In America’s two-party system, we are often confronted with a choice between two candidates, neither of which we’re very enthusiastic about. Sometimes there are additional choices, but they are usually third-party candidates who have virtually no chance of winning. The dilemma: do you hold your nose and vote for the major party candidate who is somewhat less repugnant to you than the other? Or do you take the principled stand and vote for a third candidate you know will lose?
Here’s my answer:
An election is certainly important, but it’s not the end of the story. In fact, voting may be one of the LEAST effective methods that an individual can use to influence the government and society at large. A vote is just one vote. It has no chance of affecting anyone else’s views or actions. It merely contributes a miniscule drop to one side or the other of the vote total.
On the other hand, working actively to pressure elected officials to take actions you want them to take can have a much larger effect.
In an oft-cited incident in which a group of citizens was pressing President Franklin Roosevelt to take some action, FDR is supposed to have said “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” There’s some question as to whether this conversation actually took place, but regardless, it reflects a political truth: By and large, elected officials can only do things for which there is significant and vocal political support.
Calling or writing to elected officials, publishing blog posts or letters to the editor, organizing campaigns, participating in rallies or demonstrations, contributing money, even talking to your friends and neighbors, all are things that have much more potential to change minds and exert a push toward change than casting a ballot does.
With this in mind, it seems to me that if you want to move the country in some direction or other, your best strategy is to vote for one of the candidates who has a reasonably good chance of winning, choosing the one that you are most likely to be able to influence in your desired direction once they’re in office. Voting for a candidate that has no chance of winning only makes sense if you actually feel that the major party candidates are equally far from your own positions and equally unlikely to be moved by any of your efforts once in office.
One final point: Let’s face the fact that the only person who will make every decision exactly as you would is you. No politician is going to conform exactly to your wishes on every issue. This is inherent in a representative democracy. Unless you’re running for office yourself, any vote amounts to a choice between imperfect options.
So yes: vote for the lesser of two evils. And then once that lesser of two evils is in office, work like mad to make him or her do the right thing.
P.S. If only we had Ranked-Choice Voting, we wouldn’t be faced with this dilemma in the voting booth. (But we would still have to push our elected officials to do what we want them to do.)