There is a political argument, common to the Left and the Right, that is wrong and lazy, and harmful to democracy in general and the United States of America in particular.

A vote for anyone other than Hillary Clinton is a vote for Donald Trump who is mentally unstable and is not qualified to be President.

The fact of the matter is that either Trump or Clinton will be president. Hillary WILL appoint the most radical leftist Supreme Court judges which will alter the course of the nation for decades to come. Sitting at home on one’s moral high horse will not alter that fact.…Doing nothing is a vote for Hillary.

(Source: Random people on Facebook)

This is an argument from pragmatism. It keeps appearing on social media and in political op/eds. The “lesser of two evils” argument is used by Trump and Clinton supporters to guilt and browbeat their fellow citizens into voting for someone they don’t want in office.

Perhaps you don’t like either candidate, and a friend or relative has targeted you with this argument from pragmatism. Let’s look at the essence of the argument, why it’s wrong and lazy, why it’s harmful, and how you should instead vote for the candidate you want. Then I’ll answer a couple objections that might occur to you.

The essence of the argument from pragmatism

Here are the logical steps that form the argument.

  1. Candidate “Bad” and Candidate “Worse” are the only viable options in a civic election.
  2. The candidate who receives the most votes will win the election.
  3. It is morally unacceptable for Candidate “Worse” to win the election.
  4. A voter who fails to vote for Candidate “Bad” is enabling Candidate “Worse” to win the election.
  5. Therefore, one should vote for Candidate “Bad.”

Can you identify the weak link? Premises 1, 2, and 3 are true. It’s premise 4 that is false. Let me show you why.

Why the argument from pragmatism is wrong and lazy

Here’s a brutal reality that no politician will ever tell you: Your vote has zero practical value.

Let’s suppose you were a US citizen who supported Mitt Romney in 2012. On Election Day, you were walking out to your car to drive to the voting booth, but you slipped on a patch of ice and fell and broke your hip. As a result, you failed to vote for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

Did your failure to vote change the outcome? Would Romney have won if only your fragile hip had survived the fall intact? Of course not. Your vote had precisely zero influence on the 2012 presidential election. It had no practical value whatsoever. Only in the smallest civic elections might your vote have even a tiny chance of making a difference.

If you were truly behaving pragmatically in 2012, you would not have voted at all. You would have saved your half-hour at the polls and spent it on a more productive task—shopping for groceries, or vacuuming the house, or researching hip replacement surgery. The only reason that a pragmatist votes is that he or she has not followed this pragmatic line of thinking to its logical conclusion, but has quit thinking halfway to the end. He or she is a lazy thinker, blurting out an argument that is lazy and wrong.

So if your friend or relative is going to urge you to act pragmatically on Election Day, follow their argument to its foolish end. Tell them that the brilliance of their pragmatism has persuaded you. Tell them you have decided not to vote for Clinton and not to vote for Trump. Tell them you have decided not to vote at all, but rather to spend that half-hour on election day with a pragmatism and productivity that will put theirs to shame. For that half-hour, they can find you at home, folding your laundry.

Why the argument from pragmatism is harmful

The argument from pragmatism is harmful for at least three reasons.

First, it encourages people not to vote. Why is voter turnout so low in many democratic elections? It’s because people are acting pragmatically in the months leading up to Election Day and on the day itself. They’re not spending their time learning about the candidates and their platforms and their merits. They’re not spending the time to vote. They’re doing other things that have genuine practical value. They’re not lazy; they’re pragmatic. They are following the argument from pragmatism to its logical conclusion.

Second, it enables bad candidates and corrupt parties. How have the Democratic and Republican parties maintained the two-party system for the last 150 years? They have employed the argument from pragmatism. They have manipulated voters into believing that their vote must be cast for a candidate from one of their parties. It is in the interest of both parties to perpetuate this nonsense. Anyone who repeats this argument is either speaking as a cynical manipulator or working to recruit you as a fellow pawn.

Third, it guts our democratic process of its dignity. It encourages realpolitik, the embrace of amoral pragmatism and Machiavellian politics. It encourages citizens to vote out of fear, hatred, and loathing of the opposition candidate. It ensures that wicked campaigners will gain power, and corrupt elites will remain in power, by infesting voters with their fear, hatred, and loathing of the alternative. If all this sounds like America circa 2016, it’s because we have made our bed, and now we are lying in it.

Vote for the candidate you want

Your vote, and my vote, has no pragmatic value. It will not sway the results of all but the smallest civic election. So why do we vote?

You and I vote not because it’s practical, but because it’s our duty and our dignity. We vote for ideological reasons. We are citizens of a state that, for all its faults and corruption, protects us from harm, enforces justice, and promotes what is good. It is my responsibility to the state to vote in a civic election, because my vote is my voice. I use it to communicate what kind of person I believe should be in office, and what kind of platform they should run on. I want my community, my state or province, and my country to be led by someone who is virtuous and just and wise, and who makes decisions with virtue, justice, and wisdom.

There is only reason to vote for a candidate for public office: you vote for the candidate because you want him or her to hold that office. It is a violation of your civic duty, a betrayal of your citizenship, to vote for someone you don’t want.

If you’re an American citizen, here’s how you should vote in the 2016 presidential election:

  1. If you want Donald Trump to be President, then vote for Donald Trump.
  2. If you want Hillary Clinton to be President, then vote for Hillary Clinton.
  3. If you don’t want either one to be President, then research your third party alternatives, find a candidate that you do want to be President, and vote for that candidate.
  4. If you can’t find a third-party candidate that you want to be President, then write in the name of a person you would like to be President, if your state permits it.
  5. If your state does not permit a write-in vote, or restricts it to names you don’t find acceptable, then do not cast a vote for President. (Do, however, cast a vote for other elected offices on the ballot.)

Remember: Your vote has no practical value. It will make no difference. And so you are free to vote for the candidate you want.

Objections answered

If everyone thought this way, then Candidate “Worse” might be elected!

Don’t forget that if everyone were thinking this way, then the supporters of Candidate “Worse” would also be thinking this way. Many of them would vote for someone else. Remember, they are voting for this candidate only because in their opinion, it is Candidate “Bad” who is the worst! Given an alternative, many would choose someone better. So in the end, this objection only leads to speculation and worry, both of which are hardly pragmatic.

Al Gore lost Florida to George W. Bush by 537 votes. If the 97,488 Floridians who voted for Ralph Nader had instead voted for Al Gore, then Gore would have won Florida—and the election. So didn’t this ideological voting for Nader cost Gore the 2000 presidential election?

Once again, it’s speculation to assume that Ralph Nader’s supporters would have voted at all if Nader weren’t an option. And if we’re going to speculate, why not speculate about the party nominations in that election? Would Al Gore and George W. Bush have even been nominated as candidates if party members had voted ideologically rather than pragmatically? And would prior presidential elections have been reshaped by ideological voting, fundamentally altering the political landscape for the 2000 election? We don’t know.

The point is this: It’s not your civic responsibility, or mine, to speculate about the results of your voting. It’s your civic responsibility to vote for the candidate you want.

Furthermore, you are not responsible for other people’s votes, but only your own. And if you had been one of those Nader supporters, changing your vote to Al Gore would not have won him the election. With your help, he still would have lost—by 536 votes.

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