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Winston, you have lived through far more elections than I, so I have no doubt your insight is born of experience and the reflections of a keen mind. But I have to respectfully disagree with your line of thought on the election.

A man’s natural tendency is to contemplate his vote from the standpoint of how it will influence the election. I live in a state President Obama will carry handily, so other than adding to a candidate’s popular vote count, my vote means nothing. But with my own experience has come this insight: A man ought to think about his vote not from the standpoint of how it will impact an election, but of how it will impact his soul.

I can’t vote for the moral equivalent of play-doh. I can’t vote for a candidate who’s rearing to plunge us into full-scale war with Iran, who doesn’t seem to have any problem with a government indefinitely detaining its citizens without trial or due process, who has no inclination to roll back the surveillance-industrial complex or our overseas empire, whose agenda will further bankrupt our Republic, and who insists there are circumstances legitimizing infanticide.

I have made such compromises before, each time convincing myself I chose the lesser of two evils and therefore made the best possible choice under the circumstances. Then the choices, brought to us by the party establishments, got progressively worse. But they’re the electable ones, we’re told, and so we come to heel on the platform, whipped into position by the messaging apparatus of the same ruling elite that prospers regardless of who wins. I’ve had enough.

Does this make me impractical? Hopelessly so. More than a few people who know me well would accuse me of such. But on a regular basis I watch men pinch incense to the gods of pragmatism before sacrificing their principles on the altar of expediency. A man cannot do that for long without it having an impact on him. His votes don’t change the fate of the nation, but they do change him, and not for the better.

Our Republic will not be saved by elections, politics, and certainly not by the faux statesmen we’re told are “viable.” From the standpoint of a man’s soul, the vote he cast yesterday is of the utmost gravity. From the standpoint of salvaging what’s left of our Republic and rebuilding Western civilization, what that man does in his family, his church, his community, his life’s sundry associations, and in the countless moral decisions he makes each day will, in the long run, have far more impact on the culture than whatever he does in the voting booth.

Contemporary partisan politics is a binary language, and the only way that will change is if enough people refuse to accept the contrived choice between 1 and 0. If that makes me impractical and irrelevant, so be it. Part of what it means to be a conservative is to learn from experience, and I have voted for the “lesser of two evils” enough to learn that when it becomes a consistent necessity, it’s time to consider a different course.

The times are dark, my good Winston, and the fault is indeed ours. Thus have we made the world.

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15 replies to this post
  1. I heartily agree, John.
    Long has "the lesser of two evils" plagued conservative voters.
    And what hath we wrought?

    John Quincy Adams once said, “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

  2. With respect, John, I must disagree with you for two reasons.

    First, with many other traditional conservatives, you have equated Republican/Conservative election enthusiasm with the believe that, if only we elect the right person, our country will be saved. I would argue that very few of the people who voted for Romney believed that he would make a substantial difference if he was elected. Just like in 2004 with John Kerry, the vote for Romney was a vote against Obama and his excesses. The reason that Americans voted for Romney are complex. Therefore, your 6th paragraph is a bit of a Straw-man.

    Second, while I too live in a state that the Left always wins, I believe voting is still important and shouldn’t be neglected. It doesn’t matter of the candidates available are sub-par. While recognizing that politics is only a reflection of society, we have a duty as Americans to choose the lesser of two evils. (As an aside, elections are always a choice of the “lesser of two evils.” America’s two-party system requires compromise. Nor is a parliamentary system made up of dozens of issue parties any more edifying; coalitions must be created in order for civil society to function in a fallen world). Refusing to vote for the lesser of two evils is not conservative. For a conservative believes in the “politics of the possible”. Indeed, refusing to vote for the best electable candidate is to despair. And that is something we must never do.

  3. John,

    Voting is a binary system. On or off. You choose one candiate and the others get no support. There are no shades or levels of voting. In 36 years of election watching I have never seen a candidate I agreed with 100%. Yet, I still chose one over the other. There is no other option, choose one or don't vote. Simply, voting is a threshold measurement system where the candidate who is closest to the goal is chosen almost without reference to his distance from the bar. The real question is his distance from the bar smaller than his opponents.

    In my view you give voting a power beyond its inherent limits. It is the duty of a responsible citizen to vote for the candidate who would best serve the office. However, the voting booth is not a confessional and it does not demonstrate the state of one's soul. It would be best if we did not confuse the purpose of the two.

