Every four years Americans elect a president, and every four years Americans engage in passionate dialogue, discussion, and argument about who should be elected and what role the voting citizen should play. Inevitably, every election cycle also brings with it certain platitudes, talking points, and pithy remarks that make the rounds on social media and in our conversations. Many of these perspectives are unhealthily myopic or downright false, and despite attempts to bring clarity to the conversation, these bad ideas just won’t disappear. Here I address the most egregious examples that have lodged themselves into our political discourse in the hopes of transforming us into a more flourishing body politic.
Only Two Viable Options
The most common idea that makes the rounds every election year is that we must choose between either the Democratic or Republican candidate come November. This is usually couched in terms of there being only “two viable options,” or holding our noses and voting for the “lesser of two evils.” While it’s true that since America’s founding no third party candidate has ever won the White House (excluding George Washington who was nonpartisan) as every president has hailed from a major political party (Federalist, Democratic-Republican, Whig, Democratic, Republican), this does not mean that it cannot happen. A third party candidate winning the presidency could be a Black Swan event, an incredibly rare event in history that is extremely difficult to predict and which might never happen again. Here we face a fallacy of weak induction which, in this case, erroneously tries to draw a conclusion (“X will never happen”) from a premise (“X has never happened”). Since the conclusion doesn’t follow, there is no reason to think that a Democrat or Republican necessarily must win in November, or in any future election. This kind of fatalistic thinking is unbecoming of Americans and needlessly crippling of our political life.
In addition, such Black Swan events often have massive repercussions. For example, one consequence in this case could be the replacement of a current political party with a new one. This happened when the Republican Party rose from the ashes of the Whig Party in the 1850s, and the time might be ripe for such a thing to occur again. The Trump takeover of the GOP this year has essentially gutted the party of its conservative core, which has served as an important element of the Party since 1945. With conservatives feeling politically abandoned and with no party to turn to, there is an opportunity for a new conservative coalition to emerge that would supplant the Republican Party when the toxicity and infighting of its now alt-right base implodes.
In terms of presidential viability, a candidate becomes viable to win the White House when voters decide to vote for them; in other words, whether or not a candidate can be elected president mainly lies in the hands of the voters. While there can be logistical problems facing third party candidates — such as party organization and financing, getting their name on the ballot in all fifty states, or being included in the debates — there is nothing determining that citizens must vote along major party lines, either Democratic or Republican. Voters have free will, and can choose to vote third party if they want.
Declarations about there being only two options that force us to act pragmatically and choose the lesser evil are in fact self-fulfilling prophecies. The more political pundits, media heads, educators, candidates, and average citizens proclaim that there are only two options, the more voters come to believe that there really are only two options, and that a third party vote is nothing more than a wasted “protest vote” that accomplishes nothing. If, instead, we changed our attitude about voting, and taught citizens that the power to elect a third party candidate is in their hands, the unexpected could happen. Given that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the two most unpopular candidates in history, that both have appalling character flaws that disqualify them from the presidency in the minds of most Americans, and that both are proposing destructive policies that would bring our country to its knees, the moment has never been better for a third party candidate to win the White House.
No Right to Complain
Another popular idea in some circles is that if you abstain from voting entirely, you have abdicated your right to engage in political discussion, oppose the sitting president, or be involved in political activism of any type for the next four years. This idea erroneously assumes that voting is not only a privilege in a free society, but also a ticket to legitimate political participation in the coming years.
The problem is, it just isn’t true. There is no Constitutional law, jurisprudential ruling, or political tradition that says you must vote in a presidential election (and usually for one of the two major parties) in order to earn the right to praise or complain about the president during their term. In fact, if one consciously chooses not to vote for whatever reason (as opposed to just being too lazy to try), this is also a form of political action and participation that can communicate one’s rejection of the political status quo. This person has not abandoned political involvement; they have simply taken a non-traditional route in order to express their discontent. Usually such a course of action coincides with the conviction that one cannot concurrently support any of the live candidates while also voting one’s conscience. To exclude such non-voting persons from future political discussion and engagement is civil suicide, as it is precisely these individuals we need the most in our withered and fatigued political landscape.
For those not voting this election year due to the abysmal choices presented to us, do not let such political hot air and vacuous sentiments keep you from continuing to be informed and involved in American politics in the future.
It’s In God’s Hands
Voting Americans that are part of a faith tradition will often say that whatever the result may be it is in God’s hands, as if God is controlling the outcome. Others who don’t vote out of frustration will say they are “letting God decide” who wins. While this might sound pious, it’s not very responsible as it assumes a dubious view of providence in relation to national events in a country’s history.
