On Voting

A note from the author:  I have had several drafts of this written over the past 12 months as we worked up to and through another election.  My politics are exactly that:  mine.  As almost anyone will tell you, I’m happy to discuss politics with pretty much anyone in person, but I try very, very hard not to engage in online rhetoric.  As a child of the 80’s and 90’s and growing up as the first generation to have internet at home, I learned that anything and everything said online can and will be misconstrued and the author will never be given an opportunity to provide context.  With the events of January 6th, 2021 in Washington D.C., I feel like the time is right to tell this story.  I hope you will learn as much from it as I have.  

I have told this story countless times over the years, so apologies if you’ve heard it already, but I think it is important to share.  

It is an important story not because it defines who I am and how I vote, but because it underscores the disparity in thinking between the two major types of voters in the United States.  And if you said, “Of course, Jay, we know all about the Democrats and Republicans,” let me stop you there.  I’m not talking about Democrats and Republicans. 

I grew up just outside of Washington D.C., which meant that my high school was afforded some benefits that I am told many others didn’t receive.  Namely, Senators and Representatives sometimes visited to give talks to our history and civics classes.  This story focuses on one such visit.  

I can’t in all honesty remember who came to visit and speak that day–it was over 20 years ago at the time of this writing–or what it was they spoke about.  I do remember the question I asked them at the end and the response they gave.  I remember because they told me they had never before heard that question before from a high schooler.  

The question I asked was,

“What do you do when your constituents ask you to vote for something you cannot in good conscience support?  Something you think is unethical or immoral?” 

The answer wasn’t surprising to me at the time, since it was the answer I would have given.  They said, and I’m paraphrasing:

“At the end of the day, I have to be able to sleep at night.  My voters elected me to represent them.  I vote with my heart.  I do my best to explain my position if asked, but in the end, if they don’t like it, they will replace me in the next election.”

It made sense to me.  Even better, it was simple!  Apply your moralistic view to how the country should be run.  Vote for the person who then most accurately represents that view.  Debates then occur in good faith that those involved believe in what they were arguing for (or against).  With this understanding, of course politicians are essentially created by their communities; leaders put forth and sent to the Capitol to do good works that reflected the values of that community.  

If you’re thinking I don’t actually understand politics, you’re right.  Read on!  

A couple years later, in college, I remember a similar conversation with a friend over AOL Instant Messenger (wow, does anyone else remember IM’ing people?), this time about the purpose of representative government over direct democracy.  I wasn’t an expert then, and I’m not an expert now, but the way I understand it, the United States isn’t a democracy in the truest sense of the word.  For the purposes of this conversation, I’m defining the terms “representative government” or Republic as a government system by which an elected office then represents the interest of their constituents and votes on their behalf, and a “true democracy” or Democracy as a government system by which everyone votes on all issues themselves.  

Again, due to the age of the memory, I’m paraphrasing the conversation. 

Me:  “But we have a Republic.  People have to have faith in those they elect to vote in their best interest when they aren’t looking.” 

Friend:  “It’s not the responsibility of the elected official to vote their conscience.  It is their responsibility to vote in favor of or against what their constituents tell them to vote in favor of or against.” 

M:  “So you’re saying that a Congressperson shouldn’t let their own ideals or morals influence their voting decisions in any way?” 

F:  “That’s right.” 

M:  “The people can’t be involved in every single decision and direct their representative how to vote on every issue.  It makes more sense to elect people who feel the same way you do and hold the same moral framework.  That way, you don’t have to police their every action and tell them exactly what to do–you trust them to vote in your best interest.” 

F:  “They can’t afford to act that way if they want to get re-elected.  It makes much more sense to vote the same person and party in year over year, and expect their votes to then reflect the changing will of the people.” 

M:  “You’re talking about professional politicians.  Someone who stands for nothing and votes whichever way is most politically expedient and can’t be trusted not to change their mind every time the wind blows.” 

