[Warning: this is a pretty long post. TL,DR: Romney will inspire much-needed pushback from liberals, and the differences from Obama are exaggerated, so the opportunity cost to voting third-party is minimal. Unless you are in a swing state like Ohio, the opportunity cost is actually zero. Also, a Romney win would get Ryan out of congress!]
[Update: See my follow-up post.]
Various commentators have been making the argument that Progressives should vote for a third-party presidential candidate, for example by Matt Stoler at Salon (amid some other arguments), but also by Dan Carlin, in his most recent Common Sense episode. Carlin is not really a progressive (I wouldn’t label myself one, either), so let me quickly spell out my own version of this argument.
When a Democrat is president, his supporters will tend to remain quiet about transgressions. This is why Bush faced so much opposition to his wars, lawlessness, disregard for the environment, civil liberty abuses, drug-war stupidity, and Wall Street pandering, while Obama gets a nearly free pass while doing the same or worse on all fronts (NDAA, cold-blooded Patriot Act renewal, extrajudicial killings, etc.). This means that even if Romney were inclined to do even more drilling and bombing than Obama is already doing, and even if he were more inclined to attack Iran, he would have a much harder time convincing the public. That is because a Romney victory is likely to embolden timid journalists and galvanize dormant advocates and activists. As Dan says, “if the difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is having all of the normal civil liberties defenses out there on your side pushing back against abuses… you would rather have … Romney as president, because then you know you’ll have allies.” When you consider that Romney has endorsed virtually all of Obama’s foreign policy agenda, having allies to oppose these policies would, practically, be the only difference between an Obama and a Romney Presidency, at least when it comes to foreign policy.
Dan goes on to make another argument that I will borrow and adapt to my thinking here. After an election, the losing party will sometimes set off in a new direction. (Exemplified by the nominations of Goldwater, McGovern, and Reagan.) Perhaps the Occupy Movement would be reinvigorated if Obama lost. (Some of the hardcore occupiers are hoping for a Romney victory for this reason. The Tea Party certainly managed to rock the boat in the Republican Party after Obama’s election.) These party reinventions are rare, and, frankly, they don’t usually work well for the party (see: McGovern). However, sometimes you can get someone like Reagan who embodies the values that many of his party’s constituents really care about. It is a distinct possibility that, if the Democrats lose to Romney next week, they will do some collective soul-searching and decide to embrace their image as “the party of civil liberties and civil rights,” as Dan Carlin puts it. If this were achieved, the Democrats would likely steal quite a large chunk of the Libertarian faction of the Republican Party, as well. Such a transformation would likely require a high level of motivation on the part of “Left Libertarians” (that is, liberals who are primarily concerned with civil liberties, not unlike myself). Since this dedication seems to be lacking among left liberals, it seems like a long shot. Still, this seems like a more plausible path than trying to get a third-party into power.
The important question is whether these two factors are as nearly as significant as the damage a Romney presidency would do in the short term. I argue that a Romney Presideny would not be all that much worse than an Obama presidency. Certainly, both parties want their constituents to view this (and every) election as the “most important of our generation,” in order to ensure that we only consider short-term consequences and never demand more concessions for any specific issue. Don’t fall for this propaganda. It’s important not to jettison your ideals out of fear for what might happen if the “other guy” wins. Also, we all know politicians lie and break promises made on the campaign trail, and we’ve seen how their powers can be limited and their influence obstructed even when they make an honest effort. So, it’s also important not to confuse either candidate’s stated agenda with the actual manifestations of his election. It’s easy to get caught up in the visions the two candidates present for the country, which stand in stark contrast, but the only thing that is really relevant is what we can expect to actually happen as a result of an Obama or Romney election.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons to vote for Obama that are often trotted out by his supporters. I’ll try to point out some mitigating factors. I’ll then identify some other factors you may not have considered.
