You learn a lot when nearly every vote you cast is for the losing side. Here are a few things I've picked up:
- If you are a localist or a communitarian, you have no chance of winning an election. When I say this I mean simply that I think that local communities are the basis of a healthy civic life, and that decisions about civic issues should be made by the people who are most effected by them. Philosophically, both major parties have threads that align with localism--Catholic social thought, particularly about subsidiarity, and Burkean conservatism on the right; the reflexive praise for grassroots activism, the New Left, the "buy local" movement on the left. But to get to the level of elections, candidates and platforms have a tendency to push decisions up the political hierarchy, not down it.
- Voting is important, politics are important, elections are not. By this I mean simply that voting and politics are symbolically significant because they ask people with differing views to come to some sort of resolution about an issue. Much of the rest of our lives do the same thing--we are always working to make decisions with others in our families, churches, schools, etc. But elections often poison this natural impulse, because they do not encourage joint decision-making, instead focusing on individual choice-making. Civic life, and major issues, are never about simple yes or no, this candidate or that choices.
- The most troubling part of elections is not campaign spending, or attack ads, or any of the things that point to division between partisans. It is instead the shared commitment of leaders in both parties to proclaim that their candidates (particularly for higher office) have within them the ability to solve problems. When Mitt Romney said he knew how to turn the economy around; when Barack Obama said he would already have done so were it not for the recalcitrance of the Republicans, they were both wrong. Their statements were not lies as much as they were delusions. One person, especially in a democratic system and a market economy, cannot "fix the economy." It is not amenable to control, whether in good times or in bad. Individual decisions matter, it is true. But their reach is small, and no amount of blaming or chest-thumping can change that.
- Fortunately, while elections are important for political parties, they are less important for the quality of community life. I live in an overwhelmingly Mormon, pro-Romney neighborhood. I voted for Gary Johnson for president. The day after the election, my position in my neighborhood was unchanged. People who thought us strange before still think so; our kids still have their friends; I still wonder how to be a useful member of my community, I still long to feel a part of something, to contribute to the common good, to find a supportive place in the res publica.
Voting again for losing candidates doesn't change that at all.