Archives for category: electoral strategy

[Update: This post was intended for, but the formatting and pictures only seem to work here.]

[Update 2: Below]

Too often, voters seem to get caught up in trying to make sure “their guy” wins, and meanwhile they lose sight of their underlying objective: making the world a better place, and maximizing whatever utility function they see fit. Normally, this would be an implicit objective — not many people have literally constructed a utility function for their political objectives, but everyone has things they think are important and those define their “implicit utility function.” The truth is that casting a vote for the less offensive of the two “viable” candidates, or advocating for others to cast their votes that way, is not necessarily the best strategy for your long-term well-being. I actually think there are many good reasons not to vote for the major parties (one being that their policy differences are overblown), but today I just want to highlight one perpective that I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere.

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[First published on on 8/18/12]

Criticizing the deceitfulness of one’s ideological opponents is the national pastime of the blogosphere, but it’s all rank hypocrisy unless one simultaneously holds the discourse of one’s ideological allies to an equally high standard. I wish neither to be a hypocrite nor to relinquish the moral high ground required to criticize my ideological opponents, so I feel obligated to point out a an example of unfair “spin” that’s recently been propagated by Glenn Greenwald and Jay Tomlinson’s The Best of the Left podcast. Since this is ostensibly a skeptical blog, and since a primary goal of the Skeptic Movement is to improve the level of discourse in society, this topic seems especially appropriate. Besides, this shit’s been getting on my nerves for weeks. Before I get into it, I want to emphasize that these rhetorical offenses are not representative of BotL and (especially) Greenwald; to the contrary, I find them noteworthy because they are exceptional.

Basically, the criticism that I find problematic is the following: that libertarians and minarchists who receive government assistance are necessarily stupid or unprincipled or hypocritical. The assumption being made about libertarians is that because they would prefer a governmental system devoid of financial assistance and a safety net, it must follow that these libertarians consider it unethical to make use of the safety net or to accept any assistance from the government. Greenwald and the commentators on BotL disregard the possibility that a libertarian might simply be doing the best he can under a system he finds wasteful or otherwise problematic but not necessarily unethical. I think we can fairly call this type of criticism an “implicit straw man” argument: the critics are making an unstated false assumption about the ideology of these people, and then basing their criticism on that assumption.

As a quick aside, I want to say that even if an individual did consider the system unethical, calling him unprincipled for participating in it as best he can still seems unfair. We are talking about people who are stuck in a system that they believe unethically and forcibly extracts money from them through taxes. If a thief takes your money and offers some of it back, is that charity? When forced to live in a system you consider inherently immoral, do you really have a moral obligation to hold yourself to the ethical standards of your preferred political system? To hold people to their own higher standards in such a situation is, at best, rather presumptuous.

In any case, the “hypocrite” charges that I wanted to discuss here are even sillier, because they don’t even bother trying to establish whether the recipient of government assistance considers it unethical or whether they realize that they will lose their benefits under the system they are supporting. Examples of this sloppy type of criticism have been popping up on BotL for months, but I only started making note of them when I heard this egregious example in a clip featuring Jimmy Dore, where he calls Ron Paul a hypocrite for cashing his social security checks without establishing whether Paul has ever suggested that doing so is unethical. Later, BotL played this clip from The David Pakman Show, the end of which criticizes an opponent of the Affordable Care Act for “voting against her interests,” as if it would be more admirable for her to vote for her “interests” than for her principles. Now this past week, Glenn Greenwald joined the fray, denouncing “Paul Ryan — Randian Super-Hero of Individual Self-Reliance and Working Class Warrior against government debt, waste, and intrusiveness — whose actual life is a testament to the precise opposite values,” simply because “he has relied, and continues to rely, on various forms of government help in climbing every rung on his educational and careerist ladder.” This criticism is based primarily on the social security benefits Ryan received after his father died while Ryan was a teenager. Another BotL clip from Sam Seder on The Majority Report made explicit part of the “implicit straw man” argument by claiming that libertarians don’t even know what “small government” means, and that “everyone’s a libertarian until it infringes upon what they like.” Even here, though, the central assumption underpinning all these criticisms, that libertarians necessarily consider receiving benefits to be unethical, is left unsaid.

