When Good People Don’t Vote

Coming up on another Election Day, I notice my neighbors and friends getting a little competitive. They’re not political activists. They’re political apathists. For some, an election is a can’t miss opportunity to broadcast their general contempt and hatred for America’s political scene.

It’s actually become a bit of a joke at this point, since my friends know that I write about conservative politics. Some inform me jovially that they are researching their third party candidates. Or, they’ll speculate on what they might do on Election Day with the half-hour they’ll save by not voting. (“A whole extra episode of Gilligan’s Island! Wonderful!”) Some friends recently started a last-minute social media campaign to elect me for the US Senate. Thanks, guys.

I understand why this happens. I have more than five functioning brain cells, so I can easily empathize with the disgust people feel towards America’s political scene. However, as I’ve explained before, it’s important not to take pride in non-partisanship. It’s easy to flatter ourselves that we are discerning and principled merely for dissociating ourselves from politics. But actually, it takes almost no discernment to realize that politics is a festering cesspool, and a child could find the thrill in shouting, “A pox on both your houses!” I’m not the least bit offended by people who don’t follow the news. But political disengagement is an absurd ground for moral preening.

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Religious conservatives are particularly inclined to principled disengagement, because they feel snubbed and underappreciated by their fellow Americans, and especially by the Republican Party. Many, it should be said, labor on in the trenches of partisan politics, working tirelessly to convince influential Republicans that real conservatism is still worth embracing. Others, however, have reached the point of near-total disengagement. They exult in their vote-wasting in much the way a jilted lover might relish the act of throwing his ex’s gifts and letters on the pyre. “I’m too good for you anyway, GOP! See how I’ve moved on with my life?” This is easily the most emotionally satisfying electoral choice for a depressing and degraded age.

Politics is not a romance. It is a primary means by which We the People determine what kind of society we are going to have. That might sound rather grand; in general, the reality is disappointingly tawdry. This fact does not make politics any less consequential. Quite the contrary, in fact. If politics were clean and principled, that would indicate a healthy and virtuous society, in which it would probably be far less important for citizens of good will to vote.

Sadly, we do not live in a healthy and virtuous society. In America today we have one political party aggressively pushing a secular agenda that will, if followed through its logical stages, make life exceedingly difficult for our children, and for anyone else who wishes to live a life of dignity in accord with their faith. We have another party that is furiously debating the correct response to this wave of liberal progressivism. It’s far from clear that the right people are winning this battle, and internal party warfare inevitably dredges up some unsavory elements. Religious conservatives are especially mistreated, because they are the most countercultural. I can easily understand why it feels good to turn on the Republican party.

Nevertheless, faithful Catholics should understand that there is for the foreseeable future but one avenue to real political expression. We must persuade the conservative movement that meaningful freedom, virtue and human dignity are still worth protecting. And we must help the party recover the confidence and cohesion it needs to remain electorally relevant. If we fail to do this, our future as American Catholics is bleak. Of course, salvation matters infinitely more than the ephemeral turns of politics, and we should take care not to risk our immortal souls in pursuit of temporal goals. At the same time, souls are less easily won in a vicious, corrupt society. We owe it to our children and fellow citizens to work for the betterment of our society and culture.

It’s very hard to do that if we’re gleefully throwing away our votes. This minimizes our influence, not only in the legislature or the judiciary, but also in the party itself. I appreciate that disaffected Catholics sometimes calculate things differently, supposing that they can influence politics more by refusing to vote (for a mainstream party), thus motivating political strategists to “chase” them. This, I believe, is a miscalculation.

In the minds of hard-boiled political strategists, vote-chasing mainly involves voters who are low-information and easily manipulated. Principled counter-cultural minorities are too demanding to be pursuable in that sense, and tailoring a party to their exacting standards seems obviously untenable as an electoral strategy. No party is going to remake its platform with the goal of “wooing” traditional Christians. Our best chance at political influence lies, not in boycotts, but rather in sustained efforts to persuade moderate Republicans that we have the energy and vision that is needed to revitalize our culture and remake our society. Many Americans are beginning to feel that progressive liberalism is, for all practical purposes, the only philosophy in town. It isn’t. But if our fellow citizens aren’t aware of the alternatives, that may be partly our own fault.

Again, Catholicism is still well-represented among influential conservative voices. But those Catholics are often less influential than they might be, but for the demoralizing apathy of co-religionists who share their views but refuse to lend even nominal political support. This intransigence is short-sighted. We cannot afford at this hour of the day to be supine voting blocks who need to be placated. From that standpoint, faithful Catholics simply aren’t worth a political strategist’s time. But as active, engaged citizens, we have much to offer, and can have a real impact on the continuing intra-conservative debate. As a voting block, we clearly aren’t a “bargain value,” but we do stand a chance of persuading the less-liberal party that we are the salt of the earth.

It might not work, but I think it’s still worth trying. That doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be a political activist. We all contribute to society in different ways. But faithful and politically active Catholics stand on particularly shaky ground when it seems that their co-religionists can’t even be relied upon to vote. If you find it distasteful to vote for the Republicans (and frankly, who doesn’t much of the time?), think of yourself as bolstering those voices within conservatism that are still trying to fight the good fight.

Francis Beckwith has recently offered a good explanation of why “vote the man, not the party” is bad advice. I think he is mostly right. It is naïve simply to dismiss the fact that our country is, in fact, built on a two-party political system. Nevertheless, I can understand why people are loathe to cast a ballot for a candidate whose platform or character are simply despicable. It feels morally compromising. Serious people can agonize over such questions, and come to different conclusions about what constitutes “material cooperation” with a particular candidate’s misdeeds. I won’t here attempt to sort out these most-difficult cases.

What concerns me most are the people who reject both parties lightly, and even with a sense of satisfaction, airily asserting that the party is lost. Once again, I can understand the thrill of the ceremonial “shaking the dust from one’s feet.” But as Beckwith points out, “just as the universal ex-pat needs to be on some slice of Earth governed by some regime, the high abstraction ‘above it all’ voter has to live somewhere, and he wants that somewhere to be better tomorrow than it is today.” It is morally irresponsible to shrug off one’s duty, as an American citizen, to contribute to a political future that belongs as much to your children and grandchildren as to Mitch McConnell’s or Mitt Romney’s.

My suggestion for faithful Catholics is to make a list of “minimum requirements” that a candidate must meet in order to be good-conscience supportable. Make it reasonable. Nearly every political candidate holds at least one view that I find morally questionable or even repugnant, but a vote is not equivalent to an active endorsement of every single thing that a candidate believes. At the general-election stage, I would only reject a candidate for an error that is both morally and politically weighty. Personal character also matters to me, and there are Republicans in America whom I would not support on those grounds. But again, at the general-election stage, only egregious failings should be seen as “deal-breaking.” A vote is not a certification of good character.

After eliminating truly unacceptable candidates, I think it is both prudent and wise to vote in a way that is mindful of the realities of party politics. It’s all right to feel cranky after filling out your ballot. I won’t ask anyone to throw election parties or obsess over returns. But I do think we should keep in mind that, edifying or not, elections do matter. In throwing away our votes, we deny support to the political body that stands the best chance of heading off a belligerently anti-Catholic government. There may sometimes be principled reasons for doing this, but they should be serious and very carefully considered.

My name is Rachel Lu, and I am not running for US Senate. Vote for somebody else.


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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