What do we do when we vote for a President of the United States?
It’s a fair question to ask ourselves when facing a looming apocalypse of political discourse on the national stage. I refer, of course, to what seems to be a possible result of this primary season: Trump vs. Sanders, winner-takes-office, 2016.
There are many voters who would find either option unacceptable, a problem poignantly felt in many conservative circles. On Tuesday, Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner added his voice to the chorus of prominent conservatives who would not vote for Trump even if he receives the Republican party nomination: “Conscience forbids us to cross some lines,” he wrote. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and radio host Michael Medved agree, not to mention the multitude who wrote for National Review’s “Against Trump” issue in January. All this seems contrary to the venerable “Buckley Rule” often cited by conservative writers as a call for measured pragmatism: “the most viable conservative candidate” deserves conservative support. In our thought experiment, Donald Trump should fit this rule, because he is the only somewhat conservative candidate.
Why the hesitation, then? Taken together, these writers’ statements suggest that there is something more important and positive about the votes we cast than simple pragmatism.
Nothing is decided at this point, but the situation could provide us an opportunity to step back from partisan politics and ask why we think about voting in national elections the way we do.
If we want to form a real judgment about a good and an evil vote, this potential matchup seems to be the perfect way to isolate them and give our voting system a hypothetical trial-by-fire. In past elections an imperfect candidate for the Republican ticket wasn’t enough to prevent dissatisfied conservatives from picking the obvious lesser of two evils between, say, Romney and Obama. Our hypothetical 2016 choice, however, doesn’t seem to admit the same pragmatism, perhaps because voting is not necessarily what we normally take it to be.
It’s not only that we value the vote because it allows us to change the outcome. Naturally, we hope to make waves collectively, but elections on this scale are determined by larger forces than individual either/or decisions at the polls on election day. Besides, we’d still want to vote for a candidate we feel represents us, even if it were overwhelmingly clear they would lose. Voting for a candidate we don’t like is either unacceptable or at least a “nose-holding” activity that can only go so far — many conservative voters considered Romney in 2012 or Bush in 2000 imperfect, but not in a way that kept them from voting, unlike a vote for Trump. For many people, there’s something immoral about voting for the Donald that goes beyond the practical result of President Trump.
But if our support for a candidate is simply a private ethical problem, framed in negative terms like these, why do we also reject the possibility of not voting at all? There is an important, real “result” to voting that goes beyond a win on election night, but isn’t easily reducible to the guilt we feel about punching our ticket for someone who doesn’t represent us.
The first letter of Brutus, an 18th-century American anti-Federalist, provides some clarity. Brutus describes the potential in a situation like our hypothetical 2016 race to the bottom, when neither major candidate can truly provide this representation for the voter caught between a wall and a socialist hard place, like this: “if they do not know, or are not disposed to speak the sentiments of the people, the people do not govern, but the sovereignty is in a few.”
The winner of a popular election might represent the governance of the people (even if they’ve let themselves “feel the Bern”). However, the voter unable to conscientiously support either major candidate is still left without representation.
Carney explains that a nominee, even a losing one, can make representative arguments in the national public square. This is part of the reason we instinctively assign a moral weight to the vote we cast that goes beyond who will hold office on the other end of our choice.
If voting were just the citizen’s mode of manipulating public office, any qualms about a candidate would be mere sentiment, and only the calculation of the best possible outcome would have any moral merit. But as the thought experiment shows, it is still desirable to vote for a candidate who is sure to lose, the candidate who represents us, and it is unacceptable to vote for the embodiment of the exact inverse, a candidate who might even count on our vote to attain office, but embodies nothing of ourselves.
Explaining why he doesn’t support Trump even as the most electable conservative, Medved wrote that “the survival of a credible conservative alternative in American political life” is more important than supporting a candidate who is electable and only nominally conservative. Medved refers to the role a candidate has in expressing our convictions in politics.
The same rationale is behind Trump’s own support. Behind his appeal is a feeling of disenfranchisement from establishment politics that Trump’s populist rhetoric perfectly embodies. For these voters, supporting Trump is rebellion against the rational, ineffectual system of modern liberal institutionalism that has failed them, as a lengthy CNN investigative report in January demonstrated.
If Trump is not an acceptable conservative candidate, the only vote worth casting is one that actually represents us. Whether we decide, as Alasdair MacIntyre did in 2004, that we ought not vote in “a system which presents only unacceptable alternatives,” or rather to vote for the fabled “reasonable third party,” we should not consider our vote “thrown away” or our duty as citizens unfulfilled, but rather recognize a vote more true to a significance that we don’t often take seriously enough. If we remember this, we might keep in mind, in all elections, the importance of choosing to vote well, and declining to vote evilly.