Cultural Psychology

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Responding to the ‘Voting for Jill Stein Merely Elects Trump’ Fallacy

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SINCE 2008 I’ve been making arguments in favor of supporting third-party presidential candidates even if they seem unlikely to win.  What, for example, can you tell an associate who says, “If you vote for Jill Stein, then you’re only helping Trump get elected, just as Ralph Nader’s candidacy helped George W. Bush to win in 2000.” Here are some of the arguments.  Do they make sense?  Are they persuasive?  Can they be stated more succinctly?

1. The lesser evil is still evil.

Today the world is in a descending spiral of violence and hatred.  We need a president who will oppose US wars and military imperialism.  Neither Trump nor Hillary fit the bill. Yet of the two, Hillary is more hawkish.  She took a lead in the destruction of Libya by the US and NATO — a ruthless war for profit disguised by flimsy pretexts and false rumors.  She also tried to pull the same stunt on a larger scale in Syria, and if elected might still get her way there.

Hillary evidently sees no problem with starting wars, imposing child-killing sanctions, supporting coup attempts, training rebels, funding insurgencies, and sponsoring false-flag operations for the sake of Wall Street and other special interests.  This is documentable.  We have her emails (well, at least the ones she didn’t destroy).

We are responsible for the actions of officials we vote for.  If people vote for Hillary, either not knowing what she’s done in Libya and Syria or because they haven’t bothered to find out, then they are morally responsible for any unjust wars she starts.  The responsibility would be even greater than that of Bush supporters in 2000; at least people didn’t know Bush was a warmonger.  They do in Hillary’s case.

2. It’s a racket.

The Wall Street system is setting you up.  It’s giving you a forced choice between Trump and Clinton precisely to scare you into maintaining the Wall Street hegemony by voting against the more feared candidate.  If you fall for it (as voters have consistently since 2000), then Wall Street will continue to work the same scam election after election.  Nothing will ever change (except that candidates will get even scarier and the polarization and mistrust among citizens more extreme).

You should be angry about this and stop playing along!  It’s like negotiating with terrorists.

3. It’s about more than the next four years.

In making an important choice, long-term outcomes matter more than immediate results.  So, okay, suppose that many Democrats vote for Jill Stein, and Trump wins the general election.   The world will not end (at least not because of that). We managed to survive eight years of George W. Bush, for example.  And after that Obama became president.  For all we know this all produced better results (from a Democrat perspective) than if Al Gore had been president from 2001 to 2008 followed by a George W. Bush presidency from 2009 to 2016!

The White House regularly passes between the two parties.  If the Democrats lose it in 2016, they may win it back in 2020 or 2024.  And in the long run, that might be better for Democrats.

We simply don’t know — and that’s the point.  In a case like this it’s better to make a choice based on rock-solid principles — like the fact that US militarism is wrong and it is our absolute duty as citizens to oppose it — than based on vague speculations about what could or might happen if, say, Trump wins.

If Clinton loses because of Jill Stein in 2016, it would give the DNC a well-deserved spanking; they might just come back in 2020 with a real presidential candidate and an anti-war platform!

And what about, say, 50 years ahead?  If Wall Street continues to run the world we are in danger of descending into a dystopian nightmare.  Now on way or the other we’re stuck with a Wall Street president in 2016 (assuming Bernie isn’t nominated). But the sooner we start voting for third-party candidates, the sooner the journey to a better future begins.  When precisely do we intend to get off the merry-go-round if not now?  What’s gained by waiting?  The same system clever enough to cajole us with saying, “no, just one more time” is clever enough to come up with equally and more nefarious tactics in future elections.

Whatever else is true about it, the Wall Street system is smart.  And maybe smarter than us, too — but in any case in complete control of the agenda, which is the next best thing.  We cannot out-strategize the Wall Street system, so we must rise above it.  Our only sure defense against being deceived and manipulated election after election is to follow the certain prompting of our deepest Conscience. And that tells us these wars are wrong.

4. It’s about more than elections.

Voting is sacred.  We have a responsibility to other citizens to vote in an intelligent and moral way.  If you vote ‘tactically’ (e.g., voting for Clinton merely to prevent Trump from winning) then, in a sense, you’ve lied to your fellow citizens.

Suppose each ballot contained the instructions “please vote for the person you think is *most qualified*, even if that person is unlikely to win.”  Then voting your true preference would be a gesture of honesty and good faith.  It would say to others, “Even though I will not win, I will inform you, with my vote, what I think *should* be.”

When you vote your ideals, others see that your and their ideals are the same.  It gives ideals more power to change society.

It also increases love in society as others see fellow citizens who are morally courageous.  It creates a new consensus of honesty and integrity.

But if we’re a society of compromisers, that has the opposite effect.  It causes fellow citizens to  become cynical and mercenary.

Remember what we tell children:  “Just do the right thing, and let the chips fall where they may.  *Trust* that doing the right thing is always the right thing to do.  Believe that the universe takes care of people who do the right thing.”

5. What if everybody did that? (WIEDT)

Game theorists recognize tactical voting as an example of a social dilemma.  A social dilemma occurs when, if every individual seeks to maximize personal gain, the outcome is worse for everyone.  Nuclear weapons proliferation is a classic example.  At one level it’s entirely rational for a country to build up a nuclear arsenal for self-defense.  But because all countries think like this, the end result is a world where everyone has nuclear weapons. Then nobody is safe.  Yet despite this, each country feels compelled to acquire the most sophisticated and destructive weapons it can.  Acting ‘rationally’ (in this limited sense) leads inexorably to outcomes that no rational agent would want.

Some moral theorists suggest we are at a crossroads in human evolution.  Unless we soon find a generic solution to modern social dilemmas, then, between the effects of global warming, pollution, competition for food and resources, and advancements in weaponry, we might not survive much longer.  What’s needed, these theorists say, is the emergence of a new ethos in which people habitually ‘think globally’ in all their moral choices.  In short, we must become a species where we routinely ask before acting, “what if everybody did that?” (WIEDT), and let the answer guide our action.

How would the WIEDT principle apply here?  Well if everyone voted for Trump or Hillary, we’d be endorsing with massive popular support the evil Wall Street war machine.

And what if everybody voted for Jill Stein?  Then we’d end US wars and militarism.  Therefore this is the moral choice.

There are plenty of more arguments, but this is enough to get started.

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10 Reasons to Vote Third-Party

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10 reasons vote third party

Top Ten Reasons to Vote for Third-Party Candidates

10. Wall Street owns Republican and Democratic parties.

9. At 5% mark, third parties start getting federal campaign funds.

8. Winning not the only purpose of voting

7. Benefits future generations

6. If third parties affect outcome, big parties may change platforms.

5. Won’t be a ‘useful idiot’

4. Public debate of real issues

3. Maintains & expands third-party ballot access

2. Your name not on US bombs

1. Signals hope to other Americans

Third-Party Voting and Kant’s Categorical Imperative

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ONE of Kant’s great contributions to ethics is his statement of the principle known as the categorical imperative. This asserts that, for an act to be moral, one must be able to wish that its “maxim could be made a universal law of nature,” or, in ordinary terms, one must do only what one believes nature (meaning here the entire universe) would want everyone to do in similar circumstances. The categorical imperative is not without difficulties in practice — there are exceptions and questionable cases — but these notwithstanding it is a remarkably powerful principle.

How might it apply to voting in an American presidential election? Consider two alternative strategies, which we’ll call (1) voting the lesser evil, and (2) voting on principle.

Voting the lesser evil has become virtually the norm today. The Democratic and Republican parties nominate horrible candidates. The task is therefore not to vote for the candidate you like, but against the worse of the two, to prevent that candidate from winning. Since both of these candidates are bad, why don’t people simply vote for a third-party (e.g., Libertarian or Green) candidate? Because the races are so close: each voter figures that his or her vote may be decisive in preventing the more feared candidate from winning, so that opting for a third party might tip the balance unfavorably. If one is terrified of a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton winning, then this strategy has a certain utilitarian logic. But is it moral as judged by the categorical imperative?

Let’s see. If everybody did this, then the two big parties would have a perfect way to keep the public in perpetual slavery: keep nominating wretched candidates, and select issues that split the public down the middle, 50/50. That way in every election 99% of voters will continue to cast their votes for the Democratic (or Republican) candidate, to keep the Republican (or Democrat) from winning. If we suppose, not unrealistically, that both parties front the same Wall Street power elite, then this is a perfect racket by the ruling interests. There is no end in sight, and little hope for improvement in our lives. We’ll remain serfs in a gradually worsening economy, with continually eroding quality of life. Therefore voting the lesser evil cannot be moral according to Kant’s categorical imperative.

What about voting on principle? That would mean voting for the candidate whose platform best conforms to ones authentic beliefs and values, without worrying about who will actually win. If only you vote this way, granted, it may have little practical effect, except, perhaps, to register as dissent to the power elite and your fellow citizens (although these things aren’t trivial). But consider the categorical imperative: what if *everybody* voted this way? Then we would break the Republican-Democrat hegemony. We could end US military imperialism, environmental exploitation, a life of perpetual debt, and so on. In short, we could achieve or collective hopes and aspirations to produce a truly just, wise, and happy society. Without question, voting on principle does satisfy the categorical imperative, and therefore is moral.

The argument seems pretty clear. A further consideration is that voting itself ought to be regarded as a deeply important and inherently moral duty — something sacred. Our democracy is only as good as the moral conscientiousness of voters. Presidents and parties come and go, but a moral action is forever.

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Voting as Constructive Idealism: Why Principles Do Matter More than Expediency

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 ELECTION 2016 can be a tragedy or not, depending on how we approach it.

I mean ‘tragedy’ here not so much in the colloquial sense of simply something bad, but in a more technical sense associated with game theory: a terrible outcome that develops almost inexorably, though it might have been easily avoided. (One example of a tragedy in this technical sense is the prisoner’s dilemma, about which I’ve written previously.)

The tragedy of 2016 would pit Hillary Clinton against some yet-unnamed Republic opponent, in a bitter struggle in which Hillary would win a close race, and where 99% of voters would vote Republican or Democrat, neglecting third parties (as in the previous two elections). The real loss would be to further engrain the two-party (and Wall Street) hegemony of American politics, with the result of further degradation of our economy, foreign policy, and quality of life. And, because nothing would change, in the 2020 and 2024 elections the same thing would happen again, and so on ad nauseam.

