I argued in an earlier post that directionless pragmatism is one reason the Left is missing strength: too many of our political leaders and activists follow a cult of pragmatism unguided by final principles, and this limits their horizons to the “politically possible” and prevents a vision of how those possibilities can be expanded. Meanwhile the Right, driven by its principles as false as they are, sets the terms of debate and the boundaries of what is “politically possible,” pushing them ever rightward. In those circumstances, “rational” pragmatic political calculation leads only to self-defeating compromise and capitulation, never to true political victory.
Directionless pragmatism not only misleads the elite, but also rank-and-file liberal voters, who in nearly every election now find themselves having to choose the lesser of two evils, rather than to vote as a positive affirmation of their party’s and candidate’s principles. Pragmatism is deeply ingrained in American individualist culture, and we even define rationality in terms of practicality: a rational choice is a cost-benefit or strategic calculation that advances your goals, taking the constraints that you face as given. But in politics this “rational” pragmatism leads people into self-defeating calculations when they vote. I will speak more about this at length in the future, but in a nutshell, if you’re acting like your vote is going to determine the choice of our next president, you’re doin’ it wrong. If you’re voting strategically, weighing and balancing different candidates, assessing who is electable and comparing that with who has desirable policies, you’re doin’ it wrong. It’s not the right framework for understanding the voting decision, because your individual vote has little strategic power; only many votes cast in unision have power, and that unity of action is achievable not by pragmatism but only through commitment to shared principles.
It is a statistical fact that in a national election an individual vote literally has only a one-in-millions chance of being the deciding vote that determines the winner. Really. When the rubber hits the road, the only vote that really matters is the one that gives one of the candidates a majority, because all the rest cancel each other out, and any over and above that are merely surplus that do not change the outcome. And that deciding vote is not likely to be yours. No single vote is a strategic factor in determining the outcome, because there are many millions of votes. This mathematical truth holds despite the lessons that many people falsely believe Florida 2000 taught (which I will also eventually discuss at length). People won’t want to hear this and many will have a knee-jerk reaction against it, but it’s important to not think about your vote as a key factor in electing your favorite candidate, because your contribution is, in reality, rather small, albeit not zero.
It’s not that your individual vote doesn’t count; it’s just that it’s a very tiny part of a larger whole. An individual vote is not a decision tool that contributes strategically to political victory, any more than a drop of lemon juice turns an ocean into lemonade; only millions of drops of lemonade together could possibly do that. An individual vote does indeed count when part of a collective of votes cast in concert with millions of others for the same person. Because your individual vote has near-zero probability of putting your candidate over the top, it makes no rational sense whatsoever to vote pragmatically or strategically, according to some cost-benefit calculation. The force of votes is only collective, and the only rational thing to do is to persuade more people will vote in unison with you.
If an individual vote is significant only in aggregation with millions of other votes, what is that an aggregation of? The opinions, views, and considered judgements of the millions of people who voted the same way. Your individual votes only counts toward victory as part of a collective of votes of other people who make the same choice of candidate as you. People will make that unified choice when they vote according to the same principles and values, are marshaled by a vision to the same cause, or vote together because they share a common interest -- and by common interest I mean shared worries and concerns. This MUST be kept in mind when choosing how to vote: your vote only matters when guided by principles and values and concerns shared by millions of other people who vote in unison and make an identical choice. It therefore makes no sense to vote according to the practical criteria of strategic self-interest, but only according to shared interests, principles and values. That is what unifies people together to support a candidate. Ignore “pragmatic” considerations like who is “electable” or what is “politically possible,” and let the shared values of the Left be your guidepost and landmark to how you cast your vote. Vote your actual beliefs. Anyone is electable and anything is politically possible if enough people decide in principled unison to cast their votes a certain way.
Voting strategically as an individual is like an individual soldier, a private who is part of a field army of millions, deciding to act strategically on his own rather than in concert with his unit. If all soldiers do that it is a recipe for defeat, and strategic voting is like trying to fight your way out of a counter-insurgency quagmire: the more you do it, the worse it gets, even though you can't see how you can do otherwise. The first rule when you're in a hole: stop digging. Because people on the Left buy into the argument that they should vote pragmatically, they are continually forced into choosing the lesser of two evils between candidates, and they therefore lose even when they win. The progressive Left consists of tens of millions of people whose principles and views are therefore not represented at all in our political system; if they all, together as one, collectively reserved their vote for candidates who actually represented their principles, then change would come rapidly. The only way to do that is to establish a voting norm, a principle of political loyalty, where everyone on the Left, or at least a critical mass, agrees to set practical considerations aside and vote their principles. That would take courage, as well as the patience to do it over more than one election cycle -- in other words, that would take political fortitude. The progressive Left will continue to be disrespected by all sides and powerless to pass its agenda until it exercises this collective strength.