Hellboy's Guide to the Election

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by Matthew Hisrich by Matthew Hisrich

Listening to political pundits, it might be easy to assume that the average American has little more than one purpose in life — to cast a vote for either John Kerry or George Bush in the upcoming presidential election. Should we be content with that role?

As odd as it may seem, we might find some answers in the recent movie Hellboy. In the film, the title character is brought to Earth solely to fulfill a destiny determined by another. By not following through — he is warned — he denies the very purpose for which he exists. By the end of the movie, though, Hellboy realizes that he is more than simply a tool to achieve the ends of others, and the choice he has been offered turns out to be no choice at all. Hellboy may have a lesson for us all this November.

The character Rasputin informs Hellboy that all he has to do is use his right hand to "elect" a new leader for the planet (that just happens to be a monster from beyond). To make the decision easier, Rasputin claims that he will kill the love of Hellboy's life should he not fulfill his role.

This is the classic scenario in ethics whereby individuals attempt to thrust the responsibility for their actions onto the backs of others. It is a common theme in movies and television shows where bad guys utter phrases along the lines of, "Kill him or the kid gets it."

In movies as in life, though, regardless of what the perpetrator might like to persuade anyone of, ultimately that person is responsible for his or her own actions as are those on the receiving end of the demand.

Now, apply this reasoning to the politics of the presidential election. We are told that it is our duty and obligation as citizens of a democracy to cast a vote and "make our voices heard." This may lead to a lot of guilt, but considering that the U.S. has one of the lowest voter turnouts of the world's democratic nations, few apparently feel this obligation is binding.

Perhaps this has something to do with the second half of the standard conventional wisdom: "A vote for any other party than the major two is a waste." Politicians reinforce this idea from another angle, trying to assure us that we are all enclosed beneath a "big tent."

Consider Arnold Schwarzenegger's words at the Republican National Convention, for instance. "And maybe — just maybe — you don't agree with this party on every single issue. I say to you tonight that I believe that's not only OK, but that's what's great about this country."

Read closely, this essentially translates into the following: what's great about this country is that 1) you have a moral obligation to vote, 2) you must choose between two candidates only, and 3) it does not matter whether you agree with the majority of the policies of your party of choice, merely that you disagree less with them than with the other party.

The problem with this logic is that — as with Hellboy's apparent decision (girlfriend dies / world destroyed) — we are offered an either/or. By agreeing we imply approval of not only the available choices, but also the actions of others that have led up to and will follow from the choice we make.

Such frustration is clearly evident as voters head to the polls this fall. As Reason Magazine Managing Editor Jesse Walker explains, against his better judgment, he finds himself hoping Kerry wins. "Not because I’m sure he’ll be better than the current executive," he says, "but because the incumbent so richly deserves to be punished at the polls. Making me root for a sanctimonious statist blowhard like Kerry isn’t the worst thing Bush has done to the country. But it’s the offense that I take most personally."

Choosing between a couple of candidates whose main aspirations seem to involve spending your money and spying on you hardly seems like much of a choice. As one person interviewed recently about the election comments, "Whoever is going to be President, I'm still going to have to pay taxes."

The reason that candidates take such similar positions is that in two-party politics, the median voter always wins. Across the political spectrum, average voters tend to fall in a standard bell curve on most issues. As long as there are only two candidates to choose from, the closer to the middle each candidate is, the more votes he or she will capture.

In his book Public Choice, David Johnson explains that this is simply the nature of two-party politics. "Political parties take nearly identical positions while trying to convince voters…that their policies are different."

If you know that the median voter defines every election going into the polls, though, then you know that what your particular views are matters even less than who you cast your vote for. The die has essentially already been cast.

Right up to Election Day, though, the party machines and special interest groups will be battling the perception that there really isn't a dime's worth of difference between the candidates.

Economist Joseph Schumpeter refers to these efforts as attempts to create a "Manufactured Will" among the people. This is because the rabid voter enthusiasm such groups tend to promote runs counter to what we have come to know about elections — our votes do not matter.

"Collectively the right to vote is extremely valuable," says Johnson, but "[t]he right to vote has little operational value to the individual, because a single vote has little probability of affecting the outcome of any election."

So is there any point in voting whatsoever? Potentially. As Johnson clarifies, the median voter model falls apart outside the confines of a two-party system.

In the movie, Hellboy finds a third way. He comes to understand that he cannot bear the responsibility for the damage that will take place should he fulfill his Rasputin-determined obligation. Nor can he accept responsibility for Rasputin's actions should Rasputin choose to harm his girlfriend. In the end, he rejects the false dichotomy presented to him entirely.

This fall, voters uneasy with the choices before them should recognize that other options exist for them, as well. Third parties — Green, Libertarian, Reform, and the like — have been gaining increasing attention in recent elections. In part, this may be due to a growing awareness of the pointlessness of voting for traditional candidates.

Voting for a third party candidate allows individuals to break free from the stranglehold of the median voter and actually cast votes based on what they believe. Once the average voter recognizes that his or her vote has zero impact on who wins an election it becomes clear that making a choice on principle "counts" far more than voting for the sake of political expediency or to prevent the election of "the greater of two evils."

Such votes also send a signal to politicians that they can no longer continue moving further toward the center of the political spectrum and expect to hold onto all of the voters to the right or left of their position.

Hellboy takes a stand for what is right despite enormous pressure to make a decision between unnecessarily limited options. Voting outside of the two-party system may allow unsatisfied voters out of a similar morality trap in which nobody really wins. Instead, they can embrace what it truly means to have their voice heard in the election.

Matthew Hisrich [send him mail] is a policy analyst with The Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions.

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