Return of the Yellow Dog

A case for voting for the party over the person.

In a remarkable editorial on Wednesday, the New York Times endorsed Diane Farrell for Congress from a district in Connecticut. Who is Diane Farrell? I have no idea, and the Times seemed to have not a lot. After eight years as first selectman of Westport, the paper noted somewhat desperately, “she has a better understanding than most legislators of the impact of federal mandates and tax policy on local government.” By contrast, her opponent, Christopher Shays, has held the seat for almost 20 years and been endorsed by the Times “in every race in which he has faced a serious opponent”—until now.

Shays is a Republican, but not excessively so. He’s moderate in policy and in temperament. In fact, he’s just the kind of Republican that the Times ordinarily likes to dig up and endorse, in order to prove that it’s not blindly Democratic. And they still like him: “[W]e have admired his independence and respected his leadership.”

Yet the Times decided to “strongly endorse” Shays’ opponent, entirely because she’s a Democrat. Or rather, because she is not a Republican. “Mr. Shays has been a good congressman, but not good enough to overcome the fact that his re-election would help empower a party that is long overdue for a shakeup.”

One of the axioms of small-d democratic piety in this country is that you vote for the person and not for the party. People just love to say, “I evaluate each candidate on his or her own merits”—even when it’s not true. A related form of democratic piety is to refrain from voting at all if you know little or nothing about the candidates.

But this year does seem to be different. You hear people say—though rarely as forthrightly as the Times—that they are voting for the party and not the person. Well, more accurately, they say they are voting against the party and not the person. The Republican candidate for the Senate or House may be saintlike in general, no worse than muddled on the war in Iraq, and good on stem-cell research. She may never even have met Jack Abramoff. Meanwhile, the Democrat may be a grotesque hack just inches from indictment, whose views on Iraq are equally muddled with less excuse (since loyalty to the president is not a factor). Nevertheless, these New Yellow Dogs are voting for the Democrat, simply out of anger at, or frustration with, the Republican Party.

The term “yellow dog Democrats” used to mean someone who would vote for any Democrat over any Republican, even if the Democrat were a yellow dog. In recent decades, there has been no such person. And if there were, he or she would, of course, reject any implication of color preference. Ordinarily, a dog of any tint would be considered less promising as a public official than even the most feline Republican. This year, though, the dog might have a shot. Still, people feel sheepish (to introduce another animal) about voting the party line.

My advice is: relax. There is nothing wrong with voting for the party and not the person. There is even nothing wrong with blindly voting for the Democrat (or, I suppose, the Republican) even if you know nothing else about him or her. In other democracies, such as Britain, this person-not-the-party piety is not just unknown but would be hard to comprehend. Whatever Burke may have said, a member of Parliament is your representative. He or she runs on a party platform promising various things, and if that party wins a majority of seats it “forms a government.” You would be silly to vote for the person and not the party. The party’s views are what counts. The person’s own views are almost irrelevant.

Even under the American arrangement, there is nothing ignoble about voting the party line. It is an efficient way to minimize your information costs. Voting is an irrational act: Despite what they drum into you starting in kindergarten, your vote does not matter unless it’s a tie. And even 2000 was not a tie. The more effort you put into learning about the candidates, the more irrational voting becomes, and the more likely you are not to bother. A candidate’s party affiliation doesn’t tell you everything you would like to know, but it tells you something. In fact, it tells you a lot—enough so that it even makes sense to vote your party preference even when you know nothing else about a candidate. Or even vote for a candidate that you actively dislike.

True, people might question your sanity if you were to declare that you were voting for the Democratic Party agenda. The what? If there’s anything worse than ignoring that famous elephant in the room, it’s imagining a donkey that’s not in the room. Even so, a vote for the Democrat is a vote against the Republican. And voting “no” to a record of failure is more important to the functioning of democracy than voting “yes” to any number of promises about the future. It was not Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America that caused the great Republican sweep of 1994: It was disgust, skillfully nurtured by Republicans, with the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Disgust for Congress is higher than ever. But this time around, until recently, the disgust seems to be less partisan. The Democrats have not been as ruthless or as skilled about associating the sins of Congress with the party that controls it. The very recent emergence of Dennis Hastert, who was supposed to be Tom DeLay’s gofer and no more, as a real person in the public mind has helped to change that. The speaker probably isn’t a typical fat, stupid, and complacent, if not corrupt, politician. He just plays one on TV. Too bad.

So what do you need? Permission? You’ve got it. I give you permission to vote for—or against—the party, and not the person. And don’t forget to vote.