Why I Won’t Be Voting—An Apologia

I promised last week a post I have been planning for a long time, “Why I Won’t Be Voting.”  In the shadow of Superstorm Sandy, though, any thought of the election has seemed gauche and trivial—NJ Governor Chris Christie summed up my feelings aptly when he angrily replied to a reporter at a post-storm press conference, “In view of this devastation, do you really think this administration gives a damn about the election?”  

And yet, the show, it seems, must go on, even such a buffoonish circus act as Campaign 2012 has been.  An election will be held, millions of my fellow citizens will weep or celebrate with the outcome, and it would confirm all of their worst suspicions about expats like myself if I was so disdainful as to pretend the election wasn’t even happening.  More to the point, while I do not believe that one has a civic duty to vote, I believe one has a civic duty to take part, in some sense, in an election, which means that a decision not to vote ought to be a conscious act of dissent, rather than the mere inaction of lazy indifference.  To be effective as an act of dissent, it ought to be publicly stated and defended, so here goes my statement and defense.



First of all, we need a brief discussion of principles.  Thankfully, this can indeed be brief (by my standards at least), as the fine gentlemen at The Calvinist International have just offered a powerful and lucid account with which I am in wholehearted agreement.  I encourage you to read and reflect on their exposition in full, but I shall restate some of the most salient principles developed there, and then add what seem to me two other pertinent ones.

1) As already mentioned, I do not buy the argument that we have a God-given duty to vote in the abstract.  You will hear people say things like, “Do you realize how many men and women have given their lives to secure that right and that freedom for you, and are you so ungrateful that you’re going to spurn that?” but that’s just shameless emotional manipulation.  There is a failure to vote that is apathetic and thus ungrateful, but one can appreciate and take seriously one’s right to vote without feeling this entailing that one must exercise that right on every available occasion.  One does have a duty to one’s neighbors to care about political decisions that will negatively or positively affect the common good, and this very often means that one ought to vote, but there will be occasions in which it does not seem that one can vote in such a way as to affect any positive change, and here, one’s civic participation may take other forms than voting.

2) Some will say that, although one does not have an abstract duty to vote at all times and places, if the stakes are high enough, it is one’s Christian duty to vote.  “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to stand by and do nothing,” is a favorite quotation trotted out for this purpose.  In recent election cycles, it has generally been assumed that the Democratic candidate represents “evil,” in its purest form, and this has perhaps never been more so than presently with Obama.  It is no exaggeration to say that Obama is generally perceived in almost apocalyptic terms as an anti-Christ, or at the very least a destroyer of our nation, on the right.  For many, then, we have the same kind of duty to vote against him that a Christian would have had to vote against Hitler.  While I grant that it is possible for an evil to be so clear and present that it is morally incumbent upon one to resist it by voting, among other means, I find the suggestion that such is the case in America in 2012 frankly laughable.  This is not because, as I am often told, I live overseas and so am completely out of touch with just how apocalyptically bad things are in the United States (indeed, the fact that Apple, Starbucks, and McDonald’s are still expanding their reach over here across the pond suggests that the American way of life is not quite yet teetering on the brink of extinction).  Rather, it is because I am a keen student of history, and as such I can tell you that for every genuine tyrant who has terrorized his people, there have been a hundred imperfect rulers who did some harm and some good, men whose vices appear banal rather than fatal in hindsight, who were denounced and feared as tyrants and destroyers of their country by their political opponents.  It is simply human nature to think in terms of saviours and satans, to lionize their rulers when all is going well, and demonize them when things are going badly.  Demagogues rise and fall, and the world continues to turn on its axis.  It is also because I am a student of the US Constitution, by virtue of which it is only within a very limited range that any president can affect change, whether for good or ill.  With the very best president imaginable, the country will be only marginally better off at the end of four years; with the very worst, only marginally worse off.

3) (For this point in particular, the TCI discussion is very helpful.) It is permissible to vote for “the lesser evil.”  This is because a vote is to an endorsement of, or an identification with any particular candidate—it is simply an attempt to secure a relatively better realization of the common good, and to render less likely particularly serious evils.  That being the case, one may vote for a candidate whom one expects to make a number of evil decisions, without being personally culpable for those decisions, if one believes that on the whole, justice will be better served by that candidate.  Of course, it is possible that an evil policy will be both so serious and so certain that one is morally culpable for supporting the candidate who will enact it, even if he is better than the alternative.  In such a case, voting for neither is the only acceptable Christian response (even if it means making it more likely that the candidate who is even worse will win).  It should be noted here that the common claim, “To vote for neither is the same as voting for Obama [or whoever is seen to be worse]” is invalid.  Inaction is not morally symmetrical with action, even if it can be culpable.

4) Related to the foregoing, one is voting for a candidate not primarily on the basis of his personal character, but on the basis of his expected policies.  Of course, certain aspects of his personal character will be quite relevant to how you expect him to do his job, but it is only to that extent that they are relevant.  (E.g., you may decide that a candidate who cheats on his wife is one who is likely to be untrustworthy and irresponsible, but if that does not seem to be the case, the mere fact of his infidelity need not prevent a Christian from voting for him.)  

5) For all these reasons, the decision regarding whether to vote, and whom to vote for, is usually an exercise of prudential judgment in a difficult situation in which a number of considerations must be balanced against each other, most of which considerations will be based upon determinations of the empirical facts which are themselves contentious and difficult to determine (e.g., just to what extent will Obamacare support abortion? just how dangerous is Iran’s nuclear program? just how much did Obama fail to respond to compelling intelligence regarding the danger in Benghazi? etc.).  Therefore, in most cases (and this election is, to my mind, certainly one of them), it is a decision on which we should be able to respect the decisions that other Christians reach in good conscience.  I can respect, therefore, those who choose to vote for Romney, those who choose to vote for Obama, those who vote for a third party candidate or write-in, and those who abstain altogether.  What I cannot respect, or in most cases have difficulty respecting, is those who cannot respect this difference of opinion, and demand that every good Christian must vote for X.  


Two other considerations which were not really discussed in the TCI piece, but which I think need to be emphasized.

1) While I think it is true that we ought to de-mystify voting as much as possible and view it just as a pragmatic way to try to achieve some limited greater good within the range of options available to us, I think we should not underemphasize the importance of representation. Representation is an unavoidable feature of politics.  Politicians are not merely officials commissioned to do certain hopefully beneficial tasks, they are individuals who represent constituencies and agendas.  To vote for them is, to some extent, whether desired or not, to become identified with that constituency.  A candidate’s representative identity can prove immensely powerful in shaping the public square, just as much or more than any particular policies he enacts, and thus cannot be ignored.  For instance, positively speaking, the fact that Obama was black meant that he represented the empowerment of a formerly disempowered minority, a powerful message that reverberated globally, shaping the way Obama was perceived and what he was able to accomplish.  Negatively speaking, let’s think of a candidate like Strom Thurmond in 1948 or George Wallace in 1968.  Now, one could legitimately think that their federalist, states-rights platform would on the whole be the the most beneficial set of policies for the country.  However, the fact that both represented very strong racist, pro-segregationist interests should have presented a huge stumbling block for any Christian who might vote for them.  The point is not merely that if elected, they might well have pushed for unjust, racially discriminatory policies, but that the mere fact of their election would send a racist message, a message with which anyone who voted for them, whatever their personal reasons, would find themselves connected.  

This representative aspect poses a serious problem for Christians today considering voting for either candidate.  On the one hand, regardless of Obama’s own concrete abortion policy, which is problematic enough, he stands for a constituency dedicated to an godless vision of what personal freedom means, in which maximization of liberty means removing all barriers to sexual license.  I am not saying that all pro-choice advocates think that way, but that is a prominent viewpoint which exercises great influence within the Democratic party at present.  On the other hand, Romney represents a number of deeply problematic constituencies, from the individualistic, anti-government libertarianism of many Tea Partiers, to the tax-dodging plutocracy that believes government’s job is to ensure the maximum generation of wealth for the investing classes.  A responsible Christian wanting to vote for either of these men would have to be convinced that the candidate did not so thoroughly represent this constituency that a vote for him would appear, to the public eye, a vote for this constituency.


