The Unspoken Problem with the “Viability” Argument

…is that it is dangerous nonsense.  It is a combination of the worship of power and the worship of the Future, which are both stupid idols, but in particular the worship of the future is stupid.

Insisting that we have to support the “viable” candidate backfires because, if taken seriously, it means that, at a certain point, we are morally obliged to vote for Obama since he is leading in the polls and is therefore “the most viable” candidate.

More than this though, when you vote for something based on stupid questions like “Is This Where the Future is Going?”, you play right into the hands of Uncle Screwtape:

It is here that the general Evolutionary or Historical character of modern European thought (partly our work) comes in so useful. The Enemy loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking “Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?” they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make. As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on.

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  • Mike Walsh

    Thank you. I’ve been so anxious to see someone kick this straw-man to death.

    • ivan_the_mad

      Indeed. Maybe some will take note and stop repeating this ad infinitum every time a post appears mentioning the election.

  • Maybe it’s me, but are these two arguments the same? I mean, are those using the “viability” argument (assuming I’m getting what that is) saying the same thing as those who say “hasten to the future, progress and all!”?

  • Is it a question of viability or possibility? How about a train analogy? A runaway train is headed toward a fork in the track. Taking the left track will kill two children playing on the tracks; taking the right track will kill one child also playing on the tracks. There is a third track that you can see that is perfectly safe for everyone, but it is not yet connected to the track you are currently on. The third track is real and is best if there was only enough time to convince enough people to help construct a connection, but you need to decide what to do now. A, B, C or do nothing and the train goes where it goes. What thoughts do you have?

    • Kristen inDallas

      yeah… except none of us are driving the train, we’re just standing around with one plank each, with which to build a track. And in reality none of the tracks are built. A and B are closer to completion than C , but none are a sure thing yet, and we have our one plank to lay where we will. In that much more realistic analogy, I’m laying my plank down for track C, without a second thought.

    • My thought is that there is *always* a runaway train and there is *never* enough time to finish Track C.

      And indeed, why would there be, when the people who prefer Track B can be certain that the people who prefer Track C will help them pull the switch for Track B when the train comes?

      • Of course, the real answer is to evangelize the culture around us; the tracks will then natually follow the will of God.

  • James Isabella

    For me, a viable candidate is someone who has even a slight chance (however remote) at being elected. There was no shame in supporting Ron Paul, or even John Huntsman, in the primaries, as there was certainly a possibility of either of them getting hot and winning the nomination.

    A non-viable candidate is *any* third party presidential candidate. No third party presidential candidate in the history of the United States has ever even come close to winning the presidency (all of them together have only ever earned one electoral vote *ever* – Ross Perot didn’t receive any). Anyone who supports a third party presidential candidate has to understand this and come to terms with it. There *has* to be a reason they never win, and the reason is obvious…there are simply too many barriers to overcome for such a candidate to win.

    A vote for a third party presidential candidate is a vote for failure….it always has been and I don’t see why it will change now.

    • Mark Shea

      Except that everybody invoked “viability” from the beginning to exclude people like Paul and Huntsman, and we all knew from day one that Romney had been Decided Upon. The sense of grim inevitability as the Republicans struggled to avoid nominating the candidate their political masters had pre-chosen was fascinating to watch throughout the primaries.

      • James Isabella

        Well, I can’t speak for those people (I guess I’m not everybody… I supported Huntsman until he got out), but they were clearly wrong. Five of the primary candidates were in the lead at one point or another, so supporting a preferred candidate in a primary makes complete logical sense. In fact, I’d make the argument that the primaries are the time when we *need* to fight for the soul of the party.

        After the primaries, you’ve only got the two viable choices (I don’t like this fact, but history *always* bears this out.)

      • Michael F.

        I’m sure some people did, but I never did. I agree with James, above. IMO, the primaries are more the time to vote for the guy you’d really like to see win. But when it comes to the general election, then the case for voting based on viability typically gets notably stronger, imo.

    • I would suggest another reason is that no third party candidate is able to rally everyone who would prefer an alternative to the two party candidates we’re given. If a single person came along who could do that, given the general distaste folks have for politics, it might work. But when people look at the third party options, they don’t always agree on the same candidate, hence never enough votes to make a show.

