Cognitive dissonance, thy name is Election 2016.
And then we have the recent spectacle of a presidential candidate making disparaging comments about a gold-star family. To be fair, the Khan family willingly entered the vicious arena of public discourse and therefore some observers may conclude they are fair game for criticism. But it should go without saying that callously attacking the parents of a man who gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country shows incredibly poor judgment, discretion, and wisdom. Yes, the Democrats set a trap for the Republican candidate. And he walked right into it.
It may very well be an apocryphal story, but I seem to remember during the 1996 election, Bob Dole’s campaign strategy was publicly criticized by John McCain in a rare (at the time) display of intra-party fratricide. When asked about it at a press conference, Bob Dole replied something to the effect of, “That man spent seven years in a box for his country. He’s earned the right to say whatever he wants to about me.” Bob Dole is a true statesman, a man who himself suffered greatly for his country, and a former athlete who never forgot that one doesn’t need to swing at every pitch that comes their way.
When I studied government and public policy as an undergrad in the mid-nineties, the overarching concern at the time was the dearth of political participation and voter turnout. Countless academics and intellectuals feared that our fragile democracy was going to wither due to neglect. Now we face a far different problem, in which the centrifugal forces of rabid partisanship and unwillingness to compromise threaten to spin apart the machinery of our democratic process. Although it is a recurring lament in the modern media age that our elections lack any substantive discussion of the issues, we are definitely at a new low in this particular cycle. Have we as a society made the presidential election so vapid, so difficult, such a marathon slog through meaningless appearances and posturing, focusing more on avoiding the errant gaffe than providing anything remotely resembling vision and leadership, that we are finally getting the candidates we deserve? Have we driven out the true servant leaders, leaving only the vain and self-entitled to vie for public office? As Plato, quoting Socrates, wrote in The Republic, “He who refuses to rule is liable to be ruled by one who is worse than himself.” Quite possibly we are in for a string of one-term presidents, much like during the pre-Civil War period, until we get ourselves sorted out politically. (Although I believe that such a “sorting” will be done without the violence of that previous era.)
So what is a citizen to do, in such an election when many voters find themselves opposed to a particular candidate more than they are inspired by another?
One option is to not vote at all. In general this is something I would discourage. Voting is not only the right of a citizenship, it is one of its most sacred obligations. Yet there is a powerful statement sent by not voting, in withholding a mandate and making it clear through low voter turnout that no matter who wins, he or she does not speak for a vast portion of the American electorate. My only advice, if one chooses to not vote for a presidential candidate, is to not ignore the state and local elections further down the ballot.
Voting for a third party candidate, or a write-in nominee, is another obvious choice for those dissatisfied with the major party nominees and sends a similar, yet more focused message, than not voting at all. However, third party voting presents a sort of prisoner’s dilemma in that you are relying on the cooperation of numerous other voters to vote the same way in order to break the monopoly of our two-party system. For better or worse, the design of our political ecosystem is one in which there is only enough oxygen to viably sustain two parties of consequence. Sometimes the perfect can be the enemy of the good, and third-party voting risks allowing the election of the greater of two perceived evils.
In a political election, there are four characteristics a voter should look for in a candidate: issue alignment, character, experience, and competence. When none of the available options meets all (or even most) of the criteria, you have to prioritize. Which leads to the final option, what I would describe in game theory parlance as a “minimax” strategy, that is to vote for the candidate that will do the least damage. Or put more colloquially, if you don’t like the direction any of them are driving, pick the one least likely to run the car into a ditch.
Regardless, you have an important choice to make this November. Good luck. We’re all counting on you.