At a recent American political convention, in an election season already rife with diatribes, leaks, and gaffes, three little words caused remarkable outrage. What could whip up the winds of controversy so quickly and garner such a fierce response? Simply the exhortation to “vote your conscience.” That this unassuming statement could cause such a firestorm of opposition only proves its importance while showing what vital principles are under pressure in these unsettled times.
When elections loom, pundits often indulge their worst habits. Instead of invigorating public discourse with arguments and rebuttals, the chattering class turns the solemn civic exercise of voting into a sordid gambling lesson. Voters are instructed not to waste their ballots on candidates who lack that nebulous, ever-changing quality of “electability” and are encouraged to abandon their “unrealistic” ideals. To anyone who will listen, the voices of the media sing a siren’s song of strategy: voters are told to adjust their deepest convictions to accommodate flawed candidates and to limit themselves to a predefined horizon of acceptable values that ought to inform their decisions.
Such is the counsel invariably offered to pro-life voters, advice which is both condescending and wrong. For, despite its vaunted importance by experts, “electability” is an empty concept: any candidate who receives even a single vote has been “elected,” in the etymological sense, through a citizen’s free choice. Therefore, any voter who outsources his judgement to the imagined mind of a fellow citizen and alters his own choice accordingly has turned the democratic process into an elaborate prisoner’s dilemma. Lesser evils flourish in this context: when citizens abandon their duty to judge each candidate individually. And when those in the media intimidate voters with skewed polls and warnings about long-shot candidates and their unfashionable causes, they are encouraging a practice which corrupts democracy itself: the compromise of conscience.
There is much concern, these days, about the influence of money in politics. And, while bribery and lobbying have become more problematic because an overweening state has made them effective means of change, how can we ignore the role of the individual voter without whose implicit approval the system cannot stand? Why, in a democracy, should responsibility fall only on the usual suspects conjured by pundits – greedy corporations, entrenched special interests, and unctuous politicians – and not on the voters themselves? By pretending that a free, literate electorate can be made into passive pawns by a little too much rhetoric, would-be reformers rob the populace’s power by diminishing their moral agency. Although money may undermine our system, it is the compromise of voters themselves that truly debilitates the system by turning the ballot into a counterfeit bill.
“Strategic” voting – that practice by which voters violate their principles to support the least-flawed candidate in a horserace of the media’s invention – creates suffocating restrictions on political freedom. Such strategies only empower political parties, which, in turn, determine the shape of the people’s democratic decisions in advance, either at the riding level or through universal party platforms. Knowing that people will probably choose badly rather than abstain conscientiously, those same parties become less responsive to pressure from groups like pro-life advocates knowing that the people they represent will have nowhere else to turn on election day.
Yet, we still have, within ourselves, the means to remedy this perilous situation: the moral compass of our conscience. Who has never felt that gentle little tug towards the good – an act of kindness, a word of forgiveness, a small, spontaneous prayer? In those moments, the mind is aglow with a soft light which makes everything suddenly clear, while the will feels an impulse towards the good that makes doing the right thing easy and obvious. Conscience, that inner echo of heaven’s speech, that guiding gift which makes true discernment possible, is the special means by which God acts in democracies. The same power that enabled Samuel to pass over all the sons of Jesse until he found David, the future king, still guides those who depend on it in dark times. Although it remains our responsibility to form our consciences correctly, to heed its call, and to encourage our fellow citizens to do likewise, we cannot say that, in our present peril, we have no help.
“Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” (Luke 10:2) In order to vote conscientiously on election day, hard work must be done beforehand: becoming involved with a party at the riding level or by admonishing future voters and potential candidates about the inviolable value of human life. More than these means, however, prayer presents itself as an especially effective mode of action in a world where the voice of conscience can hardly be heard. Prayer makes its voice louder and clearer – irresistible to those with good will and invincible to the malignant enemies of man.
Our world teems with politicians but starves for lack of leadership – a situation which arises only when free people collude in cowardice to ignore their consciences. By our word, our example, and especially by our prayers to Him who created every conscience, we can, indeed, be delivered from evil. To do this, we need only depend on it in every present moment and to act without fear when we hear its call.