Let’s be honest. Hillary, while she might be arguably be marginally better than a Republican opponent, is per se not a good candidate for President of the United States (as even many more enlightened Democrats would agree). Beneath a veneer of concern for the welfare of the community is a huge amount of personal ambition, egoism, and arrogance. She is also beholden to corporate special interests, and eager to use war to benefit US commercial interests (as evidenced by her support for the vicious military ouster of Qaddafi in Libya).

Please understand, the point here is not to bash Hillary. Hillary, personally, is incidental to the main point. But her defects must be honestly noted in order to substantiate the real issue here: that many Democrats will vote for her knowing and despite these things.

What prompts this article is that the other day it occurred to me, in a sort of flash of insight, how this impending tragedy could and should be avoided. The concept relates to how we view what an election is, and what our duty and role as voters are.

The Power Theory of Voting

What I would propose is that there are two possible models or theories about what voting for a political candidate is all about. The first model corresponds to the status quo — what has happened in recent years and what will potentially happen again in 2016.

We’ll call this the pragmatic theory or power politics model of voting. By this view one sees voting as a means to exert ones personal force in an arena where all other voters, with various value systems, do the same. To the extent that this is a strictly pragmatic activity, it is a-moral: the end justifies the means. Such is characteristic of a Hobbesian society: the bellum omnium contra omnes, or war of each with all.

While at first glance this may seem a normal and obvious way for one to promote ones preferred social agendas, its basic wrongness — or wrongness in principle — can be easily shown by carrying the same principle to more extreme levels. If voting is supposed to be a pragmatic exercise of personal power, then one should logically use any means possible to sway an election towards ones desired end (so-called political realism). Mudslinging, propaganda, lying, or even cheating — casting two votes, bribing others, ballot-box tampering — are fair game. And, in fact, all of these have been used by both parties and justified based on the end justifies the means principle.

Yes people instinctively know these things are wrong. And this common knowledge calls into question the underlying principle: whether the legitimate and intended purpose of an election is in fact for people to attain an end or to exert selfish power.

I grant that the reader may not see where I’m headed at this point and the preceding statement may seem puzzling, but it will become clear momentarily.

The Idealism Theory of Voting

I wish to suggest that there is another viable and plausible approach one may take to voting. We’ll call this the Idealism theory. According to this view, an election is like a vast national opinion poll or referendum, in which each individual is asked, “What do you believe should happen? What are your true beliefs concerning fundamental political and social principles?” One then expresses ones true beliefs by endorsing the candidate whose platform is most similar to them.

Let’s note the great virtue of the Idealism model: unless voting is approached in this way, there is virtually no other means by which the collective Ideals of a society can find themselves ultimately expressed in political institutions and programs.

Voting is arguably the one and only chance you have as an individual to bring your deepest hopes, aspirations, and instincts to bear on the deeply important issue of constructing, however gradually, a more Just, Good, True, and Beautiful world. It is the only means by which the common moral vision of humanity can contest the juggernaut of blind social forces, Wall Street, and government corruption.  This voting your Ideals is an incredibly important, even a sacred task. You are God’s emissary in the social sphere, your vote a divinely appointed task.

But voting is mere egoism if conducted at the level of selfish pragmatism.

What would the Idealism model imply for the 2016 presidential election?

For Democrats, I believe those who vote according to Ideals and conscience would find the Green party candidate the best choice. For Republicans, the Libertarian or possibly Constitution party candidate would be the true and honest choice. Voting for these candidates, then, would manifest true Ideals, and contribute to the long term common good; voting expediently, against ones principles, for the Republican or Democrat status quo, Wall Street, pro-war candidates would be unethical.

Most of all, anyone who rejects US militarism in principle should not vote for any candidate who does not publicly denounce war. War is insane. Any candidate who does not publicly denounce war publicly announces their moral derangement. It is immoral in the utmost to vote for a morally deranged presidential candidate!

The Practical Value of Idealism

By Idealism here we don’t mean the starry-eyed, Pollyanna kind. Idealism in its finer sense — that which expresses our greatest aspirations and hopes — is the highest form of pragmatism. It is by the actualization of our Ideals that we become most happy and satisfied. Mere practical considerations, when detached from Ideals — and even more when they are antithetical to them — are self-defeating, because they ignore, deny, or even oppose the integral connection between moral virtue, truth, and happiness.

As tangible evidence of the practical value of Idealism in this context, consider this. If third-party presidential candidates, collectively, gained as little as 5% of the popular vote (in 2012 the number was 1.7%) , then in the next election we’d say greater respect paid to third parties. It would create pressure to include third-party candidates in the televised debates. The range of issues and options discussed during the campaign would be greatly widened. Suddenly, ideas like clean air or peace would become topics for public discussion again!

Further, if any individual third-party candidate received 5% of the vote — far from an unattainable result — that party would become eligible for federal campaign financing in the next election. A snowball effect would commence.

Thus, even beyond its moral implications and consequences, the level at which your vote becomes numerically meaningful — or even individually decisive — is much lower than you suppose. Yours could be the vote that pushes a candidate over this critical 5% threshold.



Third-Party Protest Votes: The Key to Reform?

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Duopoly - Republican - Democrat t- 609x340
The fascist, Wall Street duopoly that controls Washington would be broken were even one local Democrat action group to issue a statement saying, “This election we will vote en masse for the Green Party candidate in protest, even if that means a Republican will win.”  Or were a Republican group to break ranks and vote Libertarian.

