Before the recent election, I met many pro-life people who judged that, given his history, behavior, and comments, Donald Trump was simply not someone they could in good conscience vote for, even if the election of Hillary Clinton was the likely consequence. I found the conclusion troubling but worthy of respect as a prudential judgment in difficult circumstances.
I met others who judged that, because of her record in support of abortion and embryo destruction and against the protection of conscience rights, Hillary Clinton was simply not someone they could in good conscience vote for, even if the election of Donald Trump was the likely consequence. I found the conclusion troubling but equally worthy of respect as a prudential judgment in difficult circumstances.
It’s not always clear what the right thing to do is—or even the least bad thing—when one is faced with two horrible alternatives. I had friends on both sides of the divide; they were often passionate, sometimes heated, about their convictions, as was, in my view, appropriate. There were (and are) important issues at stake in the election that we should take seriously and give our wholehearted attention.
We Were Electing a President, Not Appointing a King
My single caveat to both sorts of friends—offered not out of any greater wisdom, but simply out of a sense of hopefulness—was to remember that we were not appointing a king; we were electing a president. Our duty, no matter who won, would be to support legislators who would work against all the horrible policies either candidate proposed.
“What if Donald Trump nominates his sister for the Supreme Court?” one friend asked me in exasperation. “Then I trust the Senate will reject her nomination,” I said. One person I know suggested that the prospect of a Trump presidency terrified him less because he was hopeful the Republicans in the House and Senate would be more willing to oppose stupid Trump policies than the Democrats would be willing to oppose any policy proposed by Hillary Clinton, up to and including repealing the partial-birth abortion ban and the Hyde Amendment.
Along with a president, we also elected a host of other members of the government, all with their roles to play. Those who disagree with the policies of the president-elect should oppose them. Those who agree should make strong arguments to defend them. The result, we hope, will be a sensible compromise that satisfies no partisan group completely, but achieves whatever can be achieved in current circumstances to further the common good.
Constitutional vs. Unconstitutional “Obstruction”: Precedent Matters
Those who oppose policies with which they disagree should not be called “obstructionists”; they should be described as “people who were elected to vote their consciences and do the best they can to bring about the common good.” The job of legislators is to convince their opponents to work out sensible compromises, not merely to vilify them, which does nothing to serve the common good, but serves only to instill anger and cynicism in the electorate. We should not insist that “our” people are the “noble resistance” but “their” people are always ignoble “obstructionists.”
It’s not clear to me that those who engaged in the desperate attempts to prevent Mr. Trump from becoming president realize the degree of contempt they showed for those who voted differently. They are not “putting themselves in the other guy’s shoes” and thinking how they would have felt had Hillary Clinton been elected, only to have vast resources spent by rich donors to convince electors to vote for someone else.
Precedent matters. Consider what resulted from Al Gore choosing to cherry-pick districts to recount in Florida where he thought he might pick up enough votes to overturn the result in Florida. Now after every close election, we hold our breaths waiting for the lawyers and courts to finish their dirty work. Recount here? Recount there? Where do we recount? How long before we know? It is worth noting that the recent appeal to create “faithless electors” produced only two willing to bolt from the Trump camp, but seven or more who wanted to abandon Hillary Clinton. Talk about having a strategy backfire on you! But none of these anti-Trump pundits seemed to have thought beyond the current election to consider what might happen in the future. Will we have to wait breathlessly after each election for weeks until the electoral college meets to see which candidate can put together the right mixture of public pressure, political promises, and individual inducements under the table to turn sufficient electors to tip the election in his or her favor?
Even Richard Nixon, no friend of the fair election, realized in 1960 that more was at stake than one election. He chose not to demand a recount in Illinois, even though it was clear Mayor Daley of Chicago had “found” enough votes at the last minute to put Kennedy over the top. These shenanigans in Chicago have become legendary in election lore. Everyone knows what happened. But Nixon decided that it would be wrong to shake people’s confidence in the electoral process.
