On The Current Election Season

A general feeling of alienated disgust has kept me from mouthing off about the elections currently underway in this country, but two things have recently convinced me that perhaps I should go off on a rant after all. First, I got my state voter's pamphlet, which contains more raw rant material than I could ever possibly use up. And second, I remembered that I voted for Nader back in '96, back before it was cool, which gives me, perhaps, some slight measure of cred.

There are ten candidates for President on the Washington State ballot. This includes the usual folks you've heard of, plus candidates from Libertarian, right-to-life, and three different socialist parties. There's one unifying trend to their position statements: if party A is demonstrably better-known than party B, then party B's statement denounces party A as part of the evil System that's ruining our lives, and party A pays no attention to party B. It's sort of interesting to realize that there are people who stand in the exact same relationship to the "third-party" candidates that those candidates themselves stand in with respect to Bush and Gore.

So the question becomes, what do you want, and how are you going to get it? There are basically two games I think one can play: you can vote for the candidate whose platform is the most precise match to your own beliefs, or you can treat the entire system as some sort of complex machine and try to psych out how you can best manipulate that machine into doing what you want. Quite honestly, both methods suck, but I think they're individually at least defensible, but that seeking some sort of wishy-washy middle ground is a no-go.

There's not much to say about the first alternative. For me personally, I'm (unsurprisingly) not much of a fan of the Libertarian and Constitution platforms, and both the Socialist Workers and the Workers World people are nuts, but the Socialist platform is actually not half bad, especially their tax reform proposals. I'm with the Greens on environmental policy, of course, and whatever issues I may have with Clintonian foregin policy, the Democratic internationalist party line is better than any of the other nine would replace it with. If I could put them in power in every government in the world, I'd quite possibly vote Socialist; if I could give them 100% of Congress, I'd go Democratic, no-questions-asked. And if I could just turn the judiciary system over to the Greens, sure, that'd fix most stuff. But none of these is an option. This is a ballot pull for President, not for absolute dictator, and the winner will need to work in the context of the situation they wind up in, and, oh, jeez, this is starting to sound more like option two, so cancel that. If you're going to stick to your ideological guns, be prepared to stick with them all the way. They ask you what you want, always tell the truth, keep saying it, and then wait for it to happen, however long that is. Visualize ideal world, walk directly towards, swerving neither right nor left by even a millimeter, even when you need to walk directly through a tree.

On the other end, you can vote strategically. Draw out the game tree, look over the options, pick the one which ends up with the world you most like out of the possibilities, no matter how strange the chain of events that leads there is. Maybe voting Libertarian will force the Republicans to swing in that direction, opening up more terrain for social-responsibility parties on the left, causing them to vacate the environmental turf which the Democrats can then recapture, and in combination with sweeping the 2020 elections, maybe they'll get some stuff done. My point is one, that the consistent thing to do is follow your beliefs and models through to the end, and two, this process requires the same sort of absurd extension that just voting straight "for" what you believe does. The trouble with strategic voting is that you need to have some sort of idea of what your vote will actually cause to happen, and the system is too messy, too complicated, too rhetorically swamped for this sort of predictability to extend very far.

Me, I'm a scientist, so I start from the basic proposition that our political system doesn't work. Further, no political system can. This is a demonstrable fact: Kenneth Arrow proved it back in the fifties. Any political system that has to deal with a sufficiently diverse (in the sense of having different opinions) population is going to fail in some way: either it won't respond even to the overwhelming popular consensus, or its decisions will make no sense. The floor for "sufficiently diverse" is six people. Different systems fail in different ways: the American subdivision process causes massive pandering to the center; parliamentary systems are vulnerable to pandering to the fringes; odder systems (like the STV system ICANN used to elect its at-large members) tend to miss out on broad consensuses. You can play metagames with trying to change the system around so that its particular stupidities are ones you can live with, but since we're running 200-plus years on the one we've got and pressure for change seems pretty minimal, I prefer to take its particular stupidites as given. Which pretty immediately rules out option number one.

It's something of a truism that up until election night, no candidate ever admits that they might not win (the Workers' World party being a notable exception -- one of their platform points calls on President Clinton to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier), but once you dig a bit, the third-party campaigns pretty quickly start trying to get your vote in strategic terms. The magic 5% will give the Greens matching funding next time; a vote for Buchanan is a signal to the Republican Party. And the major parties make their appeals in openly strategic terms: a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush. It all comes down to which hypotheticals you think more likely, who you think has the most accurate model of what will actually happen.

