Principled Voting in One Lesson

By David L. Bahnsen and P. Andrew Sandlin

Every campaign season, we hear disputes over electability, third parties, voting for the lesser of two evils, and voting by principle rather than pragmatism. Christian conservatives are especially susceptible to these debates, because they (rightly) embrace their political principles with tenacity.

Principles are wonderful things, but principles should be properly informed. If on principle you refuse to go sailing because you might fall off the edge of the earth, you need to change your principle.

Principles governing voting in Western democracies, particularly the United States, must be shaped by our form of government and political climate. Christian principles in the old Soviet Union, when only one candidate was on the ballot, would have been quite different from Christian principles in the United States in 2012.

First, in the United States (and we’re talking specifically about Presidential campaigns), a two-party system dictates pre-election coalition building. You read about newly elected administrations in other democracies working to form “coalition governments.” Nobody does that in the United States — for two reasons: (1) ours is a winner-take-all system — if you win one more electoral vote than your opponent, you win everything; your opponent doesn’t get to select one third of your cabinet. (2) Because we have only two parties, we don’t form coalition governments; we form coalition parties. That’s what the primary season is all about: campaigning and dialoguing and debating and, yes, even bickering about the candidate behind whom we’ll throw our support in the general election. This isn’t always (even usually) a pleasant process, but it beats coalition governments, where you have to figure out who gets and does what after the election of candidates from 4 to 24 parties. What a nightmare. Americans prefer our coalition-forming nightmares before the election and not after. This is one great advantage (citizens in other nations might say disadvantage) of a two-party system.

The United States does have scant history of third parties that influence elections (like Teddy Roosevelt, Ross Perot, and Ralph Nader), but that influence always goes like this. A third party replaces an older party (like the Republicans gradually replaced the Whigs in the mid-19th century) or the major parties absorb the issues and therefore voters of the third party (this almost always happens). Third parties never win; they only siphon votes from somebody who can win. It’s possible that in 1992 Ross Perot siphoned enough votes from George H. W. Bush that he threw the election to Bill Clinton. Ralph Nader may have returned the favor to the Democrats in the claustrophobically close 2000 election. One of two major parties always prevails.

This means that you have to compromise in supporting the best candidate that can get elected, not the best candidate. This means, in turn, that you must always account for how your fellow citizens will or are likely to vote. This means, in plainer words, that no person is an island: we’re all in this thing together, and we can’t pretend that an individual or a comparatively small group can dictate who the candidate or President will be. We have a name for societies that can do that: dictatorships. In the United States, you have to win over a majority of votes (or, the electoral college, a majority of electors).

If you think about it, this also means that in a general election, every principled non-vote for the best electable but not the best candidate in favor of the best non-electable candidate is a vote for the worst-but-very-electable candidate. In 1992, a principled Christian vote for Ross Perot was in effect a vote for Bill Clinton. In opposing the far-from-perfect George H. W. Bush these principled Christians helped elect the even farther from perfect Bill Clinton. Well-intentioned Christians may have felt very pleased with themselves for their principled vote, but intentions aren’t counted at the ballot box. Only votes are. Perhaps Christians should consider adopting the principle that they will never help elect the worst candidate and abandon the principle that they will help elect the unelectable best candidate.

In making political decisions in a modern Western constitutional democracy like the United States, the first lesson you learn is that the best is often the enemy of the possible. A few well-meaning souls who refuse to settle for anything less than the ideal often end up settling for the opposite of their ideal. They are willing to accept this bitter defeat as a small sacrifice for the satisfaction they feel in having refused to accept anything but the best to start with. If the structure of our civil government, by contrast, permitted avowed autocrats— even professedly Christian autocrats — Christians wouldn’t have to bother with minor inconveniences like majority votes and Constitutional limitations of checks and balances. They could simply find a way to install a devout Christian as autocrat. I’m not conceding that this the Christian way to do things politically; in fact, I believe it is the anti-Christian way to do things politically. I’m only suggesting that if you want to accomplish things politically in a constitutional democracy, you must operate within the terms of its civil structure. You don’t have the luxury of inventing your own.

There are no third options.

This leads to a final point. Politics is the reflection of culture. Citizens get generally the candidates they deserve — or at least that they collectively want. This means that if you want to change politics, you should work to change culture. If Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul or Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum is unacceptable, work hard so that in a few years, better candidates will survive the primary process. Lots of Christians in 2000 and 2004 lamented the allegedly effete candidate George W. Bush. But the fact is that he was likely the best candidate that could be elected under the circumstances. You get better political candidates by getting better cultural circumstances.

And that’s a principle worth championing.

Note from David Bahnsen: While Andrew Sandlin and I authored this piece, it is worth noting that it could very well have been written by my late father, Dr. Greg Bahnsen. He was an eloquent defender of the principles contained herein and was the man who taught me to repudiate third-party voting.

This will not help to eliminate the barrage of emails I will get from people telling me how much of a disappointment I would be to my late father. But just has been the case in past situations (Norm Shepherd, Ron Paul, etc.), people have to change what my father believed to make their vicious and juvenile attacks stick.

Andrew and I are in good company with what we believe here. I cannot speak for Andrew, but I intend to make this the last piece I distribute this election cycle on the folly of third party voting. Once the GOP has their nominee, my focus will be exclusively on defeating the most radical President to ever serve in our country. Join THAT fight, my friends. We have work to do.

For more information on the organization which P. Andrew Sandlin serves as President, go here.