    I don't see that there is much value in voting beyond doing one's civic duty and attempting to be part of shaping a political outcome. The voting booth is not a place to profess your principles. Save that for the pulpit, lectern or journal/magazine.

    Voting is always an activity which is based on compromise and reasonable expectations. Unless you are voting for saviour, which is probably a bad idea as the Kingdom of God is not a republic, let alone a democracy.

  4. Hello Matt H.,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. And thanks for reading here.

    Refusing to vote for the most "electable" candidate is not despair. Rather, it's despair that compels some people to vote for a repugnant candidate because he happens to be the least undesirable one. It is despair that leads many to believe their individual vote in a given election is important enough to merit casting principle aside. It is despair that drives people to speak as though every election is the most important one of their lifetime (am I the only one who is tired of hearing that?). As Bruce Frohnen put it earlier at TIC, we have lost little. Yet to hear so many self-described conservatives talk – the ones who voted for Mitt – you’d think the four horsemen of the apocalypse just appeared in the sky. There’s your despair.

    Working in politics and policy, on a regular basis I meet people who actually believe that by electing the right people, passing the right laws, fine-tuning the economic levers at the Fed, etc., our ills will diminish. So my equating Republican election enthusiasm with a "salvation through politics" attitude is not unfounded. I do not ascribe this approach to everyone, but make no mistake – it is very real.

    I don’t neglect voting – I haven’t missed a single election since I turned 18. And I even take the time to learn about the down-ballot candidates and measures that fatigue even the most ardent political junkies and policy wonks. Voting is a right and a duty. It is the very solemnity of the act that compels me to give my vote to the candidate who best exemplifies the virtues and character I believe are needed in society. Winston said we’re not choosing a roommate. Fair enough. But we are choosing someone to lead the most powerful and far-reaching government in the history of the world. That government has a role in nearly every aspect of my life. So I may not be choosing a roommate, but I am choosing a man who gets to decided whether or not I have to finance someone else’s sex life. I beg your pardon, but I’m going to be picky.

    As conservatives we learn from our experiences and we respect variety. Experience tells me that Mitt was little better than the man he spent a billion dollars to unseat, and that his presidency would have done little to change the course of things. But I respect variety amongst my fellow travelers, and I realize some reached different conclusions than I. I don't impugn their motives and I don't insist they’re “not conservative.”

    We don’t march in lockstep with a party’s agenda or the candidates it puts forward, Matt. If you honestly believe that “refusing to vote for the lesser of two evils is not conservative,” there’s probably nothing I can say to convince you otherwise. But I know this: I am Catholic and I am a conservative, and so there are certain beliefs that guide my votes. I will sacrifice none of those for the sake of a party’s agenda or a candidate who supports intrinsic evils.

    There are instances when the choices we face do indeed require a compromise, and that compromise can be made without needing a barf bag on hand. For me, Mitt wasn’t it. If it was different for you, so be it.

  5. Winston,

    You and others are spot-on that it's quite rare — if not impossible — to find a candidate with whom you agree 100%. But as I told Matt below, there are times when compromise doesn't require first mouthing a barf bag. This was not it.

    A question for you: Is there a point at which merely choosing the lesser of the two evils would become unacceptable for you? It doesn't take much imagination to see the choices we might face in 20, 30 years time (barring collapse). "Candidate A wants to sterilize everyone, while Candidate B only wants to sterilize 20% of the population based on random lottery." Pardon my bit of reductio ad absurdum, but given how far things have degenerated in the last few decades, it might not be all that absurd.

  6. "A man ought to think about his vote not from the standpoint of how it will impact an election, but of how it will impact his soul."

    I agree, and therefore the question becomes the following: How will it impact my soul if I know I could have taken a course of action that would have saved millions of additional lives but didn't?

  7. "Philosophical Conservatism" — here at TIC it's our preference that people muster the courage to comment using their real names. I’m sure you can understand why it's difficult to take a man seriously if he wants to engage with people yet can’t be bothered to use a genuine identity.

    To your point: The question you raise is speculation based on a number of assumptions. In this case, it assumes Mitt — the man who campaigned to the left of Ted Kennedy on social issues once — would actually pursue policies to curtail abortion. It assumes he would have had the wherewithal to enact such policies, were he so inclined. The man has a long track record of saying and doing whatever he needs to in order to achieve power. If that's the best "electable" choice we have and you think it's prudent to put your trust in such a soul, so be it.