      • James Isabella

        If I understand you correctly, I believe you are correct. However, there are two other big barriers to Third Party Presidential candidates: Visibility and the Electoral Vote.

        Visibility: Its a fact that the R and D primaries suck all the air out of the room when it comes to news coverage. A third party can only really start to stick out after the conventions, and at that point its too late…how do you make your case when you only have a few months til the election and you won’t be in the debates?

        Electoral vote: The electoral vote means that you not only have to win the popular vote, but you need to win the popular vote in the right places. This is why California is important and Delaware (and a dozen other states) is not important. Ross Perot got an astounding 20% of the vote (truly unprecedented for a Third Party presidential candidate) but couldn’t muster a single electoral vote. That means that I was as close to being elected President that year as he was.

        I am truly sorry to say this, because I wish the opposite were true, but a strategy of voting for anyone other than Romney or Obama is a strategy of failure (meaning, your candidate not only has a remote chance of winning, but they *can’t* win. The rules of the game are set up to not give them even a chance to win).

        • Kristen inDallas

          I think you may be suffering under a lack of defnitional boundary between the concepts of “impossible” and “improbable”

        • Blog Goliard

          You’ve got a bit of a point regarding electoral votes…but if Ross Perot couldn’t win a plurality of votes nationally, or in any of the 50 states plus DC individually, it’s hardly unfair that he wasn’t able to rack up electoral votes.

          And, as other people have been pointing out…if a third party built credibility on the state and local level, it’d start getting visibility on the national level. Why should the national media cover some cobbled-together assortment of activists holding a ramshackle convention when the delegates hardly represent anyone other than themselves?

          • Michael F.

            I think this is really the approach that needs to be taken, too – start at the state and local level and build the party up to the national level. I would love to see a new party develop that way – one that is more consistently in line with Catholic principles.

  • Marty Helgesen

    No, it does not mean “at a certain point, we are morally obliged to vote for Obama “. The viability argument — I’ve never seen it called that before — is a pragmatic argument not a moral argument. Also, the argument is that we should support the candidate who is most likely to succeed in making Obama a one-term president, assuming that that candidate is someone who is better than Obama, or less objectionable than Obama if that’s the best we can do.

  • I’d say that independent candidates and minor parties that stand no chance of election are an indispensable part of the two-party system. If you typically vote for one of the major parties and you think that party has become too different from the other major party, you can cross over, vote for the other party, and your signal will be received. Every other voter will be sending signals at the same time of course, but the system does give you the ability to register that opinion.

    If, on the other hand, you think that your usual party has become too similar to the other party, you can’t register an objection to that state of affairs by voting for either major party. Indeed, if you vote for a party that takes you for granted, you are simply encouraging them to continue taking you for granted. Nor can you send a signal by abstaining from voting. Voters who abstain in one election are classified as unlikely to vote in the next, and as such are ignored by both major parties. The only way to call upon one major party to become more different from the other is to vote for a minor party or an independent candidate representing the difference you want to see. When enough people do that to deny the major party an election victory, they do in fact get action. So anti-abortion Republicans dissatisfied with Mr Romney are not unwise to vote for Virgil Goode, and antiwar Democrats really ought to vote for Rocky Anderson or Jill Stein.

    • Marty Helgesen

      Again, it’s a pragmatic judgment and opinions will vary. I think the importance of making Obama a one-term president is of the greatest importance. Sending a message to the Republican Party leadership is of lesser importance in this case. Also, will a group of votes for a third party candidate be recognized by the leadership as being that message rather than individuals liking the candidate for various other reasons?

  • Kirt Higdon

    Mr. Isabella states that all 3rd party candidates in the history of the US have earned a total of only one electoral vote ever. That’s not even close to accurate. Check out the election results of 1968, 1912, 1860 and 1856. I think there are one or two still earlier examples as well.

    • There have indeed been several other elections in which minor party candidates have received electoral votes. In 1892, Populist James B Weaver carried four Western states and won their 22 electoral votes. In 1924, Fighting Bob LaFollette carried Wisconsin’s 13 electoral votes as the Progressive Party nominee. In 1948, Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond won the 39 electoral votes of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. In 1960, Thurmond’s fellow segregationist Harry Byrd received the support of fifteen unpledged electors. Before the emergence of the modern two-party system during the Civil War, there were several other elections in which particular states voted for the presidential nominees of parties like the Free Soilers and the Anti-Masons.

  • Blog Goliard

    The best part about third-party candidates is that they’re not always in our face, and even many people who wind up voting for them know very little about them.

    This makes them easier to love–and easier to project our own views onto–than the major-party candidates.

    • ivan_the_mad

      “and even many people who wind up voting for them know very little about them” quod gratis asseritur gratis negatur. But of course, your mileage may vary.

      • Blog Goliard

        I’m just speaking from my personal experience of both voting third-party, and talking with other people considering third-party votes.

        • ivan_the_mad

          Fair enough, although that’s not apparent in your original comment.

          Most third-party supporters are well informed regarding their candidate and their platform, less so their Republican and Democrat counterparts who gleefully hurl sterile slogans about willy-nilly . Just my personal experience.

          • ivan_the_mad

            Truthfully, that’s not my personal experience. I find voters generally resemble a normal distribution no matter who they support. But it’s not so helpful to post personal heuristics as more or less categorical statements (then admit to such as personal heuristic after the fact) aimed at voters with whom you disagree (although it doesn’t help that I engaged in some unhelpful tit-for-tat).

            Third-party supporters are no more or less ignorant or deluded in the aggregate than American voters as a whole, I’m sure. You’ve made it abundantly clear that in your judgement you don’t consider a vote for a third-party candidate wise. But to suggest that most supporters of third party-candidates are ignorant of their candidate or project their own views onto them because they don’t get as much time on CNN or Fox or WaPo … really? Internets much? Meet-up much? Don’t be surprised when some are offended by that.

            • Blog Goliard

              There are many reasons that even well-informed people don’t know as much about the third-party candidates as they do about the major-party candidates.

              Here’s one big one that comes to mind: Which campaigns and journalistic operations are devoting large sums to opposition research and investigative reporting on Johnson and Stein and Goode?

              • ivan_the_mad

                “Which campaigns and journalistic operations are devoting large sums to opposition research and investigative reporting on Johnson and Stein and Goode?”

                I’m afraid I’d consider that a bit of a non sequitur, especially since I would consider a common purpose of such efforts to be digging up dirt. It seems to me more another way of saying “doesn’t get to appear on FoxCNNMSNBCetc as much”.

  • Jay

    This post seems based on a flawed version of the viability argument. The viability argument is just “vote for the least bad candidate who has any chance of winning whatsoever, so you don’t throw your vote away.” Which isn’t the argument being addressed here.

    Look. I respect people who decide not to vote for either party based on principle. It’s not the road I’m going (I think getting Obama out, with his incredible hostility to the Catholic Church, is so important I plan to “hold my nose” and vote for Romney) but I respect it.

    But I’m getting pretty annoyed at the massive sanctimony from some “I’m not voting for either of them” folks. Some of them have all but come out and said in previous posts, “If you vote for either major candidate you’re going to hell.” Excuse me?

    I respect that you’re doing what you think is best under the circumstances, with your prudential judgment, and all I ask for is the same in return.

    • jolly

      If you read some of Mark’s other posts on this subject you will see he does respect your point of view and has said so.
      Also, it makes a big difference which state you live in. If you are in Texas or California- go ahead and vote third party as a protest vote, it will not hurt or help either canidate because we all know (with a large degree of certainty) which canidate is going to win in these kind of states.
      Where it gets tricky is a state like florida, or Ohio, or Virginia. Your vote, or the conversations you have with others might actually matter in these states. If I lived in a swing state I am not sure what I would do. I would probably vote Romney, but I’m not absolutely sure.
      I do believe our best use of political effort at this point is making sure that we elect the best people we can at a local level (and in Texas that includes Judges- thanks be to God).

      • Jay

        I wasn’t really talking about Mark but some of his more sanctimonious commenters. And you’re right that a protest vote makes the most sense in a state where the issue is already decided anyway.

    • The odds that a third party candidate will win are greater than the odds that your vote will decide the election.

      • Jay

        Congrats, you fail at logic. Not even gonna bother arguing with you.

        • Congratulations. You succeed at gratuitous assertion.

