Don't Tell Me What I Can't Do: A Lockean Approach to Voting

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It is not unusual to find, in many media and blog reports about Ron Paul, the statement that he won’t, or can’t, win. Not, be it noted, that "political analysts agree" that he can’t win, which would at least indicate that this is an opinion based on some sort of analysis. No, just "he can’t win," reported in the same manner a reporter might say, "Ron Paul visited Austin yesterday." I have never seen or heard this statement supported with an explanation. It is just presented as a fact, or self-evident truth.

This tactic, of presenting an event that has not yet occurred as a fact, a given or fait accompli, is at best impertinent and at worst an underhanded tactic intended to influence the electorate by undermining support. The eventual outcome is, after all, a decision that is to be made by the voters, first through the primary process and then through the general election. It is presumptuous, and not the place of either reporters or commentators, to tell the voters what they can’t do. In this regard, any voter worth his salt will adopt a Lockean approach to every opinion monger’s attempt to foreclose the future by cloaking it in air of inevitability that renders the voter’s beliefs and actions risible and meaningless, because destined to fail. I refer not to John Locke the philosopher, whose work is the foundation of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but to his namesake on Lost, who rebuffs everyone who tries to stop him by telling him that he can’t do it with a peremptory "Don’t tell me what I can’t do." (See also the first and sixth set of script quotes here and the fifth set here).

Why this haste to announce, prejudge or preordain the outcome? What pressing necessity compels our intrepid reporters and commentators to tell us that Ron Paul can’t win? I can’t read minds, so I can’t say for certain what motivations lie behind this remark. However, as someone who writes, and has to decide what to leave in and leave out, it is clear that the authors feel a very strong need to express their own position on Ron Paul’s candidacy, and possibly to affect the voter’s decision, and they do it in this fashion. In this regard, the statement that Ron Paul can’t win, presented as a given, can serve a number of purposes, some relatively innocent, others not.

It can be a way for the author to distance himself from the campaign, letting us know that he is not taken in by the Ron Paul revolution, so that we know his own sympathies lie elsewhere, or that he remains hardheaded and sober, able to coolly assess the phenomenon with his expert or insider’s view of the processes unfolding before him.

It can be the means by which the reporter wishes us to understand that he is wise in the ways of the world, knows how the America electoral process really works, understands how highly circumscribed, and thus predictable, the ultimate outcome is, and knows that the structure or demands of this process will prevent Ron Paul from winning. (He just can’t be bothered to share the explanation with us at the moment.)

It can serve as a dismissal or condemnation, an insinuation that the Ron Paul candidacy is out of the mainstream, flaky, cultist, and so will never achieve widespread support.

And at worst, and whether intended or not, it can be a tacit suggestion to the voter to abandon his support for Ron Paul, or to not waste time even finding out about Ron Paul, because the candidacy is doomed to failure. It can act as an implicit appeal to the voter to be "realistic," to make himself a part of a team that can win, so that he may ultimately be part of the winning team. I have, for example, heard Rush Limbaugh overtly make this kind of argument in past elections. His message and voting philosophy is always, don’t waste your vote on quixotic candidacies. Support the candidate on our side who has the best chance of winning, even if he is less than perfect, so that our side can win, and you can get something of what you want, instead of not voting or dividing the vote, losing to the other side and getting even less of what you want, and a disaster for our country.

While couched as advice to make your vote meaningful, the "don’t waste your vote" appeal (subtext: real change is impossible) is a tactic used to herd and control voters. Its illogical, manipulative, and debasing nature becomes obvious as soon as you state what it is that it really asks, namely, that the voter base his vote on what the largest number of votes of others (who are still on his "side") is going to be, for the purpose of adding to that number. There is an obvious epistemological flaw in this plan. If everyone were to act on this basis, the absurdity is evident. But even if only a large enough group number of people acts on this basis, then no one really knows what others really do believe or what their preferred choice really is, because too many are expressing, not their own choice, but what they believe the greatest number of others (still on their "side") believe. Obviously, this makes a complete mockery of voting, not least because it makes it impossible to claim that the final vote registers a real consensus of what voters truly believe. Instead, it becomes a consensus of what voters believe other voters believe, or some indeterminate mixture.

The tactic would be valid only if everyone first knows what everyone else’s real preferences are, and, accordingly, requires two votes to actually implement: a first vote in which everyone votes their conscience and real choice, and then a second vote in which only those who lost on each side get to change their votes and reallocate them, in an act of gamesmanship for the express purpose of affecting the ultimate outcome. Without this, in the context of a single vote, the strategy simply creates a muddle by obscuring the voters’ real preferences and this, I suspect, is part of its purpose. Thus does the status quo gain an added patina of legitimacy and staying power, as no one is sure of one another’s real degree of support, and each voter walks away thinking, well, I don’t like this very much, but look at how many others seem okay with this.

The real reason for the appeal lies in its implementation, however. As a practical matter, in order for the voter to carry out his plan to coordinate his vote with others, he will have to rely on polls, media reports, pundits, and radio and other media personalities to inform — or tell — him who is "electable," who can win, and who is too marginal to win. He has to trust someone to inform him who is electable and who is not, so that he does not "waste" his vote. By agreeing to treat himself as a tool to be used for "the good of the team," the voter essentially cedes power and influence to a handful of gatekeepers and king makers. This is the primary purpose of the appeal to not waste votes — it directs votes into the channels chosen by a handful of insiders, operatives and elites. The voter agrees to treat himself as a tool of others, lets (what he is told or believes, rightly or wrongly, is) the judgment of others determine his own action, and so becomes a tool for others, and is used accordingly.

Finally, if the voter is going to abandon his real choice, compromise his principles or beliefs for the sake of party, to gain something of what he wants, or even just to prevent "the other side" from winning, then he should realize that he is in no position to claim betrayal or outrage when the person he helps put in office compromises or abandons supposedly bedrock principles to get something of what that elected official wants. Pot, meet kettle. It is hypocritical, dysfunctional and delusional of the voter to expect that his elected official will adhere to a standard of integrity to which the voter cannot even hold himself. Someone once tried to explain this dynamic to us: "As you measure, so it will be measured unto you." If you believe no other candidate represents your principles, the honest thing to do is to not vote at all, rather than bestowing on some other candidate the illusion of a level of support and legitimacy that he or she does not really have, and thus misleading your fellow citizens and swelling the head of the elected official who believes he or she just received a thumbs up in an "accountability moment."

So, supporters of Ron Paul, or of other underdogs and dark horse candidates like Dennis Kucinich or Mike Gravel, if you want to live your own life, if you want to pursue your own destiny and not let others tell you what you are capable of, then vote your conscience, and don’t settle for less. And when operatives and pundits try to foreclose or corral your vote by telling you that your candidate can’t win, remember that you are a free agent. Be a voter in the Lockean mold. Tell them, don’t tell me what I can’t do.

Jeff Snyder [send him mail] is an attorney who works in Manhattan. He is the author of Nation of Cowards — Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control, which examines the American character as revealed by the gun control debate. He occasionally blogs at The Shining Wire. Read this interview of him.

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