in the ongoing effort to promote useful and beneficial policies.

This goes back to a longstanding principle of mine that voting and representative government are not a one shot ritual every two years to figure out how 51% of the Country screws 49%. There will always be those people who are so opposed to the ideology of the other party that it is inconceivable to them that they can “work together.” But there is nothing inherently contradictory in adopting a position that: “I believe my party offers the better governing philosophy, but many people whom I represent (or in the country as a whole) disagree. My responsibility is to use my philosophy as a general guide and work with those from the other party to get positive legislation past.”

Fallacy #4 One form of voting strategy is demonstrably and inherently superior or more worthy of respect.

No further comment needed, I hope.

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