old-brass-spittoon-vintage-Jim-Beam-engraved-mark-Laurel-Leaf-Farm-item-no-k820138-3While most of our writers are self-described conservatives, FPR has been, for the most part, a non-partisan enterprise. This is in no small part due to our shared conviction that there is something seriously broken in our political system, a break both exemplified in and unfixable by our electoral system, at least as it currently stands. 

With the growth of centralized government, the influx of enormous amounts of money into campaigns, and the unquestioned power of organized interest groups, it seems as if the prospects of democracy have dimmed, and this at the exact moment of its global exportation. Despite all the talk of polarization, on a range of measures it seems as if the two major parties offer voters no real alternatives. If indeed America is transforming itself into a plutocracy (or has already done so), then democratic elections are largely a sham.

Elections are predicated, in no small part, on the assumption that we are choosing for this and against that. Such choosing only makes sense if we feel we are given substantive choices. It may be an argument for American stability, as Tocqueville argued, that Americans aren’t forced to make real European-style choices. There is something to be said for an electoral system that doesn’t operate like an etch-a-sketch – turned upside down, erased, and begun again – but that would be overlooking the creeping dysfunction of a political system that has become increasingly imperial, plutocratic, and concentrated in its power.

While elections aren’t the be-all and end-all of democratic citizenship – indeed, one of our panelists opines that neighbors take no notice of one another’s party identification – the act of voting has long been held to be a fundamental democratic practice, the right to which has been a source of enormous struggle in America, and the absence of which would be regretted indeed. Today’s panelists take a macro-view of the electoral process. They are: Michael Federici, Professor of Government at Mercyhurst University and author of The Political Philosophy of Alexander Hamilton; Mark Mitchell, Professor of Political Science at Patrick Henry College and author of The Politics of Gratitude; and Bill Kauffman, freelance writer and author of many books, including Bye, Bye Miss American Empire.

Alasdair MacIntyre once wrote that “When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither.” He further opined that the most responsible thing to do was not to vote. What do you make of this claim?

Michael Federici: The answer depends on particular circumstances. In politics, it is sometimes prudent to choose the lesser of evils. If in the long run, however, it is possible to change the direction of a political party by not voting for its candidates, it may make sense not to vote. If one was dissatisfied with the Republican Party at the end of the George W. Bush presidency, for example, it is reasonable to sit out an election or two to send a message to the party in the hope that it will reform.

Bill Kauffman: A philosophical dictum dating from  the Bush-Dukakis race, no doubt. We all have different thresholds of intolerability.  In local races, I usually know the candidates, at least by reputation, and vote on character. At higher (which is to say lower) levels, I can almost always find a Green or Libertarian through whom to register my dissent (or at least serve as an extended middle finger). I seldom abstain, largely because New York has relatively lax ballot-access laws. Expand the pool of candidates and you avoid MacIntyre’s predicament.

Mark Mitchell: In some instances this may be the case. I don’t think we are obligated to vote for “the least worst candidate.” Sometimes both are unacceptable and in such cases, we should refrain from either. However, I don’t think MacIntyre’s advice should be taken as a general rule. Discernment is necessary, and often there is a clear better choice even if that is rarely the perfect choice.

To what extent do you see elections as “making a difference” in our political system?

Michael Federici: Elections make a difference because they change the kind of public policy that is created and in presidential election and even Senate elections, they can change the composition of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. One Justice flipping from one side to other can mean the opposite outcome on cases. Politics, however, is not the primary engine in driving change and reform, culture is. Little can be accomplished by politics alone and especially by election politics.

Bill Kauffman:  In rare instances–1896, 1964, 1972–a presidential campaign offers us an off-ramp. We never take it. Even once-in-a-generation sea changes–the 1994 GOP House tsunami–leave the size and contours of the national behemoth intact.

Mark Mitchell:  I suppose in theory elections could make a difference if candidates were serious about keeping their promises and not consumed with re-election. However, I don’t think this particular election will change much. A change in senate leadership will produce more gridlock, which is not necessarily bad given the preponderance of bad ideas coming out of Washington.

How important, in the contemporary context, is voting as an act of citizenship?

Michael Federici: At one level it is important that citizens are engaged in the political system as a check on political elites. In mass society, however, one vote means very little. There are things that citizens can do that are more important than voting, e.g., jury duty, intelligent writing and commentary on politics and culture, support for the arts. Voting should not be viewed as the only measure of responsible citizenship any more than church attendance alone measures religious virtue.

