A few years ago, after choosing between two particularly uninspiring candidates on election day, I told my husband that I would no longer vote for the lesser of two evils. Instead, I would vote for the candidate who was pandering to the least dangerous constituency.
It sounds snarky, but I would argue that it isn’t a bad rule to follow.
Take Mitt Romney, the likely GOP Presidential nominee. My guess is that beneath that wooden exterior, he’s probably a capable enough manager–and not nearly as asinine as he sounds on the campaign trail. The problem is, if he were to be elected, he would still be beholden to the Tea Party crazies and Good Ole Boy racists he is frantically trying to woo during the primaries. Etch-A-Sketch or no, the systemic realities of our political system would operate to prevent moderation or compromise or evidence-based decision-making.
Here in Indiana, we have two major-party candidates for Governor, both of whom are well to the right of center. Pence, of course, is entirely a creature of the extremist Christian Right–if he’s ever had a truly independent idea, he’s hidden it well. Gregg is a conservative Democrat from Southern Indiana. If Pence wins, he won’t skip a beat: his policies will be tailored to his base, which is fundamentalist Christian, exploitative capitalist, and allergic-to-taxes Tea Party. If Gregg wins, however, he will have to moderate his positions in order to satisfy the Democratic base, which is far more diverse and progressive than he is. (As my youngest son likes to say, your vote for Governor will depend upon whether you want to return to the 1960s or the 1690s.)
Of course, if Rupert the Libertarian wins, all bets are off.
Candidates are captured by their political parties in a number of ways; they are not unembedded political actors no matter how much they’d like us to think they are. In some ways, that’s comforting; we rarely know what we need to know about the candidates themselves, so there is some logic in casting your vote for the person who belongs to the party with the philosophy closest to your own. Party affiliation is one among many “markers” that allow us to shortcut the decision-making process.
On the other hand, when one party goes “off the rails”–when the only people who can get nominated are those prepared to grovel to the basest of the base–average voters are deprived of the benefit of sound policy debates between serious candidates.
When elections devolve into battles between the bumper stickers, when candidates endlessly parrot focus-group tested pieties, it isn’t possible to vote for the “best candidate.” It isn’t even possible to figure out who that is.