Concerning the election of individuals to public office, there often arises a situation in which voters are presented with a certain kind of moral dilemma; namely, a dilemma in which there are at least three potential candidates: one whom one really wishes to win, one who is undesirable, and a third, much better than candidate number two but not as strong as the first, who is more likely to actually win. Should one vote for the candidate he thinks is best, at the risk of splitting the vote and causing a total loss; or should one compromise on certain issues and vote instead for a partial, but more certain victory? This dilemma forms the basic premise for game shows in which contestants are forced to choose between taking the quick cash or risking everything in order to potentially win much more. Insofar as it concerns elections the question is a valid one.
The man wishing to vote on principle would assert that, for the sake of one’s conscience, one ought to vote for the very best candidate; but perhaps such a response is too hasty. In the case that projections of the potential winner are truly uncertain, the decision is simple. However, if one votes for the best candidate knowing that the vote is likely to be wasted, is it truly the higher good? If it turns out that the worst candidate wins because of a split vote, is not at least some degree of regret merited? One might ask Ross Perot’s former supporters. Or, consider the man who, having grown disillusioned with the reigning political parties in a two-party system, and knowing his vote for a preferred independent candidate would be wasted, chooses to fold his arms rather than dignify the status quo by casting a vote for less than his druthers. He is like the child who, having been denied cake, chooses on principle to forgo his dinner. The point is made but the hunger remains.
It should be noted that a person’s refusal to vote is not the same thing as opting out of electoral influence. On the contrary, a person must necessarily influence a given election; for in every election the non-voters play as much a part, if indirect, in influencing the outcome as the voters themselves. Inaction is just as susceptible to blowback as action. My decision not to drink anything has symptomatic consequences distinct from my decision to drink only whiskey, but it has consequences nonetheless. In this case, inaction is but a vote in a different guise. Regardless of one’s intentions, it is in practice a vote for the candidate with the advantage.
Regrettable as it is, effective politics cannot be conducted without a shrewd understanding of political tactics. (Regrettable because pure motivations and sound doctrine are almost never enough to achieve victory in today’s political climate). By ‘tactics’ I do not necessarily mean unethical political maneuvers, but all those of which a keen grasp will aid a politician in achieving his goals. This is why candidates undertaking a campaign often have large staffs, replete with advisors, analysts, and various other experts, in order that they may take the steps that will best enhance their chances of winning. Though the nature of contemporary politics and campaigning seems in many ways to encourage the use of contrived efforts to manipulate voters, it is not necessary to do so – at least, not in an unethical way – and it is a reality we must accept. Given this state of affairs, responsible citizens must often make difficult electoral choices in light of the knowledge available to them regarding the political atmosphere.
I do not buy the contemporary libertarian line that says both major parties are entirely but distinctly broken. But even if I did, it would not alter the fact that someone will lead this country come November. If we must have a flawed leader (and we must), we had better choose the flaws with which we are willing to live. Let us not sink proudly to our deaths beneath the banner of “principle”.