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Voting at Public Discourse

Americans are just a month away from choosing our next president. Voting is a great responsibility, and we at Public Discourse seek to inform readers with a variety of viewpoints and arguments all coming from thinkers who share our basic moral commitments.

Public Discourse takes a hard editorial line on basic moral questions, taking our guidance from the biblical and natural law traditions. So you won’t see us running pro-abortion or pro-gender ideology essays. We don’t, however, take an editorial position on questions of morality that are up for debate within the biblical and natural law traditions, nor do we take an editorial line on the prudential applications of our moral commitments. Thus, we’ve hosted robust discussions of the morality of capital punishment and lying, for example, and debates about liberalism and church-state relations.

Voting is one of those moral and prudential questions on which we don’t take a position. Instead, we seek to inform readers with a variety of viewpoints and arguments all coming from thinkers who share our basic moral commitments.

This past week, we’ve hosted a symposium on the 2020 election. Hunter Baker explained “How Trump Has Transformed the GOP—and Why Conservatives Should Vote for Him Anyway.” Alan Noble then argued that “Christian Witness Demands That We Defend Truth—and Reject Donald Trump.” Taking the position that neither Trump nor Biden is a worthy candidate, Brandon McGinley suggested that we should consider abstaining from voting for president, while Charlie Camosy advised that we vote for the American Solidarity Party’s candidate. Ralph Hancock then argued in favor of Trump, with his “Confessions of an Anti-Anti-Trumper.” Finally, Felix Miller (who himself isn’t voting for Biden) explained “Why Voting for Biden Isn’t Necessarily a Sin—And Why That Matters.” Earlier this fall, David Closson comprehensively laid out the record of Trump and Biden on the issue of abortion.

The purpose of this symposium is not to endorse a particular candidate. Instead, it puts before readers the strongest arguments for each of the positions that social conservatives could take this year. We trust that our readers can evaluate these arguments for themselves as they decide which course of action will best advance the common good of our nation.

The Ethics of Voting in 2016

The arguments of the 2020 symposium are striking both for their similarities and differences from debates among conservatives in 2016, when Trump was a relatively unknown political entity. Now, he has a four-year record to run on, and this year’s essays take that record into account. Nevertheless, many of the fundamental questions at play this year remain the same, and revisiting some of the best Public Discourse essays on the 2016 election can prove fruitful.

In May 2016, Ashleen Menchaca-Kelly, a professor at Texas State University, argued that character was essential and conservatives must reject Trump. She worried about the long-term impact a Trump presidency would have for the GOP: “The face that is emerging for the GOP is the ugly face we have always been accused of having—misogynistic, racist, and gratuitously authoritarian. If we assent to his nomination, how can we still consider ourselves the flag bearers of the attempt to harmonize virtue and the political life?”

Susan Hansen, a professor at the University of Dallas, strongly disagreed. She saw Trump as an “old-fashioned Whig” and thought a Hilary Clinton administration would be a disaster: “With Trump as nominee, social conservatives might think that by not voting for him they are keeping their hands clean. These people fail to recognize that under a Clinton regime there will be no refuge from a systematic agenda that seeks to destroy the very notion of ‘nature’ and of any restraint on federal power.”

Stephen Heaney, a professor at the University of St. Thomas, proposed voting third-party, with the hopes that it could bring lasting reform:

There is so much room here for an appealing third candidate to make serious inroads, maybe even win enough electoral votes to throw the election to the House of Representatives. It’s that kind of year. For the many Americans who cannot in good conscience vote for the progressive agenda or accept Trump as an alternative to it, an independent candidate would give us someone to vote for and to rally around. Perhaps such a candidacy could even begin the process of forming a viable third party. In any event, it would offer those of us in the water a way of maintaining our integrity in the midst of tragic circumstances.

Rejecting both major candidates was also the theme of Gregory Brown’s essay, “Now Is the Time: Why We Must Refuse to Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils,” and of Princeton Professor John Londregan’s “Principled Dissent vs. the Lesser Evil.” There, Londregan concluded:

We have thirteen weeks to coordinate the clearest way to send the signal that we will not vote for either party’s candidate until at least one party puts forward a contender who is morally as well as experientially qualified. I suspect that any surge in support for third-party candidates and undervotes this year will be correctly attributed to disgust with the major party options.

While many analyses in 2016 focused on the consequences of voting, Matt Franck, one of our Contributing Editors, suggested an alternative way of thinking about the vote: “Vote as if your ballot determines nothing whatsoever—except the shape of your own character.” Gregory Brown further explored an alternative approach to thinking about the ethics of voting in his essay, “The End of the Utilitarian Argument for Trump.”

Nathan Schlueter, a philosophy professor at Hillsdale College, pushed back on this alternative way of thinking about voting, noting that we always have to consider the consequences of our actions, and this is true of voting, too: “Voting always requires a weighing of consequences. The paramount question for the conscientious voter in 2016 is, ‘Which outcome among the feasible alternatives will promote the greatest good or prevent the greatest harm?’”

