for the people
An Election Isn’t an Invitation to Self-expression
Countless electrons are being agitated during this election cycle over what a voter who can’t stomach either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump should do. What’s being offered the conflicted and afflicted is pretty depressing.
One tortured option invites voters to simultaneously salve their consciences and save their country by trading their votes. This strikes me as so bizarre that I’m not sure I even have it right. But the idea seems to be something like this.
Suppose you can’t abide Clinton but believe that Trump will lay waste to civilization as we know it. You could just vote for Clinton and deprive Trump, the enemy of all that’s holy, of your vote. But then you’d be complicit in Clinton’s depredations – poor e-mail hygiene, not smiling enough or whatever. And if, to keep your hands clean, you either don’t vote or vote for a third-party candidate, morally pristine of course but with zero chance of election, then you have to answer to whomever you answer to when either Clinton or Trump wins and at least the Republic or at most civilization as we know it goes down the tubes.
So here’s the deal. Say you live in a swing state and would really like to vote for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, who, having given up marijuana for the campaign so he’d be at the top of his game, doesn’t know where or even what Aleppo is, is grateful that no one was hurt in the recent New York City bombing that sent a couple of dozen people to the hospital, and can’t name a single world leader. No problem, you just contact a friend in a safe state and trade votes. That is, you agree to vote for Clinton, helping to deprive Trump of your swing state’s electoral votes. Meanwhile your safe-state friend casts a vote for Johnson, doing nothing for his prospects but letting you sleep the sleep of the just knowing that you engineered a vote for Johnson while helping to body block Trump. There’s even an app now for finding trading partners.
Don’t get it? Me neither. What I do get is the debased conception of citizenship at work in all this. Echoing a drearily familiar theme on social media and what passes now for news outlets, this rigmarole assumes that elections are essentially public opinion polls that differ from Gallup, SurveyMonkey, Quinnipiac, Rasmussen and the rest only in that the elections happen to install people in public office. But otherwise, they’re just festivals of self-expression in which people sound off about whatever’s on their minds, distilling those sentiments into a vote that best reflects their mood when they cast it.
Many people vote for candidates they believe will deliver the benefits they crave and are due. Some cast “protest” votes, others vote to “send a message” and still others vote as a declaration of “conscience.”
I’m sorry. All this is just craven, not to put too fine a point on it. When Abraham Lincoln dedicated the cemetery at Gettysburg, he didn’t say that the honored dead gave the “last full measure of devotion” so we could shop candidates for office whose promises best match our personal wish lists or who just massage the soft places on our heads. He said that their sacrifice was to secure “government of the people, by the people, for the people….”
A hundred and fifty-odd years on, we’re all about government “for the people” but have almost entirely lost touch with what Lincoln and his predecessors understood by government of and by the people. I know how quaint it is to talk this way now, but if we could channel Lincoln, I don’t think he’d say that membership in the enfranchised citizenry is just a status that confers rights and benefits. He’d say it’s an office that carries duties and obligations.
The idea of citizen voters as holders of an office may be on life support but isn’t dead yet. In a Vanity Fair interview that presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin conducted with President Obama recently, he said that part of the reason for George Washington’s high place in our national pantheon was his willingness after two terms as president to resume–and these were Obama’s words–“the office of citizen.”
Unaccustomed as we are to thinking of enfranchised citizenship as an office, it’s not so far-fetched when you consider that you have to qualify for it just like people holding elective office have to qualify for those positions. Nobody elects you to the ranks of eligible voters of course. But we don’t admit just anybody. There are age, residency and other requirements, just as there are for elective offices.
You might think that the key difference between citizen voters and people holding elective office is that voters have no constituents, representing nobody but themselves. But I think that’s wrong and Edmund Burke can help me explain why.
When he was elected to Parliament from the constituency of Bristol in 1774, Burke put the voters there on notice that they weren’t sending a ventriloquist’s dummy to the House of Commons. It wasn’t his duty as their representative to just parrot their views. Rather, while their views certainly deserved great weight and consideration, “Your representative,” he told them, “owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
“Parliament,” he went on, “is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates;…Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole—where not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.”
If we’re to take seriously government of and by the people, then we have to take as expansive a view of a citizen voter’s duty as Burke did of his duty as a Member of Parliament. So every time we go to the polls, we can’t think of ourselves as just registering a preference or jockeying for a favorable place at the government trough. What we have to be doing is casting a ballot that represents our best all-things-considered judgment about how to advance not our merely personal interest but the public interest, the common good.
When you think about it, Burke aside, that’s implied by what we tell school kids, if we still tell them this, about the duties they have as citizens. Citizenship can’t just be a status that entitles you to a piece of the public pie. Self-seeking isn’t a duty. We pursue our personal interests anyway, without any moral prodding. So when we tell our children and even one another on ritual public occasions about the duties of citizenship, we’ve got to be talking about something much larger than mere self-interest, not just self-interest decked out in red, white and blue streamers.
That also explains why those denied the franchise have struggled for admission to that central chamber in the office of citizen. Under our scheme of self-government, being excluded from the franchise doesn’t just cut you out of the goodies government hands out. Far worse, it condemns you to live at the discretion of others, like children, instead of in full partnership with other guardians of the common good.
So if, surveying your electoral choices this year, you’re moved to protest, make a sign and station yourself on a street corner. If you want to register your preference, answer the pollsters’ questions when they call you. If you want to send a message, Twitter is ready when you are. If it works for Donald Trump, surely it’ll work for you. Or if you want to preserve an unsullied conscience, consult your spiritual advisor. But don’t kid yourself that you’re discharging your obligations as a citizen if you substitute any of these things for the all-things-considered judgment that the office requires of you.
Bernie Sanders was only half right when he said that now isn’t the time for a protest vote. No time is the time for a protest vote.
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