If you’re already tired of it, there will only be more coming. The ads, tweets, memes and speeches of the current political season reveal a list of repeated nonsense reasons why people are supposed to be persuaded to vote this way or that. The present election landscape is not like anything I remember, but then our culture has changed quite a bit since the days when my elementary school had its own vote in the 1980 election and Reagan beat Carter in a landslide, securing the under-12 vote for the Gipper.
The voters of today often seem as informed and mature in their reasoning as my childhood classmates were then. Voters now think mostly with their feelings, and political elections have devolved into just a more boring version of American Idol. We may as well have Seacrest moderate it all & let citizens text in their votes. The current unpopularity contest is between two candidates who are collectively disliked more than any pair of alternatives in history. Dennis Miller claimed this as the reason for his development of a condition he called EON: Early Onset Nihilism.
As a Christian I never pinned my hopes on the political system, nor will I ever. I have little zeal for either major party or its underwhelming nominee. But that doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention or can just opt out of society altogether. And since I have some views about the role of government (and a whole lot of other things), I’m making myself observe this [excrement]-show regardless of the specific personalities involved. And I hope some of my observations will at least make you think more Christianly and critically about it.
I submit to you, therefore, a list of 15 reasons regularly offered for why we should (or should not) vote for a specific someone. Apparently these things persuade voters on some level or the people with all of the power and money would not be constantly appealing to them. But as part of upgrading our discernment software, I want to explain briefly why these are superficial bases for voting or refusing to vote for a person.
In no particular order, then, these are things that should not influence your vote nearly as much as you are being told.
1.The candidate has an interesting personal story & has accomplished things.
Every person who has lived long enough has a story, and probably an interesting one, or one that can at least be made interesting by skilled storytellers and speechmakers. Anyone running for high office has been involved in public life long enough to have accomplished some things. Anecdotes and well-crafted video pieces are supposed to “humanize” a candidate. But I already knew he/she was human, had a background and had accomplished some things. Hearing the details with music behind it does not tell me if the person is right for the current position being considered.
2. The candidate professes Christianity in some way, shape or form.
This is especially relevant to readers of this blog, for obvious reasons. The line between discernment and cynicism can be thin, but it exists. I don’t propose we discount or poo-poo every faith claim of public persons. But note that nearly every person seeking the highest office, almost out of strategic necessity, gives at least lip service to being a Christian whose spirituality runs deep and stands behind his convictions. The phrase “my faith” is as consistently found in candidates’ speeches over the years as “God bless America.” From “born again” Jimmy Carter to the selective Scripture-quoting Obama, every president in my lifetime has been a professing Christian of one sort or another. Even if you are a Christian who takes the view that only an orthodox, Biblical believer can fulfill the function of a political office (which is not my view), these professions of Christian faith don’t suffice to guarantee what you are looking for anyway. A faith profession that is politically versatile enough to undergird every possible moral position is too diluted to be taken seriously without a lot closer inspection.
3. The candidate is a great dad, mom, grandparent, husband or wife.
All of us have families, and people poised for high office naturally have important family relationships. That is nice and we should be happy for them. But again, it fails to set one candidate apart from another, since all are hailed as great parents and spouses. I can’t imagine reasoning that, “Candidate X’s son or daughter spoke highly of him or her, so clearly he or she would make an outstanding president.” We all know better than that. We don’t really know these people and whether they are great parents, spouses, etc. I hope they all are, but if so, it still doesn’t mean they are all right in their views and ready to assume high leadership only on that account.
4. The candidate has wealth, connections to wealth, potential to raise wealth, etc.
This would be in the negative category – a reason we are told not to vote for someone. By now everyone surely realizes that in order to reach the place in which you have any sort of realistic chance at the presidency, you have to have access to a mountain of funds. If you’re not wealthy, you’d better be very well connected to those who are, since U.S. elections now cost more than if you instead just bought a third world nation to rule over. Critics of this fact say we’ve effectively become a plutocracy in which only an elite wealthy class have a pathway into political leadership. Whatever the case, it does no good to base our rejection of a specific candidate on how much money he or she possesses or has been able to raise. The person would not be a viable candidate in our current system if that were not the case.
