Prior to taking tests in my eighth grade social studies class, my teacher would often plead with the students not to cheat. She would say, “Your integrity is worth more than a letter grade.” I remember thinking, “Easy for you to say. If I get a bad grade in your class, it will forever stain my record. It will lower my GPA, and my parents will lecture me. My entire future hangs on the outcome of this test!”
In retrospect, I can see that my teacher was right. While, from the perspective of those in the trenches, it’s difficult to see an end to the conflict, to quote the great Elsa, “Funny how some distance makes everything seem small.” I’m glad that I chose not to sell my integrity for a better social studies grade, especially as I ended up acing the class anyway.
Every four years in the United States, it seems that there are many who, like insecure eighth graders, find themselves fearing the outcome of the presidential elections. They’re often faced with the choice of voting for someone they believe in or trying to game the system by voting for someone they don’t necessarily believe in but who has a better chance of defeating the candidate they definitely don’t believe in. Is this latter choice not a bit like cheating on a test, a compromise of integrity in order to minimize a perception of impending damage?
The purpose of tests is to to prove whether or not one has learned something, which cheating obviously circumvents. The purpose of voting is to allow for better decision-making than oligarchs and monarchs usually make. Ironically, by “voting to win” instead of voting on principle, we’re more likely to elect into office someone we don’t actually believe in than a monarch would be, who could simply appoint whoever he chooses. Thus, voting to win circumvents the purpose of democracy. It’s like cheating.
The philosopher David Hume argued that there is a way to determine absolute morality within a given society and that is to ask one’s self the question, “If everyone were to act like me, how would society be?” In the case of voting, if the majority of people were to vote for someone they believed in, it’s easy to see how society would be better. If, on the other hand, the majority of people were to effectively vote against someone they didn’t believe in, what would happen? In a two party system, if the goal is to outdo the other side, the amiable candidates would be the first to go. The ones who would last would be the ones with the most mud to sling, who are the most controversial and make the biggest bulldogs. In short, we would expect to see an ever-escalating game of partisan pingpong.
Like short-sided eighth graders who believe that one’s life hangs in the balance of a social studies test, those who subscribe to the vote-to-win mentality can’t seem to see more than four to eight years into the future. They fail to see that the bigger their win is, the bigger the retaliation will be from the other side. For example, was there really any question that the Democrats would take the power after eight years of the controversial Bush administration? And did the Democrats not choose as their candidate the biggest anti-Bush they could find? And should it be any wonder that, in retaliation four eight years of the controversial Obama administration, we’re now seeing the biggest anti-Obama the Republicans could find? If Donald Trump takes the presidency, can there be any doubt that, in four to eight years, the Democrats will raise up an anti-Trump whose victory will be virtually guaranteed?
I believe David Hume got it right. This vicious cycle is not only destructive, it’s immoral. As evidenced by the fact that the nominations from the major parties are the most disliked in history, we are already viewing the worst-case scenario, the cold, hard effects of abandoning principle for pragmatism, and the results are administration after administration of power-grabbing, government-expanding binges. So what’s left to be afraid of? Why further exacerbate the problem with the same narrow-minded mentality that got us here in the first place?
The problem is, first and foremost, in the minds of voters. Like the results of a social studies test, the results of elections will be, in the long run, much less significant than the value of our integrities. Unlike a social studies test, political losses are not only inevitable, they are, at most, four to eight years away.
Though, eight years ago, the majority of American voters were vehemently for or against one or the other, even to the point of believing that God was on their side, history has proven them both to be two sides of the same coin. This is not a judgment of their personal characters or even their attempts at positive change but as assessment of the end results. From foreign policy, to domestic surveillance, to the bureau of education, to rampant spending, what unforgivable sin did President Bush commit that President Obama has not, effectively carried on or even expanded?
Of course, no one could live up to the godlike expectations we place on our presidents, and this is a good thing. Presidential power is limited for a reason, and the hopes we place in it, weighed against our lack of concern for local elections, is blown way out of proportion. I have no lack of confidence that the United States will survive either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, no matter how dubious their characters or reckless their administrations. What I don’t know, however, is whether or not this country can survive any more generations of people who, when they have every opportunity to do otherwise, consistently vote for the lesser of two evils.
To paraphrase my eighth grade geography teacher, “Your personal integrity is worth so much more than the outcome of elections.” The real problem is not the candidates, it’s us.