    Moreover, Mitt was the candidate most likely to get the U.S. involved in more wars. He was ready to go to war against Iran and seemed inclined to provoke Russia and China as well. Who knows what other plans his neocon advisers were cooking up (thankfully, we don’t have to find out). How many lives would have been lost through Mitt's overseas adventures? If I want to play your math game, I could make a case that a Romney presidency would have, over time, resulted in more death than an Obama presidency. But that's all speculation, and it could go in a thousand directions.

    As I’ve mentioned in the discussions here, there are times when compromise doesn’t require embracing intrinsic evils. There are times when one can choose the least undesirable and “electable” candidate with a fair degree of certainty it would result in less evil than the other. For me, this was not such a case. On the whole, I believe Mitt in the White House would have been no less damaging to our country than Obama. I voted accordingly. I have no disrespect for those who arrived at different conclusions.

  8. "here at TIC it's our preference that people muster the courage to comment using their real names."

    I must infer from the very first comment left below your article that what you describe is the tradition only concerning
    comments that express dissent. Well, I will not be the one to disregard established tradition; I am a Conservative after all. The name is Brian Ferguson.

    Now on the subject of Candidate Romney, you seem unconvinced of Romney's resolve to do as he says on the subject of selecting judges but quite convinced of his resolve on foreign policy. Getting involved in a full scale war is a significantly more controversial course of action than simply nominating an originalist judge in the mold of Scalia, and it is incidentally a course of action that does not represent even the mainstream position among so called hawks on Iran. The most mainstream proposal is simply to equip Israel to handle the situation, and the most hawkish proposal that is actually taken seriously are targeted U.S. military strikes to the suspected sites of the nuclear program. Neither candidate has proposed full scale war. Quite a few writers have infact commented on the dearth of any real substantive difference in the position of the two on the subject of Iran.

    Now turning back to the subject of appointing strict constructionist judges to the Supreme Court, even as a Governor in Massachusetts who had to compete with pretty far left Democrats, Romney said that he would appoint judges with a "strict constuctionist judicial Philosophy ". He had infact appointed Christopher Moore, a member of the Federalist Society, to chair his judicial nominating commission.

    What is the probability that the current president-elect will nominate a strict constructionist judge? The answer I'm sure we agree is pretty close to zero.

    I will conclude by assuring you that it was not my intention to offend at all, but the statement "A man ought to think about his vote not from the standpoint of how it will impact an election, but of how it will impact his soul" seemed to me to suggest the idea that those who took the "lesser of two evils" approach did so with an indifference toward the state of their souls. I wanted to establish the fact that such an approach can be every bit as principled. I also misread your article the first time and assumed that you had forgone voting all together out of disgust. I am glad to know that you DID place a vote for someone.

  9. Brian, thank you for stepping up. It is probably true that most of us who love this website struggle with the moral meaning of political action. I have great respect for my former student John Barnes that he is willing to labor in the vineyards of public policy and decency in the public square. I have probably 300-400 former students who at one time or another have so labored, and i love every one. But the older I get (and I'm pretty old) the more convinced I am that Tip O'Neill was right, that "all politics is local," and that it makes very little difference who we send to Washington but a great deal of difference who we send to our city councils. In my local ward I have to face my neighbors and declare myself. In the vast system of national largess I can take my cut and stay bought, and never have to account for it.

  10. Brian,

    I saw little or no evidence to believe that Mitt would have pursued a genuinely pro-life agenda. All I have is a miraculously timed "conversion" and about-face from his rather vociferous public stances in past campaigns. As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt compelled Catholic hospitals to administer abortifacients to rape victims. Lest you think he was merely bowing to inevitability in a fight he couldn’t win, he went on to say he personally believed it was the right thing for all hospitals to do. Maybe Mitt’s change was genuine, maybe not. Wasn't worth the gamble to me since, as I've said, he as a perpetual damp thumb in the wind and a track record of shape-shifting.

    As for the Supreme Court, let's assume Mitt would have appointed "strict constructionist" justices. So what? I think overturning Roe v. Wade is an outside possibility even with a “strict constructionist” majority on the court.

    What’s more, voting for a candidate based on who we think he might appoint to the Supreme Court is foolish, in my opinion, and a pure gamble. Republican presidents have given us some bad justices, and even one we thought was a good performed a feat of incredible legal gymnastics to enshrine the “Affordable Care Act” earlier this year. This is not to say that Mitt would have surely disappointed in this regard, but rather to say it’s not enough to rest a vote upon.

