You’re Responsible For Things That Happen Because Of You

Are third-parties solely responsible for “spoiling” elections? No. Are they still responsible? Yes.

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I recently published an article in which I defended the idea that people should think about voting strategically. Instead of deciding which person on the ballot best reflects your personal values, and voting for that person, you should think about what the potential consequences of your vote might be. Almost certainly, these consequences are negligible and your vote barely matters. But we also know for a fact that if 500 Nader voters in Florida had changed their minds in 2000 and voted for Al Gore, the disastrous Bush presidency could have been averted. Thus, I argued, if you live in a swing state where the Democrats need every vote they can get, you should vote for the Democrats. If you live in one of the 40-odd “safe states,” then vote however you please. (My argument is the same one made by John Halle and Noam Chomsky.)

People who are absolute defenders of voting third-party strongly object to the invocation of Nader. And there is one argument in particular that is made so commonly that it deserves a response, a reply I call the “million if’s argument.” It runs approximately like this:

Yes, it’s true that 500 Nader voters could have made the difference. But they’re not THE thing that made the difference. There are plenty of other factors that caused the 2000 election to go the way it did. Al Gore ran a terrible campaign, and did not successfully appeal to progressives. Clinton got himself impeached. Katherine Harris disenfranchised a bunch of Florida voters. The designer of the butterfly ballots caused a bunch of unintentional Buchanan votes. The Supreme Court stopped the recount. Because the margin was so narrow, if any one of these had been different, the outcome would have changed. It is therefore unfair to single out Nader voters as the cause. Why pick on them in particular? Why do Nader voters have a unique responsibility to vote for Gore? Why not blame the various registered Democrats who voted for Bush? Aren’t they equally responsible? Why not blame Gore himself? Why is it the voters’ job to support the candidate, rather than the candidate’s job to persuade the voters? Singling out Nader as the cause ignores all of the other causes, and presumes that Democrats have some sort of entitlement to the votes of progressives. 

This argument sounds very persuasive and is partially correct. But it misses the point. It’s absolutely true that many other factors caused the 2000 outcome. In fact, the list of “but-for” causes (i.e. the outcome would not have occurred but for “X” circumstance) is even longer than the argument suggests. After all, if Barbara Bush had never given birth to George, the outcome would have been different. If the American Revolution had never occurred, it would have been different. An infinite number of unrealized historical possibilities could have prevented the Bush presidency. So why pick on Nader voters?

Well, because the contingencies that matter are the ones you can affect. If I’m talking to a group of undecided progressive voters (which is who I am talking to with my article on why socialists should vote for Clinton in swing states), they are trying to decide how to use their votes. They can’t affect the tides of history, they can’t affect what the Broward County board of elections will do, they can’t affect the U.S. Supreme Court. The reason progressives should focus on the particular factor of “progressive voters who vote third-party” is because it is the factor that progressives themselves have some control over. Leftists can sit and curse Al Gore to the high heavens, but they can’t really change what Al Gore does. What they can do is change what they do. Blaming Katherine Harris is like blaming the tides. If contractor builds me a shoddy house, and it’s washed away in a storm, the contractor may have a point when he replies “Well, don’t blame me, the storm did it!” It’s certainly true that you need both contractor and storm to produce the outcome. But it can still be the case that he should have built me a better house.

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This is a problem in all cases where we’re trying to assign responsibility for events that have multiple causes. If I’m driving drunk, and you run a stoplight, which of us is responsible for the resulting accident? Well, we’re both equally responsible. I shouldn’t have been driving drunk and you shouldn’t have run the stoplight. But it’s no defense of my conduct for me to point to yours.

We can devise a hypothetical with more obvious election parallels. You, me, and Ned all serve on the board of the Amalgamated Toxic Waste Corporation (ATWC). The three of us are environmentalists, who have gotten ourselves elected to the board as part of a secret strategy to tame the dumping practices of the ATWC through the exercise of shareholders’ power. At a board meeting, the chairman announces we will vote on whether to dump two million barrels of radioactive sludge in the Pristine River. The issue is contentious. Our little environmentalist contingent discusses what to do. I say we should all vote “no,” because several other board members agree with us; I think we can tip the majority and make the difference. You and Ned say we should abstain, because to even participate in the process “legitimizes” the question of whether or not to dump toxic waste. You tell me that even to answer “no” is to suggest the question has merit in the first place. But I explain that however appealing this theory may be, we cannot follow it. The board calculates majority votes out of the number of members voting, not the number of members present. Thus in a 10-member board, if there are 3 other members willing to vote “no,” we will win 6-4 if we all vote “no,” but we will lose 3-4 if we abstain. Thus, I tell you, if you care about the consequences, you’ve got to vote “no.” Ned tells me you will both take my suggestion under advisement.

The votes come in. It’s 4-4. You and Ned have abstained, while I have voted “no.” A tie goes to the chair. The chair votes to dump the toxic waste. Thousands of birds die.

I am furious with the two of you. “What the hell did you do that for? We could have saved the lives of 1600 bare-throated tiger herons!” But you give me the “million if’s” argument. “Why are you singling out us for blame? Why aren’t you blaming the waste-dumping capitalist swine who proposed the motion? Why aren’t you blaming the chairman who broke the tie?”

The answer, of course, is the same as in the Nader case: because you’re the one who is supposed to care about progressive values. We can’t control what those other beastly fellows do! Obviously, everything that ever happens is precipitated by an infinite prior string of events. But we care about what we can change. You can’t help the consequences that come about because of other people, but you’re responsible for those that come about because of you. And the fact that there are a million other “but-for” causes doesn’t mean you’re not one yourself. It’s not a matter of whether the candidate or the voters are responsible, it’s that everyone is equally responsible for the things that happen because of choices they make.

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However, recognize that all of this also produces a corollary. It also means that third-party voters are right to complain that moderate Democrats unfairly single them out as a cause. If the progressive contingent is deciding among itself what to do, then it’s reasonable for it to focus on its own effects. But if someone outside the progressive contingent, like a right-leaning Democrat, blames Nader voters without equally blaming the right-leaning Democrats who voted for Bush, they are unfairly beating up on the left. If Gore’s horribly-run campaign was just a much a contributory cause as the decisions of Nader voters, then it’s just as mistaken for members of the Gore campaign to blame Nader voters and exonerate themselves as it is for Nader voters to blame Gore.

Thus I simultaneously believe that (1) Democrats should stop heaping blame and contempt on third-parties for their failures, when half the reason people vote third-party is a stubbornness fueled by Democrats’ contemptuous attitude toward them, and (2) if progressive voters in a swing state decide to vote third-party, and Democrats lose (but would have won if those voters had changed their minds), then the voters are (jointly) responsible for the outcome.

None of this suggests in any way that Hillary Clinton is not a horrendous candidate (and I vigorously reject any suggestion that the necessity of electing her means that progressive criticism of her should cease). If Clinton loses to Donald Trump, it will be correct to point out that her own failings were a large part of the cause. But if the decision of third-party voters also determined the outcome, then they must also answer for it themselves.

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.