[First published on skepolitical.com on 8/6/12]

In an upcoming post, I’ll look at the benefits of voting for either Obama or Romney in the upcoming election. Today, I’ll discuss some of the considerations involved in voting for a third party and give a brief introduction to the Green Party’s presidential nominee, Jill Stein.

Voting for a minor party candidate in any election has an obvious opportunity cost: you (practically) forgo your opportunity to have a say in who actually wins that election. Depending on how different the two major party candidates are and how much power comes with the position in question, this cost can easily overwhelm any benefits of voting third party. However, at least in the case of American Presidential elections, I think these differences are overrated by most people. I see three major reasons for this. One, overestimating our differences is an inevitable consequence of the universal human tendency to be prejudiced against members of an “out-group,” which results in preconceived negative opinions of the supporters of the opposite party and their ideas. Two, the media has incentive to play up the differences because conflict sells. Three, it is only natural that the political campaigns themselves should focus on the differences between the candidates; pointing out similarities is clearly a waste of resources.

If you agree that the costs of voting third-party are small relative to conventional wisdom, we still need to take a look at the benefits. Although there is indeed some miniscule chance that a minor party could win a major election, this is not the real goal. The benefit of voting for a third party is primarily that it’s an opportunity to stand in support of certain principles in a way that is more likely than usual to be noticed by the media and thus potentially influence the culture. This possibility is actually improved by the overestimated differences between the parties, because this means the media tends to see voting for a third-party as a bigger sacrifice than it really is. The degree of the perceived sacrifice correlates with how attractive the story is for the media to cover.

Of course, the media coverage really becomes significant when a minor party is seen as a “spoiler” for one of the two major parties, as was the case with Ralph Nader’s Green Party in 2000. This is a treacherous road to follow. In the case of the 2000 Green Party, I think you could argue it actually did damage to their cause, because the liberals who supported the Democrats that year were so furious with the Green Party that I think they subsequently associated Green Party principles with radical and misguided ideology. My impression is that, as a result, the environmental, pro-consumer platform of the Green Party was only further marginalized in American culture and mostly ignored by the Democrats in subsequent campaigns. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration certainly did not seem to think it needed to take Green Party ideas into account in their governing or in their subsequent campaigns. The Green Party had made themselves into an “out-group,” and their principles were consequently scorned.

Still, I’m inclined to think that was a worst-case scenario. The Green Party probably brought it upon itself to some degree; rather than fighting for principles that have been completely overlooked by the two major parties in equal measure (like corruption), the Green Party was viewed (rightly, I think), as a direct challenge to the Democrats, who were already considered the environmentalist, pro-consumer party but had de-prioritized those planks on their platform. Perhaps with a less partisan platform, a minor party could avoid the bitterness that the Green Party incurred in 2000. I’m inclined to like the idea of voting for principles because I think the possibility of shifting the culture in a positive direction is far more valuable than forcing a Democrat on a populace that mostly doesn’t support the Democratic platform. However, I’m open to the possibility that I’m overrating the value of use voting-booth as a form of activism.

In order for a minor party to be worthwhile, I think it needs to comport closely with your central principles, and, preferably, have those principles be unmistakably associated with the party so that the media has no choice but to acknowledge them. (The media has a tendency to form its own narratives if it is given the opportunity.) The principles I am primarily concerned about are skeptical education, government transparency, the rule of law, and the influence of money in politics. Until the electorate becomes more concerned about these problems, the major party candidates have no incentive to address them. (In the case of money in politics, the public is already concerned about it, but the campaigns have obvious opposing incentives that are still quite a bit stronger than the public’s outrage about it.) Assuming there is a party or candidate that takes up causes in line with your principles, the question becomes: is it more worthwhile to work towards long-term systemic and cultural change with some low probability of making a difference on principles you care about, or is it more worthwhile to use your vote to make a more direct but relatively small and short-term difference by picking one of the two major candidates?

To answer this question, it is necessary to have some idea of what principles are being espoused by the available minor parties. To this end, let me present Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party, my current favorite option among the minor parties. There is a clear downside to be associated with the Green Party (Rocky Anderson’s Justice Party has a better name and may be a better option): in addition to the bad blood generated in the 2000 election, the Green Party is too closely associated with divisive policy initiatives like environmentalism and consumer protections. I support these policies, but they will certainly distract from the media’s narrative concerning core principles I want to support. The good news is that, of the four principles I’m most concerned about, Dr. Stein seems genuinely to want to focus on three of them. Skeptical education is not on her radar (it didn’t pick up the steam I had hoped for after the ridiculous Texas Republican Party platform was published), but she seems appropriately outraged by our society’s disregard for transparency, law, and political corruption. She seems more focused on these principles than the more divisive, and if that focus persists, I will likely vote for her.

