Don't Vote for the Person, Vote for the Party

GELFAND’S WORLD--Years ago, some people would tell me, "I don't vote for the party, I vote for the person." I suppose the idea was that personal goodness outweighed official party allegiance. A few decades ago, there may have been some truth to this. For one thing, there was more room for ideological moderation in either party.

Major advances such as civil rights bills got votes from members of both parties. Budgets were negotiated and the National Park Service got funded.

The major parties were more politically diverse at the time. Each had a wing that was more conservative and a wing that was more liberal. We can remember Rockefeller Republicans and southern Democrats as the prototypical examples.

We no longer have that system, so we no longer have the luxury of voting for the person instead of the party. The parties have become more and more defined by ideology and tribalism. With these new limitations, it follows that whichever party holds the majority in either house of congress makes the big difference. The 4-4 split on the U.S. Supreme Court will be broken depending on which party wins control of the Senate in the November elections.

If the Republicans hold both houses of congress, we can look forward either to an extremist right wing government in the case of a Cruz win, or something pretty close to the current stalemate if Clinton wins. The same would probably hold if either of the other candidates takes the nomination and wins the presidency.

That means that whoever you are voting for, you are essentially voting for the party. In the House of Representatives, the minority party has essentially no power at all, because the majority party quite literally makes the rules for how each bill is handled. Take a look at how the Rules Committee functions if you want a clearer view. And if you vote for a good person who is a Republican, you are voting for the behavior of the party caucus as a whole, including its fealty to the Tea Party group.

In the present era, saying that you vote for the person and not the party is outmoded. It represents fallacious reasoning. There is a corollary to this fallacy, which involves the pouting voter. There are dedicated supporters of Bernie Sanders who say they wouldn't vote for Hillary Clinton. There are Clinton supporters (a few) who don't see themselves voting for Sanders. These people are making a mistake.

Here is an example. The author states dramatically, "When I vote for a president I don't support, I support a flawed political system. I refuse that system."

Let's parse the logic. It's understandable because it's something most of us have wanted to say at one time or another. It's largely a gut feeling, but it represents a mixture of tactics and philosophy. At the less pernicious, it involves I don't like this candidate very much, so I will wait this election out and maybe I'll have a better choice in a few years.

In the more pernicious version, it's something like this: By withholding our votes, we will teach the Democratic Party a lesson and maybe cause them to lose, and then they will have to come around to our way of thinking in order to win at a later time.

I would like to suggest that both of these views are erroneous. Depending on which side wins the presidency, the national government is going to move in one direction or the other. One side is dedicated to maintaining the right to buy health insurance. The other arguably opposes it. One side would break the Supreme Court stalemate by appointing another Scalia. The other would not. There are serious decisions that will be made, and you shouldn't try to pretend that there aren't.

More importantly, there is no time warp that would allow the Sanders voters to sit out the 2016 election in the expectation that things will remain in stasis until they get another chance in 2020 or 2024. Bad things will happen in the interim. The rest of us will suffer.

In short, you are in the game whether you like it or not. Failure to support the lesser of two evils, as some cynics like to put it, is in effect to support the greater of two evils. The American government, our laws, and history will move along whether we like it or not. There are two choices, and there is no third choice. If you live in this country and are a citizen, you can vote or not, but you can't reasonably claim that you are generating progress by opting out. You are simply opting out.

Still, I sympathize with the person who would like to change the system rather than going from dreary election to drearier election, always being asked to vote for a candidate who is owned by special interests. We all get it. But what is to be done that makes progress without turning the country over to Ted Cruz? I would suggest that the only way that political reform is going to occur is by people participating, and adding incrementally when the opportunity presents itself. I would like to suggest that we actually have made some progress even in the past few years.

One important example has been largely overlooked in the obsession with pac money. It's true that truck loads of money have gone to support the interests of the wealthy. We all recognize this. But at the same time, the new communications network provided by the internet allowed for the invention of a new style of fundraising that has actually opened up the system. Equally important, the internet has revolutionized the way we hear about issues and learn about candidates. The Daily Kos website pioneered this approach a few elections ago and continues to improve on it. Even if the progress has been marginal and incremental, I think it is safe to say that we wouldn't have been able to refer to Senator Al Franken prior to the internet era. Obama made use of the new internet culture. Bernie Sanders may be the first since LBJ who will move the window of discussion a little leftward.

We seem to make our big improvements infrequently, with occasional moments of significant change and long interims where progress is made incrementally, if at all. The big changes require a lot of advance preparation. The major improvements of the past century, from Social Security to Medicare to civil rights, all began with baby steps.

A remarkable performance

I've been writing about the emergence and development of young theater companies quite a bit over the past few years. You've heard about Shakespeareans not yet out of their 20s and unknown authors doing brave reworkings of history plays. (Coming soon: Shakespeare as interpreted on the battleship Iowa.) But last weekend, it was great to visit the top level and witness one of our city's most accomplished cultural institutions. The Los Angeles Master Chorale performed Handel's Alexander's Feast. It's a real experience to see and hear a group assembled out of top flight talent, from the keyboard artists to the singers, all deftly guided by an outstanding conductor.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture, science, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])