This west Michigan conservative pulls the lever for voter participation

Last week, my friend and fellow columnist, Gabriel Sanchez, wrote eloquently about why he stayed home on Election Day. He concluded, "I will gladly set aside my right to gripe about this or that lawmaker so long as I do not have to endorse a system that makes their political careers possible. So long as that system endures, my refusal to vote shall as well."

While I am sympathetic to Sanchez's position and believe that liberalism – used here in the sense of liberal democracy – is an "exhausted project" that is "now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists," to quote Francis George in a slightly different context, I think Sanchez's conclusion not to vote is misguided.

First, it is not clear why voting is a different sort of endorsement from simply living in this liberal democracy and enjoying both its good and poisonous fruits. As Wendell Berry stated in his Jefferson Lecture a few years back, speaking of our unsustainable economy, "we all are implicated. We all, in the course of our daily economic life, consent to it, whether or not we approve it." By daily accepting the goods that come from the political order, one would seem to be, at the very least, tacitly endorsing it.

Second, Sanchez aligns himself with Alasdair MacIntyre's line that "when offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither." I reject this dictate as reductionistic. I am inclined to believe that at the level of our national politics we are governed by a plutocracy regardless of the party initial behind the name. But, by adopting MacIntyre's line, Sanchez fails to distinguish among national, state, and local races and the variation that occurs in them. In short, I think Sanchez paints with too broad a brush.

As a Michigan conservative, I am rooted in my place and state. State and local races and issues do not necessarily implicate the same problems that Sanchez points to. I actually believe some of the more creative thinking in politics these days is coming at a local and state level.

For instance, as a lawyer, I see daily how the choices we make for our judges and attorney general affect our justice system. Whether I endorse the larger national political system, chances are that I, my friends, and, certainly, my clients are going to be affected by whether we select qualified men and women for the bench. I am unwilling to cede that choice to others when the choice affects me profoundly here and now.

Indeed, beyond the election of United States Senator and Congressman, there were plenty of other local issues to bring me out to vote. Here in Kent County there was a millage proposal for veterans services. There was a vote for my county commissioner, state senator, and state representative. One simple example from the recent past helps to illustrate the way local and state races can make a difference in our day to day lives: Anyone who remembers the dreary and pitiful service in the Secretary of State's office before Candice Miller was elected to that position, can attest that these state and local races can make a huge difference in our daily lives.

Finally, even with respect to my Congressional race, I reject Sanchez's characterization. While I am not a libertarian and found Congressman Amash's involvement in the government shutdown problematic, I still gladly voted for him. (Full disclosure: I have given money to Amash in the past.) As a conservative, I have no problem holding the view that the state government should take a larger role in stabilizing families and providing support to the less well off and believing that the federal government should become less involved in such endeavors. In this sense, I see Amash advancing a more localist, more Michigan-centric politics by working to pare back the federal leviathan. Furthermore, I am a contrarian and that Amash is not a party loyalist actually makes me more apt to vote for him. It also makes him more likely to reach across the aisle and propose innovative solutions to problems.

Finally, I believe that our national security policy implicates the so-called "life ssues." Drones dropping bombs on innocents in the Middle East is a life issue. Spending and supporting foreign interventions that lead to death, destruction, and crippling debt certainly implicate a broad notion of the life issues. On these issues, Amash brings a fresh and needed voice to Congress where both parties seem beholden to hawkish neoliberalism and neoconservatism interventionism.

Criticism of and a desire to radically change the larger system is not incompatible with working within the system in the here and now. Is that a moral compromise? Perhaps. But this side of heaven and short of the worst imaginable circumstances, it is a moral compromise I'm willing to make, even if reluctantly.