2) On the basis of the aforementioned consideration, I think that the prospective voter needs to give real thought to what their vote will and won’t achieve in their particular state.  That is to say, if one is voting in a swing state, where every vote counts, then it becomes far more urgent for one to really consider, “Which of these is the lesser of two evils?  Would I regret it one day if I didn’t take the opportunity to at least vote against candidate X, recognizing the harm he might do?”  In this setting, one’s vote is much more likely to function as a vote against Greater Evil Y than a vote for Lesser Evil X.  However, if one is voting in a state where the result is basically already a foregone conclusion, then there seems to be less need to vote for the lesser of two evils.  In such a setting, the vote no longer really functions as a vote against Greater Evil Y (since he will not win anyway), but as a definite vote for Lesser Evil X.  It thus appears more like an endorsement, a signing on to the constituency that the candidate stands for—if the candidate in question is one who is deeply compromised, you should ask yourself if there is really reason to associate oneself with him when there is no urgent reason to do so.  My own view, then, is that in a choice of the sort voters are faced with this year, it would generally be best for Christians in “safe blue” or “safe red” states to abstain or vote third party.  


The Upshot

You can thus see, in outline, how I reach the conclusion announced in the title of this post.  I am registered in the state of Idaho, which is pretty much guaranteed to go Romney.  To add my own vote, increasing Romney’s margin of victory, would be sending a message of support that I really do not desire to send.  (Note that, in the current political climate, a vote for a third party and abstaining entirely both serve essentially as votes of dissent, against the two main candidates.  In general, I would consider a vote for a specific third party candidate superior to simply abstaining, since it identifies the nature of one’s dissent more precisely—although it may well be that all of the third party candidates are such kooks that one does not feel comfortable identifying one’s dissent with any of them.  In my own case, the main reason I am simply abstaining is pragmatic: it is a bit of a pain to register to vote from overseas, and given my decision not to vote for either of the two main parties, registering was not a high enough priority for me to find time to do so; local elections, of course, are still quite important, but it is unlikely that I will be moving back to the locality in which I am currently registered.) 

Were I registered in a swing state, it would be a much more difficult decision, as I find the relative good and evil of the two candidates to be pretty equally balanced, and I am glad not to have to make that decision.  So I have genuine respect for Christians who reach different decisions, and offer this post only as an explanation of my own conclusion, not a demand that everyone else think likewise. However, for those desiring to hear further why I consider the case for both candidates so uncompelling, I offer some assessments below.


However, it may be wise to preface these assessments with a word about my qualification to write on such matters, given that many have questioned it.  As mentioned above, I have been told that as someone out of the country for the past three years, I am out of touch, and clearly unable to form a reliable judgment about American politics.  This seems to me a bit like a corporation telling the accountant who audits them that because they’re not part of the company, they just don’t understand what it’s like, and aren’t qualified to form a judgment, or like a sports team telling an referee that because he’s not there with them dribbling the ball, he isn’t qualified to judge.  In most settings, the position of an outside observer is considered a privileged, rather than a handicapped one—someone who’s above the heat and emotion of the fray, and is able to see better what the various sides are really up to; someone who can see the big picture and put it all into perspective rather than just a small slice of it.  Now, I don’t really want to claim to be such a privileged observer—after all, I’m hardly dedicating all my time and attention to watching American politics, as a referee would to a game.  But I do think I can at least claim to be a qualified observer, well-enough informed, not necessarily to tell you how to vote, but at least to form a defensible judgment about how I will vote.  I make it a point to follow the gist of American political news, though not to be inundated by it, and to read both reports and opinion pieces from sources covering a great swath of the political spectrum, and from sources both within and without the US. I may not know a lot of stuff that would be helpful to know, but none of us have time to inform ourselves about everything.

