I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, but he is no longer in the race. I am now being told that I should vote for Joe Biden in the fall, for if I abstain from voting or if I vote for the Green Party candidate then I would be guilty of supporting Donald Trump and would therefore have to accept part of the responsibility for all the horrible things that he would probably do. But I don’t want to lend my support to Biden either, for many different reasons. This situation poses a dilemma. It is a real dilemma, not a made-up one, and so it deserves some serious attention.
Let’s begin with a fundamental questions: What is the purpose of a Presidential election? Here’s a tentative answer: The purpose of a Presidential election is to provide citizens the opportunity to express their opinion as to which particular candidate should hold that office for the next four years.
In the United States, the opinion we express through a Presidential election is not binding, for we the people do not actually elect the President. Rather, we elect the 535 electors who, in turn, make that decision on our behalf. The main reason we have this unusual process is because the folks who made the rules back in the eighteenth century thought that the masses were stupid. They believed we weren’t smart enough to know what was good for the country, and so they thought we might vote on the basis of our emotions and elect the wrong person. To prevent that, they decided the choice should be in the hands of a small group of enlightened individuals—called the Electoral College—that could be trusted to use foresight and wisdom to select the right person.
So, technically speaking, what we the people express on election day every four years is not our collective will that must be implemented. It’s merely an opinion, or a preference for this person over that person. The entire process of electing a President was never meant to give the people any actual role in shaping the government or its policies; rather, it was meant to establish the legitimacy of the political system by getting us to perform the equivalent of signing a consent form.
In reality, we the people are like the toddler who occasionally gets to sit behind the steering wheel of the family car and pretends to drive.
This reality be seen in the fact that the Presidential election has no necessary connection with people’s desire for a particular domestic or foreign policy. Presidential candidates can and do say all sorts of things when running for office, but as actual Presidents they are in no way bound by anything they’ve said before taking the oath. This means that when we vote for a particular candidate because we agree with their views, plans, and promises, there is absolutely no guarantee that, should this candidate wins, those particular views, plans, and promises would actually be enacted. Typically, they aren’t.
A Presidential election is a long and arduous process in which the goal is to win by any means necessary. As any political consultant will tell you, holding on to one’s principles, or trying to maintain consistency between one’s words and actions, is generally a losing strategy. What matters is not who you are but how the voters see you; and how the voters see you can be managed and choreographed. Winning requires getting the support of a wide variety of population blocs, and so it’s imperative to say whatever each bloc wants to hear. If this requires frequently contradicting oneself, then so be it. Deception is a necessary part of political campaigns, just as it is a necessary part of advertising, or magic shows.
Smart candidates speak in a special dialect of English that is meant to entice, attract, fascinate, and arouse, rather than inform or educate. As a result, vagueness has to be an essential ingredient of all such rhetoric so that different groups of people may project their own wishes and dreams to fill up the candidate’s empty words. But even when a candidate expresses a position or makes a promises that is relatively specific, and can therefore be used to hold that candidate accountable, we must not forget that there is no enforceable obligation to actually follow through. Inconsistencies need not be resolved through appropriate actions, for they can be easily covered up through additional rhetoric. Fulfilling one’s campaign promises may be a moral duty, but the Constitution does not recognize it as part of a President’s legal obligations.
This means that in the United States we the people do not possess the right to have our policy preferences implemented. In fact, we don’t even express our policy preferences when we cast our ballots. Voting in a Presidential election amounts to saying “I would like person X to be the President,” and nothing more. What person X does after becoming the President is not up to us, because—remember?—we are not smart enough to know what the country needs.
