Voting, Action, and Talking

My Salon column this weekend took up Conor Friedersdorf’s argument about voting against Barack Obama (because drones and civil liberties violations are in his view dealbreakers even if Obama is still better than Romney on those issues)…there’s been quite a bit of discussion of whether his conclusion is correct or not, but I argued that the whole discussion is framed wrong. Basically, my view is that if you conceive yourself as an individual outside of the political fray whose only choice is whether to vote for one candidate or the other, then you’re basically marginalizing yourself anyway — while if you’re fully engaged in politics as an active member of a party or a group, then you won’t really be making the type of decision that Friedersdorf is talking about. It’s not just that voting isn’t that important on it’s own; it’s that once you become involved in party politics, you’re no longer the isolated individual that Friedersdorf posits.

It’s not just, that is, that someone engaged in party politics (and again, interest group politics basically works in a similar way if it’s to have any effect on policy) must sometimes swallow hard and support a candidate who is seriously flawed because only through compromise can you get anywhere. It’s that becoming fully engaged risks changing the way one sees things in the first place. Obviously, there’s a bad side to that — groupthink, or party jingoism — but there’s also a very good side to it, which has to do with enlarging one’s point of view by seriously grappling with the concerns and priorities and world views of others.

So that’s what I’m trying to say over at Salon. But it occurs to me that this is also perhaps a bit unfair to Friedersdorf. The role he’s playing is a legitimate one as well — it’s the role of the deliberate outsider, who chooses to step back from political action and can therefore point out important things which others do not see. Taken that way, we can think of his declaration of his vote not as a (futile) statement of his own intentions or as a (futile) argument for how others should vote — again, vote “choice” is the wrong way to think about these things — but as a device for screaming: Hey! Don’t ignore these issues! This is what’s important! And, as such, his defense of his position based on how much attention it received is exactly correct. Even if a fair amount of that attention came from people who foolishly romanticize third-party candidates or who misunderstand the importance of the vote per se.

Oddly enough, what he’s doing is simply self-defeating if it results in people simply switching their vote from Obama to Gary Johnson (because on the issues he cares about, Mitt Romney is worse); but it’s not at all self-defeating if it affects no ones vote but shames people who agree with Friedersdorf on the issues he cares about to act on their preferences and to give those issues a higher priority. If that’s the case, it’s a perfectly reasonable strategy. It just has, or at least should have, little or nothing to do with vote choice.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.