Bill Kauffman: In my case it’s purely sentimental: an affirmation of civics lessons I learned as a child that are, at best, quaint and inutile today.

Mark Mitchell: Voting is important within the limits of the first question. However, it is a serious mistake to think of voting as the sole measure of citizenship. In a democratic republic such as ours, the consent of the governed is a bedrock idea, and voting is the primary way we express consent, so in that sense it is vital. To see voting as the only way citizenship is exercised is a serious constricting of the idea. We should think of voting as one aspect of self-government.

What, to you, are the most important issues in this election?

Michael Federici: There are a few. One, it is important to oppose the movement toward American empire by resisting the imperial impulse. This objective requires a commitment to republican government and the rule of law. Selecting candidates that recognize the problems associated with empire is essential to reform in foreign policy. Two, just as power has been concentrated and expanded in foreign affairs it has grown out of constitutional proportion at home. It’s time to reduce the size and scope of government in both areas. Three, to solve the budget crisis it is necessary to elect representatives who are fiscally responsible. Finally, we need more representatives who understand the art of compromise and constitutional consensus as opposed to ideological politics.

Bill Kauffman: They have been sedulously avoided by the two major parties and all but the most outlying candidates. Dismantle the empire, bring the boys (and now girls) home, revive the Bill of Rights (including the 10th Amendment), respect local cultures (that is, let Utah be Utah and let San Francisco be San Francisco)….or in Edward Abbey’s campaign-slogan encapsulation: Up with Spring, Down with Empire!

Mark Mitchell: The most important issues are not being talked about. I mean the systemic issues that threaten to bring down the republic. We can’t continue spending like we do, and  we can’t meet the liabilities we have taken on. Nobody knows how to fix these things. Or at least no one has the courage to say what needs to be said, for that would mean political death. You can’t get elected without promising goodies.

What do you think is the most broken part of our electoral system?

Michael Federici: Gerrymandering has done much to make House elections less competitive and to discourage good people from running for office. Part of the reason why American politics has become more ideological is because congressional districts packed with supporters of one party encourage ideological candidates to run and it rewards them by keeping them in office for long periods of time.

Bill Kauffman: What should be the most important offices (mayor, town supervisor, sheriff, city council, etc.) have been reduced to nullities, while those offices occupied by men (sometimes women) who neither know nor care about local conditions are vested with the vast preponderance of power. Thus our attention is focused on the wrong end. Topsy-turvyism is our problem. We ought to have competitive races for county legislature (around here these seats often go uncontested) while no one really gives a damn who serves in the largely ceremonial post of U.S. Senator. Now that would be healthy. 

Mark Mitchell: The centralization of power in Washington removes the perception and much of the reality of self-government. People don’t turn out to vote because they perceive that their vote really doesn’t matter. The concept of the common good has largely been abandoned in favor of particular goods for particular voting blocks. Low voter turnout means that those voters intensely committed to one issue dominate conversation.  

How would you propose to fix it?

Michael Federici: Party gerrymandering should be ended and congressional districts should be draw with the opposite objective, to make elections more not less competitive.

Bill Kauffman: Bottom rail on top, as the freed slave said. Transfer political decisions and governance to the most local level possible. As Frank Bryan has shown in his study of Vermont town meeting, when people are given the chance to vote on things that matter, they act, well, citizenly. I’d also invigorate the system by repealing state ballot-access laws that make it damn near impossible to mount challenges to the Democrat-Republican duopoly. 

Mark Mitchell: Power is key. Power needs to devolve to the states and to localities. People will vote when they see that their voices matter. They will become informed when they need the information to vote intelligently on matters that effect their lives. How can this redistribution of power occur? Good question. It won’t be due to the folks in Washington. Both Democrats and Republicans are far too invested in the status quo. States and local governments need to assert themselves. This, of course, is difficult given the appropriations coming out of Washington that have made the states vassals of Washington.

 

 

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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.

9 COMMENTS

  1. If, as Dr. Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, what is voting the last refuge of?

    It’s the last act of citizenship, that’s for sure–at least by now, as I think Postman said. Anytime someone wrapped in the flag says to me, “Did you vote today? You have to vote today,” I recoil into a very great urge not to.

