Even though I’m paid to be a political philosopher, there are few things I dislike more than talking about American politics. When it’s not depressing, it’s infuriating. I’m angry about my president killing foreign and American people at his discretion; I’m angry that we continue to ruin young people’s lives, destroy communities, and spend billions of dollars fighting a war on drugs that can’t be won; I’m angry that our government subsidizes big banks, big agribusiness, and big pharmaceutical companies while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet.
And I don’t like to be angry. Accordingly, I prefer to spend most of my time thinking about happier things: my family, my friends, my work. Even the new season of “Dexter” is cheery stuff by comparison.
So it takes a lot to get me to hold my nose and find my way to a polling booth. But this year, there’s someone running for president for whom I’m positively happy to vote: former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who, after an abortive and little-noticed attempt to secure the Republican nomination, is now running as the candidate of the Libertarian Party. He’s the only person running for president who opposes bombing Iran; he’s the only candidate who supports marriage equality as a fundamental constitutional right; he’s the only candidate who supports the immediate repeal of the PATRIOT and National Defense Authorization Acts; and he’s the only candidate who’s serious about fighting crony capitalism. I’m also pretty sure he’s also the only candidate who’s crowd-surfed at a campaign-related event. That seems like it ought to be worth something.
Of course, Johnson is running as neither a Democrat nor a Republican, which means that he’s almost certainly not going to win the election. And so, people tell me, I’m wasting my vote. Sometimes they’re even angry about it. How dare I waste my vote when so much is at stake in this election? A vote for Johnson might as well be a vote for that other guy, and we all know what a disaster it would be if he wins, right?
I don’t buy it. The idea seems to be that even if I like Johnson’s policies I should suck it up and vote for the lesser of two evils because 1) it matters a great deal whether Obama or Romney wins the election, and 2) my vote plays an important role in determining which of these two outcomes occurs. But both of these claims are flat-out wrong.
Regarding the first, it’s worth bearing in mind that differences in rhetoric do not always add up to differences in policy. Republicans talk the free-market talk, at least during primary season. But a different story emerges when we look at the actual policies they tend to produce. Sure, there are differences of degree. Obama would probably be a bit better on the war on drugs, immigration, and civil liberties (but still pretty awful, especially on that last one), while Romney might be a bit better on tax policy and, I don’t know, looking presidential. But taken as a whole, the policy positions of the two major candidates are close to indistinguishable. And it’s not an accident. It’s essentially a permanent feature of our first-past-the post political system, which gives candidates every incentive to cater to the whims of the median voter precisely because they feel safe that their more conservative (or more liberal) base will vote for them rather than waste their vote on a more radical but unelectable third-party candidate.
As for my vote making an important difference, let’s get real. I live in California, where Obama is currently polling about 16 points ahead of Romney. No matter what I do, Obama is going to get California’s 55 votes in the Electoral College. My vote simply doesn’t matter even for which way my state goes, let alone the election as a whole. And while California might be an extreme case, one recent study put the odds of a randomly selected voter anywhere in the United States making a difference in the outcome of the election as a vanishingly low 1 in 60 million. If you live in a swing state, they might be as high as 1 in 10 million. By contrast, your odds of being struck by lightning sometime this year are a relatively realistic 1 in 1 million. Bottom line: it will almost never, ever be the case that your vote (or lack thereof) makes the difference between victory and defeat for your candidate.
So is a vote for Johnson a wasted vote? Maybe, but only in the sense that all voting is a waste of time. Personally, I like to think of it a different way. If your vote doesn’t have any real impact on the outcome of the election, then it’s voting for someone you don’t actually believe in for reasons of strategy that’s the real waste. I’m voting for Gary Johnson because he stands for principles that matter to me, and because I want to express my support for him, and those principles, in a semi-public way. If this be wasteful, make the most of it.
Matt Zwolinski is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, and founder of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog.