by Jay Johansen | Nov 12, 2022
People sometimes say, "I vote for the best candidate regardless of party." They often say this proudly. They'll imply or outright say, "I'm not a slave to any one party" or "I don't just automatically vote for one party."
This sounds very intelligent and fair-minded, but actually there are at least two big flaws in the thinking.
Context note: For this discussion, I'm going to avoid talking about what policies are good or bad. I'm going to look at this from the point of view of the voter. If your opinion is that the ideal government is a fascist dictatorship, then the only question I will consider here is how to most effectively bring about a fascist dictatorship. That is, I will work on the assumption that by "best candidate" we mean "the candidate whose policy positions most closely match my own", regardless of what those positions are.
It's possible that a person who says he votes for the "best candidate" is not thinking about policy positions but rather about competence. If so, that would be foolish. I doubt you really mean it. Consider the extreme case. Suppose you really don't want a fascist dictatorship. There are two candidates running. One is a fascist who has proven that he is very good at implementing a fascist dictatorship. In the past he has stamped out free speech, ruthlessly murdered opponents, etc. The other candidate is pro-freedom but is not very capable. He has tried to defend freedom but with only mixed success. Which would you vote for? By an objective standard, the fascist is more competent. But he's competent at accomplishing evil things. It would make much more sense to elect an incompetent pro-freedom candidate than a very capable fascist canddiate.
There may be cases where two candidates have similar policy positions, but one is more capable than the other. In that case, sure, voting based on competence makes sense. But let's consider the more common case where the candidates have distinct policy positions.
All that said, from that point of view, there are at least two big flaws to voting for the "best candidate regardless of party".
1. It assumes that a candidate's political party is unrelated to his policy positions. In real life, political parties have at least a generally consistent set of policies. People often say, "the Republicans and Democrats are basically the same". But that's simply not true. For the most part, a Republican is going to be pro-life, pro-gun, pro-police, pro-capitalism, pro-restricting immigration, etc. A Democrat is going to be pro-choice, anti-gun, suspicious of the police, pro-socialism, pro-open immigration, etc. (You could quibble about the labels I've used for the various issues, feel free to substitute labels you consider more accurate or friendly to your side. But I think you must agree that I have accurately stated the principle.) Of course there are some Republicans who are pro-choice and some Democrats who are pro-gun and so forth, but in general, for the most part, politicians from each party follow the positions I've outlined.
So if someone says that he always votes Democrat, that MIGHT mean that he's a mindless drone who can't think for himself and always goes meekly along with whatever his masters at Democrat headquarters tell him. Or it might mean that, in practice, he finds that he almost always agrees with the Democrat. And of course likewise if he always votes Republican.
2. More subtly, but probably even more important, this thinking ignores how the American political system really works. Congress and the state legislatures are not a collection of legislators who all act independtly, and who are only coincidentally membrers of political parties.
Perhaps you've been a member of some voting body for a small organization, like a club or student government or some such. In such groups, members DO tend to be independent. The agenda is set by what motions members bring to the floor. Anybody can introduce a motion. The members then discuss and debate the motion, and members decide how they will vote based on this discussion.
That's just not how Congress works. The leaders set the agenda. The leaders decide what bills will be brought to the floor and debated. The purpose of debate is not to change anyone's mind but to have sound bites for the news back home. Once a friend of mine who is a lobbyist said that a certain bill was unusual because legislators actually changed their minds as a result of things said in the debate. There is little real give and take on the floor. There are compromises and negotiation, but this all happens in the back rooms, usually between the leaders of the two parties, sometimes between the top leaders and leaders of factions within the party.
And here's the relevant point: The leaders are chosen by a vote of the members. And the members just about always vote for the candidate from their own party. If, say, after an election the House has 51% Republicans and 49% Democrats, then the Republicans will elect a Republican to be Spezker of the House (the chief presiding officer), and they will elect Republicans to be chairmen of all the committees. The members of the majority party get together before the "official" vote and decide who their candidate will be. Sometimes there's a consensus leader, sometimes this is hard fought. But either way, once they pick someone, they put this person forward as their candidate and the official vote is just a formality. The majority party candidate always win. Always.
(Maybe if you went over the history of Congress and every state legislature you could find a case or two somewhere where the majority party candidate didn't win, but that would be a very unusual exception. The only case I could find (in an admittedly brief search) was in 1855, when Nataniel Banks of the American Party was elected Speaker of the House. But he was only technically a "minority party". Congress at that time was divided into two camps: the Democrats on one side, and a coalition of parties on the other, including the American Party and a group that called itself simply "the Opposition Party", which was mostly what was left of the dying Whig party. (The Whigs and the Opposition Party were basically replaced by the Republican Party with the election of Abraham Lincoln.) If someone reading this knows of a case in US history where Congress or a state legislature elected a member of the minority party to be the presiding officer, I'd be interested to hear about it.)
So suppose your big issue is that you are pro-gun control. In this election, by a curious twist, the Republican is pro-gun control and the Democrat is pro-gun rights. So you vote for the candidate who agrees with you, the Republican. Will this advance the cause of gun control? No. Suppose that the Republican wins, and suppse that this results in the Republicans having a one seat majority. A Republican will be elected leader. The Republicans will set the agenda. It is unlikely that any pro-gun control bills will come to the floor for your preferred candidate to vote on. More likely the Republican leadership will put forward a pro-gun rights bill. With their slim majority, the leadership will have to negotiate with this one pro-gun control member to try to get his support on this bill. They may water it down some to get him to vote for it. They may offer him a deal on some other bill. Or the negotiations may be in vain and he joins the Democrats in voting the bill down. But it is unlikely he will ever have an opportunity to vote for a pro-gun control bill. The leadership just won't let it happen.
© 2022 by Jay Johansen
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