Cultural Psychology

On Voting the Lesser of Two Evils

with 2 comments

So the presidential race may come down to a contest between McCain and Obama. Since each candidate is scary in his own way, many people would then vote based on the principle of choosing the lesser evils. Let’s examine that principle here, and also tie some concepts of decision theory.

First, regardless of which candidate is worse, both are pretty bad. If McCain wins, America might continue an aggressive and unrealistic foreign policy. If promise-happy Obama wins, we may have economic problems. Either way, the country could be worse-off in four years.

But what we need to consider is the marginal difference in expected disutilities (harms) associated with each candidate. I’d suggest that, while the dangers associated with each one are different, the net expected disutility, that is to say, the net value of their different harms over the next four years, is just about the same in either case. You might give the edge to Obama or to McCain, but overall they’re likely to be about equally deleterious.

After four years we can remove the winner from office; from that point forward it won’t matter much which was president. Therefore, if our only concern is to choose between McCain and Obama, we don’t need to consider expected utilities after 4 or 8 years .

We might add here that it’s probably no coincidence that both candidates are so unappealing. The status quo, the System, the financial-media-military-industrial-political complex — whatever you want to call it — seeks to control the population by divide-and-conquer tactics. To that end it has produced two completely polarizing candidates, each sure to frighten half the population into voting for the other candidate. It’s a perfect way to perpetuate the System, along with it’s political manifestation, the Republican/Democrat mega-party.

Long-term costs/benefits

But now let’s include in our analysis the option of voting for a third-party candidate — someone with some really progressive ideas, like:

  • serious election reform,
  • lobbying reform,
  • term limits, or a
  • flat tax.

People tend to think, “but a third-party vote would not do enough to prevent McCain (or Obama) from winning.” But we’ve already conceded that you don’t gain much by voting against the worse candidate here.

If you vote third-party this year, while there might not be an immediate payoff, there will be payoffs when the next election comes around.

If Americans in significant numbers vote for third-parties, politicians will get the message. Further, *we* will get the message. Your third-party vote is a message of hope, optimism, and determination to your fellow Americans. It says, “I haven’t given up, and neither should you.” And “We are still in charge of this country!”

If enough people do this, then, come the next election, we might see term-limits and election reform back on the table as issues. We might see some real change. And, in theory, it could happen even sooner.  Further, this will be a signal for positive change not just in our country, but in other countries, which closely follow American politics

While it might seem unlikely, what if 50% of voters cast their ballots for third-party candidates? That would really shake people up Washington, the media, and a lot of other places.

The bottom line is that if you extend your calculations beyond the next four year and into the next 10, 20, or 100 years, then, given the choices, the logic seems compelling for a third-party vote.


Written by John Uebersax

February 14, 2008 at 7:29 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Agreeably, you present a compelling and logic-based argument to vote for a 3rd party candidate. Afterall, a considerably large vote count for a 3rd party candidate could only speak volumes of dissatisfaction with the status quo 2-party system we are familiar with. As well, you also present an equally compelling case for viewing the current 2-party system as a divisive and dualistic structure that does not operate well to represent people’s interests or concerns. On these two points I am in total agreement. And certainly, issues such as the flat tax, lobby/election reform and term limits are very important — they’ve been tossed about for at least the last 20 years (that I can remembe)r. But when your article arrives at the idealistic “what if we all vote 3rd-party” I have to cringe. Nadar showed up mid-stream ; even so he’s an excellent catalyst to force our politicians to speak about issues they’d rather not tackle in a public forum. Ron Paul is a Libertarian who is running on the R-ticket with core values I respect and admire. But when Americans are comfortable enough with their lives, when their basic needs are met (for the most part), people will not budge from their dualistic mode of thought. That’s how Americans think: Left and Right. Good and Evil. Black or White. Always dualistic, and strikingly similar to mainstream western religious philosophy BTW. Americans have been primed by at least one or two centuries of Protestant values, work ethic, and a this-for-that get ahead mentality. Many are loyalists and refuse to remove any blinders – in fact, may have forgotten they were even there (life is good when you block out what upsets you.) So, back to my point, the truth may be hidden in the fact that rich and powerful people & companies (who are imbued with the same and greater legal rights as individuals) are running the US and our elected politicians, appointees and courts. It may be hidden in the tangle of military-sales boosters and media-monopolies who have somehow gotten their fat fingers stuck in the pie. And still there is only a 2-party system. Wishing, praying, willing, visualizing works in most and perhaps All cases… but how long can we wait? In human years, 4 or 8 years is substantial. Germany has a 3 party system and shares the power… but the US knows little about “sharing”. It may take Americans a long time to see things for what they are, and much of their blindness comes from the fact that their boundaries end at the border… and at their TV . They have no experience of living and experiencing life overseas with other cultures and religions. When I lived in the Middle East as a child we had no fear of Muslims. We prayed at our church and they prayed wherever they were during the day. Times have changed, there is no doubt. But in my mind and heart I know all people are brothers & sisters & we are all the same. Those Arabs were our friends and kinder to us than our American counterparts when we returned to the States on vacation. I keep getting sidetracked from my initial point, yet even with all I recognize from my time on this world, is that it will take so very much more than a vote to make any change. Campaign slogans are trite and shallow, just as politicians are. Voting for a 3rd party candidate has always carried with it the argument that if enough people do it, the message will be loud enough to force certain change within government. I disagree. People forget and even the most likeable-losers are forgotten in our winner-take-all system. I say vote for the lesser evil, vote with your conscience, vote for whomever you think will make your values be heard. And if that means voting for a 3rd party candidate then that is your right. But voting in mid-election cycle changes nothing as far as the system goes. I know this: As a resident of Texas, I have always seen my vote go to the other party’s candidate simply because of the way state elections are run in this state. So, my opinion is that until Americans get truly upset about this and other crimes upon their democracy a 3rd party candidate can’t do any good for the election but can enhance the debate. What took Nadar so long to come out of hiding anyway? (Love your intelligent blogsite!)


    March 10, 2008 at 8:51 pm

  2. Good comments — Thanks!

    John Uebersax

    March 10, 2008 at 9:35 pm

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