It’s OK to Vote Solely Against (Political Parties Are Coalitions, not Factions)

South ParkPer Wes's election post, not voting because you don't like the available options fails to grasp the reality of our situation. There are plenty of principled rationales for ruling out both candidates, and you may think that not voting, or voting for a third-party candidate, will send some kind of message that the system is too flawed for you to dirty your hands with. There are plenty of online versions of this, though since one of our listeners sent me one from Aladsair MacIntyre from eight years ago, I'll refer you to that as one example.

The ethical tussle here is as old as principled Kantianism vs. calculating utilitarianism, where followers of the latter ridicule the former for their naïveté and/or their stubbornness. Certainly in our episode about the American founding I was in despair about a system that seems to have failed to live up to Madison's hope to reign in factionalism.

To balance my attitude there, I feel the need to point out that today's political parties are not factions, but are already coalitions between factions. It's often been commented that the alliance between social conservatives and economic conservatives seems strange and unstable, and the same can be argued for the partnership between union workers and the liberal intelligentsia. In trying to motivate voters, the candidates have often attempted a positive vision, but in trying to come up with something truly unobjectionable to all their actual and desired supporters, these have been strange: along with the expected and ambiguous advocacy of liberty (what kind?) and prosperity (how?), we see candidates more picking out large groups than issues: "I'm fighting for the middle class!", "I'm fighting for small business!" (Both of them say both of these things.) It's seen as a failure (by some pundits) that these guys can't rally us all around some vivid, coherent utopian vision.

If you listen to Madison, though, you shouldn't expect this. People are motivated largely by their factional interests, by what profession and social class they're in, what religion, what part of the country. Putting aside the fact that people are often duped into voting directly against some of these factional interests, we would expect on Madison's view that the desired futures of these various and disparate groups would be too at odds with each other to allow them all to support any particular vision. We philosophy types can argue for some utopia based on ideas about human nature itself, but folks that can't or don't see the point in abstracting from their concrete situation to think like this just want policies that will benefit them and their causes. (The relation between one's sense of self and ones values, where the things we value are in fact ascribed to be part of the self, is again, of some importance here, but needs to be set aside for brevity's sake.) Madison was correct in thinking that this fact about our desires makes it unlikely that we'll actually have a pernicious majority faction that can run roughshod over the minority. If every group would ultimately like everyone else's wealth and power handed over to them in particular, then the competition between groups means no one group will pull this off.

However, while we may not be able en masse to agree on what we want done, we can achieve a great deal of agreement between many different factions on what we don't want done. Liberals don't want corporations and the rich taking advantage of us. Conservatives don't want the needy ganging up on the rich and distributing all their stuff, and/or don't want "experts" denying religion it's proper place in setting social policy. If one of these is your primary concern, then you are fully justified in voting against the the one most likely to promulgate this evil you've identified. It would be nice if the guy you actually vote for has a vision you want to sign on to, but what unifies the coalition--and thus is needed to win the election--is the drive to prevent the evil schemes of the other side.

Participating in this process is thus not dirtying your hands, not betraying your principles, not giving a big mandate to the person/party you vote for, but just trying to make things less bad. So let's everybody (international readers excluded) get out and vote for the least bad candidate! Woo woo!

-Mark Linsenmayer

(The image is a reference to the South Park episode on the 2004 election, "Douche and Turd." I must say that I actually don't share the harsh dismissal of both candidates that many routinely display, and though I'm pretty horrified about the whole drones and kill lists thing, I would likely vote for Obama even given plenty of other choices, and did so in the 2008 primary. At least neither candidate is an idiot man-child this time.)


  1. Laura says

    I dare say…every millimeter, millisecond, entire minutia of life–especially politicians–require us to choose the lesser of 2 evils because my evil is not your evil.

    Happy voting!

  2. Profile photo of Frtiz Donaro says

    Hmmm, well I stand for voting who you agree with the most on policy (and that demonstrates competency for the office they’re running for, obviously) and this means third party candidates as well as the two warmongering Wall Street whores selected for voters. Seems perfectly reasonable to get dirty in swing states and join the evil party you feel will be a little more gentle on your morals. Well anyway this was the most boring election ever. Obama seemed like he pretty much had it in the bag the whole year.