I am also told sometimes, that being in Britain, I am no doubt subjected to the liberal, anti-American bias that clouds the judgment of the rest of the world.  The assumption that drives this remarkably common accusation is that only Americans, really, are qualified to form intelligent judgments about politics.  If the rest of the world is skeptical of American policies, it is only because they are anti-American.  If the rest of the world is to the left of America, that is proof that they are all socialists.  This is exceedingly hubristic.  It may well be that Americans have some superiorities of judgment on certain matters, but surely we should recognize that other countries are likely to have better judgment on a number of matters as well.  I am not suggesting that Britons and Germans and Brazilians should be allowed to vote in American elections, but their perceptions of American politics can offer valuable insights that American commentators often miss.  Seeing how Britons see American politics has helped me see it much better, not worse.


Some Specific Issues 

Now, my particular assessments of the candidates.  I shall offer these by evaluating first what seem to me to be the most important arguments to vote for Romney, or against Obama, and then what seem to me to be the most important arguments to vote for Obama, or against Romney.  Obviously, I will leave out a great number of issues, either because I don’t consider them so important, or because I don’t know enough about them to make an informed judgment, or because, while they may be important, it does not seem that the candidates particularly stand out from one another on them.  I shall also try to be quite brief in summarizing my assessment of the candidates, without trying to defend it at length, though I think in each case, I could provide good reasons for the assessment.  I will omit what seem to me some of the more absurd arguments (e.g., that Obamacare, and Obama’s program of redistributive taxation in general, amounts to “legalized theft,” and must therefore be opposed by any Bible-believing Christian.  I have written on this issue at some length—see for instance here, here, here and here).


Reasons to Vote for Romney/Against Obama

R1. Abortion

Argument: Abortion is the most urgent issue for Christians today in American politics.  There is no greater evil that is being perpetrated in our nation, with more than a million unborn babies killed every year.  Obama is the most pro-choice president we’ve ever had, deeply beholden to the abortion lobby, and has already done a great deal, not least through the healthcare legislation, to advance the pro-choice agenda.  Romney, whatever the ambiguities in his record, seems to be decidedly pro-life now, and is at least dependent on a pro-life constituency.  He will appoint justices that could one day overturn Roe v. Wade, and he will enact legislation that helps restrict abortion.

Counter-argument: There is little evidence that Romney has particularly strong pro-life convictions or is likely to spend much of his limited political capital in that direction.  In any case, more importantly, there is little evidence that having a pro-life president makes that much difference—it hasn’t seemed to in the past, and despite 25 years of Republican presidency since it was passed, Roe v. Wade remains firmly on the books.  Abortion will only be resolved by large-scale cultural change, not by executive order.  What is legally feasible is constrained by the morals of a people; the Supreme Court will not overturn Roe v. Wade so long as abortion is a widely-accepted cultural practice, nor is it clear that they should attempt to do so.  

Rebuttal: However, rhetoric and symbolism matters.  It matters that we have a president who stands for a pro-life agenda, who represents a pro-life constituency, rather than one who  Having a president who stands for a pro-life agenda vs. one who stands for a pro-abortion agenda.  It says something about who we are as a nation, and can work to influence the national mood and climate so as to create a more inhospitable climate for the abortion lobby.  Plus, short of overturning abortion, there is a good deal that can be done legislatively to curtail some of its worst evils (e.g., abortion for young teenage girls without requirement of parental consent or even notification).

Verdict: On this score, it seems clear that Romney is not only the lesser evil, but that Obama is so beholden to the abortion lobby that it becomes quite difficult, though not impossible, to ignore this issue and support him on other grounds.


R2. “Family Values”

Argument: The forces of “secular humanism,” largely represented by the left and by Obama, are making war on America’s Christian heritage and on the family in particular.  Abortion is a prominent example of this, but so are gay rights and the many other ways in which liberals seek to privilege personal autonomy over against traditional moral norms.  Romney, as a Mormon, is committed to protecting traditional Judeo-Christian values.

