I understand the thought process behind a piece like Clay Shirky’s “There’s No Such Thing As A Protest Vote”. I’d like to offer a different perspective. I chose to focus on Shirky’s piece because I believe it accurately reflects a particular perspective that is out there and the article itself is currently being shared extensively on social media and elsewhere as a school of thought some people are connecting with.
I think Shirky’s viewpoint runs the danger of functioning as a narrative for those who want to feel irreproachable in their voting decision by making any other voting choices or perspectives ineffective, irresponsible, and/or a sign of weakness. Shirky’s insistence that “Presidential voting is an exercise in distinguishing the lesser of two evils. Making that choice is all that’s asked of us, and all that’s on offer” can be seen as one example of a school of thought that indirectly (or even directly) stifles political change. It most certainly can be argued that it stifles progress.
Shirky sees only three options in voting this election (or any other):
A. I prefer Donald Trump be President, rather than Hillary Clinton.
B. I prefer Hillary Clinton be President, rather than Donald Trump.
C. Whatever everybody else decides is OK with me.
Shirky continues: “People who choose Option C aren’t being purer about their political choices — they’ve abandoned politics altogether.” He insists that “It’s easy to argue that our system shouldn’t work like that. It’s impossible to argue it doesn’t work like that.” Shirky’s choices are not only staggeringly narrow (yes, I would argue) but his interpretation could be seen as downright undemocratic in its limiting of the nuances and opportunities inherent in the Democratic process itself, not to mention startlingly dismissive and inflexible regarding the effectiveness of anyone or anything else.
The idea of “this is what we got so deal with it” is not what Democracy is about. Nor do I believe that’s “all that’s asked of us.” Not by a long shot. And I do not subscribe to the theory that our system is only set up to vote for the lesser of two evils and that anyone who chooses to vote differently is “throwing away their vote” or simply “salving wounded pride” or enacting “an elaborate way of making the rest of us do the work of deciding,” as this article insists. All that does is feed into the very same school of thought that has brought us to the place we are now: where people feel there is no place within the establishment – on either side – where their voices can be heard, have meaning, or are even welcome: “it doesn’t matter what message you think you are sending, because no one will receive it. No one is listening.”
It feels like these ideas go a long way toward belittling catalysts such as idealism and conscience as being luxuries that have no place in a modern political landscape. Much in the same way schools across the nation have cut their Arts programs because they see them as luxuries, without ever connecting how much Art class in schools actually crosses over and directly aids students in other subjects like math, science, and history. It’s learning HOW to learn in different ways. It offers the pivotal opportunity of seeing and comprehending various perspectives. What Shirky’s article also attempts to do – and this is an age-old political strategy – is to actually redefine the term “conscience:” “Citizens who vote for third-party candidates, write-in candidates, or nobody aren’t voting their conscience, they are voting their ego, unable to accept that a system they find personally disheartening actually applies to them.” I find this particularly denigrating and ill-considered.
People who vote Third Party do so for many different reasons. Many, it appears, Shirky’s article isn’t interested in addressing. One could see it as the author being more focused on diminishing and castrating those voices and actions that don’t match his desire for things to be a certain way, rather than in trying to understand and empathize with other perspectives and definitions of conscience. Again, not the most Democratic approach. I think to make the claim that voting Third Party is a vote of ego and that “your conscience is what keeps you from doing things that feel good to you but hurt other people” is to completely miss the irony of those statements as they might refer to Shirky’s own approach to his own article.
Showing a whole generation that their only choice isn’t just between the lesser of two evils is immensely important. It has a ripple effect. This is particularly relevant right now as Bernie Sanders did something kind of amazing: he brought the Third Party ideals into the mainstream. He did it as a Democrat because he knew articles and definitions of responsibility like Shirky’s would work diligently to diminish the validity of those ideals and frame courage of convictions as too dangerous, too egocentric. But now those ideals are in the mainstream. And guess what? Millions are drawn to it. And not just mildly or out of curiosity, but with wild enthusiasm and a giant sigh of “Finally!” This needs to be recognized and not diminished in order to make any valuable assessment.
The school of thought Shirky’s article promotes can be seen as a part of what paved the way for a candidate like Donald Trump. It’s so easy to focus on the hatred Trump has uncovered and stoked. But that’s a product of the systemic racism and classism that has been perpetuated by the continued act of voting for the lesser of two evils. We’ve been justifying this as a critical attempt to impede backwards momentum, telling ourselves it is the necessary evil of incrementalism, all at the expense of impelling ourselves forward. We’ve reduced our options to actively sustaining the underpinnings of marginalization and disenfranchisement and brought them to a precipice of our own making. Racism isn’t a cause, it’s a result. It happens because many of the same ideas that are being promoted in Shirky’s article perpetuate the notion that there is only one way to act, one way to vote, one way to be heard, one way to make a difference.
It’s an ironic time to be latching onto that particular school of thought during an election cycle in which a non-establishment candidate literally overthrew the Republican Party and rallied voters to his side because they believe he has heard them… And the same election where a 74-year old Socialist ran as a Democrat and received 46% of the votes and further fueled a growing movement… What more do we need to see before we start realizing that there are ways to have our voices heard that don’t fit snugly into the system or school of thought this article claims is our only reality? When do we say, “Hey, maybe things are changing and I’d like to get on board with that” and “maybe there’s a place where I can be heard and millions of other people are there, too” instead of “that’s just pie-in-the-sky” or “there’s no such thing?”
I fear Shirky’s viewpoint and others like it are in danger of sustaining a narrative that achieves very little beyond offering us someone else to blame and an excuse not to have to turn criticisms inward or toward our chosen candidates; to not hold them accountable or to push them harder next time but, instead, inspiring us to look for scapegoats.
A perfect example is the continued narrative that it was Ralph Nader and those who voted for him that lost the election for Democrats and Gore in 2000. The reality is that in the pivotal state of Florida where the election was decided, far more registered Democrats voted for George W. Bush than voters from any party did for Nader. CNN’s exit poll showed that Nader took in the same amount of votes from both Republicans and Democrats: 1 percent. And 4 percent from Independents. However, 13 percent of registered Democrats voted for Bush! So why do people still insist on blaming Nader and those who voted for him instead of acknowledging Gore’s unfortunate low likability rating and running what was largely considered an underwhelming campaign? Why is it that people choose not to address that Gore and many of our fellow Democrats weren’t able to secure the votes of those Democrats who ended up voting for Bush? And that doesn’t even take into account that voting systems failed during that election – many as a result of direct manipulation – and the Supreme Court’s vote of George W. Bush as the winner. What does perpetuating a false narrative achieve except in offering us a distraction from our own miscalculations and someone else to blame?
Articles like “There’s No Such Thing As A Protest Vote” rarely convince Third Party Voters to change their minds. Instead, they miss an immense opportunity for outreach, tolerance, and understanding and run the risk of extending the impression that those grappling with Third Party votes are STILL not being heard or appropriately recognized as part of our Democracy. They confirm even more deeply the importance of showing people that voting their conscience and voting for what they believe DOES mean something. Idealism is not a luxury. It’s a crucial and essential part of human survival – and the Democratic process. It impels us to strive to be and do better. If we lose that, we lose Democracy and that is, ironically, what many Third Party voters believe they are trying to protect.
If there’s one self-aware insight to be culled from Shirky’s article, it’s this: “The story you tell yourself about your political commitments are yours to construct.”
There is no one “correct” perspective. Only varying perspectives. All of which deserve consideration and tolerance if we are to have any chance of moving forward.