The Meaning of Trump

Deciding whether or not to support this year’s incumbent partly depends on how you think about him. Perhaps no Public Discourse author has done as much as Carson Holloway to help explain the meaning of Donald Trump’s election. In a series of essays, Holloway, a professor at the University of Nebraska, has tried to explain what Trump tapped into with the American public. In “Reagan vs. Trump on the Constitution, Freedom, and Conservative Statesmanship,” Holloway points out that Trump didn’t fetishize “freedom”:

The great error of the contemporary right, or at least its great temptation, is to treat freedom as the answer to every public question, to think, talk, and act as if a freer society is always a better one. Part of the job of traditional conservatives is to resist that error of the right, to remind their fellow citizens that freedom is not the answer to every political question, not the solution to every political problem.

So what accounts for Trump’s 2016 victory? In “On the Bipartisan Inadequacy of Governing Elites: A General Theory of Trump’s Victory,” Holloway argues that the “failures of our country’s governing elites—combined with their inability to admit that anything has gone really wrong while they have been in charge—opened the door to Trump’s candidacy.” In his review of Hillbilly Elegy, Holloway points out that Trump appealed to the people documented in JD Vance’s best-seller:

Donald Trump won the presidency in part by reaching out to those he called “the forgotten men and women” of America. Trump appealed more powerfully and more persuasively than any recent Republican candidate to those who feel left behind or left out. These Americans attribute their challenges to the neglect of the larger community and its conventional leaders.

The 2016 presidential election has thus highlighted an important and painful issue. We live in a very wealthy and powerful country. In many ways, the United States is the envy of the whole world. Yet in the midst of all this prosperity, there are pockets of persistent poverty—groups of Americans who just don’t seem to do as well as the country does. These ongoing disparities in economic well-being are embarrassing to a nation that genuinely believes in equality.

In another Public Discourse book review, this time of Salena Zito’s The Great Revolt, Holloway concludes that “Luck may have helped Trump to win, but he was in a position to win because the country’s ruling elites had misunderstood or ignored the concerns of a significant segment of the electorate. The Great Revolt suggests that those elites should move beyond lamenting the misfortune (to them) of Trump’s elevation to the presidency and ponder the mistakes on their part that made it possible.” A year later, Holloway followed up on this thesis with his essay, “Donald Trump Was Elected Because Elites Have Failed the Working Class.”

For an alternative theory of the meaning of Trump, consider Kim Holmes’s Public Discourse essay, “Donald Trump: At Home in Postmodern America.” Holmes, the Executive Vice President of The Heritage Foundation, argues that Trump is simply a mirror-image of America today:

Donald Trump is not a conservative—he’s a reality TV star thoroughly in tune with the passions and dynamics of mass publicity and social media. No matter how much he denounces them, he’s still a product of victim-based identity politics… He’s also a mirror image of the dominant culture of identity politics. He accepts its ethos of bitter-end tribalism. He revels in the radical expressionism invented and perfected by the postmodern left. And he has learned that no statement, no matter how radical or unsupported by the facts, can hurt him, provided his supporters believe it captures the higher narrative in which they believe.

Voting in General

Concluding this Public Discourse collection on voting, I invite you to consider some essays that have nothing directly to do with Trump, 2016 or 2020. Back in 2008, the year of our founding, Gerry Bradley, a professor at Notre Dame’s law school, asked and answered the question “When is it Acceptable for a ‘Pro-Life’ Voter to Vote for a ‘Pro-Choice’ Candidate?” In that essay, Bradley helps readers think through the question of proportionality, as applied to the foreseen but unintended consequences of a voting for a pro-choice candidate, and how the Golden Rule might apply.

I also published an essay on voting in 2008. Co-authored with Sherif Girgis, “The Pro-Life Case Against Barack Obama . . . and Doug Kmiec,” was a response to a misguided criticism of Archbishop Charles Chaput. This prompted Archbishop Chaput to write a Public Discourse Letter to the Editor on the 2008 election.

Skipping ahead four years, in 2012, we published Carson Holloway’s essay, “Grave Evil and Political Responsibility.” There, Holloway argued that “morally responsible, prudent voting seeks to defend the common good to the extent realistically possible, even if that means only preventing further damage to an already highly degraded common good, and even if that means preferring a party already implicated in grave evils—supporting that party not because of those evils but despite them, in order to achieve the attainable good, or to limit the spread of evil.”

For the 2012 election, we hosted a 2-week symposium on what the next president should do. In “Liberty, Justice, and the Common Good: Political Principles for 2012 and Beyond,” I introduced the symposium and gave a short precis on the various contributions. You can see the entire symposium here:

That last essay, from Robby George, offers his reflections on his experience as a primary debate questioner. Perhaps most relevant for our time was his strong condemnation of judicial supremacy, and his explanation of the lesson of Abraham Lincoln on Dred Scott. Here was one of the questions Robby asked the candidates:

Many believe that we need a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. However, Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment expressly empowers the Congress, by appropriate legislation, to enforce the guarantees of due process and equal protection contained in the Amendment’s first section. As someone who believes in the inherent and equal dignity of all members of the human family, including the child in the womb, would you propose to Congress appropriate legislation, pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment, to protect human life in all stages and conditions?

That’s a question that should be posed to the candidates in 2020 too.

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