Let’s Be Reasonable about the Morality of Voting

Every four years in American politics, the presidential election seems especially fraught with moral handwringing on both sides of the aisle. In 2012, some liberals worried that a win for Romney would lead to the end of the Affordable Care Act, leaving millions suffering without access to healthcare. Meanwhile, some conservative Christians feared that Obama’s then “evolving” views on same-sex marriage would violate their morals against expanding rights for same-sex couples. The 2012 presidential election was the most partisan presidential election ever recorded, with unusually large percentages of Americans strictly voting their party line. That election also saw the lowest percentages of Americans holding favorable views of members of the opposite political party.

Jumping ahead to the current presidential race, Americans seem even more divided along party lines, and yet within each party, there are major shifts that seem to herald splits within both the Democratic and Republican parties. It appears that the Democratic Party is attempting to bridge the gap between party loyalists and the progressive economic stance of Bernie Sanders and his supporters, some of whom are threatening to leave the party entirely if presidential nominee Hillary Clinton doesn’t move further to left on foreign policy and free trade. Meanwhile, Clinton supporters argue that the glass ceiling their candidate has broken should be enough of a positive example for young women not just in America but all over the world. On the conservative end of the political spectrum, the Republican Party seems torn between its Donald Trump-supporting, white, working-class base who are fed up with the political elite they perceive as failing to respond to their economic needs, and a white, wealthy establishment that, while hesitant to back Trump, believes expanding free trade is the best way to strengthen the economy. Even white evangelical Christians, who’ve voted solidly Republican since the Reagan era, are divided on whether they should support the Republican nominee.

What’s particularly striking about the stances of voters, regardless of which candidate they plan to support, is that they all seem to feel as though their vote carries a heavy moral weight. As one staunch Sanders advocate who’s now considering casting her ballot for Green Party candidate Jill Stein said in an interview with Mic, “Voting for Clinton is like selling my soul. I can’t go against what I truly believe in.” Yet Clinton backers also appeal to morality, as evidenced in this article from The Daily Banter, which bluntly states, “Not voting for Hillary Clinton is unconscionable.” At the Republican National Convention, instead of endorsing nominee Donald Trump, Senator Ted Cruz urged, “Vote your conscience,” and some top Republicans, including Sally Bradshaw and Meg Whitman, have announced that for them, doing so may entail casting a ballot for Clinton. Other Republicans who do not wish to back Trump have come out in support of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, some even switching their party affiliation. A former member of Scott Walker’s presidential campaign staff, Liz Mair, described her reason for supporting Johnson as, “I can support neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton, on the grounds that neither sufficiently shares my philosophical principles.” Yet Trump supporters can be just as assured in the moral rightness of their preferred candidate. One former Sanders supporter now voting for Trump writes, “I have reached the point where I feel like voting for Trump against Clinton would be doing my patriotic duty.” John Schweppe of the American Principles Project, one of the conservative voters in favor of Trump, implores his fellow conservatives, “If you are truly pro-life, it should be the most important issue on your mind. If you are truly pro-life, you weep at the thought of innocent lives being destroyed prematurely. If you are truly pro-life, you understand that we have to do everything we can to stop abortion. And that includes voting for Donald Trump.”

All of these appeals to emotions and morality lead people to supporting completely different candidates, which makes sense, given their differing political priorities, economic stances, and social views. However, when arguments against a political candidate, any political candidate, appeal only to emotion without also including reasoned, rational claims, they run the risk of preventing Americans from fully considering the impact of their votes. Because of the winner-take-all Electoral College system, the individual votes of Americans in swing states will likely carry more weight than the votes of Americans in primarily blue or red states. However, with the country’s rapidly shifting demographics, former assumptions about which states will go to the Republican nominee and which states will go to the Democratic nominee may be in doubt, meaning that Americans who might be tempted to stay home on November 8 shouldn’t assume that the results for their state are a sure thing. Furthermore, the moral handwringing surrounding the presidential race distracts from down-ballot races. Those who would like to see more attention paid to third parties, such as those who are supporting Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, should also be looking to local and state-level elections, where third party candidates have a better chance of influencing and even winning elections. Stalwart Democrats and Republicans should also not lose sight of local, state, and congressional elections, because should their party’s candidate win the presidency, that president will need the backing in Congress to accomplish his or her goals.

Rather than a purely moral stand, voting is tactical. It is a means by which individuals of various political persuasions can attempt to exercise their will to bring about political, economic, and social changes that they wish to affect. If these changes seem too lofty, then voters should perhaps consider compromising their rigid morals to support a candidate whom they understand might bring them at least a bit closer to the ideals they would like enacted. Humanists, better than everyone else, should understand the need for reason in decision-making and the necessity of rational discourse surrounding presidential picks and other important decisions. In an election cycle that has become bombarded with increasingly heated media coverage, humanists should remind others and ourselves that if we choose to vote, we should do so with our heads as much as our hearts.