        • ivan_the_mad

          If Zippy had the odds wrong in his inequality, at worst he’d simply be wrong. No logic failure present.

          • The problem is, once someone starts arguing the odds with me he’s already lost. The viability argument implicitly pits two extremely low probability events against each other; but it depends on us noticing only one of them, not both of them.

  • The “viability” argument is even sillier than this post implies. The odds of a third party outcome, or even of the Second Coming happening on Election Day, are greater than the odds that your vote will decide the election. People who vote for “pragmatic” reasons are being anything but pragmatic. People who claim that it is mathematically illiterate to vote third party or abstain are, themselves, mathematically illiterate.

    If you are not idealistically voting (or abstaining) your conscience, it might not be because you are makin an evil choice. But it is definitely because you are making an ignorant choice.

    • Blog Goliard

      It’s true that, even for those of us who live in swing states, the chances are mind-bogglingly infinitesimal that our individual vote will, by itself, sway the Presidential election.

      But I’m leery of a philosophy of electoral participation that takes it as read that over 90% of American voters are drones and will never ever do the same thing I’m doing.

      • Blog Goliard

        (…and that I am an island and my actions are rightly viewed in isolation from everyone else’s.)

      • Over 90% of American voters are, in fact, drones and will never, in fact, do what I do or think the way I think. This is a question of fact, not philosophy.

        • And by the way I suspect that that is why most people vote for the lesser of two evils. The good effect is the warm sense of belonging that they get from the activity. It certainly isn’t justifiable based on facts and math.

        • “Over 90% of American voters…will never…think the way I think.”

          You’re being modest.

          • Hah! If I thought I could get tens of millions of people to think the way I do I’d be egomaniacal.

            • (The 10%, that is).

  • Michael F.

    I’m not sure who is proposing the viability argument as you’re presenting it, but I would disagree with this version, too. I’ve always understood the viability argument to mean, in a nutshell: vote for the best candidate who has a plausible chance to win. Certainly there’s some grey area in there. But let’s just say that no 3rd party candidate has a plausible chance in *this* presidential election. Perot was probably the last 3rd party candidate who had a plausible chance to win, but he had his own serious problems from a Catholic moral perspective.

    Also, I don’t think the full context of this Lewis quote you provided quite supports your argument.

    Here’s the full context, which I think makes a different point about the desire for change and novelty:

    [Begin quote]

    “The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart – an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating Pleasurable. But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together on the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme. He gives them in His Church a spiritual ear; they change from a fast to a feast, but it is the same feast as before….

    Now just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty.But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate his **horror of the Same Old Thing** into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will. It is here that the general Evolutionary or Historical character of modern European thought (partly our work) comes in so useful. The Enemy loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking “Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?” they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make. As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on. And great work has already been done. Once they knew that some changes were for the better, and others for the worse, and others again indifferent. We have largely removed this knowledge. For the descriptive adjective “unchanged” we have substituted the emotional adjective “stagnant”. We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land which favoured heroes attain – not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is…”

    [End quote]

    In addition, “The Enemy” of Screwtape here (God) also wants us to ask “is it prudent?” and “is it possible?” And in the case of this election, if a person lives in a battleground state, I would contend that it is neither “prudent” to vote for a 3rd party candidate nor “possible” for that candidate to win – at least in this election.

    • Michael F.

      Just a quick addition – I’ve never perceived of the viability argument as being primarily a moral argument. It seems more of a logical/prudential argument with moral overtones, imo.

      If one were to argue that it is immoral to vote for a good, moral 3rd party candidate who can’t win, I would disagree. I don’t think it’s the most logical or prudent choice, but I definitely wouldn’t characterize it as immoral.

      As I’ve said, it’s possible I may vote 3rd party in my state because it’s bluer than blue – no chance Romney will win here.

      • It seems more of a logical/prudential argument with moral overtones, imo.

        I agree that this is how the “viability” argument is generally presented. My own argument against the viability argument isn’t that it is immoral. It is that it is stupidity trying to dress itself up as wisdom. The problem is that it is presented as the logical, prudent, pragmatic, mathematically sound course of action when in demonstrable fact it is illogical, imprudent, anything but pragmatic, and mathematically illiterate.

        • Michael F.

          Okay, you made the assertion, now give the argument, please. I’m open to hearing it.

      • “It’s imprudent” is a moral assertion.

        • That is the “moral overtone” of the argument as I understand it, yes.

          • To be clear though, there is such a thing as non-culpable stupidity. An imprudent act is a stupid act, and I do think that lots of folks are probably non-culpably stupid about the nature of voting.

          • And to further clarify: once someone comes to understand that while the viability argument pretends to be logical, prudent, pragmatic, and mathematically sound, it is in fact none of those things, he has a moral obligation to give it up.

            • Michael F.

              Again, please lay out the case proving that it is stupid and therefore morally obligatory not to vote for a candidate because he is has a plausible chance to win and he is better than the other plausible alternative. I’m genuinely interested to hear it. I’m not dogmatic about this – I’m interested in doing what will best limit evil and promote good in society.

              • Michael F.

                (typo: should have been: “Again, please lay out the case proving that it is stupid and therefore morally obligatory not to vote for a candidate because he has a plausible chance to win and he is morally better than the other plausible alternative.”

                • I have a reply sitting in moderation.

                  • Michael F.

                    I find it very hard to believe that anything you write is in moderation. J

                    • Punny. But what matters isn’t whether what I write would be considered moderate. What matters is if it is true.

                      You are welcome to visit my blog if you don’t want to wait for my friend Mark Shea to get around to releasing my post from WordPress Prison.

                    • Michael F.

                      It was, of course, just a pun. 😉

              • I already gave the briefest outline of why above. The “viability” argument is illogical, imprudent, not pragmatic, and mathematically unsound for reasons already given above.

                There are two new posts on my blog where I have started to explore the reasons why in more detail. There will probably be more posts in the coming weeks.

                In addition, I have lots of old posts on voting. You can search my blog for them here. Back when McCain was running against Obama, I made an argument that there was no proportionate reason to vote for either (and that therefore the remote material cooperation with evil involved was unjustified), from which much controversy ensued in many places. I still think that argument is right, and my current posts will go into why in more detail.

                • Michael F.

                  I intended to leave this citation: (EV 73; CPL n.4) in the subsequent paragraph, directly after mentioning the principle given us by the Church.

                  • Michael F.

                    [the rest of my reply is currently sitting “in moderation”, as you put it]

                • Michael F.

                  I read as much as I have time for. I agree with much of what you wrote. But I’m not at all convinced that voting to limit evil is fundamentally “illogical, imprudent, not pragmatic and mathematically unsound.”. If it were, the Church would not given us both the principle by which we could legitimately do such a thing. John Paul II, the CDF and renowned theologian Fr. Heribert Jone (with an imprimatur/nihil obstat from way back in the day when those things really meant something) have made it clear enough that voting to limit evil (choosing the lesser to keep the greater from prevailing) is legitimate.

                  I laid it out in more detail in one of Mark’s other posts.

        • ivan_the_mad

          But is a moral assertion imprudent? … I know, I’m fired 🙁

        • Michael F.

          If you read what I wrote, I didn’t say that there was no moral component at all, but that it wasn’t *primarily* a moral argument. In other words, I don’t see viability as being nearly on the level of the calculus that should lead one to realize that it is wrong to vote for Obama.

          • Michael F.

            (That comment was to “Tom”)

          • Prudence is the name of the moral virtue of rightly reasoning about a thing to be done. If “the viability argument,” in whatever form it appears, isn’t reasoning about a thing to be done, then I don’t know what it is.

            • Michael F.

              Let me try again, Tom. I believe there is a moral component to it. It’s just not as clear cut, black and white as the moral component that should lead a Catholic to understand that it is wrong to vote for Obama. There’s more a subjective element in the case of “viability” and so, there’s more room for Catholics of good will to legitimately disagree with one another. I would say, however, that the greater the difference between the “bad” viable choice and the “less bad” viable choice, the stronger the argument becomes for voting based on viability.

              For instance, Mark seems to think that there’s only a 5% difference between Obama and Romney. So, that would explain why he’s less likely to go with voting based on “viability”. I disagree with him and so I’ve tried to lay out the ways in which I believe he may be underestimating the evil that Obama represents and the overestimating the evil the Romney represents in comparison.