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Ross McCulloughOctober 11, 2016

This is the year of the lesser evil. Some such counsel has been repeated over and again to Sanders-affected Democrats and Trump-averse Republicans. Think of our democratic norms under Donald J. Trump. Think of our Supreme Court under Hillary Clinton. Third parties merely siphon off support from those most sympathetic to your cause, which is fatal in a political system in which the party with the most votes wins all. As Gail Collins wrote recently in The New York Times, third parties are a cop-out, a kind of sham vote that accomplishes nothing. Accept the inevitable, join the coalition, hold your nose until you are blue in the face (or red) and vote your more practical conscience.

This is almost exactly wrong. It is not just the idealist but also the realist who spurns the major parties. The problem with the practical argument for a major-party vote is that it assumes that your vote matters, in the sense that your vote might tip the election. But your vote does not matter, not in that sense.  

There are 50 states and the District of Columbia with votes in the Electoral College; most of these are so Democratic or Republican that their outcomes are already decided. There are a dozen or so battleground states, but most are sufficiently blue or red that they will be close only in cases when the opposing candidate already has a majority of electoral votes. There are only two or three—in 2012 it was Colorado; this year it looks to be Florida, Pennsylvania or Ohio—that can plausibly be regarded as tipping-point states that would give a candidate his or her 270th electoral vote and thus the presidency.

It is not just that your vote does not matter; it is that we know it does not matter. The accuracy of poll-based forecasting has been getting better: Nate Silver was famously vilified by Republicans for steadfastly predicting a win for President Obama during the 2012 campaign; he was just as famously vindicated when he predicted every state correctly. By the eve of the election, we will have a pretty good idea whose votes will decide the thing: the likely voters in the two or three plausible tipping-point states who are not already strongly committed to one of the parties. These are the kingmakers. If you have not been inundated with Clinton promotionalia by then, you’re not one of them. (Trump’s self-promotions are, alas, inescapable.)

When your vote cannot decide the outcome, the solution is not to skip voting altogether—as Charles Péguy quipped about Kantianism, this has clean hands because it has no hands—but to look elsewhere. The problem with not voting is the same as the problem with voting for a major party: it does very little to signal your actual views. Did you discard your ballot in lament over what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre called our “new Dark Ages,” or did you just forget it under a deluge of junk mail? Are you voting for Democrats because they support welfare programs even as you are deeply troubled by their pro-choice positions, or have you made your peace with their entire platform?

One way to signal your views, and indeed do more than signaling, is to involve yourself in the sausage-making. Advocate about policy; militate for the pro-life Democrats. But this is not the vocation of all. For the rest of us, the most we can do is vote, and the most we can do with our vote is give it to a candidate who more nearly hews to our views. If enough of our fellow travelers do the same—imagine the Catholic left and the Catholic right both throwing in for something like the American Solidarity Party this election—the cumbersome beasts on both sides may yet pay us some heed.

It is true that this advice can be generalized only so far. If enough people heed it, the polls themselves will shift, the number of unaffiliated voters will go up, and the forecasts will lose some of their certainty. The major parties might become practicalities once again. But this will depend on what, in fact, happens. And that is precisely the point: Voting is a strategic action that is heavily dependent on facts on the ground. It is no condemnation of third parties to say that even the best of them do not deserve our vote in all scenarios, even if one of them deserves our vote this time. To avoid third parties because one is worried about their excessive success is to flout the very warning we hear constantly against them: that they are impractical. Who is the idealist, the one who votes as the country actually is or the one who votes to avoid some imagined pluri-partied land?

Nor would a shift toward stronger third parties represent a real loss. The forecasting might be harder, the political equilibriums more dynamic, but what of it? Those with no easy home in one of our two grand coalitions—and those whose home cuts across the two coalitions in complicated ways—would be much better served.

Space would be made to work policy out from our deeper commitments and not from commitments bracketed at the start by the necessities of compromise. Political catechesis could proceed from our first principles, with Leo XIII precedent over Ayn Rand and John Rawls and even James Madison. Identities could more nearly track the nature of things, and the “Catholic” before “Democratic” or “Republican” could become more than just adventitious—perhaps even more than just adjectival. Catholics left and right could better represent a mediating force across a polarized landscape: mediating because they are rooted in the same soil, even if the subtleties of prudence send them branching in different directions. So also with other communities of principle currently riven by partisan divides. The coalitions would not disappear, but they would be more co-allied than coalesced. It is no great loss if our politics becomes less predictable; it would be a great gain if they became less tribal.

There are some few who should pay no heed to this advice, then: those who find themselves kingmakers in this election, those who have already colored their Catholicism with the major party hues, those who have been called to hue their fellow party-goers with some Catholic color in turn. But if you live in California; if your Catholicism is less comfortable with the Americanist compromises; if your calling is too full to find time to do more than just vote—if, in other words, you are almost all of us almost all of the time, then there is no wisdom in going blue in the face with the lecturing of the Democrats or red with the rage of the Republicans. Vote different. Vote better. It may not matter very much; it will matter a little bit.

