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The Obligatory Pre-Election Post (Spoiler: I'm Writing in Mattis)
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It’s time for another presidential election. I’ve actually been blogging for long enough that this is my second, and while presumably not every blog that’s out there needs to comment on the upcoming election, I think mine is one of those where it’s expected. The last time around I was actually more outspoken and perhaps because of that, the feeling that I had already said my piece on several issues, I felt less compulsion to blog about those same issues this time around. But as there is a good chance that someone reading me now was not reading me then, here are a selection of my political posts from 2016:
Is It Finally Time to Start Thinking About Voting Third Party? In this post I discussed my voting methodology and why, unless you happen to be living in Florida in the year 2000, your vote for president will have the most impact if it’s cast for a 3rd party candidate.
Sports, the Sack of Baghdad and the Upcoming Election This was a post about the need to account for potential negative black swans when making voting decisions. For example imagine if one candidate was great on everything, except they were almost certain to get into a war with China. The negative consequences to the nation and the world, of that, are so great it might overwhelm all the good things the candidate might do. I’m not prepared to say that one candidate has more of these than the other this time around, in fact I think both candidates bring significant “black swan potential” a subject I’ll be coming back to. Even if you disagree with me on that, I think this is a factor more people need to pay attention to.
Hillary Clinton and the Criteria of Embarrassment Paradoxically the information age has made it even more difficult to separate truth from fiction. This post offered up the “criteria of embarrassment” as one way of penetrating the fog of competing narratives, media organizations which can’t be trusted (on both sides), and the government’s predilection for secrecy in general. The criteria states that information which is revealed over a candidate’s objections is the most likely to be accurate, while conversely the information they want you to have is the least likely to be accurate.
I Don’t Know If Everything Will Be Okay: My Thoughts On the Election This post and the next were written after the election. At the time, as you may or may not recall, lots of people were saying that despite the Trump victory things were going to be okay. I countered by saying that it was impossible to know if everything was going to be okay, but gave some reasons for thinking that the worst fears of Trump’s opponents would probably not be realized, an opinion which I think has largely been borne out by subsequent events.
Is This Election Different? It was apparently pretty early on that resistance to Trump’s presidency was going to be significant and sustained, and while we had seen this sort of thing previously during Bush and Obama’s presidency, the level of anger felt different in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election (thus the title of the post). Another phenomenon that, while it has ebbed and flowed, also largely came to pass as I feared, though it took longer and came in a different form than I expected.
In any case, that was four years ago, but here we are again facing some of the same issues, and while much of the advice, maybe even most of it, is still valid, 2020 has a madness all it’s own. But let’s start with the similarities.
If anything, we’re even more in the grip of the idea that there are only two possible options, Trump or Biden. And if you don’t like either of them you’re told that it’s still your responsibility to vote regardless. And thus you’re forced to choose whoever you feel is the lesser of the two evils and cast your vote for them. And actually this description is being generous. Most people don’t even entertain the idea of voting for someone other than the two major party candidates, or if they do it’s in the category of one of those insane things that only conspiracy theorists and tin-foil hat wearers do. Of course the obvious next question to ask is, if everyone thinks it’s so insane why am I bringing it up? Why would I recommend voting for someone other than Trump or Biden?
To start with the fundamental issue everyone should be considering is “What can I do?” “What power do I possess?” At the local level quite a bit, and if you’re willing to spend a lot of time on it, you might even be able to swing the needle at a state level, but we’re going to restrict things to a discussion of the presidential race. And here the answer is, almost nothing.
Let’s start with the most obvious case of powerlessness: casting a vote in a state that’s not a swing state. Here your vote (for president) has zero power. You’re another person voting for Biden in California, or another person voting for Trump in West Virginia. It’s meaningless, and as such any vote that had even a little bit of power would be better. Now, it’s your vote so I’ll leave it to you to decide if you’re actually in one of these states, but probably close to 82% of all voters fall into this category.
Turning to those voters who actually are in a swing state, you’re still looking at nearly astronomical odds that your vote for one candidate or the other is really going to be decisive, and honestly if the current election is going to be that close then the country will almost certainly have bigger problems then the fact that you, personally, didn’t vote for Biden or Trump. (I don’t even want to imagine what will happen if 2020 ends up being as close as 2000.) But if, after all this, you’re still worried about it, find someone in a state that’s locked up for one candidate or the other and offer, on their behalf, to vote for Trump or Biden, while they vote for your preferred third party candidate. (It’s called vote trading, and if you look around you can find forums for connecting people who want to do it if you don’t personally know anyone you can trade with.)
