A Sensible Approach To Voting

voteIt’s not hard to imagine the following conversation.

Bill: I’m voting the same way I did in 2008, for Obama and Biden.

Agnes: Why do prefer them?

Bill: My family have all been Democrats for generations. We like what the Democratic Party stands for. How are you voting?

Agnes: For Romney and Ryan. My family would disown me if I voted any other way.

Bill: Have you ever considered crossing over?

Agnes: I’ve been tempted when the other side has a really good candidate. But I’ve always resisted the temptation, even for local races. If I ever did cross over, I’d feel guilty for years.

Bill: I’m the same way.

It would be hard to say how many voters are like Bill and Agnes, but it’s a good bet many are. Worse, some refuse to admit that the other party’s candidates are ever qualified. That’s why relatively few people get upset with demonization of the opposition and why, though they grumble about their party’s representatives, they keep on voting for them.

Such blind allegiance results in “safe” districts that assure that candidates of the dominant party will be elected even if their opponents are more qualified, and then re-elected regardless of how they perform in office. That assurance makes them more vulnerable to corruption by lobbyists and other interest groups. Little wonder that many elected officials are incompetent, dishonest, or both.

Here’s an important fact that party loyalists tend to ignore: Political parties, like individuals, have been known to change their positions on issues, often dramatically.  For example, most Democrats and Republicans supported the Immigration Act of 1924, which was designed to keep out “inferior” peoples from southern and central Europe and Asia. (There were only 9 dissenters in the Senate and 71 in the House.) Over the decades, however, both parties came to realize that the Immigration Act was unjustifiably discriminatory.

Similarly, in 1964 most Democrats opposed the Civil Rights Act. In fact, 18 Democrats, including prominent senators Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd, conducted the filibuster that was conducted to prevent the measure from being voted on. (Only 1 Republican joined them.) Not long after it was passed, the Democratic Party changed its view and became a staunch defender of civil rights.

Consider, too, the case of abortion. In 1940s, 50s, and 60s, Democrats, like Republicans, tended to be pro-life rather than pro-choice. Leaders who took a public stand against abortion included Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton. Kennedy wrote the following to a constituent two years before Roe v. Wade.

“When history looks back to this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family, and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.” Ted Kennedy, 1971.

And Jesse Jackson continued to express his pro-life view even four years after Roe v. Wade:

“There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of [a] higher order than the right to life . . . that was the premise of slavery . . .  What happens to the mind of a person, and the moral fabric of a nation, that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience? What kind of a person and what kind of a society will we have twenty years hence if life can be taken so casually? It is that question, the question of our attitude . . . with regard to the nature and worth of life itself that is the central question confronting mankind. Failure to answer that question affirmatively may leave us with a hell right here on earth.” Jesse Jackson, 1977.

In time, as is now well known, all four individuals adopted the opposite position and became pro-choice, as did the Democratic Party as a whole.

These changes in viewpoint that occurred about immigration, civil rights, and abortion suggest that it makes no sense to be Democrat or Republican merely because our parents and grandparents were. When we vote as we think they did, we may actually be supporting viewpoints that they either opposed or later regretted supporting.

Another reason not to embrace a political party just because our parents and grandparents did is that contemporary political parties are more fragmented than they used to be. Several decades ago, if you said you were a Democrat or a Republican, it would be clear what you meant. Today it isn’t. You might be a classical liberal Democrat, a conservative Democrat, or a progressive Democrat. There are even more Republican categories, and not just liberal Republican or conservative Republican; the conservative category includes traditional conservative, Christian conservative, neoconservative, and libertarian conservative.

Given the proliferation of categories and sub-categories and the variations in their agendas, there’s a good chance that if our grandparents were voting today, they would vote differently than they did in their day. So the way to honor them is not to vote for the same party they voted for, but instead to use our intellects and decide which candidates deserve our vote. The way to do that that is to become an issues voter—that is a voter who supports the candidate whose position on the issues is more reasonable, regardless of his or her party affiliation. Here, in brief, is how to become such a voter.

  • Identify the major issues in the campaign. In the current presidential campaign, they include taxation, the debt and budget deficit, immigration, energy, jobs, foreign policy, health care, Social Security/Medicare, and education.
  • Look into each issue—there are lots of good sites online for doing this. First get the facts, taking care that the sources are objective and unbiased. Then check the opinions that have been offered by experts and knowledgeable people on either side of the issue.
  • Determine the most reasonable view of each issue. Base this decision on your research, not on what you thought before you began investigating, though that may be worth considering. Be clear about your decision, but be willing to change your mind later, if new facts warrant doing so.
  • Check the candidates’ positions on each of the important issues.  Distinguish between their assertions and the evidence they offer in support of those assertions. Disqualify from further consideration candidates who pile assertion on assertion without explaining why they think as they do, or who denounce their opponents’ proposals but never make any of their own.
  • Support the candidate that supports the views you have decided are most reasonable in light of the evidence. If no candidate meets that standard on all the issues, choose the candidate that meets it on the issues you believe are most important.

Being an issue voter doesn’t require you to change your party affiliation. If your overall political philosophy remains the same, it makes sense to keep your registration as it was. Similarly, being an issue voter doesn’t mean you have to split your vote between parties 50/50 or 75/25 or any predetermined percentage. It simply means thinking critically and independently about elections and casting your vote accordingly. That is not only the most reasonable approach to voting. It is also the best way to honor your parents and grandparents and serve the interests of your country.

Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved