Politics is about deciding; third-party candidates are not

My mother, not long ago, concluded an exasperated diatribe about the state of the world and of politics with this: “We need to elect more real politicians.”

While there’s surely a consensus about the sorry state of our politics (has there been a time when people saw their politics as exalted?), I dare say that her solution — bring on the pols! — may be somewhat out of fashion.

Her comment came as no surprise to me, though; politics is deeply embedded in our family’s DNA. And, of course, she was right, as mothers always are.

• • •

I thought of that conversation as I was reading Clay Shirky’s recent piece in Medium on the fallacies behind voting for third-party presidential candidates — and the predictable uproar that ensued.

Political analyst Alan Baron years ago described the vote for president as the most personal of our electoral decisions; we might seek advice on city council, legislative or even gubernatorial elections, but not on the presidency.

So it’s understandable that some people yearn to support someone who truly represents their ideals, who eschews the weasel-wording and compromises that so define mainstream candidates.

But when would-be third-party voters say there’s no difference between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates — in any year I can think of — they’re deluding themselves and degrading our politics.

Or when they say they can’t bring themselves to support one of the two mainstream candidates, or they want to send a message — they’re changing voting from decision-making into an exercise in self-expression.

It’s evading responsibility for the decisions that follow.

Because, despite the higher aspirations of political purists, the hard work of politics begins when you realize that a lot of people don’t agree with you.

No, they won’t suddenly change “once they really understand.” Most people are just fine with their understanding of things. They just don’t agree with you.

That’s when you have to decide: You can engage your opponents — a frequently infuriating and disheartening exercise — or you can stand on principle, vote on principle, in the belief that, eventually, enough people will come around to your way of thinking.

That is the bedrock organizing principle of movements; it is not governance.

Because, while you’re waiting, you are leaving the hard decisions — the political decisions — to someone else.

As we always used to say in congressional politics, the safest positions are voting for something that fails or against something that passes.

• • •

Which brings me to a story my father told of the local Jersey City election that a family friend lost by two votes — when three members of our family had not bothered to vote, since the friend’s victory was seemingly a sure thing (this at a time in Jersey City politics when a sure thing was, well, a pretty sure thing).

I don’t assume for a second that story — told to a rapt eight-year-old boy — was necessarily … historically precise.

But the message was unambiguous.

In politics, you can evade responsibility. But you don’t get to escape consequences.

This appeared originally as the column One Dog Barking on CitizenCartwright.com.

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