You might argue that “Yes, my individual vote in the presidential election is almost certainly meaningless, and even if I think it might have meaning, I can have my cake and eat it too with vote trading. But focusing just on the one vote I cast overlooks the fact that I can do more than just vote. I can volunteer my time to one or the other of the campaigns.” Of course if you really think you’re choosing between the lesser of two evils, it seems unlikely that you’re going to want to spend a huge amount of time volunteering for a campaign, but let’s assume that you’ve decided one of the choices is so bad — that Trump will use any close vote to destroy the republic and stay in power, or that Biden will get walked all over by the far left and critical race theory will be the law of the land — that you’ve decided to hold your nose and work to elect the other guy.
In this case your efforts are still likely to be less effective than putting in a similar effort for some lesser known candidate or around an issue you’re passionate about. Though it’s important to define effectiveness. If you think the time you spend is actually going to affect the election, that without your efforts Trump would win, but with them Biden wins, or vice versa, then you’re almost certainly overestimating your impact by an enormous amount. Mike Bloomberg has decided he wants to make sure that Biden wins Florida, so he went to an election consultant and asked him what that would take. The answer was, bare minimum $20 million, but more realistically $40 million and Bloomberg eventually decided to spend $100 million. As rich as he is I doubt he spends an additional $60 million without good reason, he obviously thought it was a difficult problem, and this is in a state where, according to 538, Biden has held a narrow lead since April.
So, yes, the odds of you affecting an election by volunteering are slightly better than the odds of your vote changing the election, but still infinitesimal, and if altering the actual election outcome is off the table, then all that’s left is creating awareness in the people you talk to. But when you’re talking to people about either of the two major presidential candidates then there are at least two things working against you. First, their awareness is already pretty high, so moving the needle on it is a lot more difficult. They almost certainly already have an opinion and anything you say is unlikely to change it. Second the awareness you create is diluted by the fact that if you’re talking about a candidate the candidates themselves come with a whole basket of issues, and even if you only focus on one it’s going to be difficult to give it the impact you might feel it deserves if it’s also connected with a particular candidate, and all the positions they hold and all the things they’ve done. But if you’re just engaged in issue advocacy, of using your time to hold forth on what you truly believe is important, then neither of those things are true, people are less likely to have a strongly held opinion and your message is less likely to be muddied by other considerations. So yes, if you’re going to open things up to the entire universe of what you could be doing with your time, then there are lots of possibilities, but I still think advocacy for one of the two major presidential candidates is demonstrably one of the worst uses of that time. Also most people are just focused on who to vote for, so let's return to discussing that.
Hopefully everyone who has gotten this far can at least entertain the idea that voting for either Trump or Biden despite disliking both of them is neither necessary nor effective. Once we can entertain that notion the next question becomes, what should you be doing? Well, as I argued in 2016 you should vote for the candidate that most reflects your values, and before we go any further, in case it’s not clear, if that candidate is actually Trump or Biden then that’s who you should vote for, but if it’s not, then there would appear to be no remaining reason not to just vote for your favorite candidate. Doing so has numerous advantages:
First, and perhaps most importantly you won’t have to hold your nose, there won’t be any complicated justification of why you should overlook this issue or that indiscretion, you can vote with a clear conscience.
Second, and closely related, you will be accurately communicating your preference. Trump got (almost) 63 million votes in 2016, can anyone tell me, how many of those people really loved him, how many just really hated Clinton, how many voted for him because of the wall, and how many because they thought he would bring back jobs? But if someone goes to the trouble of voting for the Libertarian or the Green Party candidate or writing in Andrew Yang, the signal is much clearer. Particularly since they had to overcome so much social pressure to do it.
Third, because of this, your vote is actually more effective. I understand that it’s not very effective, but we’ve already established that being the 1 millionth or 4 millionth or 8,753,788th person to vote for Clinton in California has zero effectiveness, so voting for someone else doesn’t have to be very effective at all to beat that. But when primary season rolls around the next time, or if the race is close (as all races appear to be these days) the candidates are going to be looking at the people who didn’t vote for either candidate and asking themselves how they can change that. Particularly if there’s a little bit of coordination, a point I’ll be returning to.
Now I understand that there are some who make the argument that it’s not a good use of your time to vote period, and it’s entirely possible that’s true, I’m not arguing that voting for a third party candidate or writing someone in is the best possible use of your time I’m arguing that if you’re going to vote anyway, perhaps because you think it’s your civic duty or perhaps because you think voting in local elections is a good use of your time and as long as you’re there you might as well vote for the president, then you also might as well vote your conscious.
