What's a Catholic Independent to Do?

First, a confession: I did not manage to vote in this year’s election.

I use the word “manage” because it was not a decision made on principle.  I did not so much choose not to vote as I was foiled by logistics.  Having come to my current state of residence without a car, I’ve had no need to obtain a state driver’s license, and for most general identification purposes my out-of-state license works just as well – except, as I discovered, for registering to vote.

As election day came and went, this became a source of guilt (and, incidentally, affected how I feel about voter ID laws) as it contradicted a conviction that was taking shape in my mind: that those of us who are most sick of it all, most frustrated by how ideologized the political parties have become, perhaps most tempted to abstain out of sheer war-weariness, are those who most especially ought to vote.  Otherwise, it’s only the most polarized voters turning out to reward the most polarized candidates.
Political frustration has become a familiar experience for many of my fellow Catholics.  The question is whether and how we can find morally acceptable responses that go beyond a nose-holding lesser-of-two-evils approach (or three, considering that abstention from voting, while perhaps morally necessary in some situations, is not an ideal solution either, and as some analyses would suggest, may even be exacerbating the problem).  Catholic Social Teaching scholar John Carr has given the following diagnosis and prescription in the Jesuit weekly America:

“The Democratic Party has lost Catholics, but the Republican Party has not become their permanent political residence. Catholics with Pope Francis’ priority for the poor and vulnerable may find themselves politically homeless—comfortable with neither Republican economic individualism, which measures everything by the market, nor with Democratic cultural individualism, which celebrates personal “choice” above all else. Neither form of libertarianism leaves enough room for the weak and vulnerable or the common good. The task for Catholics is not to wring our hands but to work in both parties and other institutions to build a new politics that protects both human life and human dignity.”

I can see a certain wisdom in Carr’s proposal, although I’m not sure to what extent I can follow it in conscience.  After all, the political homelessness he describes is why I can only identify as an independent, and more broadly, why Catholics in the United States have never really had a suitable “permanent political residence” in the first place.  At the same time, I also see the need for conscientious people who are able to engage in the uphill struggle to urge both major parties toward a more consistent respect for human life and dignity from within – provided that they never allow this goal to be trumped by the warlike mindset that has come to permeate party loyalties.

The predominant mindset in the political arena (an aptly gladiatorial metaphor, that) is one of winning at all costs, couched in a mix of quintessentially American language about individual rights and seemingly more altruistic ideals of protecting the vulnerable – albeit selectively – which lends an all the more apocalyptic urgency to the battles and justifies all tactics, however bitter, to keep the “wrong side” out of office, because look who will suffer if “they” win!  The poor and the stranger will suffer; the unborn and the elderly will suffer; your rights, your choice, your freedom will suffer.  And we cannot let that happen.  This is war.

This is an atmosphere fraught with challenges for those of us whose central principles are those central to Catholic Social Teaching, such as the universal dignity of all human life, the common good, and the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable whatever the stage or status, especially knowing the rarity if not outright nonexistence of any electable candidates – Catholic or otherwise – who hold such principles genuinely and consistently.

Can this situation be changed, and if so, how?  Jack Quirk, the editor of this publication, has in one online conversation proposed the formation of an uncompromising voting bloc à la Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform.  The comparison is his own; while clearly motivated by a vastly different set of principles from lobbyists like Norquist, Quirk sees the emulation of his type of strategy as the only viable way to effect meaningful influence in favor of those (CST-based) principles.  Others, myself included, have expressed concerns that such tactics, “abhorrent manners” by his own admission, would only contribute to the problem by allowing our driving principles to become just another ideology – the very thing we are chafing against.

In fact, I see a yellow flag even in the well-intentioned hope Quirk expresses for the benefits to various disadvantaged and vulnerable sectors of the population that would presumably result from people like us getting our political way, in the way that it echoes similarly beneficent-sounding promises made in service of ideological battles.  In contrast to the latter, there is no doubt in my mind as to the sincerity of Quirk’s intentions, which is more than I can say for any successful Catholic politician I’ve seen in either party.  The question is, how far can the best of intentions take us if we submit to the corrupting rules of a game built on goals and tactics that fundamentally contradict the goods we hope to achieve, a game practically designed to be rigged?  Do we just hold our nose and soil our hands, sling the mud and work the system, as ideologues and interest groups of all stripes insist they must do for the sake of some greater good?  And if we justify ourselves by saying the same, what actually makes us different?  We might say easily enough that the rightness of our cause sets us apart – but then so does Grover Norquist.

This is the sort of lesser-evil dilemma we remain stuck in, despite how fervently my brother Jack and I both wish to avoid it.  He has laudably attempted to offer an alternative to simply “voting for the lesser of two evils,” as “doing evil so that good may come of it is not permissible.”  And his suggestion is admittedly a more concrete one than any I could come up with.  Nevertheless, I have to wonder whether his approach meets its own standards.  Are we not still resigning ourselves to a “lesser evil” of sorts by accepting abhorrent manners, dirty tactics and power plays as the only alternative to “wring[ing] our hands on the sidelines” because that’s just how the game is played?   

I realize how cynical all this sounds, and I do not want my cynicism to be read as an argument for passivity.  I am sensitive to this charge, as I am aware of the pitfall of purism that runs deep in my own Mennonite DNA, in the form of temptation to keep one’s own conscience clear, perhaps self-righteously so, at the cost of effectiveness.  Yet what I mean to advocate here is not frustrated withdrawal from all political activity, but some deeper, more fundamental transformation I yet struggle to name.  What I am asking is this: Is it truly necessary to choose between conscience and effectiveness?  Must we, as Quirk says, “play in the ballpark that’s already been built,” or is it possible to build something new and in some way change the game itself?  And more importantly, how?

I began with a confession, and I will end with one: I do not have a clear answer to these questions.  But I believe that these are, at least, the right questions.   

—Julia Smucker  

Julia writes for Vox Nova