    • Mike F says

      I agree. I don’t think Mark’s equating not voting and third-party voting is justified. If you feel the Green agenda is the right agenda or the Libertarian agenda is the right agenda (and the candidate is as competent as either of the main party candidates as if anybody could tell that) then you should vote what you think rather than compromise to least worst guy who still has a chance to win (unless you are in a swing state where that might matter.)

      • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

        Uh, Mike, your parenthetical comment pretty much makes my point, or at least clarifies it. However, I am all for instant runoff voting, and am open to the argument that third party activity may well be useful at the local level; if Greens could just make their case in, say, Washington state, and take 1/3 or even a majority of the legislature there, that would perhaps change the landscape.

        • Mike F says

          OK, Mark, since you probably vote in Wisconsin, I will be fine with you compromising for the sake of getting less bad president. It wasn’t an issue for me in my one party state of Maryland.

  3. Frank Callo says

    I honestly don’t see how Obama is really a “less bad” president than say Bush Jr. All my liberal brethren seem to hate me for this assertion but fail to produce anything to demonstrate that the whole process, especially at the national level, is anything more than a cynical attempt on the part of massive private interests to give the impression of choice.

    Obama didn’t make the slightest attempt to find and prosecute anyone with criminal culpability in the so-called financial crisis. He put many of the same players at ground zero in said crisis in charge of “cleaning it up”. He has utterly failed to be honest about our energy situation buying into the lie that we somehow have enough fossil fuel burried under north american to make us energy independent. He put a guy who is married to a Monsanto exec in the secretary of agriculture position and a former Monsanto vp as “special adviser” to the FDA. He failed to close Gitmo as he said he would, failed to do anything to overturn the patriot act, signed the pacific free trade agreement. I could go on and on. I can’t see why republicans see Obama as such a threat.

    Understand, this isn’t a rant against Obama (I voted for him in the 08′ election, although, I have to admit, mainly out of peer presure). I am merely pointing out that there is less and less difference between the two major parties and thus less of a “lesser evil” rationale for voting for a major party candidate.

    My daughter voted for Jill Stein yesterday. Predictably, she encountered the “you are throwing away your vote” bullshit that anyone who breaks ranks with the two party dogma encounters. I assured her that with so little difference between the major parties these days that her vote was almost worthless anyway so it didn’t much matter if she threw it away.I know this line of argument tends to piss people off, especially people who lean left but as pissed off as they are no one seems to be able to demonstrate a SUBSTANTIAL difference between the coke and pepsi political parties.

  4. Profile photo of Khary Tafari Robertson says

    I am of the notion that there seems to only be three options on the table here; vote for the lesser of 2 evils, vote for a third party, or do not vote at all. If this is indeed how most people are approaching this issue then I would like to assert that the conversation has yet to begin because not all of the possibilities have been brought to bare to adequately begin the discussion. Mainly I believe that there is a a fourth option that is not ever brought up because it is thought of as generally ineffectual, and that is activism.

    There is activism in the way of Chomsky, West and Ferguson (which I will call structural activism) and activism in the way of Zinn, MLK, and movements like the Black Panthers (which I will call armed activism, even though Zinn never directly rallied as such), all valid, all important for the general progress of society. The big issue in the last 60 years has been the slow dissolution of the public’s legitimate use armed activism. This is an issue when structural activism in ineffectual. We have given political and police forces a monopoly of the legitimate use of armed violence and activism which has left the public without a leg to stand on against the new corporate/government nexus.

    I am not proposing that a return of the right to armed activism is the key, but rather that there needs to be a universal agreement that it is not acceptable for any state or private party to use armed violence against any one else within the constituency, governmental or private, and the consequences for doing such is ejection from the statutes that protect against such violence. This will open the floor to radically redefine how we motivate change internally when it comes to large factions representing their interest. it would allow those who call for reform to publicly do so, without fear of physical retaliation.