5. The candidate claims to care about you.
Nobody running for president in modern times has claimed anything less than this. They all “care” about the needs, struggles and plight of the common man, of the wage worker, of the single mom, etc. Pardon my cynicism here, but no voter has any idea whether or not a candidate truly “cares” about these groups in a personal sense, and since it is another requirement that every candidate say so, the words ring very hollow. Furthermore it is doubtful as to whether a deep sense of caring for people is a necessary condition for someone being an effective political leader anyway, though we’d all like to think our leaders do.
6. The candidate has celebrity endorsements.
This should be as obvious as anything. Personalities from the world of entertainment are bound to have their political opinions just like everyone else, but honestly, who cares? It is perhaps of mild interest when “the guy from that one show I like to watch” happens to make himself more public and vocal for a political campaign, but any voter for whom this seriously moves the proverbial needle should be reminded by concerned friends that this is one of the more childish fallacies. It is an appeal to illegitimate authority based solely on an adolescent kind of celebrity worship. The fact that you like so-and-so’s music or movies has nothing to do with that person’s qualifications or insights into world affairs, money matters, legislation, etc. In fact, given the narrow and insular world of top celebrities in the culture, they probably lack the broad perspective required to speak with wisdom on the weighty matters at hand.
7. The candidate loves America, the Constitution, apple pie, etc.
This one and the two that follow are of the same strain. No candidate is to be found who doesn’t profess to love America and all things American. Patriotism, even more than spirituality and personal care for the people, is a litmus test. I expect anyone who would run for high office to be patriotic. If a candidate expressed disdain for all things American, clearly I would not vote for him and neither would the majority of citizens. Candidates will show disdain for parts or aspects of America – the ones that most represent the opposing side. A candidate guilty of wholesale patriotic blasphemy, however, will never get off the ground politically, so we need not worry about it. And we should not be swayed to vote for someone who says what any reasonable person would demand of him – that he loves the country he intends to lead.
8. The candidate cares about the future.
Try and count the number of times candidates use the phrase “my/our children and grandchildren.” Another check-box for any and every candidate. More words that are worth the air on which they travel and little more.
9. The candidate loves the troops, supports our fighting men and women.
If you don’t love and support the troops, you’ll never win an election, thus every candidate can be counted on to repeat this line. As with others, I sure hope it is true, and unless persuaded otherwise I will assume it is. But since it’s true of everyone (at least by profession), it sets none apart.
10. Raw appeals to emotion (fear, rage, empathy, etc.).
A few generations ago this phenomenon would have seemed odd to those hearing and seeing it. But it has become the new normal to forego arguments in favor of feelings. The goal of campaigns now is to evoke the right feelings that will motivate the right action (i.e., a vote for our candidate). 90% of what happens in the party conventions looks like an extended cultivation of syrupy sentiment. Decision making based solely on emotions has already proven to wreck lives, families, communities, businesses, etc. I fear it can and may be the ruin of the world’s leading nation as well.
11. Good Memes.
They’re entertaining, I’ll admit it. And they often convey kernels of truth. But memes should not play a decisive role in determining whom you choose to lead the free world. Memes are clever, creative and sometimes – the quality I most appreciate in them – hilarious. But anybody can make one, so the internet swells with thousands of them daily. A meme, even if funny, thought-provoking and insightful, is not an argument. You can’t build a case for an important voting decision on a humorously captioned screenshot of Willy Wonka, Morpheus, Kermit the Frog, the Dos Equis guy, the Ancient Aliens guy, or the grumpy cat.
12. Former party rivals said negative things about the candidate in the past.
Why do people still think that it matters that the former rivals for a party’s nomination criticized the eventual candidate in the past when they were competing during the primary season? That’s the way it has always been and always will be. Republicans criticize each other as they seek to convince Republican voters, just as with Democrats on the other side. How else do you get yourself nominated in a field of competitors? Whatever flaws or weaknesses a candidate has, they will have been exposed first during the primaries by opponents of the same party. We need not think it novel or significant, then, when months later sound bytes are replayed from the primary contests in which fellow Democrats now supporting their party’s winner were formerly critical when running against him or her.
