I did not vote this past Tuesday, and judging by the Michigan turnout numbers this publication recently furnished, I wasn’t alone. The national numbers reveal a similar trend, which has prompted plenty of speculation as to why along with plenty of explanations on how the low numbers contributed scores of Republican victories across the country.
Understanding why large swathes of the citizenry fails to vote during any election cycle is complicated, and some of the proposed answers are politically charged. Voter disenfranchisement, typically said to be caused by voter ID laws, gets a disproportionate share of the blame. Apathy probably deserves more recognition, as does disillusionment, disgust and despair.
For my part I have chosen to keep faith with moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s provocative dictate: “When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither.” Two Michigan-based examples should suffice to illustrate this point.
First, as I wrote previously, the August Republican primary race between incumbent 3rd district congressman Justin Amash and challenger Brian Ellis revealed two men beholden to capitalism and corporate donors. Neither man demonstrated they were working with a three-dimensional conception of the common good that wasn’t rooted in the moth-eaten liberal ideology that has animated “the American enterprise” for well over two centuries. (Here, and throughout this piece, I am using the word “liberal” in its intellectual sense, as a world view predicated on a disordered exaltation of liberty and equality as the highest political ends.) The choice between Amash and Ellis was largely one of temperament and style, not substance.
Second, this week’s showdown for Amash’s seat – though hardly a close contest – provided no relief. Democratic challenger Bob Goodrich, ever faithful to his party’s libertine social policies, wasn’t even a morally serious option for those souls committed to what the late Pope John Paul II called “a culture of life.” Goodrich’s low view of the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby did not speak well of his support for religious freedom, either.
Amash’s record on these matters, though shaky, is easier to digest. What’s unpalatable, however, is his failure to back policies that help stabilize families while providing necessary support to those who are among the least well off in society. If the “free market” doesn’t provide it, Amash isn’t interested.
These and thousands of other similar “choices” which were presented across the United States on Tuesday are unacceptable. They are unacceptable because they demand eligible voters tie a rubber hose around their consciences and shoot up liberalism. Democrats and Republicans may continue to claim that they champion mutually exclusive sets of values, but that line is increasingly difficult to maintain in an era where corporate dollars and high-powered lobbying directs the legislative process, regardless of which party is holding the reins of power.
Indeed, Republicans, some of whom continue to talk the talk of “life issues” and “family values,” are finding further ways to distance themselves from moral matters that were traditionally a part of their platform. Abortion, for instance, is a useful carrot to wave in front of pro-life voters, but when given opportunities to take meaningful action, GOP politicians are never short on excuses as to why their “hands are tied.” If the Republican Party couldn’t deliver on its pro-life promises during the heyday of the Bush II administration, there is almost no chance it will do so now.
Granted, for those who buy into the liberal project of maximized freedom for freedom’s sake and an accompanying economic order that has yielded gross disparities in wealth and opportunity, this is hardly something to fret over. While no candidate is likely to ever fully capture a particular voter’s political preferences, some tradeoffs at the margins is seen as the necessary costs of a full and vibrant democracy. Even those who define themselves as “conservatives” (which, in the American context, is just a variant of liberalism) are fine tabling unpopular social causes in order to beef up patrols at the border or water down the Affordable Care Act. There is no consideration that the system as a whole is diseased.
For the rest of us (and I am assuming I am not alone here), compromise is out of the question. To return to MacIntyre, we cannot forget that in our present political environment “a vote cast is not only a vote for a particular candidate, it is also a vote cast for a system that presents us only with unacceptable alternatives.” As such, “The way to vote against the system is not to vote.”
That position will no doubt appear unsavory to those who buy into the line that failing to vote means forfeiting one’s right to complain. That’s fine. My quarrel is not over which marginally different candidate won and what marginally different causes he or she will claim to advance, but rather with a political landscape that furnishes us with such lackluster, nay, deplorable options. 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.