    Those who would spread information about the faults of the system and who would raise awareness about how we can change it are met with structural violence (laws, policies, social ideologies) backed by “legitimate” use of armed violence. If this is not addressed and the public loses all forms of economic violence, (which has been done through the repeated economic crashes) then there is no forum for redress and a fascist state is formed. We can avert this by participating structural activism, allowing it to be the main dais of change, much how we hoped our government today would be run (I’m pretty sure none of the Founders would have imagined Americans allowing their police force to fire rubber pellets and tear gas at them without open revolt, but rather hoped that things would be resolved internally though popular election and legislation). This will allow for government and societal changes to not represent the disparate advantage of those who have capitalized off of the growing social fetish of money, but rather to overcome for social necessity instead of capital interest. (Sorry for the Marxist rhetoric)

    Activism is the fourth option. If the big issue is public ignorance, then help to educate. If the big issue is transparency, they investigate. If the big issue is apathy, then learn to motivate. All of these things have a greater effect than casting a ballot. If we could bring this option to more people, then we could at least hope to see change. As long as people only see the primary three choices and don’t acknowledge that there are many ways to make an affect on the system rather than just voting, then we will continue to come up with a deficit of leaders, ideas, and movements, which we are in short supply of already. The issue is not with our individual votes, if we felt votes were the problem we could fix it by voting for someone else, but as we can see the issue is the constituency at large. So why then would any of America’s problems be solved by changing who you vote for? If the problem is who is being voted into power, and its not the person you voted for, then it would stand to reason that to truly help the situation you would go to the source, the people who voted for the other party that is in opposition, not the other party in opposition. They did not put themselves in power.

    This novel approach would indeed take years of activism to take affect, but all activism does. In this culture of milliseconds, FTL drives, and split second trading, it is no wonder we have a shortage of minds thinking in these routes, the idea of something that takes months to complete with no guarantee of success is so abhorrent to the public that to even propose it requires such a departure from the normal ideology as to be tantamount to failure before the idea is even considered.

  5. Profile photo of Joe Tab says

    “I was in despair about a system that seems to have failed to live up to Madison’s hope to reign in factionalism.”

    “I feel the need to point out that today’s political parties are not factions, but are already coalitions between factions.”

    “To balance my attitude there, I feel the need to point out that today’s political parties are not factions, but are already coalitions between factions.”

    Hi Mark,
    You are correct that within the Democratic and Republican Parties there are subsets of the party, or factions, that support certain policies and positions more or less than other factions of the party.

    I still think of the party, though, as a single entity, one large faction that consists of many mini factions. Not sure if this is a meaningful distinction. It seems relevant to me since the Ds and Rs, despite their internal debates, usually end up acting as a unified whole when its time to support a candidate, cast a vote.

    Stepping back for a moment, the debates between Federalists and anti-Federalists over the ratification of the Constitution, the role of government, and national and state relations still linger today. In fact, I believe, we can hear these philosophical differences expressed by the two major parties.

    Does the existence of large, often cohesive, parties contradict some of Madison’s points in Federalist 10? I not sure.

    Did Madison seem to imply that our system would consist of numerous factions competing for control, as opposed to a system dominated by two major parties? Here it seems, as you discuss, it seems that he did. Nevertheless, our system is not static.

    When you consider the internal party debates and include the many interest groups that exist in our political system into the political calculus, our system seems to include a considerable degree of political dynamism.

    This dynamism does, though, seem to eventually fade into a predictable set of political behaviors. I attribute much of this two our political structure. With congressional districts, we have a winner take all system that revolves around single member districts. To be taken seriously and to have a chance of winning, you often (almost always) need to have the support of the Dems or Repubs.

    When the Republican Party, or the Democratic Party, puts its weight behind a single candidate for president or a single policy position, it does not seem to matter that within the party there are many coalitions among factions. Both parties are usually able to discipline their members enough to get them to vote a particular way. This is a dynamic of our political system that I do not feel Madison addresses, at least in the papers I have read.

    During the presidential primaries, we definitely get a glimpse at how each candidate for the party nomination has more or less appeal among the various factions of the party. On a side note, one consequence of the Citizens United decision, allowing more outside (corporate and union) money to enter the political arena, was that the Republican primary likely lasted considerably longer than it would have pre Citizens United, which was decided in 2010.

    In order for Romney to distinguish himself as a candidate and fend off attacks from Perry, Santorum, and Gingrich, there were times, especially in the debates, when he adopted positions that in the general election he later had to moderate. His stance on immigration policy stands out as an example.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *