Should you just hold your nose and vote for the lesser of two evils?

Imagine you are a politician considering a run for national office.

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You examine the landscape of your potential supporters, and you find a party divided. On the one hand, you have the old guard, rich with money and political power, albeit resistant to change, a bit corrupt, and willing to change sides in any argument if the price is right.

On the other hand, you have a passionate group of grassroots activists desperate for a dramatic change in the way the country is being run.

Many politicians would face a difficult choice in deciding which of these two factions to ally themselves with, and most would probably search for some way to appeal to both, at least to a certain extent.

Now, imagine further that this grassroots movement had been around for quite some time, and that while they hollered loudly at protests and mailed a lot of angry letters to Congress, when it came right down to it, their thought leaders, TV and radio personalities, and community organizers would, without fail, take to the public airwaves and offer the following bit of advice:

“Look, we know you’re tired of the way we do things in Washington. We know you want a change more in line with your own values. And that’s great. We love that about you. But although you may not like your party’s candidate very much – you may even hate the guy – you have to admit that he’s better than the other party’s guy, don’t you? We can’t let him win! So hold your nose and vote down the party line, because it’s better than the alternative, and maybe we’ll do better next time.”

Now, as a potential candidate who has heard this speech time and time again, what, then, is your incentive to earnestly appeal to the concerns of the grassroots?

I’ll wait.

Incentives matter, as any economist will tell you. Any politician who knows that the grassroots will turn out and vote for a candidate they despise, simply because they despise the other guy slightly more, has no reason to try to honestly diminish his despicability to any considerable degree.

The insiders and the lobbyist class have money, they have connections, and they have the might of government behind them. These are the weapons with which they wage the war of politics. To oppose all this power and the corruption that comes with it, our side has only one weapon. It is a simple one, but powerful nevertheless.

Our weapon is the threat to withhold our vote.

But unless that threat is a credible one, we are effectively laying down arms and surrendering to our opponents before the battle even begins.

Over and over again, Republicans have held their noses and voted for the lesser of two evils, vowing that next time they will do better. This is known as “realism” or “being practical.” The fruits of such practicality have been, since Reagan: George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney.

A less inspiring list would be hard even to contrive.

Even if our oh-so-practical efforts had resulted in victory in every one of those contests, does anyone imagine that government would be smaller, that we would be more free, or that we would be taxed any less?

And then there is the matter of the Republican brand to consider. If you thought George W. Bush was hated, imagine how the country would have felt about Romney after 36 years of continuous Republican rule. The Democrats would be able to run an openly communist, convicted serial killer named Adolf Manson and still get 60 percent of the vote.

It may seem tempting to hold your nose and vote for the lesser of two evils, because the short-term consequences are so immediately visible. We have to think bigger. We have to think of what we are really accomplishing by signaling that we will support anyone with an (R) trailing his name.

To those that talk of realism, I say, “which of history’s greatest achievements have been accomplished by realists?” Was it realistic for a handful of American colonists to oppose the greatest military power in the world? Was it realistic for them to try to build, from scratch, a new nation, conceived in liberty, unlike any the world had ever seen?

To truly effect change, I believe you have to be willing to suffer a few losses for the good of the cause.

To pursue victory at the cost of principle guarantees you will end up with neither.

What do you think?

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