The problem with single-issue voting

I have seen a couple of post and articles on single issue voting lately. Both came from an American perspective and both addressed the question of abortion. One dealt with the question more broadly. It asserted why the author was a single issue voter and why they were more than happy to own that label. The other centred more on the specifics of the Roe v Wade ruling. In light of the supreme court decision to revoke that case law, the article insisted the landscape for how to weigh moral issues as voting matters has, in the view of the author, entirely changed.

Before I go on, I want to affirm what I think the articles – and those who tend to think in such terms – get right. Let’s be in no doubt, they see a very serious issue and want to treat it with the utmost seriousness. It is an issue that is so vital to them – and it is rightly considered an important ethical issue – that it becomes their number one concern. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of that ethical weighting on the issue at hand, I want to be utterly clear that these folks rightly take a clearly serious issue very seriously indeed. That is not wrong.

But I am wary of this type of single-issue voting. You will have to go a long way to find a better example of the silliness of single-issue candidates, which is the end of single-issue voting, than this from Burnistoun (NB: there is one swear word at the very end, so do not watch if you’re liable to be offended by that):

Now, that is looking at the silliness of the single-issue candidate or party itself, but it highlights the problem of single-issue voting inasmuch as everyone can see the foolishness of somebody ending up as Prime Minister purely on the strength of their position on the traffic light on the Dekebone roundabout. Of course, the single-issue voter would argue that theirs is not such a trivial matter as that – and they may well be right – but it doesn’t change the reality that one’s (potentially) excellent view on an issue such as abortion will not do a vast amount for you when you need credible views on a whole swathe of other similarly important matters.

Many single-issue voters don’t seem to care much about this. At least, not at the point they enter the voting booth. But many rarely seem to join the dots that the person they voted into office because of their view on the issue they deemed most important is now doing all sorts of things they find deeply objectionable, and often do not accept their share of responsibility for putting that self same person in power.

In the UK context, I think Brexit has been one of the biggest issues of the last 30 years. As somebody who supported Brexit, I looked askance as two major political parties openly rejected the result of a democratic referendum and vowed to overturn the result. One of those parties, supported historically by the Trade Unions and claiming to stand for working class people, took that stance in the face of the votes of those self same Unions and working class people. I do not think those who were making the case that democracy itself was under threat were being (for once) melodramatic. It was a genuine issue with incredibly serious ramifications. Had either of those parties gotten into power and done as they said, it would have had serious implications for any vote or referendum thereafter and would have disenfranchised millions of people.

Under those circumstances, I can fully appreciate why many people decided to lend their vote to the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson, who was at least saying he would do what people voted for (which is literally the minimum one would expect from a politician following a straight yes/no vote). But much as I can appreciate that pull, and serious as I saw that issue (and I still don’t think some realise just how serious it was), I could not in good conscience vote for the Conservative under Boris Johnson. Not only do I think the man lacked character and had a history of lying through his teeth, I was terrified of others within his party and their agenda on a whole host of issues that would affect my asylum seeking and immigrant friends as well as a host of lesser issues. One doesn’t have to be a great student of politics to see that a vote for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives would sanction all manner of things many Christians (and unbelievers) would find deeply objectionable. Much as I understood the pull to vote for them given the seriousness of the Brexit issue, in the end, I couldn’t in any good conscience vote for them in the face of everything else.

Yet many others did. And, as policies and issues inevitably unfolded over time, railed against the government they put into power despite all these others matters being entirely predictable and knowable. Single issue voting produced exactly what it inevitably does, the fruit of which we are enjoying now. We have a philandering Prime Minister handing out contracts to his mates, overlooking major shortcoming in appointments, honours to utterly miserable failures of ministers to keep schtum about personal indecency, refugees and asylum seekers targeted, and a litany of other policies and actions that have led to the lowest poll-ratings of any post-war Prime Minister. Those who voted for him on the grounds of Brexit – which I fully understand – have to take their share of blame for these other matters which were entirely known matters at the time, or at least, utterly predictable and often warned about.

