This essay is part of our collection on the ethics of voting. See the full collection here.
For a long time, the choice presented by America’s two major parties has seemed less than ideal. It is usually unwise to put too much stock in this fact, for politics is about the here and now, about making the best of the particular realities at hand. It is usually for radicals and starry-eyed teenagers to yearn for the viability of a third party. In most years, those who sober-mindedly care for the common good realize that they will have to cast their lot with the Republicans or with the Democrats.
In 2016, more Americans are inclined to think differently. One need not look far for a reason: the Republican and Democratic nominees are terrible. There is a choice, then: to vote nevertheless for one of the major party candidates, or else to vote for someone who will, with virtual certainty, lose. What is someone who is repulsed by both candidates to do?
It isn’t worth losing too much sleep over this question, since the election won’t be decided by a single vote. On the other hand, though, man is a political animal, and American man’s political participation seldom extends far beyond pulling the lever every few years. So, it seems to me, it is still incumbent upon voters to devote some serious consideration to the ethics of voting and its bearing on the present situation.
My aim here is to explain why, although it is usually acceptable to vote for the “lesser of two evils,” the conscientious voter ought to break ranks with that principle in 2016. In short, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, owing to their characters and the ambient political situation, are de facto unaccountable to public opinion and thus each pose a distinctive threat to the political order of the United States.
Why Are Trump and Clinton Peculiarly Intolerable?
If it is usually—but not this year—appropriate to vote for the lesser-of-two-evils candidates, then my argument for voting third-party should begin by articulating what, I think, makes 2016 extraordinary. In this election cycle, it has become commonplace to observe that the major-party candidates have reached an absolutely unprecedented level of unpopularity. Ever since favorability and unfavorability ratings have begun to be tracked, there has been no major-party candidate with worse ratings than Hillary Clinton—with the exception of Donald Trump.
Yet both have squeezed through the nomination process. Ever since Trump and Clinton have become their parties’ presumptive nominees, the best argument for unifying the parties has not been either candidate’s merits but rather the other’s demerits. Trump is a buffoon who courts racists; he mocks disabled people and those he considers unattractive. For months, he insisted that he would make American soldiers target civilian families, and he only backed off when he realized that might be unpopular with veterans. It is difficult to state exactly to what extent he has debased American political discourse.
Clinton’s career has been riddled with scandals. Suspicious circumstances surrounded her avoidance of indictment, even after FBI Director James Comey rattled off a litany of failures from her tenure as Secretary of State, which contradicted months of her public assurances about her emails. Afterwards, she was mendacious enough to claim that Comey called her statements about her emails “truthful.” The recent leak of Democratic National Committee emails has revealed her to be the corrupt establishment hack that most Americans already realized she was.
And this is not even to broach the inadequacy of either candidate’s policy proposals.
What, then, is the problem with these two? The point of having a representative democracy is to ensure that elected officials are accountable to the people; this mechanism is supposed to prevent elected officials from behaving badly and from deceiving their voters. Of course, this accountability is, in practice, far from perfect. Politicians are liars, and people still vote for them; corruption runs deep on both sides of the political aisle.
It seems to me, though, that the nominees of 2016 are especially subversive of this corrective mechanism of representative democracy. They are both de facto unaccountable to public opinion. Throughout this election cycle, Trump has been referred to as “Teflon Don,” because nothing sticks. No matter what he does or says, he does not lose support. His offensive comments are well-documented; he can even get away with reversing his positions, sometimes multiple times within a few days.
Much the same could be said of Clinton. She has a history of being unaffected by scandals, at least among her supporters—for her scandals are also the reason why she is so deeply disliked. Even the scandals that have broken during her presidential campaign have not hurt her much. James Comey detailed what seems to constitute a clear violation of the statute in question before inexplicably concluding that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring the case. He at least demonstrated massive incompetence and irresponsibility. Yet Clinton’s supporters do not care. How does a politician so visibly mired in corruption continue to demand her party’s support?
