In recent days, I've received a wave of email responding to the syndicated newspaper column I published last week. In that piece, which you can read here, I argued that with the two major-party presidential candidates presenting such similar positions on so many issues, any thinking person should have a tough time deciding whom to support in this election.
For the most part, the email blowback to that idea has come primarily from angry partisans who either cannot or do not want to consider the painful truths of an election that offers so little substantive choice. These are the same folks who scoffed at Matt Stoller's even-more-expansive must-read on the same subject, and they typically spit back the very same partisan talking points that dominate so much of the media discourse. To them, I have no response, other than to once again beg them to try to think for themselves, rather than to continue outsourcing their political cognition to their preferred campaign surrogates and cable-TV pundits.
That said, I did receive some earnest requests for advice on how to make a responsible -- or at least, vaguely logical -- voting decision in such an impossibly depressing election. To those of you looking for such counsel, let me say that while I don't have the only valid response to that request, I'd be happy to reveal the crude point system I rely on during elections like this. If just hours out from Election Day you still haven't decided how to vote, you might find it useful.
Rejecting the premise that the campaigns get to dictate what policy debates and are not important, I start by breaking the major presidential issues into four categories, each of increasing significance to my vote:
1) Freedom Issues: These are issues involving liberty, including civil liberties, privacy, a woman's right to choose an abortion and consenting adults' general rights (for example, to consume marijuana or to legally recognized same-sex marriage).
2) Mass Suffering Issues: These are the issues involving millions of people in severe pain or agony, including poverty, hunger, joblessness, low wages, civil rights/discrimination and criminal justice/incarceration.
3) Mass Death Issues: As the name implies, these are the issues involving thousands or millions of people not just suffering, but actually losing their lives. I include health care, toxic pollution, medium-sized regional wars and terrorism.
4) Possible World-Enders: These are the select few issues that could actually end civilization as we know it. In this election, Among those are an apocalyptic war (say with Iran or a nuclear Pakistan), funding for prevention of pandemics and the fight against catastrophic global climate change - with the latter's imminence underscored by Hurricane Sandy.
Each category should get a certain amount of total points - in my personal schematic, issues involving physical pain and death are weighted, meaning freedom gets 2 points, mass suffering gets 4 points, mass death gets 6 points and world enders get 10 points.
Now comes the hard part - assigning the points. For my part, I award them based not on candidates' stated positions in a vacuum, but on how much better the outcomes will likely be under one candidate than the other, taking into consideration Congress and opposition politics. So, for instance, I happen to give Obama 4 points for the Possible World-Enders category. Essentially, I believe that while he has been depressingly weak in addressing climate change and problematically bellicose toward Iran, his willingness to at least willing acknowledge climate change and to be a bit less warmongering than Republicans makes the world 4 factors more likely to survive an Obama second term as a Romney presidency.
Finally, I come up with a minimum aggregate point total that any of the major party candidates must reach. If they fall short in their total point tally, I end up ignoring the irritating-but-ubiquitous "wasted vote" argument and casting my ballot for a third party.
Your version of this point system, of course, will almost certainly look different than mine. You might list different issues or award different point totals. That's OK. After all, this is a still a democratic society. That means despite what the major parties and the political media say, you are still allowed to have your own independent thoughts. Using them when you cast your ballot is not just the best way to honor your right to vote - it is the only way to do so in such a dispiriting election.