My polling place was moved this year. Boo hoo: the old place was a senior-citizen center about a block and a half from my house, but the new one's on the other side of Washington Park in a Presbyterian church. I'd be annoyed if I didn't travel in that general direction every morning; practically speaking, it's just a one-block detour on my way to the public library. The church, for what it's worth, is a "progressive" one. A sign claims that Jesus led the original Occupy movement. Another claims that He loves the "99%" more than the "1%" God may or may not be a Republican, but the congregation here seems convinced that His Son is a Democrat. Outside, electioneering is illegal, but it was OK for activists to solicit signatures for a petition demanding a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. Inside, a rainbow flag denoting tolerance of sexual preference as well as ethnic difference hung over the hall where the voting machines had been set up. These are the scanning machines that were introduced last year -- for no better reason, as far as I can tell, than to make money for the manufacturer. You sign in and are given a paper ballot and a folder to keep it in. You fill in the blanks with a blue pen in a "privacy booth" before feeding the finished form into a scanner. Once the machine confirms receipt you're politely sent out, on the understanding that you'll return the folder to the table for your election district.
In New York State we have six Presidential candidates to choose from. One of these is constitutionally ineligible, being younger than the minimum age, but Peta Lindsey has said that she's interested in protest votes only. That leaves the Democratic, Republican, Green, Libertarian and Constitution tickets. If you think that President Obama is too conservative, you can vote for Jill Stein. If you think that Mitt Romney is too liberal, you can vote for Virgil Goode. If you think that both Obama and Romney are too statist, you can vote for Gary Johnson. If you think the incumbent has done well and can do better, you can vote to retain him. If you worry that four more years could ruin the nation, your only option would seem to be Rommey. And if you worry that merely four years of Romney will ruin the country, your only choice would seem to be Obama.
We all know that we always have more than two choices, but it remains hard for most people to take the others seriously. We've gone over the reasons people feel that way repeatedly on this blog; suffice it to say that all the reasons are stupid. If you are only willing to entrust power to those who've had power, there will never be change in this country. Preventative voting betrays a fundamental flaw in party-based representative government. No one, I suspect, is voting for any of the five credible candidates on the New York ballot because he or she believes that only that candidate can save the country. However, most people will vote because they believe that only Romney can defeat Obama, or only Obama can prevent Romney from taking power. That is, they limit their options because they think it more important to prevent some worst candidate from winning than to choose whoever has opinions and policies closest to their own. When critics complain about this tendency, they are accused of "making the perfect the enemy of the good." But the Bipolarchy "lesser evil" tendency itself makes the "evil" the enemy of the good by compelling people to commit to power rather than principle in order to prevent the "evil" or worst-case result. When you feel that you have no choice but to vote for a party to prevent an evil outcome, that party gets something like a free pass to do as little as necessary to continue appearing less evil than the other party. Understandably, the main object of the Democratic party is to make the Republican party appear evil; just as understandably, the Republican party does the same with the Democrats. Through it all, no one asks why an "evil" party is allowed to continue contesting elections, since not to allow it, no matter what awful consequences are feared from its victory, would make ours less free a country, freedom being measured by how much dissent is tolerated -- the more extreme the dissent, it seems, the more free the country is. Inevitably, lesser-evilism must result in legislative paralysis as both major parties dedicate themselves primarily to resistance rather than progress. If we want pluralism, and if we want a pluralistic electoral system to result in the best government, than we cannot presume that any party is evil, or that it will destroy the country. If you want to argue that a party can become objectively evil -- the position someone like Eric Alterman takes toward the Republicans -- than you may want to rethink your commitment to pluralism. If Republicans can somehow be proven evil, their continued existence would really only benefit Democrats, who would have to promise nothing but resistance to Republican evil, while voters would have to settle for whatever Democrats decide actually to do for the country. If Republican victory becomes an intolerable option for millions of people who then feel that they have no choice but to vote Democratic, where is democracy, exactly? Where is freedom of choice?
Many voters probably feel that they face a bad choice today. Most of them are simply ignoring the existence of more than two parties, but those who feel that they have no choice except between Democrats and Republicans regardless of the other parties only have themselves to blame. Bipolarchy subverts democracy and makes citizens less free. Any alternative involves some kind of risk. Does Bipolarchy make us cowards too? We'll probably find out eventually.