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The Problem With Voting - Subsidiarity, Parties, and Overton Windows

October 26, 2020

Twelve years ago during a different election, I was being compelled to vote from every angle and had to write down my reasons why I did not vote. Looking back now that perspective was a bit naive, but there was still something to it.

I find myself in a roughly similar situation today: tons of celebrities, organizations, advertisements, and relatives are telling me about the importance of voting. And just like last time, they’re talking only about the Presidential election. Also just like last time, there’s a narrative of existential crisis, and yet again I find myself completely ambivalent to the intrinsic value of voting.

I still agree with much of what I said twelve years ago. It’s still true that my state would vote blue 100% of the time (and I’m ok with that because I believe in the value of Electoral College). It’s even more true that there is no nuance in a Presidential debate. The media and the parties vacuum any speck of nuance they see away. They want it to be a contest of charisma. It’s good for their ratings and it keeps things simplistic and available in a 30-second spot. This is even more true today than it was in 2008. (One of the largest negatives of social media is that it has, on average, reduced rather than increased the length of arguments and debate. Joe Rogan interviews and other long-form debate and interviews exist, but they are nowhere near popular enough.)

So I find myself in an interesting position yet again. I will be voting this year, but I’m perfectly fine with those that choose not to vote in the Presidential election at all. More to the point, the Presidential election in particular is completely over-hyped and emphatically structured to maintain a certain status quo. Here’s a few thoughts to underline that point.

Subsidiarity

This is a political concept and Catholic social teaching that doesn’t get enough credit in our country these days. The idea is simply that issues should be dealt with at the smallest, most local level possible. This is in direct contrast to the way all of our attention seems to gravitate. Our focus is at the federal level and most voters barely even know their local politicians. Too few people remember that our Republic evolved out of a Confederation of States, and that the Executive branch of government has continued to produce more and more centralized power over time. Focusing on centralization seems to be a good thing for the parties (which I’ll get to later) as it gives them a face to rally for or against across the entire polity. It’s also a good thing for the media, which can easily expand and maintain a much larger audience all talking about the same thing.

But if we want to consider the act of actually Getting Things Done, it’s inherently bad. The more local the polity, the more naturally homogenous it will be (across many characteristics) and therefore the more consensus is possible. More immediate and agreed upon action can be taken more quickly and evaluated more reasonably. Furthermore, being able to have many different and smaller local governments taking different kinds of actions provides an experimental ability that allows for more results-driven evaluation rather than continuous theorizing. As an example in Europe:

Cross-overs and innovative forms of cooperation between states, markets, citizens and civil-society organisations seem to be especially productive at a regional level, as this is the level at which coordination mechanisms such as mutual trust and interdependency are more likely to flourish.

The continual focus on the Federal level of government - and the Executive head in particular - is a huge distraction that favors primarily the Media and the Political Parties and does a disservice to the many smaller polities they serve.

Policy and Administration

Do you ever notice that the closer we get to the election, the more likely various “scandals” erupt in the media. 2016 had a parade of Trump scandals (which all seemed to magically bounce off somehow), and 2020 now has the Trump tax record and this weird Hunter Biden thing. Even apart from that, the Democrats have (smartly, from a political point of view) maintained a laser focus on coronavirus and the drama it has produced in 2020.

There’s good strategic reasons for this. The goal is to make the election as simple as possible. As much as people want to vote FOR someone, they often are simply enraged enough to vote AGAINST someone else and this anger will carry them out of their house to the ballot box. The goal is to collect as many votes as possible, because in a world where voter turnout is well under 50%, mobilizing people to vote at all makes a big difference.

A Brief Note on Trump

It’s hard not to talk about 2020 without talking about Trump. I’ve been discussing politics with a friend lately and at one point he wrote to me:

you are literally the first person I’ve talked to in twelve months who cheerfully sticks to politics as it should be rather than either raving for or against Trump, it’s like finding a glass of water in the desert.

I take some pride in that as I’ve been working hard to formulate my thoughts without simply being pro or anti Trump. He really does seem to suck all of the air from the room on both sides.

Let’s be frank, I loathe Trump. He’s awful. But I think the media gets it wrong very often - Hanlon’s Razor says not to attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence - and Trump is, if he were to say it, ‘The best narcissist ever. Has there ever been a narcissist like me? I don’t think so.’

For this Presidential election I will either be writing in a candidate or delivering a big “FUCK YOU” to the party I believe likely to win. And yes that would mean voting for an incredibly loathsome person. Why? Because as scary as he is - and I’ll confess that voting in a state where there’s zero chance he’ll win is a part of the calculus - it all seems well contained by checks and balances and there are some far scarier moves coming from the left. And as we’ll get to very shortly, there’s something to the idea of voting for policy vs. a single person.

I also think that history tends to look back neatly on the personalities of major figures from pre-media times. Many of our historically valued leaders were Trumpian in their narcissism, pettiness, or personal values. I’m always reminded of this quote when looking back on the fair-haired bygones of history:

“People like their historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book.

Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.” -Suzan-Lori Parks

It would also be impossible not to mention that the media is at least as complicit as Trump in the nature of our public debate today. They continue to play the shill to Trump’s insanity. It’s good for ratings so even if Trump loses don’t expect him to go away. The media will make sure his voice is heard because it maintains their self-importance and their revenue.

Back To Policy

A simple election focuses on the difference between two people and their character. That’s what 2020 is all about. And yet, if there’s something that the administration of Trump has taught me, it’s that perhaps we ought to be trying to vote for an entire administration and policy foundation when we vote for President.

