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This Presidential election is attracting more than its fair share of vocal, irritating third-party advocates. Interestingly, most of them try to poach Obama supporters. Earth to nudniks: it's the other guy whose base has a hard time not hating. It's the other guy who's the weak candidate. What do you want from us? No, nothing is stopping them, even the obvious failure to gain any traction.

First we had that Libertarian columnist writing in Salon or Slate or wherever. Posing as a disaffected anti-war progressive, he tried to lure us away from Obama and towards... Gary Johnson?!? Unfortunately, that columnist couldn't write a single paragraph without some racist dog-whistle (he even used "Barry" at one occasion). Oops! Progressives don't do dat. Cover blown. So long, fake-o! (I'm not bothering to add links. If you came across one of these columns, you know what I'm talking about. If not, don't waste your time)

Then there are the real anti-Obama progressives. I do have some sympathy for them, after all we share most of the same values. But with respect to the period 2009-2012 and in particular the upcoming election, we seem not to share the same planet. Thank God, Rebecca Solnit who is as progressive and anti-war as anyone in the room, put these purity trolls in their place better than I ever could. By all means, if you know a bleeding heart who still considers protest-voting, do send them Solnit's text (h/t: I first encountered it here, in one of the Night Owl intros).

But now, ladies and gentlemen, we have Purity Trolls: The Next Generation. For the past week, a text has been circulating on the Tubes, called Voting Green in a Swing State. Written by Virginia math professor Sidney Smith, this article is state-of-the-art 3rd-party electioneering. He claims to list all of Obama's accomplishments (which he downplays, ridicules or presents as failures - while inflating his misdeeds beyond belief). He sympathizes with our sensitivities (except for calling Obama a "war criminal", and at one point claiming that Obama is worse than "every previous right-wing administration combined").

But no: he is not protest-voting. And he is not a Purity Troll. Don't you dare call him that.

so WTF is he? He is simply better than us, and his "vote Green" sales pitch is nothing less than a civics lesson, provided for free. I kid you not. Here's how his 3000-word text ends:

My vote for Jill Stein in swing-state Virginia isn’t a protest vote, it isn’t an angry vote, and it isn’t elitist. It is a well-informed vote for the political agenda I think is best for my country. The United States of America is (or can be) a Jeffersonian democracy, and I am a citizen. Casting this vote is my civic responsibility. What’s yours?
Did you hear the joke about the guy saying "I'm not a racist, don't you dare call me a racist" - and then going on a 3000-word avalanche of racist epithets? You didn't, because such a joke would be so ridiculous it wouldn't even be funny. But holier-than-us, sharper-than-us minds like Prof. Smith's are so far above us, that the usual rules of logic and basic self-contradiction simply don't apply to them.

Or maybe he's just been stealing pages from the Romney/Ryan playbook. I heard they're pretty good at this type of logic. btw, Smith's 3000 words of "it's not a protest vote", do not include a single passage about the Green party and its merits, or about its leader Dr. Jill Stein. It is all Obama and the corrupt two-party system. But no, it is not a protest vote. R-i-g-h-t.

So I thought I'd write this little smackdown rebuttal here. See how many people read it (probably not too many). I feel highly qualified to serve that smackdown: on many issues, my views are probably closer to the Green platform than to the Democratic leadership. I've walked the anti-war walk, and even paid a personal price for it. Global warming has been very high on my list of priorities for years, and I would like the US government to move into action far quicker than they have. I'm one of the relatively few Americans who bought an electric car the moment it became more affordable. And I combine the two causes by supporting this amazing organization.

And here's the kicker: I AM a small-party voter! But not here - In Israel. Israel doesn't allow absentee voting so it's been a while since I had the chance to do so. But if I get to vote there again, it's almost certain to be for a small party. So Prof. Smith doesn't have to waste words on me about the merits of smaller parties. The problem is more fundamental.

How to put it nicely? Sorry, I can't. Not 2 days before the election, and not with the pissy condescension and "civics lecture" arrogance surrounding this text.

Professor B. Sidney Smith, I give your text an F. It fails the most basic tests of mathematical logic, self-consistency and empirical observation. It is also dishonest and civically irresponsible.

