When Bounded Rationality Fails: An Independent Voter’s thoughts on 2016

Now that we basically know the two major contenders for 2016 US presidential contest, social media is a minefield for undecided and independent voters. Of course, there are the clear Trump and Clinton camps. Meanwhile, we still have the stalwart Sanders team suffering from end-stage hoping for some kind of miracle. Yet another group clings to (false) hope that their party’s convention will defy convention (and democracy) by boycotting the popular vote to nominate a candidate other than Clinton and/or Trump.

Realistically, though, we are stuck with Clinton and Trump. One of these two individuals will be the next president of the United States. For this independent voter, no matter what happens in November, the 2016 elections are likely to leave the United States worse off.

On the one side we have Donald J. Trump. As an affluent, white male, Trump’s candidacy is not surprising. When he opens his mouth, he often says senseless and irresponsible things. But like George W. Bush, the Republican support base loves him because they can imagine hanging out with the guy. Not to mention, he promises to offer an alternative to the establishment and preys on nationalism with his slogan “Make America Great Again”.

On the other side we have Hillary Clinton. She is the establishment. Clinton represents a moderate voice in the Democratic party, which normally would be a good thing for the party’s success at attracting the median voter. That is – if her last name wasn’t Clinton. With a target painted on her back since Bill Clinton entered the race for the White House in the 1990s, Clinton is far from a safe candidate.

For the jaded partisan and the confused independent, social media is filled with memes like these:

Meanwhile, both Trump and Clinton factions are scrambling to pre-empt voter apathy by activating reason. In other words, while you might feel like neither candidate represents your interests, which candidate is relatively a better choice for you. A vote for one takes a vote away from the other. And don’t delude yourself – voting for a third party or staying home also translates into some net loss for one of the two candidates. Essentially you are voting for one of them, even if you aren’t. So given the fact that one or the other will be the president, think about which is the lesser of the two evils? Vote for that one. But mostly, vote for the evil I prefer.

The problem with this argument is that both candidates are likely to produce some negative consequences for the United States. So as I weigh the options in this game of bounded rationality, it is difficult to find the equilibrium choice. Here’s why:

Trump’s divisive, borderline fascist rhetoric is horrifying. The idea of casting a vote for him makes me feel physically sick. At the same time, I can imagine that if he were to win, he might do some really stupid things to get himself booted after the first term. That would give some utility to voting for him, especially because I keep imagining it unfolding like a scene on his reality show, only this time the American public is telling Trump he’s fired.

The problem is – what sort of damage could Trump do in four years? I would like to hope – as an institutionalist – that the systems in place would be enough to keep Trump from doing many of the things he claims to intend to do (e.g. enacting xenophobic immigration policies). But as someone who came of age during the George W. Bush administration, I am also keenly aware of just how much can happen in a single presidential term (e.g. Patriot Act, Afghanistan, and Iraq).

So what about Clinton? During the 2008 primaries, I was a big supporter. The timing was better for her then than it is now. As someone who studies gender politics, I can’t help but be hopeful about the possibility that the United States may soon have its first female president. But this does not stop me from questioning the quality of the candidate.

Clinton is probably the only presidential candidate in our history to have travelled to almost every country on the planet. As someone who spends a lot of time overseas, I imagine having her in the White House will make day-to-day life much easier. When I tell people I am from the United States, they light up with excitement because I come from “Obama’s place.” In many parts of the world, particularly those where I spend most of my time, interactions with local citizens would likely remain positive if Clinton is elected. Under a Trump regime, I would probably claim Canada to avoid the accusations and uncomfortable conversations.

Unfortunately, reason dictates that no matter what happens, a Clinton presidency could be very bad for the struggle for gender equality in the United States. There is a widespread hatred of the Clinton family within the Republican party. Of course that is all too common in politics of both sides, but the degree to which the Republic party has and continues to attack the Clinton family is both unprofessional, wasteful, and undermines basic governance.

So while Clinton has endured personal indictments, hearings, and investigations with a grace and dignity that few others could, the fact is, the Republican establishment is never going to stop. They will rip apart our country if only to bury the Clinton name. Clinton’s qualifications as a leader are solid, but the threat she poses to our country may be no less grave than the threat posed by a single Trump term.

Clinton has proven her grit as a politician and a diplomat. It is possible that she could survive just about anything at this point. However, her legacy will always be tainted by conspiracies and (accusations of) scandal. This could set gender equality back, rather than pushing it forward. So the question lingers – what sort of role model will she be for future generations? That’s a heavy burden for anyone to carry.

And if I can see this, certainly a politician as brilliant as Hillary Clinton can too. So I have to ask myself – why is she so selfish? Running now makes absolutely no sense. Yet the hunger for the Oval and perhaps to prove the Republican party wrong, seems to override the desire do what is best for the country. This makes me question Clinton’s character and integrity.

So basically, bounded rationality fails. Neither is the lesser of two evils. The utility matrix is empty.

Despite my pessimism, in four months’ time, I will definitely vote for one of them. My notions of civic responsibility demand that I vote, even if the choice of candidate is neither simple nor entirely rational. Our democratic institutions have gotten us to this place, to this particular choice set. Sometimes democracy hands us something we don’t like. But that is precisely when our support of democracy is truly tested.


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