Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Democratic Politics, First in a Series

I have promised to write a post on why I think it is almost always a mistake to vote for a third-party candidate in a U.S. presidential election.  I am finding it remarkably difficult to articulate my point, though, so I will write a series of posts outlining my broader beliefs about democratic politics (short version:  I think its merits are greatly under-appreciated).  Instead of mounting a concise, rigorous argument, I will try to make my point more obliquely, by way of several historical examples.  However, I will start with a simple statement of my argument.  And that argument is that democratic politics, however flawed, is among the most powerful institutional safeguards of human dignity, and that third-party candidates in the United States are generally not engaged in democratic politics.  Candidates like Jill Stein, I will argue, are not so much politicians as they are repositories of moral rectitude.  In the same way that Wu Tang Clan ain't nothing to fuck with, moral rectitude is nothing to sneeze at, but in most circumstances it can't compare to the sheer power of electoral politics.

On the day after the 2012 election, Matt Yglesias posted this to Twitter:

Now clearly the concept is inspired, and the video makes excellent use of American music.  But what actually moves me the most about this video is the way all the people proudly hold up their voter registration cards.  If you are a French conservative, that is the scariest thing in the video, because it is a demonstration that these people have power and intend to exercise it.  This is what is so beautiful about democracy, for all its flaws.  Power flows through the people and reflects their values and interests.  Injustice can still happen, but if people can vote, they are much, much less vulnerable to oppression.  And the resources of the French state are deployed in a decent, humane way that would have been unimaginable in the days of French monarchy.  That's democratic politics, and that is what people like Jill Stein are asking voters to turn their backs on in the name of moral righteousness.  That's a trade I can imagine making in extremis, but Stein has a very high bar to clear, a very high burden of proof.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We really ought to have preferential balloting, no? The case for it seems unassailable.

12:13 PM  
Blogger James said...

Well, the case for that is pretty nuanced. The immediate effect is to allow people to have their cake and eat it to, by casting a vote that is simultaneously for Jill Stein and Barack Obama. But the long-term effect on electoral dynamics is really complicated.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems highly unlikely to make those dynamics worse. Good discussions, including of practical studies, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant-runoff_voting

1:12 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

Hm I guess I wrote a post about voting systems a while ago that is implicitly about democracy http://glassbottomblog.blogspot.com/2011/05/some-thoughts-re-voting-systems.html

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Determining the best practical system is hard, and it seems unlikely that any reasonable system would meaningfully disrupt two-party dominance in the U.S., but FPTP is clearly undesirable. Apparently Washington state is considering implementing a Condorcet system: http://wiki.electorama.com/wiki/Condorcet_method

1:25 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

I guess I don't know what's meant by "desirable." This was the point of the linked post. It is often assumed that a "better" voing system is one that better reflects people's preferences. However, it isn't obvious that there's a positive correlation between how "good" a voting system is in this sense and how well it "safeguards human dignity" (e.g., in terms of minority rights). One of the arguments used against the AV campaign in Britain was that the BNP would do better under AV; granting this premise and James's implied rationale for democracy, it was clearly better not to pass AV.

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sarang, sorry, did not see your comment before I posted. Agree with the thrust of your post. Alternative criteria to preference-maximization are hard to neatly specify, implement, and defend. Doesn't mean we should only care about preference-maximization, of course. Am sympathetic to the idea that different governments should have different voting systems based on demographic differences. Still, am inclined to think that FPTP should never be used. Am admittedly idealistic about impact of preferential systems on electoral dynamics, voter education, and campaigning (think Australia has independent problems). Would like to see a change in the U.S. given how bad these things are here.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Grobstein said...

James, I am extremely skeptical that you will get to a "procedural" argument against voting for a third-party candidate, i.e. one that does not rely on reasonably strong "substantive" assumptions about the parties being selected among. That seems to me to be the goal you are setting yourself.

3:59 PM  
Blogger James said...

We'll see. I don't plan to get into "substantive" issues like abortion or anything.

7:55 PM  
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