Monthly Archives: November 2016

Lewis and Aristotle on our Political Moment

As long as we are thinking of natural values we must say that the sun looks down
on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two
friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests
him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as
they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing
the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of the spirit. Collective activities are,
of course, necessary, but this is the end to which they are necessary.

C.S. Lewis, “Membership” in The Weight of Glory

One of the most painful realities of this seemingly interminable political season has been witnessing, and feeling, the rise of rancor and frustration toward our family, friends, and neighbors who think so differently than we do about this or that political issue, or this or that political candidate. This is not unique, nor is it as bad as it has ever been. We’re not anywhere near Bleeding Kansas or brother against brother. But still. There are, or seem to be, normal rhythms of electoral disagreements and political bickering and partisanship in American politics. There are, or have been, limits. We have a build-up and an election and the arguments and the political fighting and then . . . things settle down somewhat even as we know there’s another building wave on its way out in the deep. Thanksgiving can be awkward around the table, but by Christmas we’re good.

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Why I am #NotHillary and #NeverTrump and will not vote for either of the two main candidates for president this year.

I’ve had a few folks ask me what I have been thinking in this election year and so I thought I would sketch out my thoughts on the matter and especially on why I can’t in good conscience vote either for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. And trust me, it’s worth every penny you’ve paid for it.

With regard to Clinton, my reasoning is pretty straightforward. I’m not inclined toward many of her policy choices, but my sense is that she will be a fairly ordinary, and ordinarily bad, president after she is sworn in this coming January. (Yes, I think she will win, and win relatively easily). But I can’t vote for her because she is firmly, persistently, and even enthusiastically in favor of protecting and even expanding abortion rights in our country (and overseas). She cannot even manage her husband’s “safe, legal, and rare” mantra. My judgment is that abortion (save for life-saving efforts) is an intrinsic evil and that I cannot vote for someone who thinks as she does.

Of course, lots of people describe themselves as pro-life but think that holding to my position is a mistake. They typically advance two different arguments. In the first, they suggest being this sort of “single-issue” voter goes too far, ignoring all the other reasons one might (or might not) vote for a particular candidate. In one sense, this is correct. If all you do is vote on the basis of a single issue, then, yes, it’s quite likely you’ll fall into moral and political error at some point. But everyone, I would submit, has a single issue, or even a cluster of issues, that serve as a kind of moral floor beneath which they will not go. Ask yourself: would you vote for a segregationist? No? Welcome to the ranks of the single-issue voter.

In the second, though, they suggest refusing to vote for pro-choice candidates misses the ways in which other policies—support for mothers, parental leave, etc.—might work to reduce the abortion rate and, after all, aren’t we really in the end looking to reduce the numbers of abortions? Yes, that’s the goal, but in the context of a changed political order that is at least reasonably just. It is not enough, I think, to simply reduce the numbers of abortions—even halve them—while all the more securely protecting the rest via law. Suppose that Clinton’s package of proposals would reduce abortions in the U.S. down to half, roughly 300,000 or so a year. Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Yes, it would, but what then, given that her package of proposals also includes public funding for abortions, rolling back the relatively small number of limits now on abortion rights (including lifting federal restrictions on partial-birth abortions), and expanding funding for abortions (and abortion rights) overseas? On even the most optimistic view (and I’m pretty skeptical of this optimistic view), we might have fewer abortions, but those that occurred—and 300,000 a year is a lot!—would be even more well-protected by law in the U.S. (and elsewhere). And since the real goal is rid ourselves of the elective abortion scourge entirely, we might very well actually be further from that goal, politically speaking, than we are now. Much of Europe is better than the U.S. in one sense on this issue, as they typically restrict abortion to rather early in pregnancy. But in another sense they are worse off: there are, as I understand it, almost no serious political movements trying to end abortion and the prospects for further restricting it are quite dim. (It’s probably worth noting that Europe also belies the idea that very generous welfare states would work to make abortion “unthinkable.”) Our goal should be a constitutional order that reflects what we claim about inherent human dignity, and a vote for pro-choice candidates is not a move in that direction. And so I shall not vote for Hillary Clinton (or Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, who both are also pro-choice).

Ostensibly, of course, Donald Trump claims to be a convert to the pro-life cause, but he’s so incompetent in talking about the issue and is so untrustworthy in general that we should have, to put the matter charitably, no expectation that, even if elected, he would follow through on his campaign promises. But even if he were genuinely pro-life, I would not vote for him.

First, his policy proposals are just short of awful. He, like Clinton, makes noises about opposing free trade. (She hedges better and there’s good reason to suppose that she’s dissembling, which, ironically, is probably a good thing). He is hostile to the First Amendment (which, in a way, she is as well). He is emblematic of crony capitalism and seems likely to institutionalize it further, rather than trimming it back. He is hostile to immigrants (not just immigration, legal or illegal). He seems unwilling to confront our enemies and strategic challengers in a way that is likely to produce more conflict, not less. He is, in a word, just the sort of big-government “centrist” we don’t need. (And that all assumes that he actually does have any policy commitments – it seems just as likely that he’s making stuff up as he goes along and would continue to do so in office, presuming his advisors could get him to work at all).