There is one other reason, and on a larger scale it may be the biggest reason of all, it gives you the opportunity to stand outside of the system. This part probably requires a deeper explanation, and I hope you’ll forgive me if I turn to World War I, it’s been on my mind a lot recently.
One of the things that happened in World War I is that it descended into a never-ending cycle of tit-for-tat reprisals. The Germans did something so that was the justification for the Allied Powers doing some other thing, which made the Germans feel that they needed to do something else. Additionally it was perhaps the greatest demonstration of the sunk cost fallacy the world has ever seen. The combination of these two factors meant that there was no possibility of the two sides being willing to negotiate with each other, certainly not under terms that were remotely reasonable, and as a result it just got bloodier and bloodier as each side became more and more determined that they had to win.
Of course for most of the war the US stood on the sidelines, though they gave quite a bit more tacit support to the Allied Powers (Britain, France and Russia) than they did to the Central Powers (Germany, Austria and the Ottomans) but despite this, it was still possible that being outside of the sunk cost thinking and the dreadful spiraling of death and reprisals that they could have brokered a deal, particularly since without their help the Allied Powers would have had a hard time winning. And by holding onto that chip the US eventually would have been able to prevail. However, once they threw in their lot with one side, they lost most of their bargaining power with both sides. The Allied Powers naturally assumed that they had their support locked up and consequently ended up ignoring the vast majority of Wilson’s suggestions because they had already gotten what they needed out of the US. And Germany wasn’t about to listen to Wilson because he was clearly biased. So rather than achieving any lasting peace, the crushing Treaty of Versailles meant that all of the hostility remained and 20 years later it was the same damn thing all over again with World War II.
We are currently engaged in something very similar to World War I where each side is becoming increasingly hostile to the other, and increasingly unwilling to negotiate or compromise, and in this election I see a lot of people pointing out all the bad things the Germans have done, or alternatively all the bad things the French have done, and I think what we should really be pointing out is how bad the war itself is. That rather than focusing on killing a lot of Germans, or a lot of French that we should focus on not killing people at all! And it’s apparent from the posts I see on social media that if you’re firmly committed to one side or the other, this task becomes exceptionally difficult. But, in essence, voting for one of the two major candidates is voting for the war to continue.
I’ll end by giving you an example of how it works in practice and revealing what I’m going to do, which is write in General James Norman Mattis. To begin with this carries all the benefits I mentioned above:
It allows me to vote with an entirely clear conscience for the person I’m familiar with who I actually think would do the best job as president.
I am accurately communicating my preference. I think the system is broken and we need a clearly non-partisan thoughtful individual to come in and help reset it.
I believe that, living in Utah, this is a more effective vote than being the 400,000th person to vote for Trump or even the 100,000th person to vote for Biden.
In particular, I believe it sends the clearest signal it is possible to send using the mechanism of a single vote in a universe of hundreds of millions of votes, that it’s neither the Republicans or the Democrats that are the bad guys, but it’s the system. It’s not the Germans or the French it's war itself.
Beyond that there were obviously at least a few other considerations in choosing Mattis. Ideally you’d want someone who could take the hint and run the next time, and it would be nice if Mattis were younger, though in 2024 he’ll be the same age as Trump is now, and still younger than Biden’s current age. Also following from that you want to choose someone who could conceivably be president. But beyond this it’s a good idea to choose a person other people are likely to choose. It’s nice if there’s actually some coordination.
I would be overjoyed if there was already a huge write in campaign for Mattis, so that my vote would be joined with thousands of others, and while there is certainly some movement in that direction (I’d be very surprised if I’m the only person who’s going to write in Mattis) it’s probably not big enough to get a ton of notice. In the past, when I considered coordination the most important thing, I voted for an actual third party candidate who appeared on the ballot, mostly Libertarian, though in 2000 I actually voted for Nader, not because I agreed with his policies but because I thought it was the best way to bring about greater third party participation in elections. (Of course in reality Nader probably killed the idea of third party support because the election was so close.) But I’m actually starting to feel like well known third parties have already been factored into the calculations and as such they no longer have the same punch they once did. In any case, above all you want to vote for someone who won’t elicit a “Who?” when people review the numbers.
That’s a lot of advice and a lot of words about something which I also simultaneously concede is pretty inconsequential, but if you’re going to vote I still contend there’s no better way of making it count than the tactic of actually voting for the person you think will do the best job.
I realized only after I started writing this that with all the early voting and mail in voting that it’s possible many of you have already cast your vote, and I’m too late. Well the good news is that it’s never too late to donate!