How to Vote for (Everyone’s) Human Dignity
“You’re wasting your vote,” people have told me, when I reveal that I will be pulling the lever for Brian Carroll, the candidate for president of the American Solidarity Party in the upcoming election. They urge me to join them in ousting President Donald Trump or defeating former Vice President Joe Biden and remind me that all candidates are imperfect and that the perfect must not become the enemy of the common good.
I concede that the common good calls for a presumption in favor of a plausible prospect. Yet, as a Catholic aiming to bring to bear the Catholic Church’s social and moral teachings on my vote, I cannot vote for either of the major parties’ candidates. Why not? At what point does imperfect become unacceptable?
Bright lines and precise thresholds are hard to find. A valuable distinction, though, exists between those words and deeds of a candidate that are subject to prudential disagreement and those that merit a conscientious voter’s opposition.
Many if not most matters in politics are properly debated on prudential grounds. What sort of policies best reduce poverty? How widely ought our military commitments to extend and how ought they be balanced against other costly programs and the need to reduce the national debt? Better and worse answers to these questions will be proffered, but these answers are not final or definitive.
Other kinds of words and actions, though, are the kind that no president, no politician, ought to perform. What marks them is their violation of human dignity. The concept, a major one in Catholic thought, denotes the infinite and irreducible value of the human person. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council offered a list of actions that violate human dignity in its document on social teaching, Gaudium et Spes, a list that John Paul II quoted and described in terms of intrinsically evil in his encyclical on morality of 1993, Veritatis Splendor. On the list are genocide, abortion, euthanasia, torture, sub-human living conditions, human trafficking, and inhuman working conditions among others. To offenses against human dignity let us add offenses against the rule of law and against truth. When presidential candidates have compiled a record of compromising dignity, just laws, and truth and promise to continue on this course if elected, they undermine the conditions of any just political order, which we should expect any president to uphold. Voters justly doubt, then, whether they can exercise a will toward such a candidate’s election.
Both candidates fit this description, alas. President Trump rode to power in 2016 on his promise of flouting establishment politics – the “rigged system” – and has done so at the expense of minorities and the vulnerable. He has rallied supporters by demeaning Muslims and immigrants, acquiesced in racism, flaunted his mistreatment of women, harshly amplified a previous policy of separating children from their illegal immigrant parents, and sharply constricted asylum policy, even banning refugees from war-ravaged Syria for a period. He has subverted the dignity of the presidency by belittling his opponents, constantly speaking falsehoods, and abusing his power – witness his inducement of Ukraine’s investigation of Biden – all of which undermine the deliberation and cooperation that make justice possible. True, Trump has promoted the protection of unborn persons, relaxed restrictions on religious freedom at home, proactively promoted religious freedom overseas, sought to reduce mass incarceration, and concluded peace agreements in the Middle East, measures that promote human dignity. To vote for him, though, risks supporting the dignity of some while diminishing or remaining indifferent to the dignity of others.
Yet, every day that Trump has issued a reckless tweet or an outrageous statement, on average over two thousand unborn persons in the United States lost their lives under a regime of laws that authorizes their very killing. Biden not only supports this regime but also would entrench and expand it. This past June, under pressure from his party, he dropped his erstwhile support for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from paying for abortions and is estimated to have saved some two million lives. He supports codifying abortion rights on the federal level. Biden also promises to resume the Obama Administration’s aggressive curtailment of religious liberty–which the Church teaches is a matter of human dignity–in matters of sexuality and marriage.
Mirroring Trump, there are dimensions of dignity that Biden would advance or recover, including that of immigrants, Muslims, and racial minorities, while he would likely restore decorum to the presidency. To vote for him, though, is to vote for a candidate who supports an assault on dignity–indeed on human life itself–that vastly exceeds others in scale, directness, and the vulnerability of victims.
When faced with two or more candidates who support intrinsic evils, the U.S. Bishops counsel in their voter’s guide, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, that one ought never to vote for a candidate in order to promote an intrinsic evil–which undercuts human dignity–but they allow that one might vote for that candidate “for other morally grave reasons.” One would be calculating the lesser of evils–“holding one’s nose” while voting.
While such a vote might be justifiable, though, it manifests a narrow and unsatisfactory approach to participation in politics. The bishops also make clear that a Catholic’s duty is to promote the common good and, it might be added, to build the Kingdom of God, as Justice Amy Coney Barrett told a graduating class of Notre Dame Law School in 2006. Catholics should desire to promote and protect human dignity in all areas of common life. This is why they ought to consider exercising the option of not voting for a major candidate–which the bishops also say is permissible–and supporting an alternative that embodies this vision, should one exist.One does exist: the American Solidarity Party. Founded in 2011, it is modelled on Christian Democratic parties in Europe and Latin America, which were founded on Catholic social teachings. While these parties have become far more secular today, some of their greatest achievements have been rooted in a Catholic vision. After World War II, they supported the founding of European federalism–what is now known as the European Union–as an expression of peace and forgiveness between nations.
The ASP likewise advocates a renewal of our political life, one based squarely on human dignity along with the common good, solidarity, and subsidiarity, a principle that favors preserving the local. From these principles arise an across-the-board commitment to justice. A voter for the ASP can support the right to life and the provision of health care; the protection of both marriage and the environment; religious liberty and racial reconciliation; an economics that supports both the free market and a wide expansion of ownership and welfare; and the dignity of immigrants and refugees. In ASP’s political philosophy, the government plays a legitimate role in providing welfare but does not supplant civil society institutions, including religious ones.
A vote for ASP is not wasted if one wills to express dissatisfaction with a political duopoly that brusquely truncates the common good. Now, though, one may not only protest bad choices but also support a good choice–an actual party with an actual candidate that espouses an integrated common good that secures everyone’s human dignity. And, were more people to vote for ASP, it would no longer be the small and obscure party on which one can be accused of wasting one’s vote.
Daniel Philpott is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the American Solidarity Party. He can be reached at email@example.com.