Let me state this as clearly as possible: there is nothing hypocritical, unprincipled, or even mildly pernicious about enjoying the benefits offered by one political system while simultaneously working towards changing that system. In fact, it is all the more admirable for someone to work for change when it would incur a negative affect on one’s own personal short-term fortunes, for this implies a willingness to sacrifice personal enrichment in exchange for what one perceives as a more righteous society.

Whether Paul Ryan or the other people criticized in these clips are truly motivated by such lofty idealism is not relevant to the point I’m making here. The point is that it is a breach of civil discourse to assume the most cynical of motives without any real evidence to support such an assumption. Greenwald implies that since Paul Ryan used social security checks to help pay his way through college (and other minor examples of benefiting from government programs), it’s now reasonable to assume duplicity when he says he doesn’t think such payments are good for society. To assume such base motives with such little evidence looks to me like rank out-group demonization. Greenwald does not even bother pointing out that Ryan has, in fact, criticized those who accept government assistance, calling them “takers.” It seems that Greenwald considers this irrelevant to his point that Ryan does not live up to his principles. To the contrary, it is a critical point. I’m genuinely surprised at Greenwald’s sloppiness here.

Just as problematic is Pakman’s argument that the woman who is opposed to Obamacare is stupid for not supporting what is clearly in her own self interest. To him I say: criticize such activists for being stupid if you must, but understand that such a criticism implies that you respect only the most cynical, personal enrichment-based ideology. Or perhaps you don’t care if your argument makes sense as long as it’s pithy. This is about as distasteful as things can get for a skeptic, and I have to call it out when I see it being made by someone on my side of the argument.

Worst of all was probably Jimmy Dore’s attempt at skewering Ron Paul for hypocrisy. An accusation of hypocrisy is only valid when the accused has attempted to mislead someone about his true convictions. Perhaps Dore assumes that Paul secretly likes big government because it has benefitted from it financially. If that were the case, Paul’s proclamations against big government would indeed be hypocritical. The problem is that Dore provides no evidence to suggest this is the case. Indeed, there is no indication that Dore thinks any such case needs to be made. He simply declares Paul a hypocrite for accepting Social Security. To me, Paul seems to simply be living as well as he can under what he views as an imperfect system. Either way, Dore transgresses civil discourse by making the charge of “hypocrite” without bothering to present evidence for it.

Finally, the Sam Seder clip reveals the amount of credit these commentators seem to be giving to the supposed principles of libertarians: “everyone’s a libertarian until it infringes upon what they like.” Just as with the other commentators, Seder is unfairly presupposing the worst possible motives for all libertarians. Even if it was meant as hyperbole, unsubstantiated blanket statements like this do not belong in civil discourse.

To be sure, some American libertarians don’t realize exactly what their political ideology would entail, and some libertarians do feel that accepting government charity is unethical. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the individuals criticized by Greenwald, Seder, Dore, and Pakman are indeed guilty of the hypocrisy or stupidity with which they are charged. If so, it is incumbent upon their critics to establish this guilt rather than to just assume it. Otherwise, it lowers the level of discourse.


Glenn Greenwald is moving to The Guardian, which I hope will be less infested with intrusive ads than his previous host, Salon. (I guess I could have simply subscribed to get rid of those ads.) The Guardian is (was?) also home to Bad Science, the excellent skeptical column by Ben Goldacre.


The discussions at the end of the Best of the Left episodes recently have involved theories about centrism and third-party voting. Considering that I’ve been thinking about voting third-party, I’ve found the discussion quite interesting.


I just noticed that the August 6 episode of Occupy Media features Dan Carlin. I’m very excited to listen to that, especially considering I think I “introduced” Dan to them via Twitter. (132)

[First published on 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)