Until that happens, until someone, somewhere calls the bluff of the two parties, as long as the status quo parties can rely on people voting against the other party, no matter how rotten the candidate of ones own party is, nothing will change.

If the Democrats or Republicans were to lose even a single seat in the House or Senate because of third-party protest votes, they would immediately begin changing their platforms to win back voters.

Call their bluff.  There is no meaningful difference between a Wall Street Republican and a Wall Street Democrat.  Stop fooling yourself into thinking that you have to vote for one to prevent the other from winning!

Written by John Uebersax

September 25, 2014 at 7:11 pm

The Prisoners’ Dilemma and Third-Party Voting

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Prisoners Dilemma - Ohdaira & Terano

[ Related: Responding to the ‘Voting for Jill Stein Merely Elects Trump’ Fallacy  ]

Does game theory explain why Americans don’t vote for third-party candidates?

Previous posts here have considered the tactics by which the Republican and Democratic parties collude to maintain a two-party hegemony in America  politics.  Lately it’s occurred to me that this problem can be understood as a special case of what game theorists call the prisoner’s dilemma (Rapoport, 1965).  Prisoner’s dilemma (PD), as we shall see, is a classic example of how two decision-making agents, both seemingly seeking to maximize self-interest, systematically make  harmful or suboptimal choices.  In the present case, the issue is that even though American voters would be better off voting for third-party candidates, there are structural reasons why they do not do so.  Looking at this problem in terms of PD can help identify the structural issues at work and suggest possible routes out of our present political impasse.

A few other people (e.g., John Sallet, and EvilRedScandi) have looked at  PD as a way to understand current political dynamics, but their concerns are somewhat different than the present one, which is how Republican and Democrat voters today are jointly in a prisoners’ dilemma.

First we’ll describe the basic PD paradigm.  Then we’ll show how this applies to reluctance to vote for third-party candidates.  Last and perhaps most importantly we’ll consider practical steps for reform that the model suggests.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

PD is a game theory paradigm that demonstrates how two decision-makers paradoxically fail to maximize either individual or joint interests.  Specifically, though their best strategy would be cooperation, they systematically choose non-cooperation.  The basic model can be understood with the following example:

Early one Saturday you and a college friend go hunting for ‘magic mushrooms’ in Farmer Brown’s cow pasture.  Farmer Brown sees you and calls police Chief Wiggum, who arrives promptly, arrests you and your friend, and hauls you both to the police station. There Wiggum places you in a room by yourself and proposes the following deal (he also tells you he will propose an identical deal to your friend).  The terms are as follows.  He asks you to sign a confession admitting that you and your friend were gathering the mushrooms with the intent of selling them (i.e., drug-dealing).  Then:

  1. If you confess, and your friend doesn’t confess, he will go to jail for 10 years, and you will get a 90-day sentence.
  2. Conversely, if your friend confesses and you don’t, he will get a 90-day sentence,  and you will get a 10-year sentence.
  3. If you confess and your friend also confesses, you’ll both be given 5-year sentences.
  4. If neither of you confess, Wiggum explains that he can still charge you and your friend with trespassing and put you both in jail for 30 days.

We can represent the dilemma with reference to a payoff matrix that considers each possible combination of choices and their consequences. You and your friend must each choose between cooperation with each other (not confessing), or defecting (confessing).  The days and years indicate the amount of jail time associated with each case.

Table 1. Classic Prisoner’s Dilemma

 Friend doesn’t confess
 Friend confesses
 You don’t confess
 you: 30 days
friend: 30 days
 you: 10 yrs.
friend: 90 days
 You  confess
 you: 90 days
friend: 10 yrs.
 you: 5 yrs.
friend: 5 yrs.


The best strategy here is clearly 4 — for neither of you to confess.   This is optimal both from the standpoint of selfish and altruistic motivation.  The paradox is that people in this situation predictably end up in scenario 3 (confess/confess). So  both of you go to jail for 5 years, when you both could have gotten off with 30-day sentences.

The pernicious aspect of PD is that this happens almost inevitably. Why? It has to do with what game theorists call the principle of dominance.  Relative to Table 1 that means that whatever your friend’s choice  is – that is, whether you’re looking at column 2 or column 3 of the table – your self-interest is maximized by defecting; thus, the strategy of defection is said to dominate that of cooperation.  And similarly for your friend.  Therefore, paradoxically, if maximizing self-interest is the only consideration, both of you will  defect, and neither will  maximize self-interest.

A detail is that although we’ve explained the dilemma in terms of various punishments, the crafty allocation of positive incentives, alone or in combination with negative incentives, can have the same effect. So, for example, Chief Wiggum can sweeten the deal with a bribe.  He could offer to give you or your friend say $100 if the one defects and the other doesn’t.

An important extension of the model is iterative PD, where two agents are presented with the dilemma multiple times.  Many researchers have studied iterative PD experimentally, e.g., seating two volunteers at computer terminals and repeatedly asking them to cooperate or defect, awarding payoffs (e.g., M&Ms, poker chips, money) each round.  A variety of player strategies are seen.  Sometimes players converge on cooperation, sometimes not. One not uncommon outcome is a tit-for-tat dynamic, in which players cooperate for a while, but if one defects, the other player retaliates by defecting in the next round, and this may go back and forth many times.  In any case, the iterative PD corresponds to our national elections, which occur at regular two or four-year intervals.