I'm not going to parse out all the fallacies in his 3000 words. Just the most salient 2-3 points, in the hope that in case anyone was fooled by "voting Green in a Swing State" (maybe some of Smith's ex-students?), and if someone who knows them gets their hands on this text - maybe some of the damage can be undone in time.

Details after the curlicue...


A Mathematical Point



Smith rages against "the partisan duopoly", and calls us to actively destroy it by voting for a small party.

Here's a news break: you can't. Not in a winner-take-all election, and certainly not in a winner-take-all direct election of the person running the country. As Joe Biden famously told Paul Ryan to his face, it is not mathematically possible.

Winner-take-all elections mean that in any given race, a huge chunk of the votes, possibly the majority of them, don't get any representation for their opinions in the corridors of power. Only the gal or guy who won the plurality will get into office.

This format, rather than being the result of a partisan duopoly, generates that duopoly. The only way to become a national force, is to get a consistent fair shot at most of the electoral races. And the only way to do that is to organize into a coalition that represents at least roughly half the public.

You want to know what happens when a winner-take-all system tries to play the multi-party game? Look at the UK. The Lib-Dems there got 22% of the popular vote in 2010, but <10% of the seats. Who laughed all the way to the PM office? This time the Tories, who with 36% of the votes won nearly half the seats, and now dominate the government. Last election, it was Labor, who with only 35% of the votes still managed to get a Parliament super-majority and set up one-party rule. What was the condition stipulated by the Lib-Dems for joining the Tories in coalition in 2010? Electoral reform. They know their party stands no chance until the system is changed.

More generally, the split of left-of-center votes between Labor and Lib-Dems has helped Tories retain their dominance over policy and politics. Most famously, Maggie Thatcher never got close to even 45% of the popular vote, but did whatever she wanted in UK politics for over a decade because the >55% opposing her split their votes between Labor and Liberal, and she held a Parliament super-majority throughout her tenure. (note to self: is a parliamentary system, where the PM is chosen by the parliament but the parliament is elected via winner-take-all local elections, really democratic in the literal sense? At present I think not. So the Lib-Dems are also civically correct in demanding electoral reform. See if they get it :).

But why go across the ocean? Canada maintains a very similar system to the UK, and PM Harper now presides over a Tory super-majority after winning only 39.6% of the votes. The left-of-center majority is split between New Democrat, Liberal, and - yes, Green. These three parties combined got 54% of the popular vote, but control only 138 of 308 seats.

So where DOES a multi-party system work? In a proportional-representation parliament. If Canada and the UK had that system, both would have now been run by center-left governments rather than right-center (UK) and wingnut (Canada).

In Israel, a nation following the proportional-representation system, I usually voted for a small progressive party. Yes, I knew my party's leader would not be prime minister. But s/he might be a cabinet minister, or play a leading role in the opposition. For sure, members of the party sit on parliamentary committees, draft bills, create ad-hoc alliances to help defeat other bills, etc. etc.

This is not a pitch for, or against, proportional representation. It is a simple statement of logic. Winner-takes-all works best with a duopoly. Proportional-representation works best with multi-party. End of story.

True, there might come a day when one party in the duopoly is so bankrupt it must be deposed. But such a "creative destruction" ensures the dominance of the other side, for however long it takes until the reconstruction process is complete. This is (afaik) what's happening now in Canada (here in the US, if I may venture a guess, it is actually the GOP that is currently more at risk of suffering that fate).

So assuming the Constitution is not changed, the choice in America is not between a duopoly and a multi-party system, but between a duopoly and single-party dominance (which is what happens, when one of the camps falls into a multi-party disarray).

It's funny. I often have a hard time explaining the various systems and their flaws, but it is usually for people who don't dig numbers very well. I didn't expect a math professor, of all people, show such a poor understanding of it - even as he tries to lecture us on the very same topic.

(and lest you think I present Israel here as some model nation, here's a disclaimer: the main problem with that country's politics is the Occupation dictatorship it insists on running in its back yard. No electoral system can salvage a nation from the corruption of such a regime. The only way out is to end it).

