Two Cheers for Negative Partisanship, or Why Most Americans Should Vote for Biden

Tl;dr: Things are stressful. Think negatively on purpose. Find peace in working the voting system against Trump.

Introduction: I drafted this post almost a season ago in the Summer of 2020, before we knew that Biden would select Harris as VP candidate, before a new Supreme Court Justice would be approved in the last minute of the election, and before the division of this electoral season would nearly boil over now only a week away from election day. Harris is not exactly the “Abrams-Allen-Warren- Arcinda enlightened monarch” I wished for then but I now see that most sensible people admire her as a whip-sharp professional. The last-second confirmation yesterday of Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett, literally in the dark of night, may very well imbalance the courts until my grandchildren are born and grown as well as scramble current Congressional races. Still, after all this, and acknowledging that toxic* negative partisanship against Hillary Clinton is largely what got us where we are today, I stand by the basic analysis and defense of ordinary, systemic negative partisanship — or voting out the worse guy as a matter of course.

*This toxic tweet yesterday is beyond the dignity of even negative partisanship:

How is it a victory to take away healthcare in a pandemic again?

I should stress the obvious: negative partisanship comes with necessary costs. It is emotionally and socially taxing and we all have got to strenuously resist the temptation to *like* disliking the people on the other side, even if the consequences are genuinely abhorrent. But even these costs are also so much less than the costs of all the politicians, the foreign actors, or the voters who would seed doubt about the integrity of the electoral system itself. So, yes, the bipartisan system stinks, and some reforms are well within reach, but, until then, voting out the worst guy is far, far better than cynically throwing in the tower on a system believed to be too broken to repair.

In the week that remains, fight system cynicism, get out the vote, vote out the current President — and then, ever thereafter, improve the system.

If I had a magic lamp, I might wish today for sweeping electoral reform. My non-specialist instincts? How about universal rank-order voting by mail, accompanied with sweeping limits on election financing, gerrymandering, and the electoral college? I vote in Oklahoma, so my wishes matter less than most. But still, collectively, all eligible voters could pull off some change: if our leaders won’t get electoral reform done, we must vote them out. (Rank-order voting could start by local ballot *tomorrow.*)

Until that improbably great day, we are stuck in a stressful bipartisan and negative partisan situation. (Negative partisanship is when you vote for your guy because they oppose the guy you really do not like — basically, the opponent of my opponent is my friend.) Our media environment, the pandemic, racism, and the economy currently don’t make things much easier: I’m sure I am not alone in feeling stressed by the many people I care about on the other side of the aisle sharing stunningly uninformed, offensive, and self-confirming posts. (That is surely how many of them feel about posts like this one too!) Media users who do not seek out media sources or posts from the other side (few have the time to dig our way out of algorithm-reinforced echo chambers) may actually face a worse but more subtle burden than I do, for these friends can feel an increase in both misplaced hope about all the like-minded organizing as well as amplified anxieties without encountering the other side. It is our curious lot: we must vote in a system that requires us to vote against our opponents, yet we only rarely encounter them on substance. Until we have electoral reform that satisfies my wish for, say, a merger of Stacey Abrams, Danielle Allen, Elizabeth Warren, Angela Davis, and Jacinda Ardern (a Vice President would be a fine baby step!), we all have to deal with what we got, and who does not anticipate that our best-intentioned yet irrational distresses will worsen over the next four months?

Especially as we all ride waves of national pandemics, heightened awareness of racism, and economic downturn? Buckle our seat belts!

Buckling seat belts doesn’t necessarily mean things are about to get worse. It means, “be prepared.” To that end, a contrary moment of pause and preparation for these necessary stresses. Namely, I propose not embracing the stresses of negative partisanship, not fighting them, but first just observing them at work for a moment. And then, why not try out our hand at their finer arts? In such an attempt, I can see a moment of comfort: our political system was *designed* for negative partisan thinking and voting; this is especially good news when things appear ever worse and worse.

So, two cheers for negative partisanship.

A. The first cheer: Negative partisanship sharpens voters analytically. Even the most idiotic meme against the other guy serves this core purpose, at least a bit. Research suggests that thinking *against* the opposing candidate helps clarify hazy instincts into articulable points. Most of us just vote whatever our parents voted unthinkingly. Many of us are triggered by a single issue or, perhaps worse, a single organizing philosophical principle that clouds over insight (individual liberty may be America’s most self-betraying article of faith, but it is certainly possible to be single-minded around principles of equality, or authority, or others.)

Even arguably the worst way to communicate your politics — the rage-baiting meme — is form of “thinking against,” however woefully impoverished. At least the meme sharer semi-publicly commits to a broader exposure of memorable phrases for confirming their own biases. Hardly salutary deliberative democracy, this, but even the worst meme involves more thinking than parroting whatever our parents said over the dinner table. Arguably, every form of critical thinking more complex than a meme (e.g. evidence gathering and weighing, contingency planning, critical questions, alternative and counterfactual speculation, etc.) also serves negative partisanship’s solitary demand: that we determine which candidate and platform will be worse for the future of the country. The absolute corruption of this kind of thinking is the single-issue voter, which solves the perpetual puzzle of negative partisanship by never taking it seriously at all: instead of weighing our complex worlds on a simple two candidate scale, the single-issue voter negates everything else in the world except for their single issue. (In other words, it takes a lot more processing to arrive at a single anti-candidate vote than a single-issue vote.) As such, they avoid the burden of their own thinking reduced, which is a cheap dodge. To see only one thing is to be blind to all other things. Still, there is perhaps hope in all this: even though no one is guaranteed to make it through 2020 with their current desires or health in tact, I think we can at least take some small comfort in the fact that our electoral system is *built* to reduce all our thinking — whether stressed, motivated, or our very best — to the simplest negation:

We all must think about and then decide which is the worse of two candidates.

That’s it. Just focus on the worst option — and the best way to get rid of that option.

2. The second cheer: Negative partisanship sharpens voters’ responsibility to vote against our opponents by voting for the candidates most likely to beat our opponents. Negative partisanship squashes the multidimensional complexities of politics into an embarrassingly straightforward, surefire, totally necessary next step. It hears our complaints and declines each of them: Oh, so we too have a conscience that is conflicted? Tough, says the

system. We all are disgusted with the rancor and intellectual poverty of public debate? Tough, says the system. We all have multidimensional analyses that won’t boil down to a negative vote?

Tough, system the system the system. Bipartisan systems don’t care. It only demands for one thing at the ballot box: All we *have* to do at the ballot box (or mail-in ballot) is all we *can* do there. The minimum necessity in our system is to vote out the worst guy. There is a reason stresses are high:

this system is deliberately stressful! At the ballot box, we can do neither more nor less than vote against the worst guy.

So if we want someone out of office, we must also *vote* for the candidate most likely to replace them and their down ballot enablers. In that — in the down ballot — lies some peace of mind.

That’s it: Just vote against the worst guy and their posse.

Until we have electoral reform, no one will help the case against the worst guy by either voting third-party or not voting at all.

Why not vote third-party? In a non-battle ground state it may be tempting. Still, our legitimate sense of disenfranchisement literally does not count in the current system: not a single person representing a third party has ever been elected President. So don’t vote for them when your vote could serve the national popular count. Bolton *says* he’s against Trump but its all talk (and book sales) until he votes against Trump by voting for Biden. His strategem is in dodging responsibility: he could have testified under oath when it counted too!

And again, just vote (unless others would abuse or harm you for disclosing your vote).

Abstaining is almost always uncool.

What if we don’t want to vote because we think all — or especially these two — politicians are corrupt? Sorry: *that* position itself is a corruption among voters in a bipartisan system. The politicians that win the most when voters refuse to pass judgement are the corrupt ones, who get the free pass! So is not caring uncool. It is rational to know your vote doesn’t matter but it is also a higher order of reasonable to know that clarifying your thinking and exercising your right to vote *does* and should matter to you. Voting forces each of us to think and to act — and even to bear the reduction of our own complexity for the benefit of ourselves and others. To not vote is an evasion of our core responsibility as (non vulnerable) citizens to stand as citizens (if you would face abuse or made sick by voting, do not: thus, my politics continues, it is also the responsibility of all non-vulnerable citizens to care for the vulnerable by voting appropriately). The personal value of voting lies in its social values while the social value of voting lies in the reduction to mass arithmetic. Except in the rare case of abuse or persecution, voting is how we stand up and be counted for the good of something both bigger *and flatter* than ourselves.

(Then again, if all you believe is that you matter, feel free to not vote. If it is intolerable to have your vote matter both more and less than your voice, just don’t vote: that likely works for the rest of us too!)

Thankfully, there are at least a dozen ways to contribute politically outside of the ballot box: join a campaign, make calls, knock virtual doors. (Elections are won and loss in the sophisticated ground wars, gumshoe, and door knocking of campaigns.) Donate to a campaign. Volunteer at a

political issue organization. Make a friend. Read, write, discuss, and watch worthwhile educational materials. Slow down and check our thinking. Think negatively on purpose. Think against our assumptions, learn from quality sources, and change my, your, and our minds where wrong. And yes, go to the streets, protest peacefully, bring legitimate grievances to equality under law, and organize for greater change. But let me finish here with one final defense of negative partisanship: so long as it exists within the bounds of the system (which candidate and supporters is worse), and so long as its thinking is checked by evidence (negative thinking without evidence borders on conspiracy theory), negative partisanship is enormously system-conservative. It is the least most necessary step all voters can take deliberately and still be part of a system we seek to change.

A defense of negative partisanship may not feel emotionally good, but it is the given method for reforming the system from within the ballot box. (There is so much more to do on the streets and communities!)

All I got today for us below is a first attempt at my own negative partisanship thinking: please improve, there’s so much more to do!