But his awful policies on their own wouldn’t be enough, probably, to say that I categorically wouldn’t vote for him. (Though his opponent would have to be really, really, really bad, Hugo Chavez sort of bad).  What really seals the deal for me is that his character makes him distinctively unfit for the office of the president. Any politician’s character matters (just as everyone’s character does), but it matters especially for those who occupy an executive office. Presidents make all sorts of promises and have all sorts of goals, but they are often defined by their reactions to events imposed upon them. President Bush campaigned promising a “modest” foreign policy and 9/11 changed all of that. Jimmy Carter did not expect to deal with the Iranian Revolution (and the ensuing hostage crisis). And so on. Ask yourself how you think Donald Trump would react to a China throwing its weight around in the South China Sea? Or to a major terrorist attack in the U.S.? Moreover, the presidency has great latitude to implement/shape policy in some ways independent of Congress, as presidents have increasingly discovered. Inasmuch as you might be disturbed with the scope of President Obama’s executive orders or administrative decisions, imagine a President Trump with the same kind of leeway. I don’t think there is any reason to trust him with that sort of power.

Finally, and this is really an extension of the previous point, it is no accident that Trump’s candidacy has worked to redefine normalcy down. He is cultural and moral poison, inducing otherwise sane people to defend his vulgar admissions of sexual assault as mere “locker room” talk and making open proclamations of racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry once again acceptable as part of our public discourse. These things had not, of course, ever gone away, and it was always possible to find them muttered sotto voce by clever politicos (or less guardedly in some of our country’s byways) but even the patina of hypocrisy was an example of vice paying tribute to virtue. We all knew—or all pretended—that we shouldn’t talk that way. It was unseemly and would bring about the end of one’s political or business career. What Trump’s candidacy has done is, to mangle his own phrase, to make open bigotry great again—and he is not at all concerned about that. Consider: have you ever heard him really worry about or condemn the sorts of racist or racialist or sexist or anti-Semitic rhetoric some of his supporters use?

Trump is, by almost all accounts, a deeply immoral man who resembles more the tyrant of Plato’s Republic than anything else. (Except that Trump isn’t, thank God, nearly so competent). No one who wishes our country well (and that would not include the current KGB Tsar in Russia) should think he should be president. And so I shall not vote for Donald Trump.

Am I, then, “wasting” my vote if I vote for some third party or, as I plan to do, vote for a write-in candidate (e.g. Evan McMullin)? Well, consider what you’re doing when you are voting. Are you effecting a particular outcome, e.g. the election of a candidate to office? Consider scenario A, where you vote for one of the candidates and then Scenario B, where you don’t vote for either. Is there any difference in the outcome between the two Scenarios? The answer is almost certainly, as in one-in-six million (or however many voters you have in your state), no. Your vote matters only in an infinitesimally small way—and, really, not at all, at least as far as the outcome is concerned.

But your vote does matter for you, in the sense that it matters to who you are and who you are hoping to become. When you vote, you are expressing a view that this person (or party) would do better at moving your country (or state or town or whatever) toward what you take to be a just (or more just) state of affairs. You are, then, expressing something about yourself. What are you saying about yourself if you say, as any number of GOP voters seem to be saying, that you think Trump is a terrible person, not worthy of the office of the president, and yet a good choice to be president? You might frame your choice as a vote against Clinton (and perhaps it is that) but it is also, inherently, a vote for Trump. (The logic works for the converse as well). Is that who you want to be, someone divided against yourself?

It seems to me that one of the things we should try to do in this messy world is to live, so far as we can, an integrated moral life, one where our actions reflect a coherent set of moral commitments, including a commitment to the sort of social and political order we would like to inhabit. That’s certainly not always possible and we may indeed sometimes be faced with genuinely tragic choices, but that’s just not the case with our vote in this presidential election. We need not sully our consciences in the vain expectation that we are somehow effecting the “least bad” outcome—we have next to nothing to do with electoral outcomes as individuals. We have a great deal to do with who we eventually become. (It’s worth noting that the smaller the group of electors, the more likely it is we might be forced into tragic moral trade-offs, but the numbers for a presidential election make that possibility vanishingly small. But note further that the title of the post refers to #NeverTrump and #NotHillary—I will vote for neither, but my dislike of each is not equivalent. She is ordinarily bad while he is extraordinary in his bad-ness).

Finally, some might ask (and people do), what if everyone did as I suggested, and voted 3rd party/write-in or simply didn’t vote at all? How would our democracy work? That’s an interesting thought experiment, but it’s the wrong question. The right question is, what would happen if people genuinely voted their conscience and looked to affirm who they thought would make the better office-holder and not just who would beat some despised opponent? Would we have ended up with the two most unliked candidates in memory? I suspect not.

So vote your conscience, keep your soul, and things might even turn out better than the alternative.



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