Checks and Balances, the Separation of Powers, and Devolution of Federal Control
The Framers were wise enough not to invest any one branch of the government with too much power and to balance the power of the federal government with the power of the individual states. The vast expansion of the powers of the federal government has, to my mind, been one of the chief causes of our current divisiveness. Every age has its divisions, but the national character of our current divisions has much to do with the nationalization of every political problem, from commerce to contraception and from airlines to abortion. Increasingly, we don’t talk to our state senators or representatives or trundle off to our state capitals, since these political actors have more and more been rendered feckless, forced to wait (as we all must) for the ultimate judgment of this or that federal court.
Next week, several hundred thousand people will travel to Washington, DC, for the annual pro-life march. Whenever I go, I resent having to travel for long hours to a city filled with the sort of rich people I dislike immensely: the kind who make their living sucking money out of the federal coffers to support increasingly lavish lifestyles. (DC supports several of the richest counties in America.) Citizens like me should be able to drive to our local state capital and disagree there.
Years ago, when I was attending a conference where Justice Scalia was a speaker, I mentioned my disgust at having to demonstrate on the steps of the Supreme Court. Scalia replied: “And we don’t listen to you!” By this he meant that judges are not supposed to be swayed by public pressure. We perversely end up petitioning the one branch of government that the Framers of the Constitution wished to insulate from public pressure. This has much to do with the Court “legislating from the bench,” of course, but the results are absurd either way. We should be petitioning our legislators at the steps of the state capitol. And yet they would say, rightly, that the decision has been stripped from them by the Court. And so back we go to demonstrate in front of the Court that is (supposedly) not listening.
Democracy is Hard: Patience and the Promise of a New Federalism
Democracy is hard. Tyranny is much easier, though it’s often not very pleasant. It’s easy to imagine that having someone “take control” will be better than the hard slog of working things out with all the various parties in our republican form of government. But to imagine that is to surrender to a dangerous illusion, an illusion the Framers understood better than many in the nation currently do. The kind of government the Framers left us requires patience and forbearance. We need to love our country enough to love our fellow citizens. We need to care enough about the common good to care about what our neighbors think.
Perhaps this is something we could all agree on in the coming years, liberals and conservatives alike: we need what Ronald Reagan called in his first campaign a “New Federalism” designed to reset the balance of powers envisioned by the Framers. No more president as king; no more legislating from the federal bench; no more non-legislated rules from the federal bureaucracy. All of these are simply the temptations of power. They are temptations to “do good” as our side sees it, but they will ruin us in the long run, because giving in to those temptations by either side results in ugly politics and the (not entirely unfounded) conviction that “everything is at stake”—every liberty, every right, every religious and conscience protection, every part of my private life—during each federal election.
Trump won the election. I may not like it, but that’s the reality I have to live with. I can live with it, because we have a constitutional order that, if we all respect it and defend it, will protect us all from one man’s or one party’s excesses. Those protections will only work, however, if we all agree to abide by them no matter who is currently “in” and who is “out.”
I am a Catholic first and foremost, and in an important sense, I’m always “out” with any of our current political regimes. But I can speak my mind and appeal to the consciences of my elected officials. If I think their judgments are corrupt, I can vote against them. I can do these things because I am protected by the Constitution.
But a piece of paper is only as good as the devotion people have to the fundamental ideals it expresses. If we sweep our house clean of that document, what demons will take up residence in our nation in its place?
Will I respect the election of a man like Donald Trump? Yes. Because that’s the law. I may disagree with you, but I will defend your right to speak your mind. Others have already given their lives to defend that right and to defend the Constitution that protects all our rights and freedoms. We owe it to them to be faithful to the precious gift handed down to us at so great a cost. We owe it to them to be patient with one another, especially when it seems that chaos and confusion are all that is left to us. “Patriotism” isn’t merely something you show in a parade; it means bearing the cross of having to deal with people with whom you disagree, but whose lives are bound to yours as yours is to theirs, in a long, difficult, patient, and sometimes painful search for the common good.
Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas.