Is it Better to Vote With Your Heart or Your Head?

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Photographer: Dale Robbins

One of the first guests Bill Moyers invited to Moyers & Company was moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt. His interview, which focused on differences in how conservatives and liberals think, is consistently one of the most-watched on

This week’s interview with Green Party presidential and vice presidential candidates sparked a discussion in our editorial meeting about third parties, voting and the spoiler issue. Say, for example, that a voter reads the Green Party platform and feels like it represents their values and beliefs better than any other platform. Should they vote their heart — to send the signal that they support those policies — or should they vote for the party that comes closest to their beliefs and has the best chance of actually winning?

We wondered if there is a moral or “right” way to vote. So we emailed Jonathan Haidt, and asked him for his professional opinion.

Theresa Riley: Morally speaking, should a person vote for the candidate who represents their views most closely? Or should a voter game out the system and vote for the candidates who have the best chance of winning?

Jonathan Haidt: The ethics of voting depends on which view of voting you hold. Many people treat voting as a strategic game, a way in which people are trying to rationally pursue either their self-interest or their moral goals, or some combination. On this view it is always irrational as well as unethical to vote for a third-party candidate for president (unless someday there is one who might actually win). On this view, Democrats should be angry at Ralph Nader and at everyone who voted for him. Together they changed the world in profound and irreversible ways.

But from my perspective as a social psychologist, I think voting is more like religion than it is like shopping or chess. Some sociologists have described the “American civil religion,” with its sacred texts (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution), sacred cities (Jamestown, Valley Forge, Gettysburg…), and high priest (the president). Elections are the main religious ritual of democracy, and from this perspective people should vote their conscience.

Riley: On Tuesday, Virgil Goode, Jr., the right leaning Constitution Party candidate for president got on the ballot in Virginia. Republicans had been trying to keep him off the ballot because they fear that he may take votes away from Romney/Ryan. Are they correct to worry about that? Are conservatives or liberals more likely to vote their hearts?

Haidt: Yes, the Republicans are right to worry. Nowadays the American electorate is very closely divided, and many races are very close, particularly in swing states such as Virginia. I think Goode deserves the anger of Republicans as much as Nader deserves the anger of Democrats. Goode’s candidacy could very well change the outcome of the presidential election.

I do not know that either side is more likely to vote their hearts. Peoples’ votes are strongly influenced by their emotions, including anger, fear and hope. Whichever side is more emotional in a given election cycle will seem to be voting more with its heart.

Riley: In a 2011 Gallup poll, 52 percent of Americans said they don’t think the two parties are doing a good job and that a third party is necessary. But earlier this summer, when presented with a list of candidates running for president, only about 5 percent said they would vote for a third-party candidate. Why do you think that is?

Haidt: I think the two parties are doing a good job only at what they are designed to do: beat the other party. I think they are doing a terrible job of addressing the nation’s problems. (See Mickey Edwards’ new book, The Parties vs. The People for more on how this came to be). It is perfectly consistent for Americans like me to dislike both parties and long for a third party, while refusing to throw away their vote in the current election on a candidate who can only be a spoiler.

Jonathan Haidt is the author of The Righteous Mind.

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  • Nancy

    Why should we have to choose between our hearts and minds? Instant runoff voting would allow us the opportunity to vote our conscience without fear of being spoilers. And, as a bonus, we might even see a 3rd party candidate win!

  • Invested

    In our current modified version of democracy, it seems that one’s vote has to be for the candidate who is most likely to succeed in advancing an agenda via strategic compromise with opponents of that agenda. That’s why the most recent Tea Party approach of no compromise is so destructive to what’s left of our democracy, yet apparently planned to be destructive in that very way. So voting one’s conscience for a candidate who represents one’s values but who may have no skill at compromise is self-defeating, unless one wants to move toward secession or revolution.

  • Becky Spoon

    I don’t think Nader deserves the anger of Democrats at all. He deserves everyone’s deepest respect. Democrats and Republicans alike should be ashamed of themselves.

  • Linda Sutton

    The problem with the third party candidates is that MOST OFTEN they have not been in elective office before and that they’ve had little legislative experience as a result. Many are well meaning issue-oriented individuals who are disgusted with the two major parties. They’re in it to bring forward their issue, as best they can, at have people start to pay attention to it. The reality is that one of the major parties will win the election, and that’s why the voter, in the end, is best served to pick which one of those is more closely reflecting their best interests. And, for the life of me, I can’t figure out WHY anyone in the under $200,000 income bracket would EVER choose to vote Republican!

  • Carl

    You vote third party and keep reminding the people of the major party you’re closest to that if they supported instant runoff (or ranked choice) voting, that your second vote would be for their person.

  • Janet

    I believe we should be able to have a choice #1 and a choice #2 so that if the first choice is not the winning ticket, we know our vote will still count.

  • Tom N

    I will definitely vote third-party and do not consider it a waste of my vote, but rather an investment in the future of third party viability. If we are ever going to break the stranglehold of the current two party duopoly, how is that supposed to happen unless people have the courage and conviction to stand up for what they believe and support the third parties? I also feel that ballot access and instant-runoff voting should be very high priorities for concerned citizens if they want to see democracy returned to our great nation.

  • Bruce T Johnson

    Isn’t “civil religion” a kind of idolatry? That construction gives way too much authority to institutions that are made by humans and their actions…from Dred Scott, to Gore v. Bush, to Citizens’ United — just to take one institution for an example.
    The basic question here seems to be a classical one: are people responsible for the unintended consequences of their actions? I think every child has responded to some situation with the cry ‘but I didn’t mean to’. My mother explained that it didn’t matter what I meant to do, I needed to learn from the consequences of my actions. Same goes for Nader voters.

  • Grandpa Dave

    Tactics dictate voting for one of the two party’s candidates. Strategically this is flawed. America is stuck with a broken system until there is change which is not going to come from either of the two parties in power. Change can only come from a third party. Despite all the talk nothing much will be different after the election. Candidate Romney 2012 will become candidate Romney 2016, not much different. Obama if re-elected will have a congress that will block his every move and little of import will be done. The current two parties have been in power for a short period of US history and have no protected status contrary to what they would have you believe. Beliefs are dangerous, check the facts.
    2012 is not the last election. Think and act strategically and vote for what you believe in each of the next 100 elections. Meaningful change is not instantaneous. (Be careful of the “experts”).

  • Grandpa Dave

    Former two term NM Governor Gary Johnson has the experience and the platform to serve as US President. He is on the 2012 ballot in all 50 states. Think different.

  • cookiebaker

    Maybe we should have as many candidates and parties as there are-Green, Libertarian, Constitution, able to be in debates without being shut out at all. And also all candidates no matter the “viability” able to stay in the race until they concede and participate fully so that the people can hear different perspectives outside of the major two. I think that many other countries have at least three political parties-the restriction is part of the problem here in the USA.

  • Ginny

    Having no legislative experience is not a problem unless most others in the legislature are career politicians and controlled by party power, We can start talking about changing the practices that have no constitutional basis.

  • Dave Dixon

    Personally, under the current (& interminable?) use of the Electoral College; and, as I live in California — a state which, while called a “Purple state”, will be won by Barack Obama — I don’t see any question, here. For me it is solely a Moral, and not a Strategic, choice. In Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and the “Swing states”, it seems to be absolutely a “Strategic”, if yet personal, decision for the voters.

    While not adequately informed of IRV I, nonetheless, find the idea fascinating. I imagine it would also fascinate Professor Haidt and Social Psychologists & Sociologists everywhere. It would give the nation a much finer view of prevailing opinions and attitudes across geographical areas and economic cohorts. It would probably be positively correlated to Prof. Haidt’s view of Life-style Enclaves.

    While not directly relevant to the question, I’m currently reading (lead author) James Galbraith’s book “Inequality & Instability”, and must say that both this question (including the issue of IRV), as well as Prof. Haidt’s earlier interview, add to the dimension of both the issues: Inequality & “Our Contentious Culture”.

  • Val Vadeboncoeur

    You throw away your vote if you vote for someone who does not represent your own views. I don’t think that could be more obvious. Both major parties have propagandized us with the notion that voting for the “lesser of two evils” is the smart and responsible thing to do. What horsepucky! It is exactly that attitude that has kept us in thrall to the corporate interests for generations. The only hope we have is for the electorate to run away from the two major corporatist parties in droves and vote for people who reflect their own interests. Just do it!

  • Chip Njaa

    I’m not voting for the next President… I’m voting for the next person to be nominated for the Supreme Court.

  • Alice Patience

    It’s been pretty much researched and proven that Nader did not “steal” the election from the Democrats.

  • tccstend

    Either directly or by default

  • Dawn

    I find the whole notion of someone telling me how I should vote and labeling third-party candidates “spoilers” offensive. If the party is worried about a spoiler, it wasn’t strong enough to begin with.

  • Harriet Warnock-Graham

    AMEN! There is a lot more to be considered than our feelings. There is also the welfare of the republic to be considered. There may be a time when a vote for a 3rd party will be the right thing to do, but not when the judiciary is in disarray and likely to get much worse if we are self indulgent with our votes.

  • Imani Burrell

    In case history is relevent, the 3rd party candidates that have been on the presidential ballets have all turned out to be a little Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs… How about we try something very radical, like getting to know your local politicians and those that represent your state. Vote for the candidates you want to see on the ballot, in your primaries and perhaps candidates that are interested in helping, would begin to step forward. As it is now, why should the honest, intelligent citzens get involved with politics, if people don’t even care enough to go to a town hall meeting or challange the decisions of the school superintendent? I contend our politicians, and especially the ones that are on the ballot this cycle, are the exact reflection of our society today.

  • Jason Mundstuk

    In my opinion, there is no comparison between government by democrats and republicans and no truth to the view that it doesn’t matter whether you vote for a democrat or a 3rd party (in a swing state) or boycott.

  • William Feiser

    As much as I like Bill Moyers and what he offers, I have to say that this like most either/or questions seen in the media amounts to a false dichotomy. I’m disappointed with Bill Moyers on this one. This means one less really more relevant issue he can address.

  • Mary Robertson

    This year we have Gary Johnson running on the Libertarian Ticket. As a former two-term governor he has more executive experience than either Romney or Obama. Johnson isn’t a one-trick pony in this race. His platform touches on everything that ails America right now. Look him up!

  • Cherie Bartlett


  • Cherie Bartlett

    I always liked the advice, register Green, vote Democratic or register Libertarian, vote Republican. The Libertarians have had an impact on the Republican Party.

  • Jeremy Noble

    Check the New Hampshire voting totals. The math is plain.

  • Dan

    instant runoff is needed now more than ever.

  • Jerry Fair

    Unfortunately most people do not even look at 3rd parties. They just vote for the same old hook um from the dems and gop. I will be voting for Gary Johnson who is my second choice behind Ron Paul. Dr. Paul was the only candidate that made sense but he was not the puppet the GOP demanded so he was marginalized by the crooks running that corrupt party. Too bad. It would have been nice to finally end our involvement in nation building and end foreign aid of all types and move toward balancing the budget and other good things. Instead we have the choice of clown from column one (the dems) or clown from column two (the GOP). Is this any way to run a country?

  • nat zimmer

    There is nothing “expert” about this opinion. How about pushing academic “experts” to actually say what the rest of America knows to be true–that there is no democracy in the US. Voting may be religion in which people vote according to their faith in candidates, but what America calls an election isn’t a part of a democratic system. This statement, “Elections are the main religious ritual of democracy, and from this perspective people should vote their conscience” makes absolutely no sense. A ritual involving a “choice” between two candidates who do not represent the interests of most of America is not a ritual of democracy. Why do you keep bringing this guy back on this show over and over again? He isn’t very insightful.

  • Austin Adams

    If you think that neither candidate from the two main parties can do much good or harm, then by all means vote for the 3rd party candidate (even if you know the chance of victory is slim.) But if you know that by voting for the 3rd party candidate you could tip a close election to someone whose policies you strongly disagree with, then it would be unethical to do so. Say you opposed the Republican agenda, and you knew that if Mitt Romney is elected, he will have free reign to enact that agenda as the House will be his and possibly the Senate. (A simple majority in the Senate, under “reconciliation,” is all that would required on budgetary matters, such as taxes and the Affordable Care Act.) The Supreme Court is favorable to Republican ideology. And Romney is already promising to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. So if you could live with a completely Republican government, then by all means vote for the 3rd party candidate of your choice. Otherwise . . .

  • Nancy H.

    Exactly right… Instant runoff voting is the way..

  • Henry Lowengard

    It’s so painfully obvious that it is not the third parties who steal votes, but the first parties who tell you that only _they_ are allowed to win, and steal the votes from the candidates who actually represent the voters’ views. The distortions and suppression of ideas is at the base of the distortion and suppression of candidates. By eliminating the distortions, maybe a candidate who gets elected will be able to actually act on their mandate, backed by actual voter conviction rather than speculation and second guessing. Speculating _is_ throwing away your vote, and weakens the votes of those who agree with you.

  • Jazzidiot

    Thank you. I couldn’t believe Moyers had this poser on the first time. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about (I’m hardly alone in this observation)!

  • Jack M

    I’m in the half a loaf is better than none camp.

  • greg brown

    “On this view it is always irrational as well as unethical to vote for a
    third-party candidate for president (unless someday there is one who
    might actually win)”

    On this view, a 3rd party candidate could never have an actual chance to win because until a great percentage of voters actually say they will and do vote for a particular 3rd party candidate that candidate doesn’t have an actual chance to win and no one, under Haidt’s premise, could ever support a candidate who has no chance of winning. Or differently said, no one would ever support a 3rd party candidate because a 3rd party candidate never has a chance of winning because no because no one would ever support them.

    It’s an informal logical fallacy: assuming the conclusion you wish to prove (circular reasoning) albeit in a thinly- or thickly-disguised rewording.

  • Steve H

    The “welfare of the republic” is not served well when we are limited to only two options and both are in the pockets of Big Business. The issues aren’t which party is in charge. The issues involve creating an engaged, informed and intelligent electorate. How do we get that?

    When the electorate is instead motivated by fear, and it’s apparent both major party constituents are just that, then the race is to the bottom – where our lizard brains reside.

    We face more than just whom to vote for. We need to inspire people with more than words, as our current president did, because if we don’t see that words during a campaign season are only words, then we are likely to be led Pied Piper fashion ad infinitum.

    And to Linda Sutton below, If you want to address experience then why is Obama president? His only experience was a short stint in Illinois and hardly two years in the Senate. When he was elected he took on all the guys who got us into this mess in the first place like Summers & Geithner.

    And how do you get experience beyond the local level when the game is rigged by the two major parties who trounce you with money because they have the whole country bamboozled into believing any third party vote is a wasted vote? And when those third party candidates, in many cases, refuse to take money from Big Business and therefore they can’t compete for exposure.

    Such arguments are bogus from an ethical POV though very realistic in a world where the people are swayed by propaganda and empty promises.

    In 2000 I met hundreds of people from coast to coast who told me they’d like to vote for Nader but they had drank the poisonous belief that Karl Rove was reputed to have spread that a vote for “Nader is a Vote for Bush”. I wonder where this nation would be today if all those people and the numbers they represented would have had the courage to vote their conscience instead of their fears.

    Yes, GWB would still have won because of a split vote but just maybe people would have recognized just how rigged this game is. But they haven’t and it’s unlikely they will because of their fears.

  • Steve H

    It’s time to revamp the electoral system. We need proportional representation. We need an updated Constitution. We need an engaged electorate. We need a better educational system that makes participation in our nation’s democracy a sacred honor and responsibility. We need an electorate that has been taught to look at the Big Picture and not cowered by Big Business.