Third-Party Voting

Let’s now see how this applies to third-party voting. Our initial premise is that, while one might suppose that the Republican and Democratic parties are competitors, they’re really a duopoly.  Both serve the same ruling powers. They thus represent a single agent, which we might call Wall Street, the System, the Establishment, etc.  Whatever we call it, it corresponds to the role of the interrogator in our PD.

The role of you and your friend correspond to a given Republican and a given Democrat voter, or perhaps groups or Republican and Democrat voters.

The essence of the third-party voting PD is that it is in the best interests of both Republican and Democrat voters, individually and jointly, to replace or radically reform the present two-party duopoly.  Unless or until the two big parties nominate better candidates, the logical solution is for large numbers of citizens to vote for third-party candidates.  The paradox is that voters are not doing this, but are choosing to keep the aversive two-party system in power.

This happens, we propose, because of how the ruling powers structure perceived payoffs, both by their selection of candidates and by party platforms.

Here PD makes an unexpected prediction. Common sense might suggest that to win office, a party should nominate candidates who (1) appeal to its own voters, but also (2) are either somewhat attractive, but in any case not terribly offensive to voters in the opposite party. That way some voters in the opposite camp might switch votes, or perhaps may feel it’s not important to vote at all.  In either case, the party’s chances of winning are improved.

However if we grant that the Republican and Democrat parties are controlled by Wall Street and colluding with each other, PD implies that they will follow an opposite strategy, namely to nominate candidates who are frightening or even detested by voters of the opposite party. In such a fear- or anger-driven campaign, fewer voters will break ranks, believing that the opposite party must be prevented from winning at all costs.  All votes will be cast for the two big parties – precisely as Wall Street wants.

To further encourage voters not to break ranks, each party also offers positive incentives in the form of platforms and campaign promises:  for example universal health care or gay marriage by the Democratic party, or tougher immigration laws and Second Amendment protection but the Republican party.  But, again, PD would predict that parties would be especially keen to offer incentives that are hated by voters of the opposite party.

Table 2 presents the PD that Republican and Democrat voters faced in the 2008 presidential election.   (Cooperation here means voting for a third-party candidate, and defection means voting for the nominee of ones own party.)

Table 2. 2008 Presidential Election as Prisoners’ Dilemma

 Dem. voter cooperates  Dem. voter defects
 Rep. voter cooperates  Election a toss-up,
Two-party hegemony rejected
 Obama/Biden win,
 Rep. voter defects  McCain/Palin win,
More guns
 Election a toss-up,
Two-party hegemony affirmed


If we suppose that both main parties represent Wall Street and are ultimately inimical to the interests of the public, the best strategy for Republican and Democrat voters is to vote for some third-party candidate.  That won’t change the power structure immediately, but over the course of two or three elections sufficient momentum may build to make a third-party candidate competitive.   If nothing else, this may force the two big parties to become more responsive to citizens.

However what is happening instead is that voters are afraid to do this.  So, to consider the 2012 presidential election, despite the disillusionment of many Democrats with Obama, and the unattractiveness of Mitt Romney to many Republicans, the combined votes received by all third-party candidates amounted to less than 2% of the total.

Practical Implications

Viewing third-party voting as a PD suggests specific strategies for extricating American voters from their current predicament.  Several, but not all, of these strategies relate to improving the perception of payoffs so that cooperation, i.e., voting for third-party candidates, is more appealing. Specific strategies include the following:

Accurately perceive costs of non-cooperation. The ultimate problem is that Democrat and Republican voters are not accurately considering the costs of maintaining the two-party hegemony and the benefits of electing third-party candidates.  If the true costs and benefits were salient in our minds, we would more eagerly vote against the abusive and arrogant Republican-Democratic party establishment.

Our social problems today are many and serious:  the economy is moribund, rates of unemployment and foreclosures intolerable, college tuitions insanely high, the environment is being destroyed, civil liberties disappearing; the country is engaged in perpetual war, and a spirit of divisiveness and antagonism dominate.

Less often considered, but perhaps even more important are the ‘opportunity costs’, i.e., besides these negative things, what positive things are we missing out on because of our dysfunctional and aversive government?  Objectively considered, America has sufficient natural and human resources to construct a veritable utopia;  we could eliminate poverty, grant free higher education and health-care for all;  we have enough land to let everyone live in their own houses on their own property in environmentally friendly and attractive communities.  Indeed, the blessings of nature generally, and in our country particularly, are so great that it seems we must make a concerted effort to avoid constructing such a prosperous and congenial society.  We need a clearer vision of how good life could be were we only to stop punishing ourselves with the present inimical political system.

How can we gain this vision? Surely we still have individuals with the imagination and skills to lead. We must develop and empower these natural leaders and intellectuals.  One obvious means of doing this is to reform our higher education system, which, by now neglecting liberal studies and humanities in favor of teaching technical and money-making skills, is discouraging the emergence of a more utopian vision of society.