13. The candidate can give a good speech.
They say that George Washington was soft-spoken and not a dynamic political speaker. The now famous address Lincoln gave at Gettysburg was seen by many (including Lincoln) in the immediate aftermath as a failure. Meanwhile, if you’ll pardon this specific reference, we don’t need to know German to be convinced that Hitler was a spell-binding public orator. The substance matters more than the style when it comes to high office. I love me some good verbosity, rhetorical skill and vocal stylings as much as anybody, but I’m not electing a novelist, preacher or screenwriter. Good basic communication skills should be important, but not necessarily soaring or stirring public oratory. We have to be pragmatists and judge some other qualities as more important than this.
14. The candidate will break a social barrier by being a “first.”
It was apparently kind of a “big deal” that JFK was Roman Catholic. Romney would have been the first Mormon president but few outside of Utah would have celebrated that. Obviously much was made of Obama’s election. Anybody with appreciation of history and thus historic moments can pause to let these things sink in, and reflect on what they mean for society. But we also need to admit to ourselves that the tributes people pay to historic firsts are tainted by their politics. Ask yourself: Had someone like Colin Powell (who was once a viable candidate and almost ran for president) or Condoleeza Rice (two historic barriers in one person) made a run and won, would the same people fawn over them and talk about them as historic “firsts”? I never hear those people praising Justice Clarence Thomas. There’s no way they would have talked about being “with her” if the pronoun had refereed to Palin (who would have been the first female VP, as hard on the ears as that voice would have been). The fact is that Obama’s position on the political left made people on the left celebrate the historic “first” much more loudly than people on the right. Conservatives would have been louder in their celebration had it been Herman Cain or more recently Ben Carson. These moments are significant for sure, but in no way does it make sense to cast a vote for one person simply because a historic barrier will be broken.
15. The candidate has a blooper reel with slip ups, off hand remarks or minor contradictions putting the candidate in a bad light.
Coverage of candidates has morphed from news to sports. It has become a competitive game of predatory journalism. To keep the news cycle moving along, we need incendiary sound bytes. Otherwise the ten thousand people employed by the 24 hour news channels will not have enough to talk about, and their shows will be as boring as they usually are outside of an active political election season.
So cameras are fixed on candidates at every moment, and an army of reporters aim and fire their best “gotcha” questions in hopes of something juicy from a candidate. And as tight-lipped (and carefully scripted) as politicians have become in response to this potential landmine of misstatements, they all still have their moments. And a few, like Trump, play right into it. For the reporters, a Trump presser is like shooting fish in a barrel.
But misstatements should not be enough to get you on or off a candidate’s bandwagon. Let’s put it this way: it’s not the statements that candidates didn’t intend, or said wrong, or “walked back” that are my primary concern, even though some of them may be revealing of something deeper. More important, always, are the many statements that candidates DO mean and stand behind consistently.
My only disclaimer here is the recognition that not all misstatements or contradictions are equal. It is possible for a candidate to say something too alarming to ignore. Some things can’t be easily retracted and clarified, and maybe a voter shouldn’t overlook them. Similarly, while all candidates seem to tweak their positions (or “evolve”) in accordance with political expedience, it is possible that a contradiction be too large and glaring to look past. But for the most part, the petty little sound bytes that are passed around the media – professional and social – do not amount to all that much and should not be the grounds for a voting decision.
So then, what ARE good reasons to vote for someone?
I put the following three concerns, which I will put in question form, at the top of the list when trying to determine who, of the available options for given office, should be chosen to hold that office.
1.What are the candidate’s beliefs and positions on the foundational issues?
More than anything else, above all other criteria, I think we should judge a person by his or her beliefs regarding things that matter most, which include but may not be limited to these:
View of God, view of humanity, understanding of history, concept of government (extent of and limits on its power and reach), position on life (as in, What lives should be most protected? When is it justifiable to take a life?), perspective on the founding doctrines and documents of the U.S., concept of the role of institutions other than government (like family, church, non-profits, etc.), beliefs about liberty (who has it, its origin, its limits, when it is forfeited or can be taken away).