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James Hynes
7 years 7 months ago
There is much to commend the French system of electing a President. There are two rounds of voting, and if there is no winner in the first round, the two candidates with the highest number of votes have a run-off in the second round. Therefore you can vote according to your conscience in the first round, and if your candidate is not successful, choose between the remaining two in the second round. Of course there is no Electoral College - all votes count equally. Viva la France!
Gregory McGinn
7 years 7 months ago
There are reasons, many reasons, why the French are on "The Fifth Republic." Over a slightly longer period we've only had one. But Franklin's admonition remains ever valid, it's a republic if you can keep it.
William Rydberg
7 years 7 months ago
Smart article in my opinion... in Christ,
Margaret NEWMARK
7 years 7 months ago
John Campbell
7 years 7 months ago
Which third parties would come closer to Leo XIII? We have no such reasonable alternatives this time. What we should be doing is building up local and regional alternatives, congressional included, so we can be more ready next time. It is doubtful that the US will move to a parlimentary system anytime soon. In this election, we must as usual examine our consciences and vote for one of the two, holding our collective noses. I am editing this having now seen John Conley's column in the print edition, which makes it clear that the Solidarity Party actually exists, with a candidate for President who is a practicing magician with a great platform. Writing in this candidate would be equivalent to writing in Mickey Mouse. But it is encouraging that we can now organize to build up an apparatus for this party and elect local, regional, and national candidates to develop it. But it is still wrong in this year's presidential election. We'll get Clinton or Trump, and we should be trying for the closest to Catholic princples as possible.
Charles Erlinger
7 years 7 months ago
I see at least one sentence in this article that is clearly practical: "One way to signal your views, and indeed do more than signaling, is to involve yourself in the sausage-making." Most of the remainder is just too full of "could" and "would" to take seriously as a guide for concrete action, although it is an amusing bit of musing.
Catherine Stanford
7 years 7 months ago
I think we should participate more after any election is over. Write, call, collectively assembly to demonstrate our concern, visit our legislators in person--and make good arguments on issues upon which we want to see positive action. Is this participation in helping our legislators know what policies people want enacted part of "sausage-making"? I don't think so; this term denigrates the process of making good policy. Special interests often have more influence than we ordinary citizens, but we could have a positive impact, if we are persistent, bring people with stories to tell that illustrate the facts and analysis we bring. All of this helps to educate our legislators about real people with real issues.
William Rydberg
7 years 7 months ago
I understand that some States have writeinsand that it's likely Mr Senator Bernie Sanders might win in Vermont.If true, a good option. God bless,
JR Cosgrove
7 years 7 months ago
What you do if you have to hold your nose and vote. Here is an article by Charles Krauthammer about the dilemma. http://wapo.st/2dV6CLU
I didn’t need the Wiki files to oppose Hillary Clinton. As a conservative, I have long disagreed with her worldview and the policies that flow from it. As for character, I have watched her long enough to find her deeply flawed, to the point of unfitness. But for those heretofore unpersuaded, the recent disclosures should close the case.A case so strong that, against any of a dozen possible GOP candidates, voting for her opponent would be a no-brainer. Against Donald Trump, however, it’s a dilemma. I will not vote for Hillary Clinton. But, as I’ve explained in these columns, I could never vote for Donald Trump.The only question is whose name I’m going to write in. With Albert Schweitzer doubly unavailable (noncitizen, dead), I’m down to Paul Ryan or Ben Sasse. Two weeks to decide.
Sasse in 2020.
Donald Renner
7 years 7 months ago
I am not sure how this paper landed in America Magazine. It is an academic book report, full of references that few can recognize and sentence structures meant to impress a professor. Write for the reader, the audience, and save this for a presentation at a conference of your university peers.
Charles Erlinger
7 years 7 months ago
Sausage making is not only a good metaphor for achieving or changing policy objectives through politics, it is the way it is done. Please, just try volunteer politics at the precinct level, and at the county and state convention level, and see for yourself what happens and how it happens, who gets chosen as a candidate, how competing candidates from the same party persuade fellow citizens to nominate them and reject others, who gets to write the platform plank, etc. This is how the parties that we have operate, and how they have been changed from inside over the years. This is how you learn who has the influence and how the influence is employed, what goes on in the process of redistricting, and a lot of stuff that, taken together, become the real causal factors, the things that actually make the trends, and, most especially, that make the change in the direction of trends. Social science statistical analysis describes the trends, but does not make the trends or changes in the trends.
7 years 6 months ago
I pray for the courage to do as suggested by McCullough's article since neither candidate satisfies voting my conscience. Do I presume D. Trump will be contained or fear that H. Clinton will not?
Joseph J Dunn
7 years 6 months ago
Ross McCullough makes a cohesive argument for voting for a third-party candidate. There is also the option, in certain states, to write in the name of a non-candidate. These votes will not produce any tectonic surprise: either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will win the presidency. Those who vote for someone other than Clinton or Trump will send a message. But that message will have no impact on policy. Remember Ross Perot? The other downside, in this particular election in which both major candidates are deplorable, is that you may wake up on November 9th to see the candidate that you really, really didn’t want has defeated the candidate that you really didn’t want, by a small margin. Can one live with that for four years? And let’s not forget the importance of those down-ticket choices. The House and Senate exist precisely to be a check and balance on the Executive, so that the worst behaviors of any president do not become public policy. Those down-ticket votes send a message too, and they have real impact.

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