F:  “No, I’m talking about electing someone who will actually reflect the will of the people and to act on their desires.” 

The entire concept of the professional politician flabbergasted me.  Okay, there are probably a thousand things I would be willing to compromise on that I wouldn’t lose any sleep over at night, but the impression I got from this person was that their preferred candidate would be a blank slate on which their constituents could project their will.  

Okay, cool story bro.  Did it have a point?

I’m not going to debate the merits of one system over the other.  That’s not the point of the story.  I’m laying the foundation for the revelation I’ve had since the election of Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States of America. 

See, I had always seen things in Red v. Blue.  Republican versus Democrat.  When I was growing up, I thought the issues that defined your political party were fairly clear.  What I didn’t know was that the way an individual approached an election could such misunderstanding at a fundamental level.  After all, aren’t we currently talking past each other on how and why Trump was elected?  

And that is how I arrived at my theory of the two separate and opposite ways by which voters approach the institution of elections. 

First, and easiest for me to understand because I am one of these people, are the voters who choose their candidate based on Trust and Platform.  Is this candidate someone you trust to act in your best interest?  Do their ideals (their Platform) align with your own?  How well do they align?  Are the issues they aren’t aligned on important to you?  Where do you compromise?  

No one will say the answers to these questions are easy, but in the end, these voters feel confidence in their choice.  They have, in their opinion, a moral high ground.  They voted for someone that represented their values. 

The other group doesn’t think in those terms at all.  Instead, they ignore the individual–they aren’t important.  Instead, it is the Party that they evaluate. The candidate is irrelevant, because the expectation is that they will vote in line with the Party of their affiliation on most issues–be that blank slate if you will to reflect the constituents and stakeholders.  Again, the questions are asked.  Do you trust the Party to act in your best interest?  Does the Party Platform align with your ideals and how well?  Etcetera, etcetera.  

They sound similar enough on paper, right?  One votes for individuals, the other for the Party.  They can’t be that different, right?  

For Americans, these groups are miles apart; neither side can understand at the most basic level why the other side votes the way they do.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s see some modern examples. 

A quick internet search for the phrase “If you voted for Trump” brought up the following top results:  

  • If you voted for Trump, you betrayed me and our country
  • If you vote for Donald Trump, you are a racist
  • If you’re a Christian who voted for Trump, God help you…

A search for the similar phrase “If you voted for Biden” had the following results:

  • If you voted for Joe Biden, here is who you really voted for
  • Christians who voted for Joe Biden will be cursed for generations
  • If you voted for Joe Biden… you’re an idiot

These are examples of demonization that occurs when those who vote for individuals project their voting practices onto others.  I will use myself as an example here (because I have been guilty of feeling this way).  I voted for X candidate because I feel they are a “better” person than Y candidate and they reflect my own “better” ethics; therefore, because you voted for Y candidate, your own ethics reflect that of Y candidate.  If Y candidate is a monster, you too are a monster.  Their actions reflect your own actions.  Their beliefs are your own beliefs.  

This is a common argument for those of us that vote for individual candidates, regardless of party, because of this wish to see our own values reflected in our government leaders (note, this is different than government policies).  Need more examples?  Let me give you a (paraphrased) conversation I’ve had with someone who votes the Party line year after year.

Me:  “Trump is a disgrace.  He has shown himself to be weak-willed and of poor character.  He doesn’t deserve a second term.  Hell, he didn’t deserve the first term.”

Person:  “I wish he wouldn’t tweet so much and the stuff he said is just awful, but he’s a Republican.”

M:  “Is he, though?  I mean, he was a Democrat for years and gave tons of money to Democratic candidates…”

P:  “Doesn’t matter, the Republicans chose him as their candidate.  I’m a Republican, I’m voting for him.” 

M:  “Even though he put children in cages?  Even though he has put his own family in charge of much of the country?  Even though he lies over and over again?  How can you trust him?”