    The time has come for another revolution. Hopefully a peaceful one not a violent one but that option is definitely on the horizon if we don’t see the writing on the wall.

  • Pat Elgee

    Obama is the first President in my memory to view his election as a JOB that must be done; not simply an ego victory; won. The Green Ladies said that they thought that he was about hope and vision and that he did not come through. They were wrong.

    The economy was not in recession, but actually much worse and he was able to stop the crash and actually build. Health, nutrition, schooling for children and college students, jobs, infrastructure–American people–have been his focus.

    A third party can give the election to Romney. His world economic vision is like his Bain Capital vision. It does not matter where you create employment, or if Americans become unemployed, only that he makes his money. It is his Bain mind-set. His economics will begin where Bush’s left off and destroy this country with world wide repercussions.

    The old republican party no longer exist. We now have the democrats and the hate filled Obstructionist. Why do they hate Obama? Some of it may be racial. I think they are really upset that Obama passed health care. Congress was raking in millions in bribe money (lobbyist) to not pass health care. Health care was like an extortionist’s threat, now Obama killed that golden goose.

    The Green Ladies are so egocentric that they think that they have the only answer. Even if they were elected, they could not get anything through Congress. Republicans are obstructing business. Obama needs more democrats in Congress. Instead of working to get their interests the attention, they are helping Romney insure that the people, about whom they are so concerned, will continue to be displaced, unemployed, lack healthcare, and have uneducated children.

  • Pat Elgee

    Sorry to offend, but spoilers will tip the power to the crazies. The Green Ladies should be running for Congress as democrats, not for President to tip the election to Romney.

  • Pat Elgee

    He is concerned that democracy is not working and knows why.

  • Pat Elgee

    Obama should be telling people to help those who lost their vote because of the republican ID laws. Some elderly with home births do not have their birth certificate or social security card. You know what DMV lines are like. Some do not have the health to endure, so need help if they want their vote. The country needs more democrats in Congress that will work to repair the economy further.

  • Pat Elgee

    Exactly! You must consider the consequences of your vote as well.

  • Pat Elgee

    True, but there is such differences between the two candidates, if you support one, you have to understand that he needs a Congress to work with him. Vote the ticket.

  • Peter McNamee

    What a sad commentary about American democracy, when after spending two years campaigning and billions of dollars, for a huge segment of the electorate all the two party system produces is a choice between two electable evils. It is corny but true, choosing a lesser evil is still choosing evil. And note to both major political parties: I will vote in November, but the next campaign that tells me that “I better vote for them to keep the other guy from winning,” has lost my vote.

  • David Ryan

    Imani, that seems like a good idea [voting from within the best of the 2 party bunch] but here is why it fails and fails big. The LEADERSHIP of both parties CONTROL the agenda in congress. Period, you can grassroot and grassroot till the cows come home, and these 2 parties will only continue to drift ever more 1%-ward.

    Do not believe me, look at the evidence.
    *Clinton: NAFTA, CHINA –> WTO : the wrecking of our industrial sector and middle class [and unions]:Yugoslav War crimes { unindicted by R’s}, ending Bank/Investor de-regulation
    *Bush II: Iraq war crimes [no dem oversight], treasonous destruction of the COnstituion and many violations of the Geneva Convention, Massive bail-out to banks. No prosecution of Banksters. Many Impeachabvle offenses [no dem spine on this except from Kucinich and a hand full of other reps] Pelosi swept it under the rug, her own words I believe.
    *Obama:NDAA [the most unconstitutional rollback of due process EVER seen in this country, secret panels can now call you a terrorist and have you disappeared, no due process needed. Lefties have many articles on this. 12 Trillion added to the national debt and because we have the fed. – a bank that will not let us audit it. if they can. controls our money and the interest on OUR debt, while the secret oligarchs cash in and in….

