The looming US presidential election presents voters with a vexing situation: for the first time in recent memory, there are two candidates who have many unfavorables with voters of their own parties, and pose a great number of incompatibilities with Christians, theologically and ethically. My own predilection is along the line of third-parties, abstention, and alternative configurations of politics, but for the moment I want to put these aside and assume that a major party candidate will occupy the presidency in the next term. I do not take this to be an abdication of the possibility of a different political future, but a recognition of our current state, and that, as Christians, we work for a different future in the world present to us.
My own dissatisfaction with both major party candidates leaves me with limited options on this particular question, but also the opportunity to ask the more fundamental question of “What is a vote?” Is there a way of engaging a major candidate in a way other than full agreement?
I have arranged here four possibilities in descending order of union with the candidate, in the hope that conversations not only about the candidates but about the act of voting itself might have some well-needed clarity, as well as charity. And so, in that spirit, I want to propose a four-fold typology:
In this case, the act of casting a vote is an act of aligning one’s will with the will of the candidate, that they are your proxy in national discussions not only as a matter of convenience but of conscience as well. Very few will strictly fit this type, but in principle it offers the most common way of approaching voting: the candidate as oneself on the national stage. Voting of this type is not a “hold your nose” approach, but an act of willing union with the will of their elected official. In effect, the elected official serves as a doubling of the voter’s self.
In this instance, the voter recognizes enough of their commitments, however faint, in the candidate they vote for that they will bind themselves to the candidate not as a strict doubling of themselves, but as loyal opposition to the candidate. The voter may find resonance with certain economic or social policies, but find their moral character wanting. Or the voter may find resonance socially but not with respect to foreign policy. In this type, the voter commits not only to vote for the candidate but to actively engage with those aspects of their policies which are at odds with the voter.
In this case, the selection of one of two candidates recognizes that neither one truly is “your candidate”. In Niebuhrian fashion, the inexorable gap between the ideal and the creaturely is a primary concern, and, therefore, voting exists not as a pure binding of oneself to a candidate who is your own double, but a kind of resignation to the limits of democratic politics. This understanding of voting allows for distance between oneself and the candidate, but there is also less at stake in the act because there is a diminished perceived union between voter and voted, there is also less inclination for the voter to be involved in an ongoing way with the one for whom they voted. The local world becomes distinguished from “Washington” as some other world which has little felt connection to the lived reality of the voter.
In this instance, voting becomes not so much a “voting-for” as it is “voting-against”, a politics of the negative. Instead of a vote being a constructive act oriented toward putting something in place, it is a critical act oriented toward preventing an alternate outcome. In doing this, one is not, as with the first two types, voting with a sense that one’s vote binds one to the candidate in any fashion, but rather that the voted-upon staves off an undesirable outcome. In instances where party positions operate in terms of extreme positions, such voting would be more common.
With these four types before us I now put my cards on the table: while I find it extremely difficult, in good conscience, to support either of the major remaining candidates, I will likely do so. Voting for a third-party for reasons of conscience or abstaining from the vote is a valid moral choice, but I am finding these options insufficient. Opting for an alternative form of political organizing does not forgo the need for presidential politics. Like it or not, our local lives are limited, expanded, and affected by national decisions. For example, the struggles which my university undergo are in no small way related to national educational policy, federal reporting standards, bureaucratic requirements, and student loan policy. Because our day-to-day lives persist on larger stages than the local (for example, in our buying habits, our media consumption, and in the influx and outflow of our tax dollars) we, as political creatures, must be engaged in each level of our political lives.
Voting rarely, if ever, works in the way envisioned by #1, even by committed members of the same party. And voting envisioned by #4, while necessary at times, is hopefully the exceptional case. Options 2 and 3 are, I think, where most voters persist, assuming that the vote is about the issues represented by the candidate and not the candidates themselves. In the instance that a vote ever becomes about the person-qua-person, I think that we have fallen into a kind of political idolatry, confusing the person with the thing which the person represents (positively or negatively). However, this is another conversation for another time.
So, where does this leave us? Both options 2 and 3 require the vote to be more than an abdication of one’s governing ability, but require–in one way or another—the voter to accept a measure of responsibility upon oneself. In option 2, the voter pledges not to be a faithful partisan, but to be a critical listener, in the interest of aiding the common good and finding bridges where they either already exist or can be faithfully constructed. In option 3, the voter pledges themselves, paradoxically, to the local more deeply–the distance they feel between themselves and the candidate is the occasion for committing themselves more fully to that which they *do* identify with: the local, the particular, the earth. Where this leave us is nowhere safe or final, but seeking the face of Christ today, in this set of circumstances, working out other alternatives for other futures which we hope to be a part of.