Wednesday, April 18, 2012

On Voting as an Ethical Choice

During past presidential elections, third party candidates have played the role of spoilers. Ross Perot may have influenced an election in favor of Bill Clinton; Ralph Nader may have tipped an election in favor of George Bush. Once, I shared the view that third party candidacies are counter-productive, but lately, I have come to the conclusion that voting for a third party candidate is the only ethical choice in today’s political environment. 

Third party candidate Ross Perot predicted NAFTA's devastating effect on the supply of American jobs. If not for pluralistic ignorance and its effects on his perceived electability, he might have won the 1992 presidential election.Getty Images

The course that has led me to this conclusion is this. Following the national economic calamity of 2007, the American people have been eagerly waiting for justice to be served. However, neither Democrats nor Republicans have committed themselves to the goal of imprisoning the financiers who brought this calamity upon the American people. In all likelihood, justice will not be served. The retired Americans who had placed their life-savings in the hands of these financiers will starve; people who had earned their way into the middle class are now sliding slowly but inescapably into the lower classes; and members of the lower class are more vulnerable than ever to the shifting winds of economic fortune. 

Meanwhile, the people who plundered them of their meager earnings are not asked to provide restitution, they are not punished, and they are showered with taxpayer money in the form of “bail-outs.” Many of these monsters are earning larger profits than ever, and are busily setting the stage for the next economic calamity. Any clear-thinking American now recognizes that the government of this nation no longer serves the American people; instead, this government serves the treasonous few who conspire against the interests of the American people for the sake of increasing their already considerable wealth. 

Americans have, for many years now, celebrated the American Dream: the idea of becoming wealthy by one’s own efforts. Therefore, we do not begrudge the wealthy their fortunes. Yet, the recent economic calamity has caused us to think more clearly, and distinguish between the wealthy who have earned their fortunes by honest means, and those who have earned their fortunes by means of theft and fraud. 

Americans are now beginning to remember the warnings of the Founders. The Founders knew that wealth can become concentrated into the hands of a small clique of individuals. They also knew that, once this happens, members of government will aspire to join this privileged clique, and renounce their loyalty to the people who voted for them. These members of government may call themselves “Democrats” or they may call themselves “Republicans” but in either case, the more honest description would be “tools of the oligarchy.” 

These corrupt members of government know that the privileged few profit by exporting American jobs, and will therefore do nothing to discourage this practice. Insatiable in their greed for wealth and power, corrupt members of government will never vote in favor of campaign finance reform, nor seek to rein in the deceptive, destructive, felonious – but also supremely lucrative – practices of the financiers. Knowing that their campaign contributors consist almost entirely of the top 1%, they will ignore the increasingly desperate pleas of 99% of Americans. As a result, neither Republican nor Democrat office-holders are interested in stamping out the evils that afflict the 99%. As compared to elected politicians’ most wealthy benefactors, the 99% do a poor job of filling the campaign coffers. Each election cycle, the cost of electing a president increases exponentially, and the two party organizations must try that much harder to ingratiate themselves to their wealthy donors. 

For the time being, members of the political class are still dependent on the votes of the American people, if they are to remain in power. If nothing is done, this will of course change. Freedom of speech will be gradually taken away; members of the military will engage in domestic law enforcement; the right of law-abiding Americans to be safe against intrusions into their private lives will vanish; the reach of surveillance will grow; fear of speaking against the government will increase and the need to speak out against the government will also increase. Ordinary Americans will be kept poor, never again enjoying the incomes they enjoyed as recently as the 1990’s, because the poor are dispirited and fearful and helpless to change the political situation. These predictions may strike the reader as extreme; but these historical events have occurred many times before in world history, and they will happen again. And, if the reader has been attentive to current events, he or she will recognize that each one of these portents of tyranny is already beginning to appear in this country.
Military helicopter over Chicago, The use of the military in domestic law enforcement is a clear violation of federal law. Happily, this was only a training exercise. April 2012. CBS

Having said all this, the reader may still feel a tug of loyalty to either the Republican or Democratic Party, believing it to be the “lesser of two evils.” Partisan politics has taught the American people to uncritically support one party and revile the other party. As a result, even if the favored party offers up a less-than-satisfactory candidate, the candidate will be showered with millions of votes, his or her name will appear on innumerable bumper-stickers and yard signs, and partisans will overlook the candidate’s faults and praise the candidate for virtues that he or she does not possess. A candidate who deserves at best tepid support will receive instead an outpouring of enthusiasm.
Surveillance. Our future? Source.

In fact, if a voter chooses a party or a candidate based on his or her narrow self-interest, members of labor unions might be better served by Democrats, and managers whose profits suffer when unions are strong might be better served by Republicans. People who choose to vote according to their self-interest are often deceived – in the case of the manufacturing industry, for example, American union members and managers both suffer when wealthy financiers decide to move their production to China. When a person becomes too absorbed by his or her self-interest, it is easy to lose sight of the larger context.

In the wake of SOPA and PIPA comes CISPA. source
The question remains: is it right to vote for the lesser of two evils? It may be a pragmatic choice, but is it the ethical choice? The idea that the act of voting is constrained by ethical considerations may seem quaint in this day and age, but ethics – or as the 18th century American patriots called it, “public virtue” – was the foundation on which this nation was built. And the patriots warned us that, if this foundation is not secure, the nation will crumble. 

To resolve the ethics of the issue, one may turn to one of the finest ethical and political philosophers of all time, and consult Plato’s Gorgias. Gorgias defends the art of oratory – that is, the art of persuasion. According to Gorgias, a man is powerful if he is able to change what others believe. Socrates takes the contrary view. Socrates argues that oratory is no art at all. The term “art,” for Socrates, applied to small handful of fields such as the field of medicine. A medical doctor possesses substantive knowledge of techniques that in fact improve the health of patients, and the doctor’s ability to successfully improve the health of patients is the standard by which he or she is judged. Oratory does not consist of substantive knowledge and is designed only to benefit the orator. For these reasons Socrates considered oration to be no more than a knack for pandering to that which gratifies the audience. 

Hence, if the audience consists of fundamentalist Christians, the politically-minded orator will appeal to the vanity of the audience by showing a profound regard for fundamentalist Christianity, and promise to advance the interests of this group. If the audience consists of union members, an orator will extol the virtues of union membership and promise to advance the union’s economic and political agenda. What does an orator gain from this? By controlling what others believe, the orator seeks to gain power. The orator is not driven by an earnest desire to fulfill his or her promises, because these promises are merely the means by which his or her true goal – the goal of power – is achieved. 

In contrast to oratory, statesmanship is an art. It is based on a substantive knowledge of what will improve the health of the body politic, and a leader can be judged by his or her results.
Our politicians are orators rather than statesmen. They are self-interested: that is, they seek to increase their own power, and therefore refuse to take up the cause of campaign finance reform or Electoral College reform, and dare not speak against the financiers who fund their campaigns. They encourage members of the public to vote in favor of their own narrow self-interests, because doing so divides the electorate and distracts voters from the public interest. They will appeal to Americans’ vanity rather than their patriotism, and rely on the inflammatory “red meat” issues that mobilize certain constituencies but are of no consequence whatever when it comes to rooting out sources of corruption. The two parties will blame each other for what they are unable to accomplish. If newly passed legislation is popular, a politician will take credit for it even if he or she had previously opposed it; and if it is unpopular, he or she will blame members of the opposing party even if he or she had previously supported it. Orators lie convincingly. 

And even the few honest politicians among the lot are forced to play by the rules of the game; no politician can be choosy about who is allowed to donate to his or her campaign; no politician can avoid promising favors; no politician can avoid endearing him- or herself to certain influential constituencies or alienating certain other constituencies. 

In summary, the lot that controls American government consists of mere orators and panderers. Our leaders are subservient to wealthy backers, care nothing about the trust that the voters have placed in them, and are preoccupied with increasing their private and separate advantages. It is hopelessly naive to believe that they will ever police themselves; it is folly to expect that they will ever turn away campaign contributions from their treasonous donors. But it is certainly true that if they will ever be compelled to behave in a lawful and ethical manner, it will be the result of the threat of punishment.  

If the American people seek to enact laws that will guarantee that corrupt politicians be punished, and that the corrupting influence of private campaign contributions be stopped, the only solution is to starve the Democratic and Republican parties of votes, contributions, and support of any kind. These votes, contributions, and support must be given instead to building new political parties and supporting the candidates of these parties. The reader may be forgiven for thinking, “if my favored party loses in the next election, it may compromise some things that I care about.” As Socrates convincingly argued, it is more commendable to suffer harm than to inflict harm on others, and that ultimately, what is in the public interest is in one’s own interest.


  1. You might be interested in my criticism of George Lakoff as an advocate of manipulative sophistry. I share your concern about the lack of ethical ground in politics

  2. I heartily agree that Lakoff's distinction between stern fathers and nurturing mothers leaves a lot to be desired. His perspective offers a view of human beings as one-dimensional when this is not, in fact, the case. The only hope for positive political change will come from recognizing the myriad talents and virtues of the American people.