The 2016 U.S. presidential election is unique in this unfortunate way: the two major party candidates are the most unpopular candidates in (at least modern) American history. Their unpopularity is for good cause in both cases. Yet many people are likely to vote for one or the other, thereby imposing the burden of an unfit U.S. President on the entire world.
The fact that one of the two major-party candidates is nearly certain to win the election is bad news. It’s enough to make a person who cares about America sad. It’s hard to find a silver lining to this dark cloud, but I would like to highlight two good things that have come out of this election, plus list three specific root causes and suggested solutions.
Bad consequences can lead to better decisions.
At first glance, bad consequences sounds like bad news, not good news. But bear with me. I’m actually encouraged that the consequences to generations of bad decisions are recognizable as, “bad,” by many people. For the consequences to remain hidden or incomprehensible would be much worse.
Playing Russian Roulette is a bad decision, even though it can seem exciting and can occasionally be played without harm for many rounds. For those who can’t figure out how bad of a decision it is, there’s the bang. It (probably) costs a life, but that tragic loss serves as a powerful deterrent, which is sometimes necessary. Though it would be best not to play in the first place, recognition of the bad consequence can result in better decision making.
The all-time-record unpopularity of our Presidential candidates is evidence that many people now recognize the consequences of generations of bad decisions. They heard the bang and responded, “I don’t like that.” And it is not merely the candidates’ perceived unfitness that occupies peoples’ attention. Many voters imagine the far reaching consequences of what such an unfit candidate will actually do after they become President. They see the potential consequences of this choice and their allergic reaction encourages me.
Many people are withholding support from the major-party candidates.
The second reason I find myself encouraged is that many people are withholding support for the major-party candidates, despite having a well-established preference for one party or the other. In the cases I’m aware of, those people understand that one of the major-party candidates is likely to win, and that it’s possible that their choice not to vote for their ‘default’ party’s candidate may impact which one actually wins.
Nevertheless, the display of moral character that comes from both Democrats and Republicans who decline to participate in electing an unfit President under these circumstances encourages me. In contrast to the masses who will vote for one or the other, those who withhold support show that some people do have the character to do the right thing even under pressure. They are true leaders.
I was especially impressed by the balance between Democrats and Republicans who favor one of the major parties but won’t vote for their Presidential nominee. My circle of friends contains more Republicans than Democrats (I am philosophically libertarian, currently registered Republican and have run for office on both the LP and RP tickets, but am not highly partisan). I expected to encounter other typically-Republican voters who wouldn’t support Trump, and I did. But despite the relatively lower representation of Democrats among my friends, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from several of them who don’t support Clinton. Therefore, I conclude that the slur that nobody in ‘the other party’ has any character is false, regardless of who makes it. People who prioritize principle over party can be found across the political spectrum.
What are the bad decisions and what can we do about it?
I’ll take this opportunity to answer the question that I beg: Which bad decisions led us here? What are those root causes, and what should we do about them? Unfortunately, blame is often misplaced. Some say it’s the evil corporations, others corrupt politicians, some the media, still others partisan voters. While there may be bits of truth in each of those answers, I’ll highlight three causes that get less attention, but are very important contributors to our present dilemma.
1: Americans have increasingly turned their backs on God.
If the overwhelming majority of Americans were passionately devoted to loving God and loving people, we would not be in this position today. But the facts are plain: for generations, Americans have increasingly abandoned God. A very popular substitute-god is government. A populace that worships government, and not (the real) God, will do anything to perpetuate government, even bad government. This leads to supporting political leaders even when they have awful character and/or promote bad policy.
This problem is not unique to self-described atheists. Some Christians curiously behave this way, and they (as well as Jews) should know better. Once upon a time, Israel wanted a king. God answered, telling Samuel, “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.” (1 Sam 8:7) Rejecting God was a bad decision. God made the consequences clear: “He will take … take … take … take … take… When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1 Sam 8:11-18)
Today, many people feel there is no good choice to be made, and even atheists, “cry out for relief.” The solution is stunningly simple: turn back to God. Of the three causes I mention here, only this one is completely up to each person who reads this. No matter what anyone else does, you can choose to follow God, and nobody else can stop you. This, and not voting harder, is the most powerful thing you can do to make life better for yourself and everyone around you.