We can also promote voter cooperation by applying more skepticism and critical thinking to the promises of Republican and Democrat candidates.  For example, a Democrat candidate may well promise universal health care, which sounds very attractive at face value, but ought to raise many obvious questions about its feasibility or unintended side-effects.  Would government-run health-care produce an unwieldy and inefficient bureaucracy?  Would the government give too much power to pharmaceutical companies?  Are there cheaper and better alternatives, such as a greater emphasis on preventive medicine and healthy living?  Subjected to greater scrutiny, the promises of the two parties can be seen as empty, or in any case far less attractive than the kind of society we could obtain by having a government based on citizens’, not corporations’ interests.

Long-term perspective. Clearly another way to acquire more a accurate perception of the payoff structure, so as to better see the benefits of cooperation by voting for third-party candidates, is to adopt a long-term perspective.  A bias favoring immediate wishes over long-term welfare is, of course, a fundamental problem of human nature.  But the problem is especially great in politics, where demagogues and news media specialize in appealing to voters’ short-term interests.   In any given election, the short term benefits promised by Republican and Democrat candidates may seem attractive to their respective constituencies, but over the course of 10 or 20 years alternations of policy and failure to pursue any consistent course is disastrous.

Collectivize utilities.  By collectivizing utilities I mean for individual citizens to recognize their own best interests and those of their fellow Americans are intimately connected.  We are a highly interdependent society.  Ultimately, social injustice or unfair distribution of wealth harms everyone.  If one segment of the population is oppressed or excluded, or their views ignored, then at the very least their contribution to society will be lessened, and this hurts everyone.  Moreover, eventually an oppressed or underserved group will gather sufficient energy to redress the wrong by political action.  Whatever is at the basis of the ideological split between Republicans and Democrats, the current political dynamics operate as a negative feedback system: as one group gains successive victories, opposing pressure builds until a reversal occurs.  Thus victories are often short-lived, policies flip-flop, and no sustained course is pursued.

Consider higher-order utilities. The utility calculus of voters is such that typically only material values – jobs, benefits, taxes, etc. – are considered.  Americans have bought lock, stock and barrel the political lie that “it’s the economy, stupid”, i.e., that all success and value of our society is measured by the GNP.  This does not reflect the true value structure of human beings.  We are not merely material creatures, but moral and spiritual beings as well.  It is an undeniable fact that people feel good and experience more happiness and satisfaction when they practice generosity, altruism, benevolence, charity, and justice.  Add to this that no amount of material benefits can outweigh the disadvantages of citizens being constantly at each others’ throats.   In an authentic utility calculus, higher-order utilities have to be considered; and if they are, the payoff much more clearly favors cooperation among voters and rejection of the two-party hegemony.

Third-party platforms and rhetoric.  Third parties must confront Americans with the price being paid for two-party totalitarianism and emphasize that a better future is obtainable.

Voter pacts. Beyond changing perceptions of payoffs, there are active steps that people in a prisoners’ dilemma can do to win the game.  Perhaps the most obvious is for the two players to anticipate the dilemma and form a pact beforehand.  For example, with regards to Table 1, you and your friend could agree beforehand, “If we’re caught, we both promise to assert our innocence.”  This solution is enhanced by establishing or improving trust, affection, and bonds of unity between the two players.

In theory, individual Republican and Democrat voters could pair up with a member of the opposite party and agree to vote for third-party candidates. A website might be set up for this purpose.  While this is sensible and ethical, I believe that at least certain forms of voting pacts have been ruled illegal, and one website dedicated to this was forced to close.   Nevertheless this principle could doubtless be applied in ways that are unambiguously legal, or at least such that contrary prohibitions would be unenforceable.

Bargains could also be made at the level of institutional endorsements.  For example, two newspapers, one liberal and one conservative, could make a pact to endorse third-party candidates.

Opting out. Finally, citizens might opt out of the dilemma in various ways.  I would personally not advocate failure to vote as a means for this, although some suggest it.  Protests, demonstrations, or even strikes might be used to pressure the Republican and Democratic parties to reform their platforms and supply better candidates.  Another possibility is to hold alternative elections run by the citizens themselves with candidates of their own choosing.  Such elections would have no legal status, but they would have symbolic value, would permit realistic debates about policy, and encourage trust and camaraderie amongst citizens.

These are only representative suggestions.  How feasible or effective any of them would be remains to be seen.  The main point here has been to suggest that PD is an appropriate paradigm for looking at the current two-party stranglehold on American society and understanding how to encourage third-party voting.   I would like to encourage others, including social scientists, to consider this topic more, as I believe the model is apt and probably contains more theoretical and practical implications than have been considered here.


Writing this article helped me to see the more fundamental problem: American society generally is an n-way prisoners’ dilemma. When people view society as merely a ‘dog-eat-dog’ competition, they ‘rationally’ choose to maximize self(ish)-interest. But selfishness only pays off when other people act unselfishly.  When everybody acts selfishly, everyone loses; thinking you’ll win by acting selfishly is an illusion.

Each person is better off when everybody cooperates. This is more than an ethical maxim, it’s demonstrated by game theory.

This problem (whether to vote for a third-party candidate, or a less preferred candidate that is more likely to win) is an instance of a more general class of social dilemmas. As such it is not only related to the prisoners’ dilemma but also the tragedy of the commons. Several other forms of insincere voting that constitute social dilemmas. For all such dilemmas, the long-term optimal strategy is cooperation, viz. for each agent to choose so as to maximize long-term collective, not immediate personal utility.