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Gabriel S. Sanchez
Fri, 11/14/2014 - 12:39pm
Conor, I want to thank you for your thoughtful response to my article. Because I do not want to monopolize your comment box, I will keep my surrebuttal brief. First, while my article used a federal-level election as an example, my thoughts apply just as readily to localized elections, albeit with a caveat I should have made clear in the original piece: "Not in all circumstances." Without going into the details, the last election in which I participated featured a ballot measure I believed I was under a moral obligation to vote for; the choice was between right and wrong rather than Odious Choice A and Odious Choice B. This particular election, in my opinion, lacked such a compelling race or issue, though perhaps I don't value the lives of wolves as much as I ought. Second, the election of Justin Amash or any other Tea Party quasi-isolationist (though there are few) will not address the foreign policy and national-security concerns you have raised here. To even hold to that view betrays a misunderstanding of what two prominent legal scholars, Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule, have called "The Executive Unbound." That is, we live in a post-Madisonian Republic where the executive is rarely, if ever, constrained by congressional politics, particularly in matters (e.g., foreign policy) which the executive has, historically and up to the present day, shown greater competence and efficiency in handling (and here I am not talking about making perfect or even "best" choices; only better choices based on the relative speed the executive can move at, to say nothing of its information-gathering capabilities). Third, I am skeptical that elections are the best means to getting the "most qualified" judges on the bench or even the best attorney general in office. Perhaps my "Legal Realist" bias, coupled with too many years of reading empirical and anecdotal research on judges and judging, has clouded my outlook here, but a good number of judges lack the sophistication and training to carry out their function properly, particularly when you begin to move beyond the realm of basic criminal and civil litigation. However, this is a "meta" matter that we'll have to hash out another day. Last, even though you did not bring this up in your response, I want to reiterate that my article was not a call for political quietism. Neither was it waving the white flag of surrender and telling people to run to the hills. I believe wholeheartedly in bottom-up reform at the local level. However, voting for the sake of voting will not inspire such reform. Withholding our votes to the point where we force parties and candidates to offer real alternatives with meaningful proposals for reform in order to win those votes back will.
Fri, 11/14/2014 - 2:54pm
The executive may be unbound, but having conservatives (and I am using that term broadly here) in Congress office who betray the late GOP tendency to prioritize reckless foreign policy will help soften the electorate to the idea that the GOP presidential nominee need not (and should not) be a hawk. Rand Paul is an example - we don't even know if he is running for president and yet because of his position in the national spotlight as a Senator, folks have started realizing that there is a variety of opinion among Republicans on America's role in foreign affairs.
Fri, 11/14/2014 - 10:18pm
Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Dugan, If you want a better systems or better results or better office holders you have to get off the 'me' merry-go-round and think about the system, the people, and the issues of selection. Using the process for judges as the example, it applies to all elected official; for any system to work those in the system need to understand what criteria to use in making the system work, they need to be well informed, they need credible information, and they need to be encourage to participate. Have either of you addressed any of those three? Reality is that if all you do is complain all you we get is what you complain about. Why don't you offer some criteria such as what are the repective roles and responsibilities for each office, what to look for and where to find it, talk about why people should participate. The more knowledgeable and more engaged the participants in a system the more likely the system is to provide desired results.
Fri, 11/14/2014 - 3:10pm
I think it's important to put MacIntyre's statement in context, something I have failed to do and in failing to do so I almost stayed home from the polls myself. He was referring to the 2004 presidential election. I think it would be a mistake to say that if we agree with MacIntyre's piece on Bush and Kerry, we should throwout the democratic experiment altogether (although as you indicate, that is a discussion worth having). We should rather stop voting in presidential races and those other races that present us with a predetermined set of (very few) options - usually Republican and Democrat, where neither have offered the voter any reason to believe they should be elected other than by reiterating hysterical talking points and irrelevant personal attacks.
Sun, 11/16/2014 - 8:53am
Dugan / Shanchez let there be no doubt that it comforting to know that you all no exactly where we stand in the systematic scheme for survival. I truly appreciate your hard work at the grind stones. It is becoming very costly to detect decode and sustain civilian rights. Policy and manage changes like the wind blows. Although I am not a loyalist to anyone I strive to do my very best for others and self. Just wondering how do we get manage a very persuasive and manipulating behavioral base without compromising all?
Javan Kienzle
Sun, 11/16/2014 - 9:00am
The point is not to vote for one's preferred candidate/s (although that is certainly the idea and the ideal); rather the point is to VOTE -- to register one's interest in what's going on. But what happens is that those too lazy to vote and those who feel that, "It just perpetuates the system" send a message loud and clear to all politicians and officials: The message is that the politicians can get away with (figurative) murder because no matter what they do or don't do, the electorate won't do anything about it. Whereas if those eligible will register and vote, whether they vote for Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, the politicians will start to get the message, the message being that there is a high degree of interest and that the voters are watching -- and most politicians are smart enough to know that they don't want to rock that boat. So we shouldn't blame the politicians for what's wrong; we should blame those who refuse to register, refuse to vote and then sit home (or in their local bar) and cackle about what crooks the politicians are. If you don't guard your wallet or your pocketbook, the crooks will steal it; if you don't guard your vote (use it or lose it), the politicians will run riot with your tax money. And America will turn into one big pothole, with broken bridges, rotten transportation, corrupt law enforcement, and an UNeducation system that will be the laughing stock of the world. (Are we there yet?) By all means, rationalize your refusal to vote -- but don't call for help when the terrorists take over. Because the venal politicians will have taken to their bunkers or flown to the South Seas with their ill-gotten gains and will leave the rest of us to face the barbarians. If we don't use our brains it won't matter whether we get our heads cut off. We just "celebrated" Veterans Day. Millions have put themselves in Harm's Way, have been wounded and have died to defend our right to vote. What hypocrisy to celebrate Veterans Day after refusing to vote. Is that what the flower of our youth have died for? Those who refuse to vote should be branded with the following: "Our veterans fought and died for nothing." Australia has mandatory voting; the U.S. should have it too.
Sun, 11/16/2014 - 9:20am
Dugan / Shanchez let there be no doubt that it comforting to know that you all no exactly where we stand in the systematic scheme for survival. I truly appreciate your hard work at the grind stones. It is becoming very costly to detect decode and sustain civilian rights. Policy and management changes like the wind blows. Although I am not a loyalist to anyone I strive to do my very best for others and self. Just wondering how do we manage a very persuasive and manipulating behavioral base without compromising all?