Most of us haven’t noticed that our Constitution does not give us the right to vote. Voting is not included in the Bill of Rights, which is why state legislatures are free to take a variety of measures to control, restrict, and manipulate our votes. But it’s important to understand why the Framers did not think of voting as an individual right that needed to be guaranteed at the federal level, for it tells us something truly important. It tells us that even our non-binding opinion regarding who should be the President is not all that consequential. The U.S. political system does not need the citizenry to express its preference. If the system was in any way dependent on our votes, it would treat voting as a mandatory civic duty that people can’t easily get out of— just like paying taxes or serving on a jury. Instead, voting is entirely optional, and the system routinely creates hurdles to discourage people from casting their ballots. Of course, if no one votes then the political system will lose all legitimacy, but maintaining legitimacy doesn’t require that everyone votes. Rather, the systems remain sufficiently legitimate even with only half the eligible voters participating.
To summarize, the process of Presidential election in the United States is structured in such a way that the following three conclusions can be safely drawn: First, the political system doesn’t need and therefore doesn’t value most people’s votes, which suggests that the government is not meant to be a reflection of what the majority wants. Second, people only vote for a candidate and not for their preferred policies, which means that any impact their votes might have is usually indirect or unintentional, and always minimal. Third, the President has no constitutional obligation to fulfill any promises made during the campaign, which means that the perceived trustworthiness of a candidate is often decisive in the election but has little long-term consequence.
So, what does all this got to do with the voter’s dilemma? To reiterate, the issue I am trying to address is whether or not I should vote for Joe Biden. Before I can say anything meaningful about that decision, I need to have some sense of the purpose of voting. When I consider the purpose of voting in a U.S. Presidential election, I find that the system has been set up in such a way that citizens don’t really have much of an impact on what the government does, regardless of whether, or for whom, they vote. The U.S. is a “weak democracy,” in the sense that its political system was intentionally designed to minimize people’s ability to influence the government, while still requiring that the government draws its legitimacy from the consent of the governed.
The points noted above need to be kept in mind when trying to resolve the voter’s dilemma. As of now, I have not seen any evidence that my vote is needed or valued or will make any difference. Neither of the two major candidates has put forward a convincing argument why someone like me should vote for him. Furthermore, no one is asking me about the policies that I would like to see enacted in this country; the electoral system has no interest in what I think or believe or want. Instead of being asked about my policy preferences, I am being asked to choose between two individuals, neither of whom I know personally. I don’t have any way of getting either of these individuals to take seriously what I and others like me believe or think or want, let alone making him take the appropriate actions as President. And yet, I am expected to vote. Under these circumstances, which are obviously not unique to me, the only thing that my vote is sure to accomplish is to help maintain the legitimacy of the political system. Everything else is a matter of chance, and the odds aren’t favorable.
Since the Presidential election is not designed to find out what my favorite policies are, I am supposed to express those preferences indirectly, i.e., by choosing the candidate who I think is most likely to act in ways that I approve of. And I am supposed to make this decision based solely on what the two main candidates have done in the past and what they say they will do in the future. Based on what they have done in the past, I am absolutely sure that I don’t want either of them to become President. As for what they say they will do, I disagree with most of their views, plans, and promises; and when I do agree, I find both gentlemen to be unworthy of my trust. Trump obviously has a long history of lying, but Biden too has a similar (though shorter) record of willful deception.
Given that a U.S. President is not bound by anything said or promised during the campaign, I have to be extra careful when deciding to trust that a candidate would actually do what they say they would do. While neither of the two main candidates inspires confidence, there does exist a critical difference. Trump’s lies are petty and self-serving. Whenever he speaks, I know that he is probably lying; as a result, I have never been deceived by his words. Biden, on the other hand, does not lie in the same egregious or shameless manner as Trump; as a result, Biden’s lies are likely to be a lot more consequential as well as a lot more convincing. This makes Biden more dangerous than Trump. Furthermore, Biden claims a high moral ground and talks about restoring honesty, civility, and kindness to the office of the President. By suggesting that he is morally superior to the current occupant of the White House, Biden is essentially asking to be judged at a higher standard than the one we use for Trump. But when both candidates are evaluated according to their own standards of morality, the gap between them all but disappears.
None of this proves that the two main candidates are exactly the same, or that voting for one is just like voting for the other, or that it doesn’t matter whether I vote or not. There is a lot more to consider before I’ll be able to resolve this dilemma—at least for myself.