Supreme Court and Women’s Health: Let’s begin with the two arguments for Obama that I actually find most compelling: the Supreme Court and women’s health. Obama would almost certainly be better than Romney in these areas, but let me just point out some mitigating factors. First, Obama’s Supreme Court picks so far have not been particularly liberal. This is especially true of Elena Kagan, who, among other things, actually voted against the medicaid part of Obamacare, which shocked and dismayed her liberal supporters. Because the two justices replaced by Kagan and Sotomayor, Souter and Stevens, were relatively liberal, the court is actually more conservative than it was when Obama took office. Meanwhile, we have no real reason to believe Romney is a loyal conservative. My best guess is that he would choose the justices that would give him the best chance of reelection in 2016, plain and simple. That means no extreme conservatives who would be unpalatable to swing voters.
The shocking stances taken by Republicans on women’s issues in the past year are well documented. First there was the campaign against contraception that got Rush Limbaugh into trouble. More recently, disturbing quotes by the likes of Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and Tom Smith represent an effort to whitewash rape in order to prepare the country for their radical anti-abortion agenda. (But hey, some girls really do “rape easy” don’t you think?) However, while Paul Ryan is complicit in this movement, I doubt Romney would take up this agenda. The one thing we know about Romney is that he does whatever is politically expedient, and his own flakiness on abortion is a prime example of that. He’s indifferent here, and it would take considerable amounts of political capital for Romney to make a difference on this issue. The rhetoric is scary and the contrast between the candidates is stark, but it won’t be a big issue after election day. Meanwhile, despite the Ledbetter Act, Obama’s own record on women’s issues is far from sterling. Besides, this is, for the most part, an issue for the Judicial and Legislative branches.
Economic Policy: While the Supreme Court and women’s health represent the two most obvious benefits to an Obama presidency, a clear third is economic policy. The truth is that I am a little overwhelmed with trying to figure out the consequences of a Romney Presidency versus an Obama Presidency here. We have the Consumer Protection Agency and an otherwise embarrassingly insufficient attempt at financial reform. He supported QE2 and the auto bailout (begun by Bush), both of which have much clearer benefits in the short term (relevant to re-election) than in the long term. Other than these meager and ambiguous accomplishments, what does Obama have to show for himself beyond rhetoric?
A majority of economists seem to be Keynesians (like Paul Krugman / Obama) rather than Hayekians (more like Romney). However, what do we really know about Romney’s intentions beyond wanting to lower taxes for the rich? Noam Chomsky has pointed out that when a Republican is elected, he brings along a whole cadre of republican advisors and cabinet members. We more or less know what to expect from them. So, a Romney Presidency could have the catastrophic consequences that Chomsky and others warn about. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a more conservative and corrupt economic team than the one Obama himself put in power. Also, economists agree that the President does not have nearly as much power over the economy as people give him credit (or blame) for. So while I do have a preference for Obama over Romney here, it does not look obviously significant, at least with my limited understanding.
Corruption/Money in Politics: Mitt Romney is the quintessential fat cat, but Obama is a favorite of Wall Street, too.
Climate Change: The two candidates are scrambling to see who can promise to accellerate global warming the most. Watch Cenk Uygar describe Obama’s climate change record on The Young Turks.
Foreign Policy: For all the arrogance and bellicosity exhibited by President Obama, Romney sure seems intent on being even worse. As a matter of principle, I prefer the guy who promises to commit war crimes and trash the consititution over the guy who is already guilty of it and actively continuing it. Also, this is the major area where I expect a backlash against Romney if he were to try any more aggression. The moral issues complicating the use of drones might finally be given their proper due. Obama would inspire no such introspection and would face no such resistance if he were to expand the military and its operations.
There is another area of foreign policy that gets overlooked in which I believe Obama actually does have a significant advantage: the perception of America in foreign countries. Despite squandering all of the goodwill his election generated abroad, Obama, with his African and Muslim heritage, his charisma, and his Democratic Party label, still presents a more likable image to the rest of the world than Romney would. Meanwhile, Romney has gotten a head start on upsetting foreigners with his clumsy and insensitive comments.
Gay Rights: Obama waited until it was politically expedient before he came out in support of gay marriage. This suggests indifference on his part. As for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a gay faction of the Republican Party was the first to try to overturn it, and Obama opted not to spend the political capital that would have been required to end it earlier. Obviously, Obama’s indifference is preferable to Romney‘s and Ryan‘s stance on gay right, but it’s nothing to get excited about. I do think having a president who supports gay rights is good for young gay (and straight) people, and it’s clear that that Obama’s declaration has influenced public opinion (especially among African Americans).
Lying/Voter Suppression: As disgusting as the Republican strategy of voter suppression and dishonesty is, this is not a problem that can be dealt with at the ballot box in 2012. You may hope that a Romney loss would be remembered as a “repudiation of dishonest politics,” but that is wishful thinking. Especially considering that Obama himself perpetrated the “hope and change” lie, among others. The story is that lying and suppression is what is keeping Romney while fact-checkers are being belittled as petty. If this is your pet issue, I recommend starting a “Keep Your Promises” party, or something.
Some other things people have mostly overlooked:
- Third party advocates like Dan Carlin often complain that the two parties are too similar, but, in my view, it is entirely seemly that the two parties should be very similar, at least when it comes to their presidential candidates. If the primary process works well, it shouldn’t nominate any fringe candidates.. Certain issues are settled (at least temporarily), and the two parties should agree on those issues. That is exactly what we see with Republicans and Democrats. There are only a few wedge issues on which the parties even pretend to differ. If we want a Peace candidate, for example, we need to change the culture first so that one could win in the primaries. (Well, a peace candidate would be especially hard to nominate because of the military-industrial complex, but the point stands.) If you just want the issue of Peace to be discussed (in the hopes of moving public sentiment), the correct approach is activism or trying to get a Jill Stein or Gary Johnson into the debates. Or start a “Peace Party.”
- Referring to Islamic extremism, Romney said “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” It’s just campaign rhetoric, but its still nice to hear from someone other than Ron Paul. (h/t Dan Carlin)
- Romney is probably a criminal, but Obama’s crimes are much worse. I realize we don’t have a real justice system in this country (and the international system is an complete embarrassment), but if we did, both would be indicted and probably sent to prison.
The opportunity cost of voting for Jill Stein or another minor party candidate is that you give up your opportunity to influence the election. The purpose of this post was to convince you that the cost is quite small. The benefit is not just to lend credibility to these minor parties and register your disapproval for the two major parties, though that would be enough for me. If a third party manages 5% of the national vote, it also unleashes tens of millions of dollars of public campaign funding that can be used in 2016.
However, if you are not in a swing state, the argument for voting third-party is even more straightforward: to vote for Obama or Romney is to throw your vote away. There is zero opportunity cost to voting third-party unless you are in a swing state. Voting for a third party, on the other hand, has the possibility of bringing that party to the 5% threshold needed to receive the same public funding as the Republicans and Democrats already get. It’s not hard to imagine that this, along with the likely press coverage, would catapult a third party into the debates in 2016.
I can’t vouch for its algorithm, but this tool can help you choose a candidate to support: http://www.isidewith.com/
I stumbled upon this July 30 article by Robert Prasch about how the Ultimatum Game serves as a good model for the relationship between the DNC and liberals. It’s a historically-informed version of my October 1 post, “Kittens and the Ultimatum Game,” but it lacks the key insight in my post that the only way to gain leverage in the ultimatum game is to be able to clearly declare any defections. (My suggestion was to start a “Cat Party” with the clearly stated purpose of withholding votes until their demands are met.) Without that, the person/party doing the offering won’t realize that it needs to improve its offer to get your vote. I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t come across Prasch’s writing while researching my Kittens post. His newest post, touted by Glenn Greenwald on October 30, relates to my post today.
I’ve submitted two separate versions of my argument about voting for minor parties in non-swing-states to the Letters to the Editor sections of the Baltimore Sun and the Frederick News Post. I’ll let you know if they are published. (587)