The dilemma of democracy

As the presidential primary season wears on, a serious potential dilemma has begun to take shape for some voters: not for whom to vote in November but whether to vote for president at all.

Yes, the likely candidates of both big parties have their enthusiastic partisans. Yet not only individually but taken together, these candidates inspire fearful distaste in others and the question whether it would be morally tolerable to vote for any.

Keep calm. This is not a prelude to arguing for or against the policy views of Hillary or Bernie, Donald or Ted. Instead, the question I’m raising here is precisely this: If you believe in conscience — as some voters now do — that all the candidates in a particular election hold morally insupportable views on various serious matters, what should you do? Some people already know what their answer is, but the fact that others are uncertain underlines the need for timely reflection on this matter.

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Those who don't fully support any candidate have two choices: don't vote or vote for the one who will do the least harm. Shutterstock photo

The Catholic bishops of the United States anticipated the question last year and gave an answer worth considering. In a statement called Faithful Citizenship, which sets out general principles and presents their own thoughts on policy, the bishops said this:

“When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other human goods.”

Which is to say: either don’t vote or else vote for the candidate you believe will do the least harm.

Notice that the bishops call not voting “extraordinary.” When counseling voters, civic-minded religious groups generally tell them to inform themselves on the issues and candidates, and cast their ballots in light of a responsible judgment about who will best serve the common good. Faithful Citizenship does plenty of that, and what it says merits attention.

Catholic social teaching, the bishops say, is grounded in four basic principles: the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity. In a key passage unpacking the meaning of these principles, they say:

“Every human being has a right to life, the fundamental right that makes all other rights possible, and a right to access those things required for human decency — food and shelter, education and employment, health care and housing, freedom of religion and family life.”

Ideally, political debate would operate in the framework of principles like these. Alas, that’s hardly the case with American politics lately. What we’ve seen instead has been, in the bishops’ words, “a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites and media hype.”

Now Americans find themselves facing the unpleasant but predictable consequences of that approach to politics: candidates for the nation’s highest office whom some serious-minded, well-informed voters cannot conscientiously support. Astute observer Alexis de Tocqueville blamed such an outcome on what he called “the natural instincts of democracy.”

“I hold it proved,” the Frenchman wrote after an extended visit to the United States two centuries ago, “that those who consider universal suffrage as a guarantee of the excellence of the choice made are under a complete delusion. Universal suffrage has other advantages but not that one.”

Some may shrink from saying de Tocqueville was right, but in times like these, it would be hard to say flatly that he was wrong.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.