To a voter with principles, sometimes voting is the right thing to (not) do

One of the disadvantages of self-identifying as a conservative is that people automatically assume you’re a Republican. This leads to many uncomfortable conversations, as they will have a tendency to impute to you positions you do not hold and hold you responsible for policies you do not support. While it is true that I could probably never bring myself to vote for a Democrat, neither am I able to pull the lever for the Republican candidate. Which means, once again, I may opt out of voting for certain offices altogether.

We don’t live in a perfect world. It’s a standard trope in political science that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and that pursuing the good, or at least the best possible under the circumstances, may involve unsavory compromise. Fair enough, this is politics after all.

But consistently making these choices could have the effect of blinding the party being chosen to its own faults. Conservatives such as myself who favor fiscal restraint and responsibility can hardly throw our support behind irresponsible borrowers. Nor can we support a party that engages in imprudent interventions in foreign lands, believing as we do the words of John Quincy Adams that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”

Conservatives such as myself worry that we are reduced to making choices between competing plutocrats, the major difference between the two being the types of industries and corporations they will use government power to prop up. We look at the financial troubles of six years ago and see the nation repeating the mistakes, while in the interim government policies have largely enriched the already wealthy and placed further financial obligations on future generations.

Conservatives such as myself worry that the Republican insistence on the thaumaturgic powers of markets and competition has a way of eroding public life. It is not that we oppose markets; we just want them to be genuinely free and fair, and to have limits. We oppose the commodification of all areas of life, the reduction of social good to calculations of costs and benefits, and the latent materialism of political candidates.

Conservatives such as myself resist the nostrums of the pretend economists who drive modern politics. Voters are talked to all the time about that great abstraction The Economy, at whose behest we all serve and on which we are all dependent. We are reminded that the Greek root of the word economy is “household,” and we believe that economic activity, like charity, begins at home. So we are suspicious of economic growth and economic thinking that weakens households and uproots families.

It is impossible to have candidates who will discuss humane economics, healthy markets and accountable politics when their campaigns themselves are being run by professional mercenaries whose ethics would make Machiavelli blush, and being funded by out-of-state interests who want to tilt the power of the national government to their advantage.

Mainly, we resist the distillation of politics and citizenship to the theater of campaigns and the act of voting. “If voting could actually change things,” wrote Emma Goldman, “it would be made illegal.” It may be an expressive act, but it isn’t an effective act. Anthony Downs once observed that you have a better chance of being struck by lightning on the way to the polling booth than you do of having your vote make a difference, so no rational person would go vote. And, as Thoreau said, our commitment to the right ought to be so vigorous that it cannot possibly be captured in the feeble expression of voting.

Conservatives understand that the less localized our politics is, the less important the act of voting is. The vote becomes dissipated, inconsequential, and the resultant government less responsive and accountable. There is a time when the most responsible thing a voter can do is not vote. It is often said that those who don’t vote don’t get to complain, but that simply doesn’t follow. If I, still paying taxes, am forced to choose between two objectionable alternatives, I’m entitled to opt out and complain about the alternatives and bemoan the fact that I can’t do better under the circumstances.

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Sun, 09/14/2014 - 6:56am
Well said! I am glad there is at least one other person in the world who feels as I do. I have always felt that it should be mandatory that one position for each office should be labeled "none of the above". We seem to be forced to vote not to get the best person into office, but to get the least offensive person elected. To aid in resolution of this I would like to see two things enacted. One is open primaries which I believe would force a person to state a position farther away from the extremes of liberalism or conservatism. The other is a law that would say that no candidate or no entity can advertise what is wrong with another candidate. All that is advertised today is why the other candidate is no good, and we know very little on what the candidate's position is on what they would do.
Conan Smith
Sun, 09/14/2014 - 8:19am
Thank you, Mr. Polet, for an eloquent and powerful commentary to get my brain cranking this morning. I'm pretty far to the left on the political spectrum and have been generally satisfied with the gross results of our primary system, but I have always felt that was coincidence rather than the result of an electoral system designed to strengthen our democracy. Our nation could stand some experimentation with the processes of campaigning, voting and governing -- not even necessarily innovation so much as just looking to the practices around the world that produce more stable, diverse and participatory governments. There are better ways to ensure that the views of those like me on the edges of our polity are well-represented without that coming at the exclusion of rest of the spectrum. We would have to be brave enough to acknowledge the system we have is ineffective in this regard and bold enough to propose and back a constructive alternative -- but when we still balk at the idea of no-fault absentee voting, I worry that we consign ourselves to this ongoing electoral misery.
Dan Quisenberry
Sun, 09/14/2014 - 9:39am
So if principled people, who can't perfectly agree with either candidate, don't vote, does your logic lead us to believe that only the un-principled among us will vote? After all, who in this world do we perfectly align to on principles? Particularly given all the things you site. I find your logic irresponsible in a democracy/republic such as ours. Part of the reason people who agree with you and stay home don't have more impact is precisely because you advise them to "opt out". Sure one vote doesn't turn an election, but hundreds, thousands or millions taking your advice and not voting certainly do change elections and history has proven this true. So on the contrary, this election find the candidates that best represents your principles and point of view, particularly where the candidate is most likely to have an individual impact, and cast your vote! Next be involved! Not in complaining but in voicing your ideas in the public arena in a constructive way. Influence others positively. Influence who they will vote for. Impact those who make decisions for us all. Opting out only makes your principles invisible.
Mon, 09/15/2014 - 10:52am
Yes! Thanks for expressing this point of view.
Nick Ciaramitaro
Sun, 09/14/2014 - 6:36pm
No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. -- Winston Churchill
Joe Henne
Mon, 09/15/2014 - 8:11pm
Ibid to Nick C. & Karen
Wed, 09/17/2014 - 10:11am
First of all, we do not have a democracy, we have a constitutional republic, if we can keep it! Not voting is equivalent to burying your head in the sand and then complaining about the legislators voted in. Your complaining does not change anything unless you act to make things better. If you want to make a difference and give voters a conservative candidate, then run for office or support someone who does. In the mean time, do your research and vote for the person who most consistently acts as you believe. Not voting definitely gives more power to those that do vote. It is simple math! Shame on you for encouraging people not to vote!
Sat, 09/20/2014 - 3:44pm
Tried to register young voters at a local college event. I was terribly saddened by how many refused to register - because they think voting is a joke, because they think if you are on the voters' list you will be called to jury duty, because they just don't care. Wonder how we can get them to care?