They say if you don’t vote you can’t complain. They’re wrong. Complaining is prior to voting. It is deeper and more powerful than voting. It is the original act of politics. Before there was democracy, there was sitting around the campfire complaining about the way the headman allocated the shares of mastodon meat. Bellyaching about the boss is more than a political right. It is a human right.
And so, in Reason‘s 2020 election issue, we are here to complain. The candidates from the major parties are subpar. They display troubling authoritarian tendencies. Their records in office—one long, one short—are underwhelming and frequently self-contradictory. Their actions consistently fail to match their rhetoric. If they agree on one thing, it is that they have the right, and perhaps even the obligation, to tell you what to do in the bedroom and in the boardroom, in the streets and in the sheets. If they agree on a second thing, it is the necessity of spending ever-larger sums of taxed and borrowed money in pursuit of ever-vaguer goals. They helm parties that are similarly compromised and hypocritical.
Even if, by some miracle, you fully agreed with a set of principles and plans as articulated by one of the candidates in a particular campaign speech or policy paper, you could not reasonably have a shred of confidence that those principles would be carried through into consistent governance—something President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have repeatedly demonstrated.
The fact that many voters in 2020 believe they must nonetheless actively support one of these two deeply flawed characters is a testament to the brokenness of the system that produced them. The fact that those voters feel like they only have two choices in the first place is a criminal failing in a country with such blooming, buzzing diversity in our commercial, social, and cultural lives.
Every presidential election of my lifetime so far has been “the most important election of my lifetime.” If you squint, that might even be true this time around. The executive grows more powerful with each passing term, and there’s no denying that 2020 has asked a lot of the occupant of the Oval Office. But it doesn’t follow logically that, because an election is important, you must hold your nose and go out of your way to vote for the candidate you merely hate the least.
Replacing your toilet is an important choice, and you’d be absolutely furious if your plumber told you that, despite the existence of numerous makes and models, due to the way the toilet selection system works you must pick right now between one that leaks and another that has a broken seat. The more fundamental something is, the angrier and more vocal you should be at being asked to choose between bad options. You do not have a moral obligation to talk yourself into the idea that a damp bathroom floor is OK, no matter what people are saying in your social media feeds or on your family phone calls.
We understand that many of our readers will be voting for one of the two major-party candidates, and may even feel some connection or loyalty to that candidate or the party he represents. We understand that those readers may find the notion of giving equal airtime to the failures of each candidate an abhorrent exercise in false equivalency and whataboutism. We disagree. We think the records of these two candidates are troubling enough that both deserve to be laid out in the weeks before the election. Reason is not here to attack your tribe or shame you for the way you choose to vote (or not vote). But we hope you agree that it would be preferable to live in a world where the stakes of any given election are lower and where there are more electorally viable tribes.
Here are a few things we are not saying in this issue of Reason:
We are not saying the outcome of this election doesn’t matter. Elections matter. The next four years will be different in important ways for many, many people depending on who is president. Different wars will be waged. Different taxes will be levied. Different laws will be passed. Different judges will be appointed. Different bureaucracies will be empowered. Different research will be funded. Elections matter. That’s why we’re so disappointed at the low quality of the available options.
We are not telling you how to vote. As we do every four years, we will ask Reason staffers to share who they’re voting for in the presidential contest and post the results online in October. We do this because we think it’s important for people who subscribe to our magazine and read our website and watch our videos and listen to our podcasts to know where our writers and editors and producers are coming from. More publications should consider this form of disclosure, especially those who claim to primarily be purveyors of fact and not opinion or analysis. But telling you how we vote is a very different thing from telling you how you should vote.
We are not telling you whether to vote third-party. In this issue, we tackled the candidacies of the two people who could plausibly win the presidency. We know Libertarian Party nominee Jo Jorgensen exists. We have covered her campaign and will continue to do so. But the vast majority of the country views this as a choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. There are many structural reasons that it’s hard for Jorgensen (or Kanye West or the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins, for that matter) to get purchase in American politics, from the difficulty of ballot access in the 50 states to collusion between the two parties that keeps Libertarians and others off the debate stage. Those barriers should be removed, but acknowledging that they exist is not an attack on third parties.
Changing the American political system is hard and depends on many variables outside of your control. Reason can and will come back to the technical questions of reforms that might mean American voters someday have more and better choices. But as a chaser to the rap sheets of the major-party candidates, we wanted to offer you something more immediately useful in this issue: a case for changing your relationship to politics instead. Philosopher Christopher Freiman argues that simply choosing not to engage as much with politics would be better not only for you but for society as a whole. Freiman describes the ways in which our partisan identities are swallowing the rest of our identities, a doubly bad sign when partisan identities are increasingly built around cults of personality and the personalities are neither principled nor predictable.
At the beginning of 2021, barring one last wildcard from 2020, one of the major-party candidates will be inaugurated as president. They can’t both lose. Your choices at the ballot box are limited and limiting. But the world outside of politics—even in the constrained circumstances of 2020—remains varied, interesting, and worthy of your attention.
So complain about your choices, think about ways to get better ones next time, recognize that you owe nothing to the two men at the top of the tickets or the parties that put them there, and then seriously consider turning it all off and doing something pleasant and useful instead.