24 February 2008

Find Another Hobby, Ralph

“Dissent is the mother of ascent,” Ralph Nader said on “Meet the Press” this morning. “And in that context, I have decided to run for president.” [. . .] and accusing people opposed to his candidacy of “political bigotry.” [. . .] he said, “Let’s get over it and try to have a diverse, multiple votes, multiple choice ballot like they do in Europe.”*
The problem, Ralph, is that we don't have that kind of electoral system. Regretable as that might be, in the actual context of American politics, the only plausible reason why you'd run for President is an unattractive combination of moralism and ignorance. Let's state the obvious.

In the U.S. the electoral system is single-member, plurality rule, winner-take-all.. The means that the candidate with the most votes wins, even if he (note gender of pronoun) does not attain an actual majority of votes cast. Among the very, very few well established empirical generalizations in political science is that (with few specifiable exceptions) such an electoral system sustains a two-party system and accounting for the dismal perfomance of third party candidates. You can find a gallery of these crackpots here.

The underlying causal story is pretty clear. In such a setting, a voter confronting a list of candidates, has no reason to stick with her ideologically most preferred candidate unless she thinks her candidate can, with some reasonable probability, actually win. Otherwise she will switch to her second or third or whatever choice. This is called strategic voting. You simply vote for the candidate you like best conditional on a reasonable expectation that that candidate might actually prevail over his opponents. After all, there is no chance of having one's ideological or policy views implemented absent a representative to advocate for them in the halls of government. Getting elected, in other words, is important. (Obviously, getting elected is not sufficient, but it is necessary.) In showing that this is the case, political scientists have placed what your Grandmother knows on a firm social scientific footing. Quite an accomplishment.

This does not mean that no one ever supports lost causes. Although any sensible assessment shows them to be doomed to defeat, third party candidates regularly attract small (usually miniscule) numbers of voters. Indeed, I myself have regularly voted for lost causes, mostly because I think my indivdual vote has no chance of altering the outcome in any election. I figure I might as well stake out an improbable position on the ideological spectrum. But that does not account for why the candidates I've voted for put themselves forward as lost causes in the first place. There has got to be more politically useful things to do.

I recommend that Ralph find a less irritating hobby. He has zero chance of doing anything other than siphoning a smallish percentage of left-leaning independents away from whomever is the Democratic candidate. I already have made it clear [1] [2] [3] that I don't much like either of the Democratic options. But I like McCain - he of the commitment to endless war and a litle noticed, newly found tolerance for torture - considerably less. Anything Nader does to increase the chance that McCain might beat Clinton or Obama directly undermines the "principles" Ralph so rigidly proclaims. This is a situation where having fewer choices is strictly better. Only Nader's overly inflated self-regard stands in the way of his seeing that.
* From The New York Times here.



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