Laugh About It, Shout About It

To spoil or not to spoil in '04?


Now that a Libertarian Party presidential candidate has been named—one who, mercifully, does not appear to be a Smurf —it's decision time for those of us inhabiting that lonely corner of the Nolan Chart where dope and porn elicit almost as much enthusiasm as capital gains tax cuts. Man the barricades with the LP's man? Apply a clothespin to the old proboscis and choose between Kang and Kodos? Sit out the whole sordid process? The quandary's an old one, but this year a few folks not on the Cato mailing list appear to be eyeing our decision closely.

Last month, the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (registration) and CBS News both suggest that in an election projected to be closer than an Ashcroft/Reno evil-off, the Libertarian candidate could be George Bush's Ralph Nader. In recent years, they note, LP candidates appear to have acted as spoilers in several key swing states, netting significantly more votes than the margin of victory for the Democratic victors in their races.

A strong showing by LP candidate Michael Badnarik, arguably the least media savvy of the three, would almost certainly harm Bush more than Kerry. A recent Zogby International poll, admittedly using a small sample, found self-identified libertarians backing Bush over Kerry at about the same rate as those who call themselves Republicans. But libertarians are scarcely enamored of the sitting president these days either, and the libertarian/GOP cuddlefest looks a bit more like a bad episode of Blind Date all the time. That's prompted the liberal blog Daily Kos to urge Democrats to take advantage of the potential "conservative crackup" that conservative scribe W. James Antle has been covering ferociously. From the right, radio wag Michael Medved was recently inspired to launch one of his periodic tirades against "losertarians."

In many ways, the tension libertarians habitually feel come campaign season is only a reflection, magnified by our sense of disconnection from the major parties, of a tension in voting generally. All voting is both principled and strategic. It's principled in that, in order to vote at all, you must be thinking about your action in what we might roughly call moral terms. There's a familiar collective action problem that arises from a purely strategic view of voting: Since the chance of an individual vote affecting the outcome of a national election is infinitesimal, then (insofar as affecting the outcome is the point of voting), a rational person doing a purely individualistic cost-benefit analysis will just stay home. And plenty of libertarians do just that, either because we're fonder of game theory or get queasier thinking in terms of "civic responsibility" than major party voters, to whom the point applies equally. If we do vote, it's often because we overcome that queasiness and act on the maxim we would have (similarly situated) others obey.

Yet there's an obvious strategic component as well: A purely principled vote would be a write-in for the individual you'd like to see take the White House in the best of all possible worlds, a description unlikely to fit any party's candidate. The libertarian voter's question, then, can be framed as a puzzle about the right level of abstraction at which to ask the question: "How would I have people situated similarly to me cast their ballots?"

The problem, and the source of much of our November uncertainty, is that there's no one clear answer to that question. Is the right scope of universalization all libertarian-leaning American voters, or voters only in your own area, such that your choice might be affected by whether you're living in a swing state or one whose electoral votes have been signed, sealed, and all-but-delivered already? Along another dimension, are you including in your imagined voting bloc only those who feel sufficiently detached from mainstream politics to throw in with a third party, or the larger class of independents who like small-government rhetoric but doubt it'll be matched with action in a one party government.

There are any number of complicating considerations—what kind of long-term signal are our vote totals sending? Will a persistent libertarian spoiler create a Eugene V. Debs effect, pressuring one of the major parties to adopt some of our positions? Yet here, too, the scope problem resurfaces: The realistic range of possible signals "we" can send will depend on how the "we" is specified. To vote one way or another, then, is not just to express a preference over candidates, but tacitly to include oneself in an imagined community of voters. In this sense, all politics is "identity politics," and every ballot cast reveals as much about how we see ourselves as it does about what we think of the contenders.