Should voters stay home in November?

Russell Shaw

As the presidential primary season wears on, a serious potential dilemma has begun to take shape for some voters: not for whom to vote in November, but whether to vote for president at all.

But if you believe in conscience that all the candidates in a particular election hold morally insupportable views on various serious matters, what should you do? Some already know the answer, but the fact that others are uncertain underlines the need for timely reflection on this matter.

The Catholic bishops of the United States anticipated the question last year and gave an answer worth considering. In a statement setting out general principles and presenting their own thoughts on policy, the bishops said:

“When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other human goods.”

Which is to say: either don’t vote, or vote for the one you believe will do the least harm.

Notice that the bishops call not voting “extraordinary.” When counseling voters, civic-minded religious groups generally tell them to inform themselves, and cast ballots in light of a responsible judgment about who will best serve the common good.

Catholic social teaching, the bishops say, is grounded in four basic principles: the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity. In a key passage unpacking the meaning of these principles, they say:

“Every human being has a right to life, the fundamental right that makes all other rights possible, and a right to access those things required for human decency — food and shelter, education and employment, health care and housing, freedom of religion and family life.”

Ideally, political debate would operate in the framework of principles like these. What we’ve seen instead has been, in the bishops’ words, “a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype.”

Now Americans find themselves facing candidates for the nation’s highest office whom some serious-minded, well-informed voters cannot conscientiously support. In “Democracy in America” that astute observer Alexis de Tocqueville blamed such an outcome on what he called “the natural instincts of democracy.”

“I hold it proved,” the Frenchman wrote after an extended visit to the United States two centuries ago, “that those who consider universal suffrage as a guarantee of the excellence of the choice made are under a complete delusion. Universal suffrage has other advantages but not that one.”

Some may shrink from saying Tocqueville was right, but in times like these it would be hard to say that he was wrong.

Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of many books, including “American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.”