  2. I’ll second Bill on protest voting where possible and ballot access.

    That second is a tremendous bar–and as we have become used to it, its limitations bleed over into other kinds of access. Here in Kentucky, Sen. McConnell and Secretary of State Grimes had one debate, at Kentucky Educational Television. It did not include the Libertarian Senate candidate, David Patterson, because he did not raise a certain threshold of money, and KET considered him a distraction from the main contest. The Kentucky Supreme Court has ruled that candidates can be excluded from debates due to their level of support though not due to their political views. In other words, a lack of money means your right to speak in a public forum is not protected.

    While granting the unfortunate fact that in this race a $100,000 threshold is small change, it is hard to admire this kind of candidate-pruning–and as done by a publicly-funded television station, too. At least the League of Women Voters is a private organization.

    Last stat I read is that 80% of the millions spent on this Kentucky race came from out of state. Now that’s speech.

  3. A) It’s all about money.
    B) Voting is (above the locval level) choosing from One set of Elites versus the Other set of Elites.
    C) Recalling Robert A. Heinlein’s advice, “Sure the game is rigged, but don’t let that stop you. If you don’t bet, you can’t win.”

  4. Newport, RI has had that sleaziest of legal enterprises, a gambling casino foisted on it some years ago with lies and more lies. Two years ago the small city/big town voted against allowing an expansion of that whore of a business while the state at large approved it. Again this election day an expansion was voted on and approved statewide but voted down in Newport, again. An actual ballot issue was not allowed in Newport, but supposedly the town population had to approve it for it to go through. Proponents spent more than $300,000 pushing it to a 24,672 population including a $38,000 banner on the big ugly building. However we beat them.
    I narrate this here because in a lifetime of dutiful voting, I first felt that something actually happened. Some very rich and evil people are very ticked off at being stuck with needing permission from us peasants. I don’t doubt but that they have other plans.

  5. 1. I’d love to see a Constitutional amendment mandating that congressional districts observe county lines when possible. Should a single county have enough people for two congressmen, the districts should observe municipal lines. Should a single city have enough people for two congressmen, the districts should observe borough or ward lines.

    2. The primary system in presidential elections is responsible for a great deal of the expense. And that is wholly controlled by the parties — to the detriment of any third party, too.

    3. Polls are hugely expensive and are a threat to the integrity of the whole political process. They are not about free speech. They should be destroyed — and people have the capacity to destroy them, by lying or refusing to answer.

  6. 1. Anyone who uses nonsense terms like ‘American Empire’ is begging sensible people not to listen to him.

    2. Not one of these men has a blueprint on any question, or offers more than a glancing acknowledgement of defects in intellectual architecture.

    3. “While most of our writers are self-described conservatives, FPR has been, for the most part, a non-partisan enterprise.” If you wish to describe yourself as ‘non-partisan’, the appropriate referent is not ‘conservative’, but ‘Republican’. FPR has much in common with other alt-right enterprises. It’s primarily devoted to exercises in preening. It just prefers vague jeremiads rather than prating about those vulgar ‘neoconservatives’ or ‘movement conservatives’, and generally spares its reader the upraised middle finger extended to blacks and Jews, the obsession with psychometrics, the conspirazoid blather, and the like.

  7. I’d love to see a Constitutional amendment mandating that congressional districts observe county lines when possible.

    An appendix to the Constitution delineating a practice manual for drawing electoral constituencies would not have to be overly verbose. Less than ten pages would do it. Any discretionary cuts could be assigned to ad hoc local assemblies of officials elected in constituencies with permanent boundaries – e.g. municipal court judges. One thing you would have to do is annul the one-man-one-vote decisions, which impose absurdly exacting standards of equipopulousness. Some variation in constituency population is not a problem. Systemic and abiding variation which benefit particular areas and particular constituency types is a problem. If the deck is reshuffled every 10 years, not a problem.

  8. If, as Dr. Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, what is voting the last refuge of?

    1. What’s the first refuge?

    2. Did Dr. Johnson actually suggest that anyone who evinces patriotism was a scoundrel, or did he leave it at scoundrels occasionally speaking of patriotism? If the latter, you sure you don’t want to get off this box car before it tumbles off the cliff?

    Bill Kauffman thinks George McGovern would have made a capable President, which is to say Jimmy Carter was ejected from office for temporizing. Chuckles.

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