And this administration has done a number of things I’m quite happy about. Tax changes, an Israeli-UAE peace deal, standing up to the WHO, originalist and non-superlegislative judicial appointments, deregulation in several interesting areas, and a military standoff with Iran that ended positively. Beyond the moronic rhetoric, insanely dumb and damaging tweet storms, arguments with the media, and stupid press conferences, I’m pretty happy with a lot of the policy aspects.

And let’s not forget perhaps the most important thing of all. In a national crisis like we’ve never seen, where any normal administration would have vacuumed up and centralized power, the Trump administration worked with and left specific policy to the states and the governors to decide. If he’s an authoritarian, then missing that opportunity is pretty boneheaded.

Let me be clear again, I give no credit to Trump on all of this. But I think there are some smart policy advisors there that are on the ball and whispered into his ear, “this will really piss the media off..” and were able to leverage his simplistic narcissism as a tool.

The Overton Windows

Finally, this is the main reason I’m struggling with all of these celebrities and commercials and ads and social media companies telling me to vote. They’re acting as a megaphone for a system they don’t see that dominates our politics and maintains the simplicity of the choices we have.

It’s the political parties. The DNC and the RNC are the driving force behind both sides of our political spectrum. They set the agenda and the policy platform and all of the listed candidates are beholden to them for funding and compelled to maintain the party line.

And what does this have to do with voting? Well consider this amazing quote from Noam Chomsky:

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

What he’s talking about is the idea of an Overton Window. And what he’s describing is exactly what the parties do. Behind the scenes, the Democratic and Republican National Committees set their agendas. They manage the expectations of their far-left and far-right bases against what they believe will generate a positive voting outcome for the polity. The agenda is pushed by every candidate in both parties, managed and focused occasionally for specific geographic locations.

The public thinks they set the stage, but the parties do. The parties set the windows for the debate and then we feel as if we have a free thinking perspective because we sit tightly in the spectrum defined for us. Voting is the key action that reinforces this feeling. So when we vote for the parties, regardless of who wins the election, the parties both win because the circle of power they have constructed is reinforced.

The parties are willing to accept the trade off that they may not have power all the time in every election for the ability to clearly see the levers they need to pull to get that power. This is why they accept and promote the centralized focus of the presidential election. They may not win, but they believe they can at least more clearly see the levers that lead to getting power. It makes the game much simpler and easier to switch. Just imagine the complexity if policy had to be driven upwards from all sorts of different areas all around the country. But if it’s moved top-down, the agenda can be maintained and distributed intact.

This is why independents, cross-aisle cooperatives, and candidates that don’t jive with the entire party platform are so important.  And yet, how rare are they?  Consider John DeBerry from Tennessee.  He’s been a solid member of the Democratic party and a state senator since the 90s.  The Tennessee DNC removed him from the Democratic ballot this year because he refused to budge on his staunch pro-life stance, only one of many issues representing the Democratic platform.  He now has to run for office and fundraise as an Independent.  (Incidentally, DeBerry made an impassioned speech on the Tennessee house floor about 2020 that is worth a listen).

C.S. Lewis had a startling insight into the notion of tyranny:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. “

The Parties think they do us a lot of good.  They do not.  They get in the way of our republican (little R) and democratic (little D) process. If we want to have a more open and distinguished debate about issues, we should get rid of the parties. If we want to see more local character and local choices made by different regions of the country, we should get rid of the parties. If we want to get money out of politics, we should start with the parties. Lots of politicians make noise about getting money out of politics, but of course the left only means getting rid of the evil Koch brothers and the right only means getting rid of George Soros and his ilk. And neither will really allow that to happen because the parties are the chief avenue for providing funding to their platform. This is why we rarely see serious Independent candidates. Those we do see, like John DeBerry, were always previously a D or an R.

Awhile back I registered votenoincumbents.com. I haven’t put anything there yet, but getting rid of all incumbents seems like an interesting first step. I’d love to see blue rural areas and red urban areas and see what happened. We’d learn a tremendous amount about our policy and our populations in a short time.

This viewpoint isn’t new. George Washington warned of it as he was leaving his Presidential term:

They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

In 2020, with the Fourth Estate - the media - a narcissistic mirror of narcissistic politicians, and the 21st century capabilities of spreading information directly without going through the approved mechanisms, removing the unelected power centers of the major parties seems both more vital and more possible than ever before.

A Postscript

I slid something a little frightening into this post - that there’s a possibility I may vote for Trump. I’ve seen more vitriol towards both candidates in 2020 than ever before. More telling, the emotions have spilled over into Biden and Trump voters, so that many are far less willing to even say out loud the choice they intend to make between these imperfect candidates. I know people who privately are going to vote for either Trump or Biden but won’t say it with an audience or won’t tell certain people. There are even cases where left-leaning parents won’t let their Trump-supporting parents see their grandkids and right-leaning pro-life Trumpers shout down people they know who support Biden as evil.

Regardless of who wins, the country is going to be fine and do great. America is far more than any candidate and any party, and the system of checks and balances in place is the most potent armor the world yet has against despots and mobs alike. The real danger is the erosion of trust or desire to change that system and the liberal freedoms it has championed.

There’s more political signs than before too, and they often clump. It’s rare to see them all mixed together with Biden voters living next to Trumpers. My least favorite are the moralizing ones - you know the ones I’m talking about. A friend suggested printing a bunch of signs in the same format that said “In this house, we believe that your morally superior signs are obnoxious.”

So.. if you know people who are going to vote for someone you can’t stand and if this really bothers you and makes you question their morality or your relationship with them then, well, You’re. Doing. It. Wrong. Getting morality, reason, or fulfillment out of politics is a fool’s errand.


Greg Olsen
Hi I'm Greg. Occasionally, I do things.