*Why Most Everyone Should Vote for Biden*

I have outlined my personal thinking against Trump elsewhere. In my general analysis, I conclude that at least seven (probably closer to eight) out of the ten groups below should vote for Biden. Note: I have no association with the Biden campaign, which I find underwhelming. (My ideal candidate this month, again, is probably some mutant hybrid Abrams-Allen-Warren- Arcinda enlightened monarch.) Please also note: I am not saying that everyone should vote for Biden no matter what the cost. (Few negative analyses lead to totalities.) Instead of these ten rough political subpopulations, I see eight which should vote for Biden.

1. Everyone principally against Trump should obviously vote for Biden because Biden is the candidate most likely to replace Trump, and “not-Trump” is the thing Biden most clearly represents to everyone. Full stop. When Biden stinks less than Trump but still stinks, this group will own that acceptable cost. (The costs of the anti-Trump majority is similar but not equivalent to the single-issue voting costs below.) Right now I belong most clearly to the anti-Trump group voting for Biden. This option is a slam-dunk (with a bruised wrist).

2. The center should clearly vote for Biden because he is their guy on the balance of most issues, and he is the least likely not to stir the post-Trump status quo waters. It is not clear whether Biden’s attempt to repair the status quo will stay more to the center or veer left. Regardless that is not the negative bet for this group. The negative bet is whether Biden is more central than Trump, whose principal center is himself. I suspect that, except for a few curious single-issue centrists, this is an easy bet.

3–6 goes to the left, 7–10 to the right on the political spectrum:

3. The liberals should vote for Biden because his administration clearly overlap with their issue buffet less poorly than Trump. Biden is the iconic mix-and-match issue compromise who will probably respond to racism, immigration reform, climate change, and a dozen other themes better than Trump. This option is the usual liberal gimme.

4. The left should reluctantly vote for Biden because a Biden administration will appoint judges and officials that are farther left than Trump and the rest of his administration is likely to be staffed by competent civil servants and government officials, not corporate CEOs, that will lean farther left after Trump. This option is not at all optimal, but a fairly self-evident safe bet.

5. The radical left should mortifyingly vote for Biden, with the hope that his sexism, dotage, and incrementalism may age out to the point that Biden’s VP may pick up. Biden administration likely has a shot at one signature legislation which is preferable to Trump’s scattershot deregulation of the already frayed safety net and the common good. This option is a bitter pill whose side effects are hard to foresee.

6. The revolutionary left should split between Biden, whose VP might be a heartbeat away from a legitimately left President, on the one side, and, on the other, Trump, who is (unlike Biden) open about his brazen abuse and corporatism. Trump will accelerate the ongoing and harder left popular reaction. Voting for Trump may thus usher in a counter-revolution over the next four years. This second option is the red pill inside the red pill.

Now to go right from the center:

7. The conservatives should reluctantly vote for Biden since, by a career of evidence, he is the clear status-quo “system-conservative” of the two. Even if he is on the other side of the political establishment, Biden is at least the establishment. By contrast, Trump is likely to continue speeding social unrest, pandemic mismanagement, trade disputes, and thus economic woe. The House or Senate will largely check the institutionalist and career politician Biden: given the tumult, Trump is less business-as-usual than Biden.

8. The right should split between Biden and Trump, depending on whether their core values align more with the tradition of the status quo (Biden), tradition of the party in name only (Trump), the authority of the majority (Biden), authoritarianism (Trump), the sanctity of character-morals (Biden, but still negative), the sanctity of all post-birth lives (Biden), the sanctity of fetuses (see 9: Trump), the purity of the white ethnostate (Trump), among other cuts far more complex than the usual fare of “don’t take away my guns.” This option is so complex. I am sure I don’t understand it well enough and I suspect many will default to under-articulated prior values in solving it. (Addendum: at least I am not alone in this, since I have rarely heard Trump supporters articulate an equilibrium in the months since.)

9. The single-issue, anti-abortion right should functionally vote for Trump since he will likely appoint judges that will serve that single end, no matter what the costs. Because they are not thinking negatively about everything except one issue, this group also accepts all the consequences of Trump beyond that issue too. This option is a trap.

10. The apocalyptic right should toxically vote for Biden since his stance on [insert your favorite rage issue here] will speed the end of days. Voting for Trump is bad here since he may delay the ongoing collapse of our American society that cannot preserve the sanctity of [insert issue here]. This option is the blue pill inside the red pill.

By my count, more than seven out of ten of these very unevenly sized groups should vote for Biden. None of them (except the self-excluding hardcore individualists!) should be kept from voting negatively.

This quick first draft at negative partisanship thinking has made a stressful political media environment a bit less stressful for me. I hope your own partisanship may help you better find your negative reasoning. (I suspect critics — and almost everyone has to be a critic in negative partisanship land — will see me, not themselves, on my 10-group spectrum; so be it.) It would be interesting to hear others’ spectrums — and then to organize and hit the streets, in masks, together.

In short, I feel some peace in now seeing what I cannot deny. The *least bad* negative reason I must give for voting is this:

I plan to vote Biden because he is not Trump (and then actively campaign for the anti-Trump down-ballot).

Two cheers for negative partisanship!

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Ben Peters

Media prof (TU), author, editor, theorist, historian, ultimate frisbeeist