    Mitt has a track record on life issues, and a disappointing one at that. For obvious reasons he has no record on Iran, so all we have to go on is what he has said and the people to whom he turned for counsel on foreign policy. They were mostly folks itching for war. I think we stand a smaller chance of outright war with Iran and elsewhere under Obama than we would have under Mitt.

    My own experience has led me to agree with what John Willson wrote below. All politics is local, and that’s where an individual can make a real difference. Anymore it seems to matter little who takes the White House. The permanent federal bureaucracy continues to grow and we continue to lose ground on the most important issues. It’s with good reason that I was more interested in state and local election results last week than anything national. I voted for president and my members of Congress, yes, but “electability” was not among my criteria.

    Finally, I have taken no offense at your remarks. I’m glad you’re taking the time to post thoughtful comments here, Brian.

  11. @ John Wilson

    I very much agree that the importance of local politics is underestimated. I assume that the thrust of your argument here is that once these lower offices are stocked with politicians that posses the right kind of values, this stock will in turn provide the most likely candidates for elevation to even higher political offices. Interestingly, the notion that contemporary politics has become a "vast system of largess" where one can be "bought and never have to account for it", is to a certain extent a refutation of the original meaning of O'neill's iconic phrase "all politics is local". What Tip was originally arguing of course, was precisely that a political representative CAN NEVER escape accountability to his local constituents; that he always has to give account even in the higher offices ("all politics"). I tend to favor your position though, voter apathy CAN create a lack of accountability which is the necessary condition for the Washington political bubble that you are describing.

    In local politics however, voting by itself is not sufficient, since if the candidates offered up locally are indistinguishable from one another it won't matter (those that think that the choice between Romney and Obama was a “Morton's Fork” have clearly never voted in a local New York political race). The right local candidates in terms of both values and character must also be identified and encouraged to run in the first place, and thus where all of this leads is to the need for the creation of healthy closely knit, interacting communities throughout the nation. This is a crucial but gradual process, and so the question we are faced with is what happens to the nation in the interim while all of this is unfolding? Sadly one of the effects of the rise of Progressivist thought has been the dissolution of closely knit communities of families (and of course more basically of the family itself). You stated that it makes little difference who we send to Washington, but I think the validity of the statement may depend in which direction we mean. Do we mean little difference in actually improving the state of the country, or little difference in preventing it’s collapse long enough to allow us to effect deeper change from the grassroots level up, and by influencing cultural attitudes? Would the nation survive a withdrawal of Conservatives from the national stage until the completion of this kind of community and social transformation?

    (Continued in next comment).

  12. One of the recurring themes in the perennial clash between the Conservative and the Progressive is a certain unspoken assumption that seems to underlie the Progressive’s general approach to politics. This assumption can be summarized in eight words “things couldn’t get any worse than they are”. In other words, the Progressive sees only what is wrong with the status quo. It is on that basis that he proposes the extensive change that he does, without regard for the unforeseen consequences of those changes. But again, the implicit assumption that he works with is that things couldn’t be any worse than they are. Prudence I think, can never set before itself only it’s desired ideal alongside the status quo, it must also ponder the darkest possibilities. As Conservatives we must be wary of indulging the proposition that “things couldn’t get any worse than they are”, in any context. How would the American state and American society have looked today after 40 years of the unchallenged, unhampered free reign of Liberal Progressive thought? Even Progressive thought as we know it today (in politics) is not pure, but is a moderate version designed to be viable within a political atmosphere in large part determined by our presence within the electorate. Our presence within national politics has provided a kind of equilibrium and a constraint that I think we underestimate at our own peril. I do agree entirely though that the pivotal dimension of our participation is on the local level, which can trickle up and change things from below in far more decisive ways.

    In discussing these matters we are discussing the fate of our posterity, and so I think it would be more than appropriate to conclude with an analogy concerning our own children. If your son or daughter were missing and had been for weeks, and you somehow had the ability to magically determine into whose hands he or she would fall, either a person of very poor character who was nonetheless non-abusive, or a person with a penchant for abusing children, who would you choose? Imagine a parent in that situation stating that they refused to choose on the basis of “principle”. It is infact difficult to imagine. What we inherently understand is that the parent would not have to approve of the moral character of either one of the two in general terms in order to act in a manner that would minimize harm to his or her own child. Well once again, in discussing these issues we discuss the fate of our posterity. The principle that always guides me in these matters is that of doing the most actual good for the most actual people.

    It is good talking to you and I thank you for your devoted service to the Conservative Movement as a teacher over the years.

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