Why voters in the Western world should be cautious about the "anyone but..." voting strategy in upcoming elections.
A few days after Prime Minister Theresa May’s unexpected call for early general election, a tactical voting spreadsheet-turned-website named “Unite Against the Tories” went viral.
In the weeks leading up to the runoff of the 2017 Presidential election in France, voters were urged to vote against Marine Le Pen and the far right by their politicians, other countries’ politicians, football legends, film directors, and political pundits everywhere.
This is reminiscent of the 2016 US Presidential election, wherein rhetoric against either candidates drowned out facts and figures: a large share of the American electorate reportedly based their votes on which candidate they disliked, not which candidate they supported.
Evidently, “voting against” political candidates – when voters cast their ballots with the sole aim of preventing said political candidates from rising to power – is an increasingly popular voting strategy in Western politics today.
This “anyone but…” mindset is by no means new. In 2004, Democrats campaigned – unsuccessfully – for “anyone but Bush”. Two years earlier, Jacques Chirac was handed the French presidency when voters reluctantly united to fight-off Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ascendency: “Vote for a crook, not for a fascist”, voters chanted. But with the recent tide of extremists sweeping through the West, this mindset is more widespread than ever.
This is a depressing state of affairs. For more and more people, voting is no longer an act of hope; it has become nothing more than a desperate attempt to stop societies from unravelling at the seams. Voters trudge to the polls with weary minds and doubtful hearts. Political confidence wane while frustration and disillusionment mount.
This is also a dangerous state of affairs. The permanent harm caused by the “anyone but…” mentality can outweigh its temporary relief. While voting against uncongenial politicians can keep them away from some of the most important offices in the world in one election cycle, this voting strategy if kept up in the long run can further poison the Western political climate, promote a certain kind of moral irresponsibility in voters, and lower the bar on political standards.
Voting against someone is an act born out of strong negative emotions. Apathy, mere disagreement, or even disappointment rarely provoke voters to take action. Only fear, distrust, anger, and loathing can drive them to reject a candidate or a party by means of the ballot box. French voters did not vote against both Le Pens because they did not see eye to eye with them; they denied the Le Pens political victories out of a deep-seated disgust with their far-right extremist, xenophobic, Islamophobic and anti-Semites party.
But such a choice leaves a bitter taste in voters’ mouth. The politicians they put in power are far from the representatives they seek; the government they elected rests on a foundation of shared antagonism instead of mutual goals and values. Animosity breeds animosity; thus, the negative emotions that have spurred voters into action also colours their views on elections, politicians, voters who chose differently, and on politics in general. This turns them away from politics, and widens the political divide in societies to a seemingly unbridgeable chasm.
When voters cast their votes against candidates, their attention is fixed squarely on the candidates being rejected. Other candidates’ election becomes a by-product, rather than the primary goal of voting. Voters’ motivations and justifications for their votes are therefore disconnected from the actual consequences of their votes. This results in voters refusing to take into serious consideration or accept the responsibility for the ramifications of their votes.
Many American voters claim to have voted for Donald Trump simply because of their opposition to Hillary Clinton, not because they approved of Trump’s rampant vilification of women, minorities, Muslims, refugees, and undocumented immigrants. But a vote for Trump is not just a vote against Clinton; a vote for Trump is a vote supporting his blatantly discriminating election promises, which are the instantiations of his morally repugnant mentality and have real, serious repercussions for many Americans. Yet anti-Clinton Trump supporters, clinging to their antipathy towards Clinton, rarely spare a thought for those who would come to bear the full brunt of their votes.
Trump voters are hardly the only ones susceptible to this moral irresponsibility. This is a mindset widespread among those who vote or urge others to vote solely in defiance of a particular candidate or party. Those who wholeheartedly advocated voting for Emmanuel Macron simply because he is the ideological opposite of Le Pen failed to understand and acknowledge the plight of many rural French whose presence have been and will continue to be forgotten by the free-market language in which Macron is fluent. Such a mindset creates a gap between voters’ thoughts and the significance of their actions, and blinds them to the real-world impacts that their choices can bring about, especially when they don’t feel the force of these impacts firsthand. It makes voters careless, self-centred, and callous.
The “anyone but…” voting strategy also builds up voters’ tolerance of low quality politics. “Anti-establishment”, “not Trump”, “against Brexit”, are near rock-bottom political standards, yet for many voters, they are the only consequential hurdles a candidate needs to clear to earn their votes. If we continue to vote for any lizard for fear of letting the wrong lizard in, we eventually come to tolerate having lizards in our government, and the thought of getting rid of the lizards ceases to cross our mind.
Voting for any bad candidates in an effort to keep worse candidates at bay rewards bad candidates whose only merit is to be better than the very worst. Thus, politicians and parties have no incentive to improve themselves when they know that voters will always choose them as long as their opponents are sufficiently repulsive. With each passing election, the bar to gaining political power only gets lower and lower. when “not a neo-fascist” becomes a deciding factor in an election, we know that politics has reached its nadir.
The voters are not at fault here. This situation is the fault of a political scene that favours mudslinging and scaremongering rhetoric aiming to tear adversaries apart rather than the promotion of worthy ideas, values, and policies. Today’s political parties wage war on one another, instead of critical issues that plagues societies. Politicians expend much effort to play the system in order to win power at the expense of the people. The political climate is thick with antipathy, cynicism, and terror, which ultimately find their voices in extremism and populism, bringing Western societies closer to the brink of collapse.
What should voters do? Withdrawing their votes unfortunately is not a viable option. Low turnout does not stop a bad politician from taking office; not voting has brought much political grievances. In the face of utterly incompetent and abominable candidates, voting for any but them is the only choice.
But it should not become a norm. The fight does not end when bad candidates are defeated. Voters need to face the actual impacts their elected politicians have, and promote values that they support, not just speak out against what they object. It is high time we returned voting to its true function as a means of giving consent and electing leaders and governments that truly represent for the people.