Counter-argument: Since when was Mormon “Judeo-Christian”?  Romney’s pandering to his constituency here is only skin-deep, and as president, there is no way that he’s going to show much backbone on these issues.  But more importantly, the American Right is in its own way so deeply committed to modern ideals of individual autonomy that it has no real ground to stand on in protecting traditional moral norms.  The values that the modern Republican Party stands for are at least as corrosive to the traditional family and Christian faith as those the Democratic Party stands for, if not more so.  True renewal here is going to have to come from outside the current two parties, probably from outside politics altogether.

Rebuttal: There ain’t one.  Sorry.  The Right is bankrupt when it comes to moral philosophy these days.  No, OK, fine.  The Right has little ground to stand on, but it is at least not as militant in its embrace of hedonistic personal morality as the Left is.

Verdict: Romney might be slightly stronger here, but not nearly so much as most Christians seem to think.


R3. The Economy

Argument: Obama has made a royal shipwreck of the economy.  America is really in pretty desperate shape economically, and only Romney has the solution.  He has experience in the business world, he believes in the power of the market, he’s ready to get rid of regulation and red tape, lower tax rates, etc., to get America back on its feet.  After four more years of Obama, we’ll be ruined!

Counter-argument: No, not really.  The economy was already deep in its worst recession in 75 years when Obama took office, and although it hasn’t sprung back entirely to life, the sinking ship has righted itself and is slowly hobbling along again.  You can argue over whether that happened because of Obama’s policies, or whether it would’ve happened anyway.  And you can claim that his policies slowed the recovery down.  But I’m skeptical.  People who make these arguments don’t realize how absolutely terrible the fundamentals of the economy were when he took over, and how few viable options for recovery there were.  Anyone who expected or promised a quick recovery was stupid (that includes Obama himself).  It was going to be a long, hard, uncertain road, at risk of teetering back into recession, pretty much no matter what.  Clint Eastwood can rant all he wants, but professional economists are pretty well agreed that Obama’s policies by and large benefited the economy, which would otherwise be in much worse shape.  

In any case, Romney’s promised solutions are untried.  It is possible, to be sure, that he has some answers, but there is absolutely no guarantee that he will be able to do any better than Obama at resolving the economy’s problems than Obama.  Chucking Obama in the blind hope that Romney’s solutions will work is an act of desperation.  Plus, the kind of deregulation Romney favors will simply give us more of the kind of irresponsible capitalism that gave us the problem in the first place.

Rebuttal: Look, Romney’s clearly a numbers guy, an efficiency guy.  He’s a very competent businessman, whatever else he is.  If anyone’s got a game plan to help boost the economy, it’s him.  Plus, regardless of whether or not Obama’s policies succeeded in diverting a depression, things seem to have stalled out, and he has few ideas left as to how to get them moving again.  When one person’s out of ideas, you try some new ideas.

Verdict: There is a weak case for Romney here, though it depends heavily on which economists you listen to, and on what you think Romney will actually do, given the contradictory policies he has outlined at different stages in the campaign.  Even the sympathetic magazine The Economist concludes in a recent op-ed, “For all his businesslike intentions, Mr Romney has an economic plan that works only if you don’t believe most of what he says”


R4. Reducing the Deficit

This one is worth mentioning, given how much airtime it receives, but it may be dealt with pretty summarily.  Although Romney talks a great deal about the importance of reducing the deficit, his concrete proposals for doing so have been sketchy, unrealistic, and contradictory.  He has yet to come forward with a clear deficit-reduction plan that any sane economist believes likely to achieve its stated goals.  It’s possible, of course, that he could do better at reducing the deficit than Obama, but there’s no convincing reason to vote for him on this basis.  


