In a recent essay for Public Discourse, Nathan Schlueter makes the case for an ethical obligation to vote, even when the two choices are as dismal as Trump and Clinton. He allows for a couple of exceptions but indicates that they are rare and dubious. Abstaining (or voting for an unrealistic third-party candidate) represents a form of unethical free-riding, as abstainers expect others to decide the election while they stay home and enjoy a false sense of moral purity. This argument, however, underestimates the importance of abstention as a credible exit threat from a political party. Without this threat, voters largely forfeit the ability to rein in their nominees.
Schlueter’s argument that abstention represents a self-serving abdication of one’s responsibility to solve the collective action problem created by elections is undoubtedly a compelling one. Since all individual citizens have an incentive to view their particular votes as inconsequential (i.e. not the deciding vote of the election), they can simply let others decide for them, and not pay the costs of voting. But if everyone followed this logic, no one would vote, which would undermine the very idea of democracy. Citizens therefore have an obligation to solve the dilemma by voting for what they perceive to be the best option in terms of the common good, under the assumption that they act in a way that conforms to how they wish others to act as well.
A major problem with this argument is that it understates the significance of abstention as a strategic action, and we can look at an influential game-theoretic model to understand why. Voters find themselves not only in a collective action problem, but also in a version of Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty game, in which political party members are in conflict with their party or party leaders. When a party does something that is deleterious to its members—pick any number of actions or statements by Donald Trump that are offensive to Catholics and other conservative-minded voters, for example—the party members have three basic responses: exit the party (by withholding their votes or by some other means), use their voice (via some avenue of protest or complaint), or remain loyal. Without going step-by-step through the model, the insight of the game is that we should only expect the party leader to respond to the voice of its members when two necessary conditions are met: 1) the leader values the loyalty of the members, and 2) the members have a credible exit threat. Without a credible exit threat, someone like Trump knows he can take the party members’ votes for granted and has no incentive to give in to their demands.
In a democratic society like ours, we can reasonably assume that the first condition is met. Politicians need votes. The exit threat, however, can be a big problem for voters in a single-member district-plurality system like this one. Catholic, pro-life voters know this all too well, as the Republican Party arguably gives them little more than lip-service on abortion, knowing that the threat of their exiting to the Democratic Party is not particularly credible. Trump’s candidacy is really pushing this proposition to its limits. Since very few pro-life voters will be willing to vote Democratic, the more credible, and perhaps the only, exit threat they have is their willingness simply not to show up to vote for the party leader.
Arguably, this kind of process is already in play and is making Trump at least slightly preferable to Clinton for many Catholics and conservatives. You often hear otherwise anti-Trump voters justify their intention to vote for him on the grounds that he will nominate better Supreme Court justices. Trump has given us a list of judges from whom he will choose, and all of them are better than anyone Clinton would nominate. But why did Trump bother to produce a list to begin with, at a time when he had already bested his primary opponents? Is it not because he feared the exit threat of millions of conservative-minded general-election voters?
If Catholic Republicans accept the logic that abstention is almost always a selfish and unjustified act of free-riding, then they admit that they have no exit threat and undermine the incentive for a candidate like Trump to respond to their complaints. They need the exit threat as a bargaining chip. And the exit threat will be credible only if the voters are actually willing to use it. They have to be willing either to vote for another party or to abstain altogether. In this way, when anti-Trump Catholics assert their intention to abstain, they make a strategic choice that has already improved the Trump candidacy and would lead to even better outcomes if more like-minded people would make the same threat.
With enough of them, Trump might be forced to take our religious objections to abortion, euthanasia, torture, and other matters seriously.
Schlueter is right that we should have a general disposition to solve the collective action problem by voting, even when we dislike the options and see our votes as inconsequential. But we should not let that disposition undermine our ability to influence candidates. We can be good stewards of democracy by exercising our exit option when necessary.
Scott Liebertz is assistant professor of political science and criminal justice at the University of South Alabama.