I'm not saying there's no room for smaller parties in a winner-take-all system. But ordinarily they should set their sights on issue activism and on smaller offices, in regions where they are strong, that are winnable for this or that reason, perhaps even for scoring the occasional governorship or Congressional seat. They are good nuclei for reconstructing a political camp, should the major party of that camp collapse.

But until that happens, playing spoilers on the national stage is just as cynical and irresponsible, as any of the tricks the big parties pull off in order to win those national elections. There is nothing "civic" about deliberately delivering the government to the minority party, in denying the will of the people in order to score a political point.

And here's a bit of nuance, which Smith claims to possess even though his message displays none of it: the best way to have a good party representing "your" half of the political map, is a combination of issue activism and gradual, not-sexy but immensely effective change from within that party. In short, the type of work that sites like Daily Kos were created to help carry out.

And this method works more often than any others!

Here's another news flash, Prof. Smith: Jill Stein is not the only Massachusetts woman with a Dr. next to her name, who's currently engaged in politics. On November 7, as Dr. Stein who is only "running" in the for-show sense, goes back to her regular life,  Professor Elizabeth Warren will likely (touch wood) start working on transition to her new role as United States Senator.

How big are the ideological and policy differences between Stein and Warren? I wager a guess that had Warren wanted to run as a Green Party candidate, the Greens would have been delighted. And 30 years ago - no, 20 years ago - a progressive outspoken woman like her, who got in the face of the biggest Wall Street powers, would stand no chance winning even a local office, not to mention a US Senate seat. Heck, I heard she'll be the first female Senator from Massachusetts, ever. What a waste it would have been, had Warren chosen to play kiddie-games and to run with the Greens instead.

Oh, did I mention that the man who brought Prof. Warren onto the national stage is some dude called Barack Hussein Obama?


The Greens' Convenient 2000 Amnesia



Prof. Smith's text is a history lesson of sorts: a lesson in selective history, that is. Most blatantly in this passage:

The only point of leverage is here: whether Obama wins or loses, if progressive third party candidates get enough support to scuttle the Democrat in a close race, change is possible. This is not wishful thinking, but an empirical observation.
An empirical observation????? Here's an empirical observation for you, Sidney. There was already such a race, exactly 12 years ago. Al Gore did not lose the Presidency to hanging chads, or to the Supreme Court Five. No, Gore lost the election to the Green party candidate Ralph Nader, who got 1.6% of the Florida vote and 2.7% of the national vote, nearly all of them from progressive voters.

Here's Solnit on that teeny point.

People who told me back in 2000 that there was no difference between Bush and Gore never got back to me afterward.
But as said in the intro, Solnit dealt with garden-variety purity trolls, not with super-spinmeister "civic experts" like Professor B. Sidney Smith. Unlike Solnit's unnamed counterparts, Smith does has the temerity to get back to us, and claims with a straight face that this "spoiler" strategy has worked, empirically! Romney playbook, anyone?

Or perhaps Smith wants to argue that a Gore administration would have also cooked up the Iraq invasion like Bush-Cheney did? Or stoked the flames under the housing bubble and ignored all warning signs in the same manner? Or turned FEMA into a hollow shell and appointed the chair of the Arabian Horse Association to run it - and never bothered to stop the President's vacation as Katrina slammed into New Orleans?

Or maybe all this is dwarfed, compared to Obama's continuation of the drone policy.

Heck, if Al Gore would have been President, he would even have had a fighting chance to prevent 9/11. After all, chasing Al Qaeda was #1 priority for the outgoing Administration in which he was a rather involved and dedicated Vice President.

Oh, and btw, have the Democrats learned the lesson of 2000? Because you know, your "empirical observation" claim suggests that they did. It's been 12 years, you know. Enough time for the "empirical observation" to become self-evident. So if they did learn their lesson, then why are you hating on the Democrats' current leader? And if they didn't - how many years or generations of national and global suffering at the hands of Bushesque Administrations would it take?


Last but not Least: We are electing a Person



One last point (I could make at least 20 more, but enough is enough). Strategies, ideologies and selective memories aside, the Presidential election puts one person in charge. Yes, there is a social network that runs the country, rather than one man. But still, some very critical moments, decisions and actions do boil down to the President's personality. As Truman said, "The Buck Stops Here."