In my view, to the degree that I have a clear notion of a person’s worldview along the lines of these concerns/questions, to that same degree I have a good idea as to whether it is a person who should be in a significant decision-making leadership role. People tend to act on the basis of their deeply held beliefs, and a candidate is likely to operate out of his or her philosophical network of beliefs and values. They matter above all else for a voter.
2. What is the likely outworking or consequences of the policies of the candidate?
Every candidate has plans and policies, things he or she promises to do and how those things will be done. They show the priorities of a candidate and forecast the way things will be if that person is able to enact his or her plans. So the second most significant issue for me, just after that of a candidate’s deeply held philosophical or worldview convictions, is the practical outworking of his or her stated goals and plans for the nation.
I am not entirely results-oriented, as profoundly American as that way of thinking is overall. But the bottom line matters a lot, doesn’t it? The actual consequences of a person’s policies represent a significant factor swaying me one way or another. And reasonably so, I would argue. It is only sensible, isn’t it, to ask, Will this work for us? Will this produce desirable results? Will this solve problem x? We must be pragmatists to this extent and look specifically at the kind of society the candidate wants to shape in the image of his or her blueprints for the nation.
3. What kind of person is the candidate? What is his or her true character as best you can discern?
We can’t really and truly know people in the spotlight. Politicians are the product of carefully crafted and maintained public images. But a responsible voter should at least care whether or not the person beneath the facade, as much as can be discerned, is a human being of worthwhile substance.
Here I want to distinguish this concern from the more petty ones reflected in some of the items in my list above. I am not referring here to missteps or isolated incidents. I mean the consistent pattern of life, thought, word and deed that conveys the person’s character over years. Because it is so difficult to determine this, I place it third.
But it should still carry weight. I know that I’m not electing a pastor, but we have to know what the wisest have always perceived, what biblical writers made clear, what Plato and Aristotle elucidated more extensively, what someone like Confucius bequeathed in the East – which is the understanding that the greatest positions of power and responsibility must only and ever be occupied by people of the strongest moral character. If not we invite ruin upon a nation and its people.
To conclude …
G. K. Chesterton called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” For a lot of people politics is very personal. And given the increasing “statism” in the popular mind, the government itself takes on more of an all-encompassing role. The state is the church for some people (which is misguided, but I digress). The point is that an election season brings out people’s emotional and spiritual tendencies to moralize, to preach, to protest, to adopt causes and movements, and to be social media crusaders.
A voter is at a distance. So can he really know the candidates’ character personally? No. But he can do the best he can to discern it in at least a limited way.
A voter is not an expert in every field. So can he know the fine details of every policy and plan regarding military, taxation, jobs, the market, etc.? No. But that doesn’t mean he cannot learn some things about some of it and have a measure of wisdom about competing plans and their potential consequences.
Put simply, a voter can use the faculty of reason that God has imparted to every one of us. He can look beyond silly things that could be mistaken for legitimate reasons to vote for a person. He can consider with some critical judgment the perspectives and worldviews of different candidates, as well as take note of their character and policies.
If the voter is a Christian, he will, I hope, remember that the Kingdom of God is not established by vote, that the opportunity to have a say by voting is a rare privilege in world history that he should not cast aside or take for granted. He will consider when voting the consequences of that vote upon the Church, which is the institution (rather than government) that holds the hope of human happiness and flourishing. That is to say, the Christian voter should ask what choice is more likely to free the Church to do its work and to minimize obstruction or undermining of that work.
And I think a Christian should also vote in accordance with a general desire to do what is in the best overall interest of people. Compassion will play a role in motivating us to seek a kind of society most conducive to the spiritual, intellectual, financial and physical health of its people. We want to see sound families, a good environment for kids, a fair system of taxation and criminal justice, minimization of fraud, abuse, theft and mistreatment, a competent military, and so on. A Christian who is also an American would want these basic things for all people, but we don’t get the chance to vote for any of it in any other countries. Only our own.
All that being said, this strangest of all elections may provide the first scenario in which Christians are so disillusioned that they opt out altogether. I’ll set that debate aside and reiterate that if you do in fact vote, it should be on the basis of good reasons and not dumb ones like the fifteen I listed.