Let us be frank: God does not vote in America, American citizens do; presidents cannot be elected without citizens voting; therefore, the election of a president is caused by the outcome of the vote (in conjunction with the electoral college, of course). While it is true that God knows beforehand who will win the election this year, this does not mean that we cannot freely choose whom to vote for. To think otherwise is to fall into the error of theological fatalism, which presupposes that divine knowledge of future events would eliminate both agent causation and free will; yet theological fatalism has been shown to be false. Some theists think that the only way God can know the outcome of the election beforehand is if God himself is the sufficient cause of this outcome. Those who believe in divine determinism are a common example of this sort of thinking. Divine determinism may take the form of occasionalism, where God is the only true cause in the universe (eliminating all other genuine causal agency), or compatibilism, which attempts to reconcile human free will with determinism.
Yet divine determinism brings with it a host of problems that cannot be easily resolved. In addition, this isn’t the only option available for understanding the nature of God’s providence and foreknowledge vis-à-vis the natural world and human choices. It is quite possible to rationally affirm that God has exhaustive divine foreknowledge of all future events, while preserving meaningful human agency, free will, and moral accountability (for example, through Molinism or the simple-foreknowledge view). This means that while God knows who will win the election in November, his foreknowledge neither renders our freedom to vote as effete, nor has he alone caused this outcome apart from human action. Instead, God works through the contingent choices of free persons to direct the course of history according to his good purposes. We can vote knowing that God is in control. But we can also know that he is not controlling us to act (or vote) in certain ways, even as we pray that God might look favorably upon the election results.
The idea that whichever way we vote doesn’t really matter because God already knows who will win, or that our vote is meaningless because God has predetermined the outcome, are both false, theologically speaking. Our choices and actions matter in a contingent universe. This is why, despite God’s providence over American politics, we the people must still be informed and wise in our decision whether to vote or abstain from voting.
The Candidate is Not Like Me
A final mistaken sentiment that is bound to appear is the idea that you cannot vote for a candidate because that candidate is not a mirror image of yourself, your values, or your convictions (religious or not). This issue was especially contentious in 2012, as Christians across America worried about whether they could in good conscience vote for a Mormon (Mitt Romney).
Voters need to realize what they are doing when they vote for the President of the United States. You are voting to place someone at the head of the executive branch of the U.S. government, to fulfill and be faithful to the office of the President of the United States — not be their personal cheerleader or special interest spokesperson.
We are not voting for Mr. Nice Guy or Mrs. Charismatic; we are not voting for a Motivator-in-Chief; we are not voting for a negotiator of world religions or someone who will zealously abide by any one holy scripture. We are not voting for Mr. Comforter and Sympathizer who will care for me and make my life pleasant; nor are we voting for Mr. Economist to fix world markets and trade deals in our favor. Of course this doesn’t mean the president cannot be nice, economically informed, or a religiously sensitive and caring individual; but it does mean that this is not their primarily responsibility, even if many of these qualities would enhance their leadership ability.
Instead, we are voting for someone who will hold the office of the President. Thus, before we can pick a political party or decide on a candidate, we must be crystal clear in our minds as to what the President of the United State is supposed to do and what he or she is not supposed to do, as this is the final arbiter of whether any presidential candidate is qualified to hold office. And to do that one must first understand the American system of government, something far too many have forgotten and many more have distorted.
Article II in the Constitution spells out the president’s role and jurisdiction as chief executive, and there are excellent resources to help the average citizen understand the scope and boundaries of those responsibilities as originally intended. These minimally include executing the laws of the land, administering the government wisely and prudently, overseeing the military, and dealing with foreign affairs. By these standards (along with those of basic decency), many Americans have judged both Clinton and Trump as unqualified to be president.
Unfortunately, in the last hundred years, the office of the presidency has greatly expanded its authority and scope of operations (often illegally, although to the liking of some), and now the American people have come to expect the president to do everything — from creating jobs, to lowering gas prices, to controlling financial markets, to providing them a low interest mortgage, to keeping them safe from every possible danger. Not only is this impossible, but it is also an absurd position to take.
The president does not have to look just like us, believe what we believe, or even adhere to our values. The president is not responsible for every issue we might face, nor does she have to be all things to all people. Instead, the president must be competent and capable as a leader in their role as president. While we may be convinced that our beliefs and values are necessary qualities the president must have in order to accomplish these things, that is another discussion for another time.
My hope is that in exploring these common ideas that are often well-intentioned but simply erroneous, we as active and voting citizens might do better in our political engagement and dialogue with one another. Without a healthy, educated, and charitable body politic, no country can survive for long. I offer these insights in the hopes that the American experiment might thrive and we the people flourish in the years to come.