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Voting is Not About Expressing Your Opinion

It is my opinion that elections, both nationally and locally,  are unduly influenced by money from wealthy individuals and corporations. I also believe that the bills that are passed and the policy decisions that are made in Washington and in virtually all of our state capitals are heavily, if not primarily, influenced by lobbying and campaign contributions from these same wealthy individuals and corporations, or entities such as PACs and business interest groups representing these corporations. I also believe that Hillary Clinton’s approach to U.S. foreign policy is based upon a dangerous  and harmful philosophy that America must use its military force to secure its interests, both economic and strategic, around the world. Finally, I believe that Donald Trump has almost no real knowledge of foreign affairs, that he also does not understand either national or international economics,  that he is dishonest about what he believes in and what he has done, that he feels that virtually any corner can be cut in order to secure a “deal” he feels is favorable to his interests, and that he has little interest in learning more about the issues he knows little about.  In also think Mr. Trump is short-sighted, being willing to throw away long term goals in order to score immediate points, that he is vindictive toward his rivals, that he is volatile and, again willing to take risks in order to express his anger against his rivals, that he has disdain for the democratic process and would be an autocratic president, and that he has a strong tendency to play to the “mob mentality” of his supporters, being willing to divert questions about himself and his policies to prejudice and anger toward vulnerable groups such as religious minorities and immigrants.

These are not all of my opinions, but they are some of them that are relevant to the upcoming election.

I’m told by many that they feel that the act of voting is a way of expressing their personal opinions. That’s true and it’s not true. In the first place, it expresses a very limited opinion: i.e. who do you prefer to run this country?  We each have lots of ways to express our opinions. Just listen to water-cooler or coffee shop conversations, or read facebook and twitter  posts, or letters to the editor of your newspaper. Voting tells us almost nothing about your opinion, it merely plays a role in electing a person to office. Someone is going to win the election and that person will be President of the United States for at least four years. As we’ve seen with Barack Obama, even if the congress is unalterably opposed to the president’s policies, by using the veto, executive orders, political appointments, the powers of the Commander-in-Chief of the military, the power to negotiate treaties, and manipulating public opinion, the president still wields enough power to determine the direction of our country on many issues. It is no small matter who is elected as president. One’s vote has a role in determining who this person will be. My vote does not express any or all of the opinions I listed above, even though some of those opinions may determine my vote.

My opinions will determine both who, among the available candidates who actually have a chance to be elected, I favor and who, among those same candidates, I do not want to be president. With only two candidates having a viable chance of being elected, a vote for one is a vote against the other. That’s just the way it works; with a two-party system, the presidential election is a zero-sum game. If you decide to use your vote to express your opinion, you are choosing a very ineffective means to do it. It’s a secret ballot for one thing, so your “expression” of your opinion remains unknown to anyone else, and two people with completely different reasons for supporting or opposing a candidate may cast identical votes, so the reason behind their votes remains obscure. Besides, you are missing the point of what voting is actually about. It’s about choosing a president.

And what about the claim that voting is an act of conscience? I’ve heard it said that voting for the “lesser of two evils” is a violation of one’s conscience. Let’s  examine this:

For one thing, the premise here seems to be that not trying to prevent the greater of two evils is a statement of conscience. Does that even make sense?  Philosophers are fond of using the “Trolley Problem” conundrum to illustrate this dilemma. A runaway trolley is barreling down the tracks and if it stays on its track it will crush five people tied to the track in its path. You can pull a switch to divert the trolley to another track, but that track has one person tied to it. Is it more ethical to do nothing and allow the five people to be killed, or to pull the switch and insure that one person will be killed but five will be saved?  Both philosophers and the general public overwhelming conclude that a person “should” pull the switch and save five at the expense of one. In other words, the ethical thing to do is to choose the lesser of the two evils.

The only way that people can get away with thinking that choosing the lesser of two evils violates their conscience, is if they conclude that both evils are equal. Even a slight  difference in the degree of good or evil of two choices justifies making a decision between them. So the idea of  choosing the “lesser of two evils”  being wrong can only make sense if there is no difference between the two evils.

Evil is a strange word. It has an all-or-none connotation. Its dictionary definition of  “profoundly immoral and malevolent” lends itself to this connotation. Once we apply the label, it’s hard distinguish gradations. When it comes to things that are bad, we don’t usually say something is more bad or badder than something else, though we do say something is “worse.” Most often we use different words to designate degrees of badness: faulty, imperfect, deficient, defective, dreadful, unacceptable, abominable, disastrous, wicked, malevolent, heinous, evil (the worst), Once you arrive at evil, there is the sense that to quibble about degrees of evil is fruitless.

Someone who uses the word evil to describe either candidate in this year’s presidential election is engaging in hyperbole. We have two candidates, both with lots of defects and both with lots of assets. Most people in the United States believe that both candidates’ defects outweigh their assets. Polls indicate they are almost tied in their disapproval ratings and that their disapproval ratings are higher than their approval ratings. However, despite high disapproval ratings, despite defects outweighing assets, whatever way you want to describe the choices, saying they are evil is hyperbole… an exaggeration that expresses one’s dislike…and in the process, convinces people that they cannot, in all conscience vote for either.

Be careful of the corner you talk yourself into.

We are going to elect a president in 2016 and it will be either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. No one is going to stop that from happening by refusing to vote or by voting for a third-party candidate. If one clears his or her head of confusing rhetoric, such as that they need to “express their opinion” in their vote or that they “cannot, in good conscience, vote for the lesser of two evils” then they will see that they need to vote for the candidate who, between the two frontrunners,  is most likely to help the United States and least likely to hurt it. One’s conscience can be satisfied with that.


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Reader Comments (1)

I mostly agree with what you say here, but I have to admit I've been paying very little attention to the candidates' statements and political standpoints lately. The debates should inform me enough to make a decision and solidify my vote for Clinton. It's our duty to vote in my opinion. If someone really can't in good conscience select one candidate or the other, fine, don't vote, but the most responsible thing to do is to hear them out, choose the person who seems best for the position, and cast one's vote. I never thought of the lesser of two evils phrase as being a wrong way to express it, that makes sense. Every candidate has flaws, mistakes, and scandals on their record, they're human beings. Calling them evil might cast too harsh a light on them. I'm just hoping America can survive the rest of 2016 without devolving into a zombie-ravaged wasteland. God bless.

September 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobert L.

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