P:  “All politicians lie.  I don’t trust any of them.  Besides, Obama did it first.” 

M:  “I can’t even…”

Sound familiar?  

It was only after 4 years of conversations like this that I actually had a breakthrough.  I’m going to say it slow. 

People who systematically vote for their Party often do not care about individuals’ bad behaviors.  

At least, not in the way that voters, like I, who vote based on a candidate’s character and morals do.  And yes, I am over-generalizing and yes, I understand that not everyone who votes the Party-line gives their candidate’s behavior a free pass.  Thank you very much for making my point for me (probably better than I’m making it, by the way).

In general, for those that stick to their Party line, it is much more important to look at the entire Party.  After all, individuals can be replaced or change their mind or be removed or be overruled.  To them, placing such expectation on an individual will lead to disappointment.  To them, this is the cult of personality and must be avoided.  How can we make progress on our ideals and the ideals on our Party if our candidates are so transitory?  Instead, make incremental progress year over year within the goals of the Party such that our own personal beliefs and ethics are reflected in the governments policies over time (not in individuals who will be voted out in a few years). 

Don’t think it works?  See how Mitch McConnell and the Republicans were able to prevent Obama from appointing not only a Supreme Court judge, but also lots of federal circuit court appointments over the years.  That level of macro-scale maneuvering and politicking is only possible with Party-line voting.  What’s the point of accumulating power if you’re not going to use it to further your Party’s ideals?  

Do you see now how this isn’t about Red v. Blue?  There are those who are victims of the cult of personality that Trump has built around himself, just as there were those who believed Obama could do no wrong.  There are true believers that support everything Trump is doing.  I wager this is not the majority!  In the case of Trump, those who remain silent, instead, choose to say nothing because they know that to condemn this behavior would damage their own political power.  After all, their Party is currently in control.  In their view, it makes absolutely no sense to give that up.  

But what about the overall (insert whichever Party here) behavior?  It’s reprehensible!  How can you support that Party at all?

Again, this is about the long-game.  Individuals are transitory.  These can often be single-issue voters (immigration, abortion rights, workers rights, taxes, salaries, education, environmental regulation, climate change, pick your poison).  Does the last 20+ years of that issue seem like it’s going in the wrong direction as a whole?  Have we made progress?  Have there been missteps?  Can the missteps be course-corrected?  The underlying belief here is that our political system is self-correcting and reflective of the population and that those that act against the norms or try to defy the Institutions of government will be knocked back into place.  After all, nearly 200 years of history shows that it will, right?  History shows us that the crazy outsiders who tried to buck the system were always brought back into line and the damage was repaired, right?  See?  Individuals are transitory and lacking any real power!  

(Please note, I am not making excuses for the abhorrent behavior of individuals in power over the history of our country, nor does it excuse the biases inherent in those same systems that preserve the status quo.  This also does not account for gerrymandering or any other political process by which one Party has found a way for the minority to take control of the majority.)

Let’s be clear, Democrats and Republicans both vote Party-line.  Again, this is not a diatribe about how one Party or the other is invalid or the literal effing anti-Christ.  This is also not about both-sides-ism (God, they both do it, all politicians are evil, right?)  This is about understanding where someone is coming from.  Both voting groups approach elections in a fundamentally different way and will never understand each other if we continue to demonize the other unfairly. 

Candidate behavior is not necessarily a reflection on the voter. 

Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.  Before you start condemning whole groups of people from your moral high ground (such as it is), try to figure out where they’re coming from and what’s important to them.  Not everyone is always an Alt-Right piece of garbage or an Antifa terrorist.  Once you understand where someone is coming from, then you can use your judgement to determine whether their ethics are aligned with your own or not.  

Also, I am not advocating that you should sympathize with everyone (i.e., share their feelings), but we absolutely should try to empathize (understand their feelings, but not necessarily share them).  Try to understand the place of fear, anger, disappointment, hope, joy, love, laughter that a person is coming from.  

