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The Voting Dilemma: Outcomes vs Process

Should we vote tactically or should we vote for what we believe in?

During the time of the 2019 UK election, I wrote a few articles on democracy and the Happiness Problem (see here, here, and here). Now there’s another big election going on and we’re seeing the same issues coming up again. We have two parties/politicians at war with each other. People are doing their best to help “their side” win. There is very little dialogue between these polarities and their prospective policies. The complexity of politics and social change is being ignored in favour of simple narratives and short-term solutions. This is what democracy in an Age of Control looks like. Immediate outcomes are all that matter – getting “the right side” in power – at the cost of key democratic processes, such as equal representation and civil dialogue.

In this blog post, I want to look at voting in particular, and the trade offs between (short-term) outcomes and (longer-term) processes. Perhaps more than ever, tactical voting will decide the fate of the US election. Most liberals will be voting for “not Trump”. Joe Biden may not be the politician who most inspires them, but he’s certainly the “lesser of two evils”. The same kind of reasoning may also apply to remembers of the “other side”. Donald Trump may be seen as their best hope for staving off an “out-of-touch liberal elite”. The result is we potentially have vast amounts of citizens voting for politicians – and maybe parties too – they ideally wouldn’t vote into power, but feel compelled to endorse to avoid an even worse situation from happening.

Are people right to vote in this way? In this article, Robert Simpson does an excellent job at outlining the moral pros and cons of tactical voting. For me, the most important argument has to do with looking at the long-term effects of tactical voting on the state of our democracy.

In the short-term, voting for the “lesser of two evils” clearly has a beneficial impact. (Assuming you are in fact voting for the least worse candidate – which, in a world of polarising social media bubbles, is definitely not always the case.) If you can do something as easy as voting to help avoid a potentially terrible outcome from occurring then you should. Forget about your abstract moral principles. Do what you actually can, right now, to make a difference. From this perspective, you’d be mad not to engage in tactical voting, right?

Perhaps not. Things look different when play this game repeatedly over time. Tactical voting might produce better outcomes in the short-term, but worse democratic outcomes in the long-term. As Robert Simpson notes, when we apply a lesser-of-two-evils voting strategy over and over, “it pushes all meaningful anti-poverty policies off the political agenda. If nominally progressive parties can take for granted anyone who cares about economic justice, they lose any incentive to shift their policies. To vote for the least-worst candidate, under these conditions, is to validate something verging on a sham democracy – a power struggle between two factions of the ruling elite.”

This shift in perspective is a shift from short-term outcomes to long-term processes. Which one do we want to prioritise – avoiding the worse potential outcome now or avoiding the systemically harmful outcome in the long-run? How much do we care about stopping the worse politician/party getting into power next week, and how much do we care about having elections between politicians/parties who don’t represent what we really care about in the foreseeable future?

Of course, we care about both these things – immediate political outcomes and ongoing democratic processes. In the case of tactical voting, there is an inherent trade-off between the two, and it may not be possible to definitively decide which one matters most. It is also easier – and typically much more salient – to care about immediate outcomes over ongoing processes. As the good folks at Future Crunch put it in their newsletter this week, “elections, as with so many other parts of our lives, are set up as binary choices and if you throw in a few high quality graphics, they become epic battles between good and evil.” It is hard to turn our attention away from the fierce dramas played out on this battleground. But, sometimes we must. Sometimes we should prioritise processes over outcomes, even if the eventual outcomes of those processes are much more uncertain. Sometimes we should think more about the kind of democratic systems we want to encourage and be a part of than participating in the current political soap operas that dominate our immediate attention.

To some, this conclusion may be somewhat unsatisfactory. If we vote tactically to avoid immediately harmful outcomes then we are more likely to create democratic systems insensitive to the issues we most care about. But if we vote on the basis of those issues – and therefore either vote idealistically or don’t vote at all – then we are less likely to avoid immediately harmful outcomes. Choosing between these two scenarios is complex and to some extent an impossible call to make. Umm… so what to we do?!

Well, I think the take home point of these considerations is that voting – tactically or otherwise – is not an adequate democratic tool in itself. If we care about short-term outcomes and long-term processes then we can’t just wait until an election comes along and expect to make an optimal decision about how to vote. We also need to make our voices heard outside of election time – to make sure the issues we really care about are acknowledged by the major politicians/parties as potential vote winners (and losers). As Robert Simpson also points out in his article, we may have to do this through a variety of political means, including civil disobedience.

Ideally, we wouldn’t get to the stage where tactical voting at a general election was the primary option. We would have worked hard beforehand to make sure that the major politicians/parties represented the issues we most care about. This is, of course, far from easy – there are some very powerful forces in the way of this happening. But, just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying our hardest, especially in the long-run.

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