I cannot think of a time when the gap in personal qualities was as stark as it is in 2012.

On one side we have a President who, for all my discomfort with his centrism on many issues, for all my eye-rolling at his umpteenth doomed attempt at bipartisanship - has brought to the Office a level of integrity and work ethic not seen in at least a generation. He has led the most scandal-free White House in at least two generations. And at times of crisis (e.g., the Arab Spring) he has proven a calm and steady hand. He is also personally likable, not a bad property for someone who needs to rally the nation behind him.

On the other side we have a rich kid with an unending sense of entitlement and an apparent inability to relate to ordinary people. A man who broke tradition refusing to reveal his personal tax returns, whose campaign has broken records for flip-flopping and dishonesty, and who does not care to lay out his policy plans. One cannot escape the observation that Team Romney is simply running a long con on the American people. It is disconcerting to learn that this is also more-or-less how Romney won his immense business fortune. And on the few occasions during this campaign, when he had to perform under duress, he has displayed hysteria, total lack of spine, and rather underwhelming judgment.

So... nothing to see here, just move along and be "civically responsible", Prof. Smith?

Next January, precisely one of these two men will be our President, and the de-facto leader of the entire world.

Your pretense that we should let the incompetent con-man win in order to teach somebody a lesson, and your doing so with an all-knowing sense of "civic" condescension and "empirical observation", is one of the most staggering displays of political irresponsibility I've seen on our side of the map this year.

Indeed, 12 years ago Americans also had a stark choice between very different personalities. America pretended not to care, and the Greens pretended it was time to "teach the Democrats a lesson". In 2012, the contrast in personal qualities is even greater.

To end on a somewhat more sympathetic note: like many others, you confuse between issue activism (which is critically important, and eventually effective) and electoral behavior. Elections are by definition a choice for the lesser evil. You know what? Yes, I'll grant you one. Sometimes pulling the rug from under the status-quo in order to teach a lesson, even at the price of losing an election, is in fact the lesser evil. But it is still an evil, not a good. Don't you dare paint lipstick on that pig.

And repeating the same "don't vote for the corrupt Democrats" party line like a broken record, in ignorance of context and recent history, is simply useless, and is not a good show of political intelligence.

11:39 AM PT: Wow, a bit of a lively discussion there.

First, some readers understood the title as a smackdown to any Green voter. No. It is a smackdown on a specific guy who wrote a specific text called "Voting Green in a Swing State".

I do have respect for people considering to vote Green. I strongly disagree that this is the least-evil choice in 2012, but I respect their decision. What I do not respect is a text of faulty logic and twisted reality that advocates that choice.

As to voting theory: if there is one take-home message from this diary, it is that voting is always a choice for the lesser evil. Just like other facts of life, it is a necessary evil foisted upon us by the system in which we live. As Churchill said, democracy is the worst system except for any other alternative. The only alternative to the lesser-evil of elections, is not having the right to vote at all. The fantasy that small-party voting is not a lesser evil, but an act of pure good, is just that: fantasy.

Moreover, the winner-take-all system adversely affects the good/evil calculus of the small-party choice. In a proportional system, voting for a smaller party usually not cause your half of the electoral map to lose. In a winner-take-all system, it often will.

But it goes further: with winner-take-all, duopoly is a feature, not a bug. It is not some corporatist conspiracy that we can break apart, as Smith suggests. Long-term, duopoly is the only realistic, stable, reasonably functional outcome with winner-take-all elections.

So great. Your favorite party is a small one. What is your long-term goal? Do you want that party to depose its bigger more centrist rival, and represent the camp in its stead? Do you want to affect internal change within the larger party? Do you want the two to merge from a position of strength? Are you willing to endure the period of political defeat for the camp as a whole that these transitions might entail?

If it's just about maintaining moral purity in your electoral actions - see above. That option does not exist. We are partners in running a super-power, warts (the corporate state, Wall St., secret services, overseas military actions) and all. Any decision we help make on election day regarding who'll be in charge, including the decision to abstain, is a necessary evil.

Happy Election Day everyone.


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