2: Americans have failed to educate our children sufficiently to sustain a free society.
Many have written about the importance of education to freedom (eg. Jefferson), but there are two specific shortcomings in much of that writing. First, the content of such an education is typically not well described. With respect to maintaining a free society, what matters (obviously beyond #1, above) is that the people comprehend freedom and have sufficient character to defend it. Multiplication tables are nice, but academically-skilled people who don’t understand and support freedom are a merely-more-competent threat to liberty, not defenders of it. Those who steer the public education debate towards academics divert attention from the more important matter of developing the character to defend the public liberty. Content matters, and government education proponents almost always promote irrelevant content with respect to educating a populace fit to sustain a free society.
That destructive prioritization is significantly due to the second problem with public education promotion. Some, like Jefferson, who understood the importance of education, mistakenly concluded that government should ever provide such an education. The conflict of interest here should be obvious: a government that wishes to consolidate power will educate the citizenry to believe that it ought to do exactly that. It would be foolish to entrust the physical education of our children to cigarette manufacturers, and it is similarly foolish to entrust their intellectual education to government (in fairness, Jefferson seems to have recognized that, just not in its fullness). For a century and a half, government has provided public education in America, and we now see the actual result: systematic incompetence to preserve a free society.
The solution is simple, though not nearly so easy for individuals: end government provision of public education. Even though individuals have limited power to reduce government’s control of public education, parents can choose non-government options for their own children. And for those without the means to do so, scholarships for non-government education are available all across America, even in New Hampshire. If you need one, apply; if you don’t, consider contributing.
3: Americans have tolerated inferior voting methods for too long.
Duverger’s law says that plurality voting tends to lead to two-party dominance, which appears to be true at least in our case. American national elections are decided by plurality vote, and two parties dominate. In a winner-take-all election, such as a Presidential primary or general election, plurality voting means the winner is the person who gets the most votes, not necessarily a majority of votes. For example, if A gets 2 votes, B gets 3 votes, and C gets 4 votes, C wins with 4 of 9 votes, which is a minority (~44%), but the most (plurality). This encourages tactical voting for the strongest two candidates, at the expense of perceived weaker, but potentially preferable candidates. Note that plurality voting is not the same issue as the electoral college method, which, in addition to enabling a candidate to win with a minority of popular votes, also allows them to win with less than a plurality of popular votes (in Presidential elections, we remember 2000, but see also 1888, 1876, and 1824).
This raises the question, “what’s better?” About this question, there is much debate, which I do not intend to resolve now. Rather, I suggest prioritizing evaluating improved voting methods, with the intent to actually implement a much better method. Potential improvements might include ranked solutions, including various Condorcet solutions and Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), and scored or “rated” solutions, including Approval Voting. Of practical note, IRV is already in use in some lower jurisdictions in America, and Approval Voting is incredibly simple to understand and implement. It may be that experimenting with different methods in actual elections would be necessary to find a best method. What does appear clear is this: plurality voting is not best. We should try something better, and the outcome of the primary and general elections this year ought to be powerful motivations to start that process now. In order to initiate that change, I would suggest starting with education, both for yourself and others.
Even though this year’s candidates are disappointing, and the future feels uncertain and potentially bleak, I remain encouraged. I’m encouraged that people are noticing the consequences of generations of bad choices, and that some of those people are acting on their convictions despite powerful adverse structural and social pressure.
Even though it may not be possible to secure a superior outcome in this election, there are important and effective things that each of us can do to make improvements going forward. I encourage you to consider the ideas I’ve outlined above and take advantage of this opportunity to do what is within your reach to make life better, for yourself and everyone else around you.