R5. Will Protect American Interests Abroad

Argument: America is the greatest force for good in the world.  As Paul Ryan put it, “Only by the confident exercise of American influence are evil and violence overcome.”  What’s more, there are terrorists all over the place who hate us, and we need a strong military, with an aggressive global presence and no-nonsense diplomacy, to keep these enemies in check and help make the world a better place.  Obama has been downright anti-American, obsequiously yielding to weaker foreign powers, giving in to demands of enemies, being soft on terrorism, and generally doing his best to undermine American hegemony and weaken our military.  The Benghazi debacle is but the latest proof.  This must stop.  Romney will re-establish American strength abroad and reverse the decline Obama has overseen.

Counter-argument: Simple nonsense.  Fact is, despite receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama has done very little to disengage America from its foreign entanglements.  Withdrawal from Iraq has been slower and less complete than promised, we are still fully engaged in Afghanistan, Obama has in fact escalated the drone war and has not closed Guantanamo.  For Pete’s sake, he unilaterally ordered a covert mission in another sovereign nation to assassinate Osama bin Laden. If that’s not assertive, America-can-kick-your-ass-whenever-it-wants-to foreign policy, what is?  To the extent that Obama has reduced American aggressiveness, I’m all for it (see O5 below).  Indeed, the rah-rah Americanism that wants to see American returned to its proper and historic place at the pinnacle of the world is not only shockingly arrogant, but is simply unrealistic.  All empires rise, peak, and decline or fall.  The only question is whether they manage their decline graciously, or stubbornly try to cling to power they don’t have, and fall precipitously.  Looking at economic and demographic facts, there is simply no way that America can hold on to the global hegemony it has enjoyed for much longer.  China will eclipse us and there is little we can do about that.  The only question is whether we prudently manage the clout we still have so as to make sure the rest of the world still likes us when we’re no longer the biggest kid on the block, or whether we make enemies for ourselves by pompously trying to assert our power to pretend it’s not ebbing.

Rebuttal: Nonetheless, Obama has been indecisive and vacillating, reacting to circumstances, rather than confidently asserting a consistent foreign policy.  We need more decisiveness and strength, even if you think America does need to start reducing its role.

Verdict: I think there’s actually a slight edge for Obama here (see O1 below).


R6. Obama is duplicitous and untrustworthy.

See O5 below.


Reasons to Vote for Obama/Against Romney

I will attempt to be briefer here, as this is probably getting tedious even for those passionate about the election.

O1. Foreign Policy

Argument: The gist of this has already been spelled out in R5 above.  But I could add more about how downright wicked much American foreign policy has been over the last century, in which the shameless pursuit of national interest has justified the deaths of hundreds of thousands, most of them civilians, the support of some of history’s most wicked regimes, and the torture of prisoners. These points, of course, stir up strong emotions, and it is often difficult to sort out truth from falsehood when reading the sources on these issues, so I won’t hash it out in depth.  But we have a lot to be ashamed of, we have no right to pretend that we are God’s gift to the world and must therefore project our power at all costs.  While Obama may have done little to warrant the Nobel Peace Prize, he has certainly at least changed the tone and the perception of America abroad.  He is less likely to go to war with Iran, and more likely to take a more balanced line on Israel.  He has focused the War on Terror, at least, more on actual terrorists, rather than just dictators with lots of oil who didn’t like us.  He has done some good in this area.

Counter-Argument: All that stuff about the wickedness of American foreign policy is overstated.  America has done a lot of good in the world, and the good that we can continue to do includes things like preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, something Obama seems unlikely to do. Plus, the very worst aspects of American foreign policy—things like drone attacks and Guantanamo—Obama has not helped one bit.

Rebuttal: Perhaps so, but perception still matters a lot.  When Bush was president, most of the rest of the world, including our natural allies, came to hate us.  With Obama as president, they are much more friendly.  If Romney were elected, regardless of whether his actual policy differed much from Obama’s, he would be perceived, because of the constituency he represents, as a return to the bellicosity and arrogance of the Bush years, which would immediately reduce the goodwill with which America is viewed abroad.  Whatever else you think about foreign policy, having the trust of other countries, especially your natural allies, is clearly a plus.  

