Soberly Considering Abstention from Voting
Voting in any election is, so to speak, a matter of choosing “the lesser of two evils”, or as one Mennonite author put it four years ago, “preferring one fox over another”. Especially when considering beyond one’s own demographic self-interest to the common good and concern for all the vulnerable, as all Christians should, there are no ideal candidates. But this year in particular, I find myself faced with the sobering question of whether there is any presidential candidate I can vote for in good conscience.
When I voted for Barack Obama four years ago, I was not so naive as to view him as the harbinger of the new era for humanity that some were predicting. But perhaps I was naive to think he had enough broad bipartisan appeal to be truly capable of uniting a deeply polarized nation – just as, alas, I had naively thought about George W. Bush eight years prior. While Obama is far more articulate than his predecessor, he has proven to be no less polarizing. And, disappontingly, I am generally hard pressed to find very many concrete ways in which his presidency has been a noticeable improvement.
Granted, our polarization is arguably not Obama’s fault (nor perhaps Bush’s, for that matter). But he has a number of much more disconcerting strikes against him from the perspective of a Catholic citizen with a broad concern for peace, life, and human dignity. I wish I didn’t have to associate our president with drone warfare, the NDAA authorizing indefinite detentions (which has received startlingly little attention), that infamous HHS mandate (which has been talked to death, but still), chillingly unprecedented citizen assassinations, and the list goes on. (Ian Ebright at Red Letter Christians handily summarizes my misgivings here.) It’s hard to think of any presidential virtues – even that of not being Mitt Romney – that could justify turning a blind eye to all that.
And as for Romney, nothing I’ve seen or heard from him gives me any comfort. Not to be outdone by the obligatory strains of American exceptionalism that have shown up in most of Obama’s speeches, the Romney campaign gives the foreign policy section of its website the heading, “An American Century”, with every subsection featuring the following quote from Romney:
I am here today to tell you that I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, American leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.
How’s that for Pax Americana. Moreover, an endorsement from a former defense secretary affirms, beneath a banner proclaiming the “moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in”, that military spending is sacrosanct. Romney has also stated his willingness to wage a preemptive strike against Iran without congressional approval, which, as this article points out with a nice touch of irony, “would be the first time a sitting president violated the Constitution’s separation of powers and the War Powers Resolution since President Obama did it in Libya.”
With most of my major concerns about Obama being based on foreign policy issues, Romney stands little chance of looking like any sort of improvement. On domestic matters, the full context of Romeny’s famous gaffe about not being concerned about the very poor doesn’t provide much consolation, since I haven’t seen any indication that he does have any concern for the poor. Even considering abortion, probably the only major issue on which I am in principled agreement with Romney, it’s doubtful that anything would be done either legislatively or systemically to actually decrease the abortion rate under a Romney administration. Indeed, even if one were to consider abortion the single qualifying issue, domestic policies reflective of Romney’s disregard for the poor may exacerbate many of the situations that lead to abortion in the first place. On the other side of the same coin, if one were to take foreign policy as the be-all and end-all, Obama is hardly less scary.
Ironically, it seems the more polarized we become, the more the two major parties resemble each other, to the detriment of both. My disenchantment with all this was further gelled with a recent letter to The Mennonite calling for an election “boycott” despite rightly objecting to the Mennonite tendency toward withdrawal from public witness. The letter reads in part:
During the past seven years, Republican and Democrat distinctives have been eclipsed by the unity of the two major parties in their disregard for the rule of law. Examples include the refusal to prosecute Wall Street banksters who stole billions of dollars, the flagrant violation of constitutional protections related to privacy in our communications, the persecution of whistle-blowers and the violent taking of American lives based solely on secret accusations of government officials.
In foreign affairs, the two major parties again stand together in claiming America’s right to roam the earth and do as it pleases. It matters little which political party controls the White House; both pursue war and send killing squads into other countries without Congress casting a vote. Nations that refuse to fall in line, such as Iraq, Libya, Syria or Iran, are stigmatized relentlessly by deceitful propaganda and are eventually crushed or dismembered.
Not only do followers of Jesus have no stake in the make-believe wrestling matches these two parties stage every four years, we have an obligation to call it what it is: a charade designed to divert our attention from the horrors off-stage. We are becoming a lawless nation. Until that is named, the posturing and showboating at center stage will not change our national direction, no matter how authentically the lead characters play their roles.
What the U.S. political structure asks us to give every four years is the very thing it is forfeiting by its disdain for the rule of law: legitimacy. If we are faithful to our calling, we will refuse to give it. And we will find a way to explain ourselves out loud, in the public square.
No suggestion is given here as to how we can express ourselves publicly without voting, and I’m afraid I don’t have the answer either. Some (including the author of the 2008 article linked above) would argue that a refusal to vote is a failure in one’s duty to the common good, which is a very valid point. Not voting is not a good option either. But that’s just the problem: there are no good options. I don’t really want to abstain from participation in the electoral process, but under the circumstances I am finding it increasingly difficult to justify validating the violent and life-denying politics of either Obama or Romney, or the parties they represent, with my vote.