Why voting out of disgust is as American as apple pie

If you only plan to vote in November because you hate Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, don't feel bad. Feel patriotic.

Voting for the lesser of two evils is pretty normal.
(Image credit: Photo illustration by Jackie Friedman | Image courtesy Ikon Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the most disliked pair of presidential candidates in modern history, as we've been told a thousand times. This will be a dispiriting election, as voters shuffle to the polls with nary a wisp of hope in their hearts, casting their ballots as an act of distaste and disgust, not to elect someone but to stop someone else from being elected, the sure sign of a degraded democracy.

But what's wrong with that? Is there really anything problematic with making your choice because of the candidate you hate and not the one you love?

Political scientists call this "negative partisanship," and it's about more than just one election. In fact, Americans now define their political identities less by which party they feel represents them and more by which party repels them. As Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster observe, over the last few decades voters have come to feel more and more antipathy toward the other side, even as their affection for their own party has remained stable.

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There are multiple reasons, among them the increased ideological coherence of the two parties in the wake of the realignment that occurred when conservative Southern Democrats became Republicans, and the rise of partisan media that reinforce their audiences' existing beliefs. The result can be a vicious cycle: "Confrontational politics in Washington and in many state capitols is causing Democratic and Republican voters to develop increasingly negative views of the opposing party and to vote along party lines from the top of the ticket to the bottom. Negative views of the opposing party among voters, in turn, encourage political elites to adopt a confrontational approach to governing." We've seen the consequences in the last few years.

But if we put that larger picture aside and focus on your choice for president, particularly this year, there's a strong case to be made that it's actually better to vote against a candidate than for one.

I'll admit that as a liberal, I'm one of those nattering nabobs of negativism — I'm far more frightened about a Trump presidency than I am enthusiastic about a Clinton presidency. And why shouldn't I be? The prospect of Donald Trump being the most powerful human being on Planet Earth is genuinely terrifying. A year ago he seemed like little more than a boorish reality TV star and attention-seeker, but over the course of the campaign we've seen the true depths of his depravity. Among other things, Trump is impulsive, ignorant, vain, petty, bigoted, insecure, and possessed of an almost pathological narcissism. Every president faces crises during which the lives of large numbers of people, both in America and around the world, depend on that one individual's judgment and calm. It's little exaggeration to say that in the wrong circumstances, Trump's copious personality defects could result in absolute cataclysm.

And even if none of that happens and he governs like a standard-issue Republican, there's still a tremendous amount to lose if you're a liberal. Should he follow through on his promises, the Affordable Care Act will be dismantled, which could cause as many as 20 million people to lose their health coverage. He'd mobilize his deportation force to toss as many as 11 million people out of the country. He'd appoint Supreme Court justices that would overturn Roe v. Wade, uphold continued assaults on voting rights, expand the influence of big money on the political process, undercut workers' rights, and who knows what else. And that's only the beginning.

If you're a conservative, you have every reason to fear just the opposite, and be more motivated by stopping Hillary Clinton's liberal agenda than by promoting Trump's conservative one. You don't have to believe all the fantastical rhetoric about her coming to take your guns, shut down your business, and force you to gay marry an undocumented immigrant Muslim terrorist to believe that from where you sit, her presidency would be a disaster. Conservatives will be genuinely dismayed by most of Clinton's decisions, whether in economics, social policy, or foreign policy. So while fear is often used to short-circuit the electorate's critical thinking, there are some things it's perfectly reasonable to be afraid of.

One could even argue that getting too excited about a presidential candidate is little more than a recipe for disappointment. By the time the 2012 election came around, Democrats weren't decorating their bedrooms with those "HOPE" posters of Barack Obama, but they still knew that keeping him in office was far preferable to the alternative. For her part, Clinton isn't one to raise unreasonable expectations — and that's to her credit. She portrays governing as a difficult slog that requires hard work and persistence, probably because she knows it's true.

This year Trump is promising a literal paradise if he wins ("We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning"), and you'd have to be a fool to believe it. "Elect me, and things will suck a lot less than the alternative" may not be a slogan to put a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye, but it's a lot closer to the truth.

In the same way, voting against someone is an act of modesty and realism on the voter's part. I know things aren't going to be spectacular if my guy wins; instead, I'm more interested in averting disaster, and hope we can make some reasonable progress along the way. This plays into the human propensity for "loss aversion" — we're more motivated to avoid losing something than we are to win something, even if the two are the same (like losing or winning the same amount of money). That can make us irrational if we're at a casino, but it may be helpful when we're picking a president, especially if the magnitude of the potential loss really is greater than the potential gain.

There's a related feature of our psychology that also makes us vote against rather than for a candidate: negativity bias. Put simply, we put more stock in the bad than the good. That doesn't mean we're all pessimists, but we tend to remember bad things that happen to us for longer than good things, we pay closer attention to negative information, and we're highly focused on threats to our well-being (which makes perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint). Some studies have shown that conservatives tend to have a greater negativity bias than liberals, but that doesn't mean liberals don't feel it, too.

So when 80 percent of Trump supporters and 62 percent of Clinton supporters tell pollsters they'd be "scared" if the other candidate won, but only 29 percent of Trump supporters and 27 percent of Clinton supporters say they'd feel "excited" if their candidate won, we shouldn't be surprised. After all, even a great president won't turn America into Shangri-La in four or eight years, but a bad president can do an enormous amount of damage in the same time. And that's more than a good enough basis on which to decide your vote.

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