Verdict: In Obama’s favor, although not decisively.


O2. Tax Policy and Deficit

Argument: Romney’s tax policy will favor the wealthiest, hurt the poor and middle class, and cause the deficit to balloon.  If anyone doubted his plutocratic instincts, his infamous 47% remarks sealed the case against him.  

Counter-argument: Nuh-uh.  Lower taxes on the highest earners will boost productivity and investment, causing a rising economic tide that will lift all boats, the poor and middle class included, and boost tax revenues, reducing the deficit.

Rebuttal: Sorry, almost no sane economists agree with this proposal, and Romney has yet to put forward a clear and concrete tax plan that can actually realistically produce the results he keeps claiming for it.  Fact is, even with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, high-income earners are enjoying historically and globally low taxation rates, and have little right to complain.

Verdict: A fairly strong case for Obama here. 


O3. Financial Transparency

Argument: The recent financial crisis was caused in large part by an irresponsible, out-of-control, under-regulated, over-sized financial industry, one which operates behind a veil of secrecy, through a web of international tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions, with little or no accountability or ethical standards.  Obama was elected on promises to tackle the Wall St. behemoths, tighten up regulation and improve transparency, and make sure that the big banks were no longer able to prance merrily along, making immense profits with no thought of the social and economic costs of their actions. 

Counter-argument: Obama has in actual fact done little or nothing to tackle this problem.  The very few regulatory steps that were taken were essentially toothless, and many have been shelved altogether.  The banks continue to get away with murder, and the re-routing of money through tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions continues unabated.

Rebuttal: All well and true, but while Obama may not have made things much better, Romney could make them far worse.  Romney is himself neck-deep the dark world of tax havens, and a cheerleader for plutocrats, bankers, and big business.  He wants to reduce the already very limited regulation of financial markets.  He is a dream candidate for the financial industry.

Verdict: Obama is clearly the lesser of two evils here.


O4. Environmental Concerns

Argument: In almost every country outside the United States, it is basically received fact that we are headed for, or rather, already in the midst of, ecological crisis.  It’s not just climate change, although that’s clearly a concern, and the continued escalation of extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy heightens this concern (although of course no single extreme weather event can be clearly attributed on its own to climate change).  We are living beyond our means.  We are depleting the earth’s resources, polluting its air and water, ruining its ecosystems.  This is not tree-hugger hysteria, but sober scientific fact, documented extensively and in some cases exhaustively.  Obama is committed to addressing these challenges, whereas Romney is not.

Counter-argument: In actual fact, despite his rhetoric, Obama has done very very little to advance environmental concerns, and has remained almost silent about this issue on the campaign trail.  On Obama’s watch, the US continues to stubbornly refuse to take coordinated global action on these issues, or to pursue a long-term sustainable energy policy.  

Rebuttal:  Similarly to O3 above, while it may be true that Obama has done little to make things better, Romney would almost certainly be worse.  His party has become progressively less and less “conservative” when it comes to actually conserving the world around us over the past three decades—while it used to acknowledge that there were serious environmental problems, but preferred market-based solutions or a lighter regulatory touch, it now increasingly pretends that there aren’t even problems to begin with, and demonizes and ridicules anyone who says there are. Romney himself may be more sane on this issue (I hope so!), but he’s beholden to a constituency so anti-environmentalist that one can’t help but worry about the policies he would enact on this front.

Verdict: Obama is clearly the lesser of two evils here.


O5. Better the Devil You Know

Argument: Obama may have a host of flaws, but at least we know them already, and we as the American people have a good sense of how to confront and oppose Obama when he’s wrong.  We know how to see through his rhetoric to what he’s really up to.  This being the case, there’s not too much harm he could do in the next four years.  With Romney, we are voting for an unknown.  Should he win, it would take a few years to figure out what he’s really up to, how he operates, how to see through his duplicity.  So it’s not as safe a bet dealing with him.  He’s simply not trustworthy, we don’t know what we’re getting, and it’s a stupid move voting out someone we don’t like in hopes that the unknown that replaces him will turn out to be better.

