Both the empirical study of politics and political philosophy have identified two competing models of voting. People sometimes engage in issue/ideological voting, in which they evaluate the competing candidates’ or parties’ stands on the major political debates of the day and vote in favor of whoever is closest to what they believe to be right. Alternatively, people can engage in approval voting, in which they evaluate the job performance of the politician or party currently in power, voting in favor of that party if things are going well and in favor of the opposition if things are going badly. Both models of voting have important roles to play in keeping a democratic political regime on track. Without issue voting, popular views on what policy ought to be really never enter into the policy-making debate. Without approval voting, parties and politicians face no consequences for misbehavior.
This post is an argument that, in 2006, Mormons ought to engage in approval voting and work to remove Republicans from political office — regardless of whether the Democrats seem to be better or worse on the issues.
If issue voting predominates in a country, to the point that approval voting really has no ability to create turnover in the government, then politicians have no incentive to avoid corruption and misbehavior. For example, during the Cold War, politics in Italy was organized around a profound divide between supporters and opponents of Communism. At least in part because this issue divide was deep enough to effectively prevent approval voting, corruption became an endemic problem. The Christian Democratic party, with a rotating cast of allies, was in power almost continuously until 1992. During that period, the party constructed an intricate and pervasive system of bribes and corruption, channeling vast portions of the national wealth into the hands of party leaders and supporters. Not until the end of the Cold War, when the issue divide regarding Communism effectively collapsed, was this system of corruption investigated and prosecuted. The next national elections, dominated perhaps by approval voting, permanently destroyed the Christian Democratic monopoly on national governing power.
As Latter-day Saints, we have every reason to suppose that, in the absense of approval voting, every country will experience a similar fate: tarnished government, corruption, abuse. Consider, in this context, the famous text from Doctrine and Covenants 121: 39.
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
Approval voting provides a check on this tendency; self-interested politicians who want to remain in office will be forced to refrain from extremes of corruption, abuse, and other forms of unrighteous dominion — because they know that engaging in such behavior will result in their expulsion from office. If, on the other hand, issue or ideological voting totally predominates over approval voting, then politicians will have no incentive not to exercise their dominion unrighteously; they know that, by choosing the right positions on the issues, they are guaranteed a return to power in the next elections.
The perennial First Presidency letter on the church’s political neutrality endorses both issue and approval voting, but it places special emphasis on approval voting:
We urge Church members to study the issues and candidates carefully and prayerfully and then vote for those they believe will most nearly carry out their ideas of good government. Latter-day Saints are under special obligation to seek out and then uphold leaders who will act with integrity and are “wise,” “good,” and “honest” (see Doctrine and Covenants 98:10).
More fundamentally, approval voting is profoundly compatible with fundamental Mormon thought on agency. We believe that agency is only meaningful if the actions that people choose have consequences. When consequences are stripped away, choice becomes meaningless and empty. If we emphasize issue voting to the extent that we would never vote against the party closest to us on the debates of the day, no matter how much misbehavior that party engaged in, we are — beyond all of the negative consequences for American democracy sketched above — stripping our political representatives of a central component of their agency. With agency, with political office, must come accountability.
Since the Republicans assumed unified control of our national government, we have gone through: corruption scandals involving businessmen personally close to the president, lobbyists intimately interconnected with the Republican congressional leadership, and directly involving some of the top leaders of the legislative Republican party; erosions of our constitutional protections, including habeus corpus and the protection from unreasonable search and seizure; a gradual legitimization of evil acts of torture, to the point that the horrific deeds of Abu Ghraib, which shocked the world in 2004, are now mostly official U.S. policy; the initiation of a war of choice in Iraq, which was so badly executed that we are now losing it, and as a consequence our security agencies have warned that the risk of terrorism has increased; a decision to neither negotiate with nor put military or economic pressure on North Korea, with the consequence that it is now a nuclear power; a total collapse of our fiscal equilibrium, such that we as a nation are once again spending trillions of dollars that we don’t have; and, most recently, the discovery that the Republican congressional leadership chose to cover up, and as a consequence facilitate, the sexual harrassment of teenagers by a congressman.
These are not left-right issues. Rather, this is a list of failures; America is not well served by any of them. These decisions violate the principles that make America America. If behavior this spectacularly bad does not result in government turnover, then American democracy is broken. There is no longer any real incentive for politicians to refrain from misbehavior if such a cavalcade of mayhem doesn’t even result in a loss of governing power.
A vote for a Democrat this year isn’t really a vote in favor of a policy; the Democrats haven’t layed out much of an agenda. Instead, it is a vote against corruption and bad government. By contrast, a vote for a Republican is a vote in favor of enabling the worst temptations of unrighteous dominion. For these reasons, I believe that all U.S. Mormons have a duty to work to unseat the Republican congress in this year’s elections — whether those Mormons are liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, or anything else in their personal politics.
Many readers will know that my personal politics are toward the left in ideological terms. They may therefore be suspicious of my motives in writing this post. I am not, of course, an impartial observer. But I believe that the argument above has force in its own right. Indeed, I imagine that, in mirror-image circumstances, I would be persuaded by such an argument to vote for Republicans. However, I acknowledge that my personal opinions inevitably color my perceptions. In discussing this call to political accountability, I hope that we can take this fact for granted and instead focus on the argument itself.