By Brett Yates
At the end of primary season, politicians who initially opposed their party’s nominee are forced either by fear of the other party’s nominee or by a need to preserve their own standing within their party to fall in line and endorse a candidate whose views they may find at least partly abhorrent.
On the right, Paul Ryan finally came out in favor of Donald Trump despite (supposedly) disagreeing with him on most issues. On the left, high-profile Democrats like Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren tactfully remained on the sidelines until Hillary Clinton had virtually secured the nomination—their endorsements, when they finally arrived, were loud, eager, and earnest. However, when Clinton’s opponent, Bernie Sanders, ultimately offers his own support, one can imagine that it’ll come with a half-concealed touch of bitterness.
I’m not a politician or even a celebrity; I’m aware that no one cares what I think. Still, I would like to say here and now, in case anyone might be listening, that at no point in this election will I be endorsing Hillary Clinton for president. It’s never going to happen, friends.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t want her to win—if the alternative is Donald Trump (which it is), I want very much for her to win.
What’s the difference between saying that and “endorsing” her? I guess it’s complicated. I’m still trying my best to figure out in what specific way it makes sense to participate in the democratic process. I think this is a very important thing to understand, because it seems that one’s conception of how one’s vote matters or doesn’t matter tends to decide not only whether one ends up voting but also—as much as one’s politics—which candidate one ends up voting for.
Like all voters, I somehow have to reconcile my view of voting as a vital civic duty with the sure fact that at no point in my life will my vote ever matter: no election will ever be decided because I did or did not vote for some particular candidate. It’s not technically impossible, but the probability is so small as to be functionally zero.
So why do we vote? In part, we do it as an act of self-expression. We form opinions, and then we want our opinions to be heard—it makes us feel good to have them registered in some official ledger. Voting may additionally serve to bolster our identities as members within a group—whether that group is Americans, liberals, conservatives, or “well-informed, civic-minded people”—as much as it serves to assert individual preference. We may feel proud of ourselves simply for doing what we’re supposed to do (according to social norms), or we may need to trick ourselves into believing that our vote really could decide the fate of our nation in order to convince ourselves to go out and punch a ballot.
None of these reasons—the egocentric drive to broadcast my own voice, the wish to fit in, the delusion that my vote could make a difference—seems sufficient, philosophically. But a lot of pro-vote rhetoric also stems from the more general principle that one should behave in the world in such a way that, if everyone in the world behaved more or less in the same fashion, the world wouldn’t be a horrible place. It’s like littering: if I’m eating a Snickers, I may think that one candy bar wrapper on the street wouldn’t matter, but if everyone threw their candy bar wrappers on the street, our cities and towns would be uninhabitable. Similarly, my vote doesn’t make a difference (in the sense that the world would be no different if I didn’t vote), but what if everyone reasoned that way and thus no one voted? Our democracy would collapse.
It’s a little abstract, but it’s really all we have. Now how I can I correctly apply this philosophical framework to my ballot in November? I think the notion that any liberal should have to support a politician who voted in favor of the Iraq War is an absurdity, and in general I view Hillary Clinton as a hawkish Wall Street politician who’s more likely to maintain the status quo than to make any meaningful effort to correct wealth inequality or avert environmental catastrophe; still, I find her business-as-usual politics a lot more comforting than the completely unhinged platform of Donald Trump.
I’ve already decided that I’m voting—the question now is whether I should vote “practically” (by voting for Clinton, as only she can defeat Trump at this point) or else support the candidate whose principles best match my own even as he or she is certain to lose (by writing in Bernie Sanders or voting for a third-party candidate like Jill Stein).
Third-party voters are often criticized for “throwing away” their votes, but perhaps they’re only voting in accordance with the principle that brought them to their polling station in the first place. On the other hand, the idea that, if you don’t like Clinton or Trump, you should nevertheless vote for one of them in order to be “practical” (that is, in order to defeat what you perceive to be the greater of two evils) actually rests upon the delusion that your individual vote may decide the election. If this were the case, I’d vote for Clinton, of course, but in fact there’s no need to be “practical”: as we’ve already established, my vote doesn’t matter.
Instead, I’ll approach my ballot with the philosophy that I should do what I believe everyone else should do: I believe that people should vote for a future they believe in, not against what they fear. I believe they should vote for what they think is right without first skeptically estimating what smaller progressive step their lesser countrymen might be willing to embrace. I believe in raising our expectations not only of our government but of each other. I believe that, if we all tried this, we might actually get something that we want, not just something slightly better than what we dread.