The reasons for their unaccountability are different. Trump’s bombastic character is paradoxically attractive to his base, for whom his worst moments almost count as strengths. Hillary’s unaccountability, on the other hand, probably depends on the political mechanism in which she operates, which reliably moderates the media’s reporting of her scandals and insinuates that only right-wing crazies would take them seriously.
In the end, though, it doesn’t matter why either candidate is unaccountable to public opinion; what matters is that they both are. And the current political circumstances and polarization exacerbate this problem, for when the other candidate is so bad, voters are willing to tolerate anything from their own. That is what makes this election so unique and so subversive of representative democracy. Both candidates are abominable, but it doesn’t hurt them.
De facto unaccountability is one of the worst characteristics a politician can possess because it allows them to get away with whatever they want. That is the road to tyranny.
Have a Voting Policy
We can think of each voter as voting on the basis of a voting policy: roughly, a decision procedure that helps the voter decide how to vote. Political participation is for the sake of the common good; a voting policy is necessary precisely because the common good, to use the philosopher Philippa Foot’s suggestive phrase, “hangs on it.”
One way of looking at the ethics of voting, then, is as the project of figuring out what voting policy is worth implementing. Those who endorse a voting policy should be prepared to state how they would vote under counterfactual circumstances; that is to say, a voting policy should be subject to a kind of falsificationism in the practical realm. It is incumbent upon a Clinton voter to ask what sort of scandal it would take for Clinton to lose his or her vote; it is incumbent upon a Trump voter to ask how indecent and monstrous Trump would have to be to lose his or her vote. Many Trump and Clinton supporters, it seems to me, are prepared to reject this question—beating Clinton, or beating Trump, is at this stage just too important. It seems to me a huge mistake to vote for someone so radically unaccountable.
There are further ways in which it is unwise to shackle oneself to an unattractive candidate. For instance, as many have observed, there is hardly a pro-life candidate in this election. Pro-life voters who vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump are signifying that they will do little to contest a political reality that ignores their interests, that regards their votes as up for grabs even if the major parties write them out of their platforms.
Trump and Clinton voters are enacting the “lesser of two evils” voting policy, where the “two evils” are the two candidates most likely to win the general election. While there are times when I think this strategy is appropriate, there are cases when such a policy subverts and destroys the common good. Though it can be part of a more inclusive policy that explains when to apply it, it is, on its own, to be rejected.
What voting policy do I endorse? I do not think it is possible to state in a sentence the best voting policy. The notion of a voting policy is something of an idealization, for fully conscientious voting will surely require the virtue of practical wisdom, the exercise of which cannot be encapsulated in a simple proposition. We can say, at least, that voters should not let their votes be taken hostage by someone situated to spurn—without substantial consequences—their support. My conclusion, then, somewhat converges on Alasdair MacIntyre’s, formulated twelve years ago: a voter should be prepared to opt out of a system that presents him with intolerable alternatives.
If Not Now, Then When?
Many agree that the American two-party system is less-than-ideal, particularly given the present incarnations of the Republican and Democratic Parties. Over 21 million Democrats, for instance, are pro-life, even as their party careers into ever-deeper levels of abortion extremism. Whether the alliance between social and fiscal conservatives is enduring and principled or merely contingent and convenient has long been a topic of debate in the conservative movement; no one, though, will deny that it can occasionally show some cracks.
It is usually inappropriate to hope that the major political alternatives will change. But if yearning for a viable third party is usually too idealistic, then holding onto a hard-nosed realism is sometimes dangerous.
Everyone who knows American history knows that there is nothing eternal about the current platforms offered by the GOP and the Democrats; indeed, even those Americans who don’t know American history have had front-row seats to at least one party’s self-immolation. So it is not always inappropriate to hope that the major political alternatives will change. Thus anyone who hopes to see a major shift among the major parties has to ask himself: when am I going to stop voting for them? If not during the year of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, then when?
The opinions expressed here are not those of the Institute.