Be willing to condemn bad behavior. 

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to say that Republicans are worse at this than Democrats (e.g., Al Franken resigning from the Senate), but everyone should practice this.  I know it goes against the 11th Commandment (as handed down by President Reagan in 1966):  “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” 

I get it.  You don’t want to damage the Party.  Get over it. 

This lack of accountability is (I believe) what led us to Trumpism.  When my son acts out or misbehaves, there are consequences, preferably as immediate as possible lest he forget why he is being punished.  The same with my cat.  If he pees somewhere in the house and we don’t catch it immediately, there is no use punishing him–he will not understand at all why he is being sprayed with that infernal water bottle.  See the problem?  If there are no meaningful consequences, behavior doesn’t change.

Consequences for a politician (or any misbehaving member of society) can be any number of things (social, political, civil, criminal) and should always be appropriate to the offense.  The practice of mindless support of a Party is actively damaging our humanity.  You are allowed to say (and should) that you do not agree with a person you voted for and to ask them to do better.  Show our politicians there are consequences for their actions and maybe we will see change.  

Not everyone is educated on the issues, but they vote anyway. 

It’s their Constitutional right and their right to use their vote how they want should be defended.  Voters are not a monolith–they are individuals and should be treated as such.  After all, not everyone who voted for Obama was super happy with how the ACA rolled out.  Anyone remember “You can keep your doctor?”

But what about the constant lies?  

That’s a fair point.  The lies have gone off the rails in the past 4 years.  It’s easier to make X candidate appear to be evil than it is to challenge their ideas.  Or to willfully misconstrue their ideas and beliefs to paint your own as the preferable alternative.  

That said, Facts are Facts (I use the capital F here to represent universality).  Facts do not change.  There are no alternative Facts–they simply do not exist.  That said, we as people so very rarely have full access to Facts.  What we have are facts.  The lower case represents our understanding of Facts, as viewed through our own biases and information filters.  Facts do not change, but facts do.  

Maybe it is because I am trained as a scientist and engineer, but when someone presents me a new understanding of the facts, I am willing to listen and evaluate their interpretation.  After all, that’s what science is.  

We, as individuals, have to be willing to say, “I’m open to challenging my understanding of the facts as more information is presented to me.”  That means, any time someone says, “that’s not true,” be willing to listen and review their sources.  This part is hard, and most people do not want to do the work.  It is made harder by the fact that everyone online and on the air is selling something to you (yes, literally selling something).  They want your viewership to sell advertisements or merchandise.  This means, they are going to present the facts they think you want, not the Facts as they are.  

Our best defense against the lies is always question and trust actions over words.  Actions matter.  Words matter.  But when words and actions are in direct contradiction of each other, actions are more important.  

2021 is our chance to be better

The goal of this essay isn’t to change the world.  In fact, I doubt I will change anyone’s mind on how they should vote.  While I believe that character is the most important qualification a candidate for public office can have, I recognize that not everyone feels the same way.  After all, if your belief is that the candidate is to act as a pass-through for your votes, what does it matter what their personal beliefs are?

My goal was instead to provide an idea of how the other side thinks.  Whichever type of voter you are, do not assume everyone around you is an idiot or a fanatic or whatever just because they didn’t use their vote the way you would have.  It’s their vote. 

By all means, try to change each others’ minds–after all, the point of politics is to resolve conflicts without violence–but be civil about it.  

One last note, and I know I shouldn’t have to say this, but it’s the internet and as I mentioned at the start, you can spin anything out of context on the internet to support your ideas and beliefs.  Hateful words and actions (be they racist, white supremacist, whatever) have no place in our country.  My calls for civility and understanding and discourse should in no way be construed to advocate for tolerance of intolerant behaviors.  Remember, consequences for misbehaving should be appropriate and swift.  

America?  Do better.   

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