These are naked questions of calculation, of possible-world crystal-ball gazing limited only by the unimaginable complexity of the world, the other quarter-billion people all indepdently making their own guess-based decisions, and our own woefully weak capacity for prediction. I'll return to my own personal calculations in a moment, but I want first to rail against people who try to dress up these calculations in more idealistic garb. I'm ever-so-thrilled that when I vote for Nader, I "send a signal" and my vote has some sort of special added semiotic content, but so? Signals don't save the environment. To flip the coin, please don't try to pretend that Gore hasn't been drifting rightwards. On a good day, it's a necessary evil that he's courting the swing voters so, but face it, he's lying to them or he's lying to us leftists.

In my case, what it comes down to is twofold: how far I can project a given scenario into the future, and how well I can predict the effects of my particular vote in selecting a secnario. For the first question, I'm stopping at the four-year mark, or well before. Nobody can accurately predict politics that far into the future, and anyone who claims to is lying. They're guessing. I'm looking at a President for the next four years, probably three Supreme Court appointments, and a Congress that's on paper pretty closed to balanced but in practice tilted somewhat Republican due to conservative Democratic rank-breaking (I'm keeping in mind here that there are 99 senators and 434 members of Congress whose status depends exactly zero on my choice this election. Well, 98, with Lieberman clinging to his seat).

My vote will affect, potentially, three things. It will show up in some raw column for King County. Big whoop. It might contribute to giving the Greens their magic 5%; this is a distinct possibility here in Washington State. Looking ahead as best I can, I think this is a good thing, kinda sorta: this matching funding is money that will be spent on advertisng pressing for environmental protection and campaign finance reform. Sure. And, in today's climate, especially here in a "competitive" state, my votemay go towards trying to tip a very close race between Gore and Bush. This is important, yo. One of the two of them is going to win this race; the coin is not about to land on its edge. And I believe there's a difference, one that I care a great deal about.

Would I rather see Nader or McReynolds as President? Possibly, but I'm not going to burn brain cells on this one. I'd rather have Bill Bradley, Vaclav Havel, Abraham Lincoln, or Larry Lessig in the job, too, but it's just not going to happen. Would I like to see Ralph get his magic percentage? Sure, but that's a meta-good, an uncertain deposit towards possibly some good stuff down the road; keeping Dubya out of the Oval office is an immediate good, a much larger one, and besides, the way things look right now, my vote is more likely to affect that outcome than to affect whether the Greens cross their threshold. Gore it is.

Am I happy? No. Do I hate the poltical process and its widespread disenfranchisements? Hell, yes. Do I favor confiscatory taxation on the rich? Most days, yes. Am I about at my boiling point about the insane media culture surrounding politics and the rhetorical disconnects running through the whole shabby mess? No, I hit that point long ago. Am I frustrated like nobody's business? Yes, I am, but I'm trying to do the most good with the options that are open to me right now, and to take a broad enough view to figure out where to actually put my efforts to do some genuine good, whether politics itself is salvageable or whether what the world needs is something else entirely.

I'm quite serious about this. We, the young, are often tossed off as apolitical, disenchanted with out government and its processes (electoral and otherwise). As though these are necessarily bad things. Sure, to the extent that our low turnout lets the older folks lead us into fiscal irresponsibility and stick us with the bill, it is. And to the extent that the engagement with community and nation that politics (sometimes) requires isn't replaced with anything else, it is. But if there's greater good to be done somewhere outside of politics than within it, what kind of sucker's game is it to expect us to bash our heads against politics' brick wall just because it's the traditional route to fixing stuff?

Maybe we need to be running NGOs, sending in food to war-torn nations where the blue hemlets won't go because of UN deadlock. Maybe we need to be writing novels and songs, trying to pull up the world's moral and ethical standards a bit by coming at people with beauty from an unexpected quarter. Maybe we need to be writing the software that will break down class divisions and inequities of wealth by rendering all our physical wealth-markers stunningly irrelevant. Maybe we need to be fixing things on a smaller scale than politics can even comprehend, setting things right locally, in our homes and our neighborhoods and offices like good Neo-Confucians. Maybe we need to be building ecologically sustainable businesses and destroying rapacious corporations by subverting their assumptions about profits and people. Maybe we need to renounce everything, live as mendicants, and turn from a hopeless world to our inner spirituality.

I don't know. But there are other possibilities out there, and at some point, maybe we can figure out a way to just let politics fester on its own while stepping in at enough places to make sure its death throes don't screw things up too badly. Kind of a long shot, but that's an extreme possibility. More realistically, the greatest service to humanity, to one's own sense of responsibility, to whatever, need not necessarily lie in an exclusively political engagement. The obligation to do something does not vanish just because the means are difficult or impossible. But obligation's harsh judgement comes down equally severely on those who struggle in vain with impossible tasks while ignoring far easier means of achieving the same end.