Further Reading

Rapoport, Anatol. Prisoner’s Dilemma: A Study in Conflict and Cooperation. University of Michigan, 1965.

Uebersax, John. The Lions and the Tigers (A Political Parties Fable).

Uebersax, John. Third-Party Voting and Kant’s Categorical Imperative.

Uebersax, John. Voting as Constructive Idealism: Why Principles Do Matter More than Expediency.

Uebersax, John. Why Vote Third-Party?

Theodore Parker – ‘Only a Hand-Rail of Difference Between the Two Parties’

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This continues a series of posts intended to demonstrate the ideological relevance of New England Transcendentalism to the Occupy Movement and to direct readers to this invaluable resource.

Theodore Parker (1810–1860) was one of the greatest orators among the New England Transcendentalists. In the excerpt below, Parker explains that, in the perennial struggle between Idealism and materialism, the US has become dominated by the latter.  The two great political parties – the one of the rich and the other of the poor – are alike in that their values and policies are dominated by desire for wealth. It is all too painfully clear how closely the Whigs and Democrats of his era correspond to the Republican and Democratic parties of ours.

Source: Theodore Parker. The Nebraska Question. Boston: Mussey, 1854.

* * * *

From 1620 to 1788 there was a rapid development of ideas. But since that time the outward pressure has been withdrawn. The nation is no longer called to protest against a foreign foe; no despot forces us to fall back on the great principles of human nature, and declare great universal truths. Even the Anglo-Saxon people are always metaphysical in revolution. We have ceased to be such, and have become material. We have let the programme of political principles and purposes slip out of the nations consciousness, and have betaken ourselves, body and soul to the creation of riches. Wealth is the great object of American desire. Covetousness is the American passion. This is so — nationally in the political affairs of the country; ecclesiastically, socially, domestically, individually. Our national character, political institutions, geographic situation,— all favor the accumulation of riches.

No country was ever so rich before, nor got rich so fast; in none had wealth ever such power, or was so esteemed. It is counted as the end of life, not as the material basis to higher forms thereof. It has no conventional check in the institutions of the land, and only two natural checks in the heart of the people. One is the talent and genius — intellectual, moral, affectional, and religious—that is born in rare men; and the other is the desire, the caprice, the opinion, of the great majority of men, who oppose {p. 329} their collective human will against the material glitter of mere accumulated money. But money can buy intellectual talent and intellectual genius; at least it can buy American talent and American genius. Money, and the men of cultivated minds whom it buys, can deceive the people, so that the majority shall follow the dollar wherever it rolls. The clink of the dollar, — that is the reveille, the morning drum-beat, for the American people. In America, money is inaugurated as a power to control all other powers. It has itself become an “Institution” — master of all the rest.

Three of those bad institutions … whereof our fathers brought the traditions from the old world, have mainly perished. The mediaeval Theocracy has gone out from the Protestant Church; Monarchy has wholly faded from the consciousness of the people; Aristocracy, sitting unmovable on her cradle, has had her heart pierced through and through by the gigantic spear of American Industry horsed on a steam-engine. Money has taken the place of all three. It has got inaugurated into the Church, — it is a Church of commerce; in the State — it is a State of commerce; in the Community not less, — it is a society of commerce; and money wields the triple power of those three old masters, Theocracy, Monarchy, Aristocracy. It is the Almighty Dollar.

In the American Church, money is God. The {p. 330} peculiar sins of money, and of the rich, they are never preached against; it is a Church of commerce, wealth its heaven and the millionaire its saint; its ministers should be ordained, not “by the imposition of hands,” but of bank-bills — of small denomination. In the American State, money is the Constitution: officers ought to be sworn on the federal currency; they should make the sign of the dollar, ($) as their official symbolic cross; it is a State of commerce. In the community, money is Nobility; it is transmissible social power; it is Aristocracy, it makes a man who has got it a vulgar “gentleman;” it is a Society of commerce….

{p. 331} Money having taken the place of these three institutions, it must be politically represented in the nation by a party; for a party is the provisional organization of a tendency. So there is a party organized about the Dollar as its central nucleus and idea. The dollar is the germinal dot of the Whig party; its motive is pecuniary; its motto should be, to state it in Latin, pecunia pecuniata, money moneyed, money made. It sneers at the poor; at the many; has a contempt for the people. It legislates against the poor, and for the rich; that is, for men pecuniarily strong; the few who are born with the desire, the talent, and the conventional position to become rich. “Take care of the rich, and they will take care of the poor,” is its secret maxim. [Note 1] Every thing must yield to money: that is to have universal right of way. Down with Mankind! the Dollar is coming! The great domestic object of Government, said the greatest Expounder of this party, “is the protection of property;” —that is to say, the protection of money {p. 332} moneyed, money got. With this party there is no Absolute Right, no Absolute Wrong. Instead thereof, there is Expediency and Inexpediency. There is no law higher than the power to wield money just as you will. Accordingly a millionaire is reckoned by this party as the highest production of society. He is the Whig ideal; he alone has attained “the measure of the stature of a perfect man.”

…But man is man, can a dollar stop him? For ever? The instinct of development is as inextinguishable in man as the instinct of perpetuation in blackbirds and thrushes, who build their procreant nests under all administrations, theocratic or democratic. So there is another party which represents the Majority of the people; that majority who have not money which is coveted, only the covetous desire thereof…. This is the Democratic party. It loves money as well as the Whig party, but has got less of it….