She is certainly doing what she can to make herself more visible. This past Wednesday, Dr. Stein was arrested along with her running mate Cheri Honkala and three others for trespassing in a Philadephia bank while protesting Fannie Mae’s impending foreclosure of two homes. (One of the others was an 82-year-old nun. This past month has me in the unusual position of agreeing with the reactionary Catholic Church about something: many of their American Nuns are not behaving like true Catholics.)

Stein’s arrest was likely a calculated publicity stunt as much as anything, but I find it encouraging nonetheless. It shows she understands the radical nature of her endeavor to help change our political culture and what is needed to grab the attention of the media. Also, the nature of her arrest (fighting foreclosures) is directly in line with the Occupy movement, which has managed to save several families across the country from foreclosure through similar types of direct action protest. Indeed, this parallel is probably no accident. Stein’s running mate Honkala has said she thinks they are the party for Occupy Wall Street. This suggests that they understand that activism in pursuit of cultural change, as opposed to electoral strategizing, is what is most important.

The statement Dr. Stein made after being released, that spending a night in jail “should be a required experience of anyone running for public office,” is obviously hyperbole, but I agree with the sentiment. Public officials who have had such an experience would be much more sensitive to the plight of the less privileged among us. Even President Obama, who grew up with the social burdens associated with his race but has never been arrested, seems indifferent to the problems of the prison system and over-criminalization. (The exceptions, of course, are when it comes to white-collar crimes or war crimes. In those cases, pursuing justice would be too divisive.) I think the arrest and this statement shows that she takes the problems with our justice and prison systems seriously.

A day or two before her arrest, Jill Stein was interviewed by Dan Carlin for his Common Sense podcast. I was impressed. Previously, I had considered her to be sorely lacking in charisma and poise, but here she sounds quite polished. I hope this means she is getting more comfortable on the campaign trail, but I fear it may just be that she is more comfortable in a phone interview setting. One highlight from the half-hour interview came in her answer to why she would want to run for president. She described how her observation of problems in the health care system led her to politics, and how her experience in politics has led her to realize that nothing can be fixed until we “fix the broken political system.” More specifically, she says she learned that “our political system doesn’t really care about life-saving, money-saving, job-creating solutions. It really cares about protecting the status quo that pays it to be there.” It really sounds like she understands that we need to set aside our efforts at finding those life-saving, money-saving, job-creating solutions until we rebuild the system that might enable us to produce acceptable solutions.

Later, Dan asks her what we can do to deal with the problem of corruption given that the people in office are beneficiaries of the corruption. She says that to fix problems in the present political climate, “we have to really go around [the representatives]” because they are beholden to the monied interests, and she gives the example of how public outrage helped stop the SOPA bill from passing. I guess this works in isolated cases where the people have the support of some powerful entities such as Google, but way too many issues will slip through the cracks. Besides, what good is a representative system if the electorate needs to remain constantly vigilant about the actions of their representatives? And how does this fix the systemic problem of corruption? Stein gets around to answering that to some extent, saying that as President she would use her Bully pulpit to help keep the public informed of important bills coming up. Of course, she is not actually going to be president, and this still requires way too much active participation by the public.

The truth is that Jill Stein does not seem to have the solution to Carlin’s “Gordian Knot” any more than any of the other third-party candidates he interviewed, and I agree with Carlin that her Green New Deal and other divisive stances, though admirable, are too distracting from the fundamental problems that she clearly understands need to take primacy. Still, I like her focus on transparency, corruption, and justice, and I think her campaign has the potential to bring these issues into the public discourse. That is the hope, anyway.

In the end, however, I’m afraid that these ideas will only catch on once the public can think critically and skeptically. That is the key to bringing about good policy in a democracy. If Stein’s ideas are good ones, a skeptical society will embrace them. If not, a skeptical society has a good chance of shifting focus to ideas that truly are good. Sadly, while we do have one party (R -Texas) specifically opposed to the kind of education that could bring about such a society, I have yet to see any party make supporting skeptical education one of the pillars of its campaign. Please let me know if there is one!

*****

In an effort to bring attention to issues of corruption, Dan Carlin and his minions have started a subreddit called “reformstorm.” I’m not a redditor myself, but I’ve looked at some of the posts and find it promising. Perhaps I’ll start an account. (205)

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