    So where in all this is a functioning 2 party system? oversight is out the window except for sex it seems. I could list 10x’s as many examples. But my point is, the 2 parties are to sick to be fixed, they need to be excised surgically by the american people, and replaced with – imo, the greens, the consitution/libertarians and Ideally a centrist party.

    Leave a buracracy alone long enough and it ceases to serve the people and becomes self-serving. Both parties have failed, both need to be fired. And I won’t tell you who to vote for. or how to think.

  • David Ryan

    the dems DID have control of both houses and they were still as tepid as a warm bath. Amazingly whenver the R’s control the senate they get a lot of scary stuff done, the dems sit around moaning about filibusters. Obama does not use the bully pulpit, cause it doesn’t reall matter to him, the 1% agenda goes through, along with a few token wedge issues to keep the illusion of choice and democracy alive, while the treasury is looted, the constituion used for more NDAA tp.

    The parties and the presidency now serve the 1%, doubt me? ask.look into why Obama inisited on the NDAA right to disappear/assassinate any ‘terrorist’ his secret panel [ I kid you not] deems needing deletion.

    it is game over for your civil liberties – we took our eye off the ball too long, and assumed an ever more compliant press would surely tell us if something were wrong.

    now all we can hope to do, and it is faint, is replace both parties, ASAP.

  • David Ryan

    the green ladies [and I am pro-life mind you] have seen through the lies the 2 parties spin, and the wedge issue bones the 1% tosses you to keep up the illusion of democracy.

    Look into Obama signing NDAA and tell me how that is justifiable. 16 Trillion dollar debt! What social programs the dems are so excited about will last through another term or 2 of the demican/republicrat shell game?

    The 2 parties are the problem, yes there are differences, and none of them constitutional, or fiscal – excepting the dem leadership mouthing higher taxes.

    Are the rank and file congressfolk all guilty, only of joing a broken party. ASk yourself what is the most likely explanation for the perpetual gridlock? the 2 aprty leaders have been blackmailed/coerced/cajoled or threatened. That simple, and now the play along, watch the actions not the words, and it all becomes sadly clear.

  • Imani Burrell

    The dems only had the “control” you are referring to, for 4 months. Not an abundance of time to do the things the American right seems to feel they should have done…

  • Imani Burrell

    Agreed. That’s why we need to be concerned with voting at the local level. The idea that we are unable to retake control of our election system doesn’t interest me. I believe in our republic and the safeguards that were put into place to protect it. I contend that our candidates and politicians are a direct result of, we the people. Honestly take a look at the people we’ve elected to represent us, from your mayor to the president. Can you say that they are any different than the guy next door? I’m from Idaho and all my politicians are corrupt and/or deluded, but the citizens are so concerned about God, abortion, taxes and illegal immigrants that they only elect representatives that run on these issues.
    When we start encouraging “normal” citizens to run, with our votes and by not laying open their lives for everyone to see and judge, we’ll start getting candidates that represent the common man.
    Until then, there is no arguement for the GOP, this time around.

  • amw

    I want to vote for Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala to state my disapproval of the 2 party system. I’ve voted for 3rd parties in the past and felt no remorse.

  • Martha Orne

    I cant’t reconcile Jonathan Haidt’s statement about Nader’s being deserving of Democratic anger when he seems to have come down on the side of voting for your real values as being the better way to use your power as a citizen.
    We must take the long view for the sake of our children and grandchildren and all the generations after us. We must lay the foundation for a new direction. it won’t happen overnight but when the present system has finally rotted out we’ll already have a better place to live.

  • Imani Burrell

    How do you have more experience than being the president for 4 years. C’mon.

  • geh

    If you live in a state that polls heavily for one of the two big party candidates, feel free to vote for your third-party candidate. You have the luxury of using your vote to make a statement, and/or follow your heart or conscience. It won’t affect the outcome, but if enough of your fellow citizens do it, it may send a strong message.

    However, if you live in a swing state, vote the lesser of two evils, because your vote WILL affect the outcome. In a swing state, only two parties “matter,” that’s just the way it is.

    Whatever you do, don’t think of elections as a religion; that’s the LAST thing this country needs.