Over at Wash Park Prophet, Andrew Oh-Willeke cites the one-word dismissal of so-called vanity candidates at Daily Kos’ round-up of Democratic presidential candidates and offers his agreement, though with a bit more explanation. I’ve been planning to blog on this rather bizarre notion for about a month, and Andrew has provided the nudge I needed to sit down and do it.
I simply don’t accept that the only worthwhile vote is one for the eventual winner or one that reflects a strategy to defeat an opposition candidate by casting a vote for someone nearly equally wanting. We complain perpetually that we don’t have good options, then we adopt Machiavelian strategies or misconstrue the results, thus ensuring that our options remain limited.
The idea that the only useful vote and therefore the only useful candidacy is one within striking distance of winning has gotten to be commonplace in the last two presidential election cycles, considering both were won/lost by a whisper-thin margin. When it was Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, or Jesse Jackson diluting two-party hegemony, no one really cared all that much. Those presidential elections weren’t hotly contested. But with the disputable advantage of hindsight, Ralph Nader has received no end of criticism because he — nothing and no one else — swung just enough votes away from the Democratic candidate to hand both elections to George Bush. Here’s the crux of the matter, according to Andrew:
Elections are for the [sole] purpose of selecting leaders. If you aren’t in the race to win, or have no viable chance of winning, you have a moral obligation to get out of the race.
I recently saw the Nader biodocumentary An Unreasonable Man, and Nader himself addresses the criticism that he should have bowed out of the race because it was clear his candidacy was doomed, assuming of course that the only possible objective was to win. Of special note was footage of Michael Moore campaigning for Nader in 2000, more footage of a typical Moore stunt — begging Nader (along with Bill Maher) to withdraw from the 2004 election — and a bit more footage of a Moore political speech/analysis repeating the spurious claim that Nader would cost Democrats their justly earned victory. (I lost a lot of respect for Moore with this turnabout.)
Of the many very insightful things Nader says in the documentary (indeed, most of his critics looked foolish and quite frankly insane by comparison), he asserts that his candidacy was about getting his issues into the political debate, truly advocating for the interests of the citizenry (as opposed to corporations and a hidden oligarchy), and breaking the two-party stranglehold on electoral politics. Although his critics argued vociferously that he was vain and self-serving, thus a vanity candidate, nothing about his candidacy really indicated that. Nader handily dismisses the suggestion that he had a moral obligation to clear a path for a Democratic front-runner by exiting the race; at one point he even made an offer to Kerry to bow out if only Kerry would ______ (my memory of the details fails me) but was rebuffed. Whose miscalculation was that?
There are as many different takes on how to exercise one’s civic responsibility as there are people. Clearly, many, many of us have decided for one reason or another to do nothing, to stay home and not vote, not learn about the issues or the candidates, not write checks to campaigns or letters to representatives, not agitate for change, not discuss political matters, etc. So when a fellow jumps into politics with a powerful enough message to motivate a decades-long citizen movement, how is it that we respond by accusing him of an unforgivable act of political sabotage?
By my lights, that’s just not how electoral politics works. Results have been skewed by endless polling and reporting on who we’re electing before we ever go to the ballot box. Ideally, candidates should state their opinions, biases, and visions and run their races according to their conscience. When they resort to politicking rather than governing, they become the true vanity candidates, endlessly and pointlessly chasing votes and power while pandering to the masses they purport to be serving. When elections are too close to predict, the strategic vote distorts the electoral process and instructs us to forget about voting our conscience. A dissenting vote or a vote for a third-party candidate is chalked up as a waste. The perspectives on this issue are by now hardened, and I don’t expect those who regard a vote of conscience or a political candidacy without hope of winning an outrage or moral failure to be swayed by my remarks — any more than I would expect a Republican to be swayed by a Democrat or vice versa. However, if the electorate truly learned about the candidates and voted their conscience, a third-party candidate might actually be legitimized and offer an alternative to the proverbial lesser of two evils.