This has easily been the most substance free election in recent American history. It is also one that has generated a huge amount of emotion. Precisely because the central theme of the election has been personality and temperament, not policy and ideology, everyone has taken the election personally. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the daily inquisitions that pass as attempts to convince individuals to vote. Anyone who refuses to vote, or plans to vote for a third party candidate, is attacked as an irresponsible fantasist who cares more about the beauty of his soul than the hard political realities of this election. The vote shouldn’t be expressive, it should be practical, they say. When those on the Left argue that Lesser Evilism only means that the Left, such as it is, will be taken for granted or safely ignored, a standard liberal response is that those Lefties will be responsible for Trump winning. Actually, the standard response is considerably more abusive and moralistic. But whether delivered in a hostile or friendly tone, the essence of the case for Hillary has simply been that: each individual must vote strategically, rather than for what he or she believes in, because otherwise that person is responsible for Trump. But that is not only wrong it’s a fantasy, and an undemocratic fantasy at that.
In an era of Vox-style data-driven journalism, in which social policy is tortured by the nudge and tweaks of the latest social science, it is notable that liberals leave the same style of thinking at home when it comes to voting. After all, it is political scientists who have been telling us for decades that individuals make no causal difference to the outcome of large-scale collective actions like national elections. These are the same experts that liberal technocrats want us to defer to for the two and four years between major elections, but whose most long-standing social scientific thesis is suddenly irrelevant during these elections. But it is during elections that they really have a point. After all, it is true that no individual’s vote is decisive in an election. Run the probabilities however you like, but you, individual voter, have a better chance of winning the lottery everyday for months than you do of determining the outcome of the election. That’s just as true in a swing state as it is in a safe state. Even in Florida, North Carolina or Nevada, the chance is effectively zero that one of the candidates will win by one vote.
This is not a counsel of despair. This is, for one, how it should be in a democracy. Everybody counts equally, so nobody should have that kind of control over outcomes. Nobody’s individual will should so heroically determine our collective fate; it is pathological to think otherwise. But more than that, this should be a liberating thought. You or I do not carry the fate of the republic on our shoulders. We do not determine the fate of the election in that way. There is no good reason to harangue someone for being irresponsible when he or she votes on principle rather than pragmatically.
So one of the deepest ironies of this election has been that the people – especially liberal commentators – who claim to be reasoning in the most hard-headed, reality-facing, pragmatic way are, in fact, the ones in the grip of an illusion. I suspect that, for some, this is not so much an illusion as it is bad faith. They personally don’t actually believe that Hillary is Lesser Evil. Instead, they believe she is the good option, close to the best that America can do. They deploy the Lesser Evil argument to try and convince those to their left who think she is a neoliberal warmonger who will only entrench the racial and class divisions of this society. But many Lesser Evilists really do think it is the ‘Responsible Thing To Do.’ That they must think about their vote as if it were decisive. Not only is that a deep distortion of the reality of the situation, it is its own form of expressive voting dressed up as pragmatic thinking. Their vote becomes a signaling device for what it means to be a serious person and, by the same token, serves as moral permission to rant at others.
The problem here is not just that the Lesser Evilists peddle an illusion, it is that this illusion serves deeply undemocratic ends. The other side of blaming individual voters for outcomes is relieving candidates of the responsibility for making their case to those citizens. The political role of the strategic voting argument is to paper over the weakness of democratic representation in this country. While that is a long-standing trend in the United States and, as we have discussed on this blog, in other countries, this particular election has brought to the fore just how limited the attempt to organize and represent interests is. Trump is a vile demagogue who shows little interest in the art of governing, while Clinton has made her campaign almost entirely about the clash of personalities rather than their ideas. It is always at the moments when dissenters criticize Clinton’s views or record that the Lesser Evil argument gets trotted out. Yes yes, we are told, she might be nowhere near the kind of progressive candidate we would like, but if you don’t vote for her you are responsible for putting Him in office. Never mind that the positive case for her is weak, the argument goes, we can’t afford to think about that.
So the strategic voting argument does more than ignore the fact that individual voters are not responsible for the outcome. It also reverses the relationship of political responsibility. It holds individuals responsible for outcomes, while alleviating candidates of responsibility for proving themselves. But, in a democracy, it is the candidates who are responsible for making their case to the people, not the other way around. Citizens are responsible for deciding on their own principles and holding representatives to them. But the more disconnected representatives are from the public, the more they try to conceal that fact by turning the tables and holding voters responsible for outcomes that voters cannot personally control. On top of which, by lowering the standards to which they are held to (“at least she’s not the other guy”), the election is turned into something like a blanket grant of authority. That bar is so low it is achieved simply by winning the election, which makes it all the harder to hold the winner to account during the period of actual governing. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that. If they haven’t made their case, we have no responsibility to vote for them.