Counter-argument: Sure Romney is duplicitous, but we still have a good idea what we’re dealing with.  Obama is duplicitous and untrustworthy too, and for all we know could have been concealing his real radical agenda these past four years just waiting to get re-elected.

Rebuttal: Sorry.  All politicians may be duplicitous and deceptive, but Romney takes it to a whole new level.  The man seems almost constitutionally incapable of telling the truth, either about himself and his own positions, or about his opponents.  It is hard to remember a candidate so infamous for his flip-flopping, insincerity, and dishonesty, although the media in fact has rarely bothered to call him on many of his more brazen deceptions.  While I have very little respect for Obama’s honesty, Romney’s is downright repugnant, and renders very dubious any claim that we should vote for Romney on the basis that he’s going to do X.  We really don’t know what he’s going to do.

Verdict: Obama is the lesser of two evils here.



Summing it all up, then, you’ll see that I find Obama somewhat more attractive on a wider range of issues, but find the abortion issue important enough that it basically cancels out Obama’s advantage on lesser issues; indeed, it alone would make it very hard for me to vote for him.  So I return to the conclusion stated above—I would have difficulty voting in good conscience for either of them, and as I am not in a battleground state, there is no reason to force myself to try to decide.  In protest against both candidates, and the decadent state of American politics, I abstain.

A Plea for Political Prudence

It pains me greatly to say anything in defense of Mitt Romney, but sometimes even the worst villain can be attacked for unfair reasons, and those reasons may be worth refuting.  Few criticisms of Romney—from the right, at least—have been so common as charges about “what he did as governor of Massachusetts.”  He brought in an Obamacare prototype, he advanced, or at the very least did not oppose, very pro-choice legislation, he was big-government, he was liberal, etc.  Now this is to be expected, naturally.  Presidential candidates, or any candidates, for that matter, are almost always judged on their history—their voting record or their governing record, and indeed, what else are we to judge them on?  We can hardly judge them based on their words, because of their appalling disregard for the truth, or their promises, because they rarely expect to keep them.  So we have to judge them on their deeds.  By their works ye shall know them, right?

 Well, yes but….  For one thing, our leaders are not absolute dictators, so not everything done on the watch of a president or a governor or a mayor was necessarily their doing, and certainly it wasn’t necessarily their preference.  But more importantly, politics is not the simple one-to-one application of pre-existing ideological commitments to the real world—at any rate, it’s not meant to be, though one could be excused, in modern America, for thinking that’s what it is.  Politics is fundamentally the art of prudence.  And prudence is all about responding differently in different circumstances, depending on what those circumstances demand.  This is especially the case in politics.  What one people or political unit needs might be quite different from what another needs.  Even if they both ultimately need the same thing, the means of accomplishing the end may be quite different in the different situations.  Different legal precedents will exist in different places, different traditions, different expectations, different pressures, different powers for the various levels of government.  None of this is to deny that leaders should be men of principle, but principles have to be applied, and their application may look very different once prudently brought to bear on all these different circumstances.  

In short, it is quite possible that Massachusetts may need to be governed in a different way than Wyoming, or than the United States as a whole.  And it is quite possible that the same man, without reneging on any matter of principle, could insist that he is going to do things differently as president, than he did as governor of a particular state.  It is quite possible that he may have supported laws and policies for a state, whether because he thought them good for its people, or because they were at least the lesser of the evils available to him there, that he would not support for the country as a whole, whether because he judges that it has a different common good, or because political circumstances allow him more room to maneuver.  

Don’t get me wrong—I have little doubt that Romney is a sly, slippery, dissembling, waffly politician.  But I do want us at least to dispense with the blind ideology that demands that someone has a 100% pure pro-life record, or a 100% pure conservative record, or whatever the case may be, refusing to grant that politics is about governing, and governing is about real-world people and institutions, not abstract principles, and real-world people and institutions call for variation and flexibility.