{p. 333} To the Whig party belong the rich, the educated, the decorous; the established, — those who look back, and count the money got. To the other party belong the young, the poor, the bold, the adventurous, everybody that is in want, everybody that is in debt everybody who complains. The audacious are its rulers [Note 2]; — often men destitute of lofty character, of great ideas, of Justice, of Love, of Religion — bold, smart, saucy men. This party sneers at the rich, and hates them; of course it envies them, and lusts for their gold.

The Democratic party appeals to the brute will of the majority, right or wrong; it knows no Higher Law. Its statesmanship is the power to enact into permanent institutions the transient will of the majority: that is the ultimate standard. Popular and unpopular, take the place of right and wrong—vox populi, vox Dei [Note 3]; the vote settles what is true, what right. It regards money made and hoarded as the foe of human progress, and so is hostile to the millionaire. The Whig calls on his lord, “Money, help us!” To get money, the Democrat can do all things through the majority strengthening him….

{p. 334} … The Whig party worships money: it is the body of the Whig God; there is no Higher Law above it. The Democratic party worships the opinion of the majority: it is the voice of the Democrat’s God: there is no Higher Law. To the Whig party, — no matter how the money is got, by smuggling opium or selling slaves, — it is pecunia pecuniata, — money moneyed. To the Democratic party it is of no consequence what the majority wishes, or whom it chooses … If the majority wants to violate the Constitution of America and the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution of the Universe and the Declaration of God, why! the cry is — “there is no higher law!” {p. 335} “the greatest good of the greatest number!” — What shall become of the greatest good of the smaller number?

There is, therefore, no vital difference between the Whig party and the Democratic party; no difference in moral principle. The Whig inaugurates the Money got; the Democrat inaugurates the Desire to get the money. That is all the odds. So in the times that try the passions, which are the souls of these parties, the Democrat and the Whig meet on the same …  platform. One is not higher and the other lower; they are just alike. There is only a hand rail between the two, which breaks down if you lean on it, and the parties mix.  In common times, it becomes plain that a Democrat is but a Whig on time; a Whig is a Democrat arrived at maturity; his time has come. A Democrat is a young Whig who will legislate for money as soon as he has got it; the Whig is an old Democrat who once hurrahed for the majority — “Down with money! that is a despot! and up with the desire for it!”

{p. 336} I once knew a crafty family which had two sons; both men of ability, and of remarkable unity of “principle.” The family invested one in each party, and as it had a head on either side of the political penny thrown into the air, the family was sure to win. A New England Family, wise in its generation! [Note 4]

Now, I do not mean to say that all Democrats or all Whigs are of this way of thinking. Quite the contrary. There is not a Whig or Democrat who would confess it. The majority, so far as they have convictions, are very different from this; but the Whig would say in his convention, that I told the truth of the Democratic party; the Democrat, in his convention, would say, I told, the truth of the Whigs. These ideas, — they reside in the two parties [Note 5], … as chemistry in the water, as in the drop the gravitation which brings it to the ground: not a conviction, but a fact. Each of these parties has great good to accomplish. Both seem indispensable. Money must be looked after. It is a valuable thing; the human race could not do without property. It is the ladder whereby we scale the heavens of manhood. But property alone is good for nothing. The will of the majority must be respected.  I honor the ideas of the Democratic {p. 337} party, and of the Whig party, so far as they are just. But man is not made merely for money; the majority are the standard of power, not of Right. There is a law of God which directs the chink of every dollar; it cannot roll except by the laws of the Eternal Father of Earth and Heaven. What if the majority enact iniquity into a statute! Can millions make Wrong right? Justice is the greatest good of all.

With little geographical check or interference from other nations, we are going on solving our problem of “manifest destiny.” Since the establishment of Independence, America has made a rapid development. Her population has increased with unexampled rapidity; her territory has enlarged to receive her ever greatening family; riches have been multiplied faster even than their possessors. But some of the least lovely qualities of the Anglo-Saxon tribe have become dreadfully apparent. We have exterminated the Indians; we keep no treaties made with the red men; they keep all. The national materialism and indifference to great universal principles of Right shows itself clearer and clearer. Submission to Money or the Majority is the one idea that pervades the nation….

{p. 338} … There is a contradiction in the consciousness of the nation. In our industrial civilization, under the stimulus of love of wealth, and its consequent social and political power, we have made such a rapid advance in population and riches as no nation ever made. The lower powers of the understanding have also had a great development. We can plan, organize, and administer material means for material ends, as no nation has ever done. But it is not to be supposed that any people could pass all at once from the military civilization, with its fourfold despotism, to an industrial civilization with democracy in its Church, State, Community, and Family. How slowly we learn; with what mistakes do we come to the true Idea [Note 6], and how painfully enact it into a deed!


1. E.g., the so-called trickle-down theory of ‘Reaganomics’.

2. Cf. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope (2006).

3. Latin for ‘the voice of the people is the voice of God.’

4.  A prime tactic of special interests today.

5. Today we might express this by saying that, although many elected officials have principles and are decent men and women, the structural forces of the political system inevitably result in compromise of these principles and their sacrifice to the party agenda.

6. i.e., the ‘great principles of human nature’ (p. 328), or the Platonic Ideals of Truth, Beauty, Justice, etc.