Wednesday, October 20, 2004

John Kerry

While I know I'm not going to vote for John Kerry on Election Day, Matt's blog has me thinking about reasons why one would. My reasons why not are simply that I disagree with his positions on most issues: he's too conservative for me! In Texas, Geroge W. Bush will get all of the electoral votes regardless of what my ballot says.

That said, I think I would face a fundamental difficulty if I lived in a swing state. You see, I don't believe in ethics for ethics sake, or karma, or anything like that. As a result, I think the only honest way to judge actions is by their consequences, not by emotion. If I were rating Bush's value to humanity were he reelected, I might give him a -8 on a scale of -10 to +10. As utterly horrible it is to even comprehend, there could be worse than Bush. Pat Robertson (-9) or Adolf Hitler's reanimated corpse (-10) are two that spring to mind. John Kerry would be around a +2 in my book, along with almost all Democrats. Howard Dean might be a +4, Dennis Kucinich a +6. David Cobb and Ralph Nader are probably in the +8 range. A thus-far mythical technology-friendly socialist-leaning progressive would get a +10.

By this sort of calculus, it is easy to see that a vote for Kerry with even a 50% chance at winning is much better for humanity than a vote for Nader with a 0% chance. Bush is simply That BadTM. This is nothing new, we all understand this reasoning whether we agree with it or not. However, most of us who would vote for a third-party or independent candidate are torn between the obvious need to remove Bush from office and the interior feeling that we voted our conscience. Most Nader voters, for instance, would suggest that Nader won't cost Kerry the election, Kerry will cost himself the election by not appealing to those voters who chose Nader.

Let me be clear: I agree.

That said, I am at my core utilitarian. I think the only reasonable standard by which we can measure the "rightness" of a decision is by determining if we maximized utility for all involved; that is, we achieved the greatest good for the greatest number. The ends do justify the means.* I think that if I were in a swing state, even if I didn't agree with all of John Kerry's policies, voting for him would be voting my conscience because my conscience tells me that Bush is detrimental to our nation and indeed the world. Kerry may get into office and not change a single thing . . . and this would be better than Bush staying in office and making things worse. It seems to me that the only ethical choice to make is to choose the lesser of two evils when that choice has actual, tangible consequences. The evil of leaving Bush in office really does outweight the good of voting for a candidate without a fighting chance, and in our flawed system, no third-party or independent candidate has such a chance. Although I wouldn't go quite this far, a compelling argument could be made that in a two-party system efforts to reform the party you are closest to from the inside are more more worthwhile than efforts to defeat them both from the outside. People like Kucinich and the Congressional Progressive Caucus share this view.

Of course, we could change all that by using instant runoff voting, in which people rank their choices. If Joe Swingstater voted for Nader and neither Kerry nor Bush received more than 50% of the vote (highly likely), the system would go Joe's second choice, which might be Kerry. In this way, the winner will always be the first person to receive more than 50% of the vote, and will be the candidate who actually is the closest fit to a majority, rather than being the most electable by a plurality. Everyone could vote their conscience while also voting for the lesser of two evils if their conscience lost. This would make third-party and independent candidates far more attractive to mainstream voters, allowing them to compete and gain support. In a perfect world, we would also get proportional representation so that our legislature would actually reflect the views of the people, but I'm not holding my breath.

So, as much as I wish things could be otherwise, I encourage anyone who lives in a highly contested state to vote for John Kerry. Everyone else: vote for Nader or Cobb so they get more support and national attention!

* This is a much-maligned phrase, because it implies that any good end (say, removing Saddam Hussein from power) justifies any evil means (say, invasion and war). That simplistic analysis doesn't calculate that such evil means will result in evil ends (thousands dead) along with the good ends, and more often than not, those evil ends just won't be worth it. A truly utilitarian consideration includes all of the ends, not only the good ones.


  1. A pretty nice argument. This is one of the reasons why I think the Green Party is a little more appealing in a practical sense than Ralph Nader. The Green Party is also saying that people in "swing states" should vote Kerry. Well, they want people to vote their concious, but voting their concious may be voting against bush for the same reasons you listed.

    Noam Chomsky had some really good things to say about that very topic today on Democracy Now! Check out the website for a transcript.

    Anyway, there is also something to be said about the (for lack of a better phrase) "hard-lined" Nader approach. The approach that says that a vote for Kerry is (using your scale) still one getting you a 2 at best.

    Though I understand your argument from a utilitarian point of view.

    (i don't know if I spelled everything right, so sue me)

  2. A +2 is better than a -8, which is sadly what a vote for Nader is in a swing state . . . we need some serious election reform in this country.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I'm collecting links to people talking about IRV which is how I found you. Keep the focus on, you have great arguments!