Those who want to argue in terms of weightier matters and the ethics of whom to vote for in light of things like Roe v Wade, must wrestle with this. Again, let me be clear, I am not saying that is not a weighty issue. It is. But it is an equal mistake to insist that it is the only issue. It is a problem to vote purely on that ground, especially if the person you are voting for will do all sorts of other heinous things too. You simply cannot justify a vote for an utterly unsuitable candidate because of a good stance on one, albeit weighty, issue.

There are, of course, weightier and less weighty matters. It is not wrong to vote for somebody because of their stance on one vital issue even though you know, on a much lesser matter, you disagree with them. You might think abortion or something else is the most vital issue of the day. Well and good – maybe it is, maybe not. But let’s say you judge that rightly. It is okay to vote for somebody because of their position on that issue knowing that you disagree with their position on raising income tax, for example, which you might consider important but not ethically vital. The former may be a moral issue which is a serious matter of right and wrong, the latter may simply be a pragmatic position that is an issue of wisdom. It is reasonable to make those sorts of calculations.

It is much harder, however, to insist that one moral issue of right and wrong necessarily undercuts another moral issue of right and wrong. You cannot, for instance, argue that character matters in any given leader and you will not vote for a sexually immoral president when it happens to be Bill Clinton, but you are quite happy to let that slide when it comes to Donald Trump. Either character matters or it doesn’t. It is equally difficult to justify voting for a person who will hold a good line on abortion, for instance, whilst knowing they will take such an egregious line on other serious matters that will affect the lives of real people. An anti-abortion stance, on one hand, couple to a tough deportation stance for asylum seekers on the other are both matters of life and death. It is inconceivable to me that we would favour the lives of one set of people over another under those circumstances through single-issue voting.

The moral weighting some put on certain issues effectively renders anything they deem “lesser” an irrelevance in the voting booth. I think that is a disturbing and troubling mistake. It may well be true that fundamental matters of democracy that underpin every subsequent act of government or issues of life and death are more weighty than certain other issues. But the idea that those other issues become an irrelevance is problematic. You cannot in good conscience vote for somebody who will uphold democratic principles but whom you also know will actively seek to make the lives of the poor and vulnerable harder for the sake of lining their own pockets. it may be that one of those issues is more fundamental than the other, but the idea that the more fundamental issue necessarily undercuts any and all considerations beyond it is insane. If I am faced with a candidate who supports my economic position, who I believe will broadly pursue policies that actively serve the most poor and needy in society, but they also happen to be a serious anti-Semite or islamophobe who will persecute either of those sets of people, can I really justify voting for them? Am I not partially culpable for electing them to office if those are known issues?

I am equally concerned when people want to play off similarly weighty matters against each other. The Bible has a lot to say about the sanctity of life. That is a weighty issue that matters. But the Bible also has a lot to say about the poor and caring for the needy. That is a weighty issue that matters too. Both are significant and I am not convinced it is legitimate to single-issue either one of them. There may be finer details of wisdom in either case – they may not quite be straight-line issues necessarily – but I am deeply troubled when in the name of limiting abortion (a serious and weighty issue indeed) people gladly support what will necessarily lead to deep and disastrous approaches for the poor and needy (a similarly serious and weighty issue). I find it specious to try and weight the morality involved when – as Biblical morality go – both are deemed among the most serious of all matters.

I think Christians have to be more mindful than this. They have to recognise that voting on a single-issue does not absolve them of every other action their candidate does. If some matters are unknown at the point of voting, that is one thing (though we have to be honest with ourselves and not use this as a get-out when, realistically, certain matters were clearly known and we are using it to justify ourselves). If a candidate lacks character or holds to problematic policies, we cannot simply allow the one issue on which they are alright to override all other considerations. If there are no candidates whose policies we can either actively support, or whose policy areas we disagree with we can reason to be either unimportant or pragmatic points of difference, perhaps we shouldn’t vote for them at all.

What good is it if we vote for somebody who will limit abortion on demand but who is known to be a raging antisemite? What good is it if we vote for somebody who will get Brexit done but who gladly imposes strictures on people that they openly flout themselves? What good is it if we vote for someone who cares for refugees but would gladly remove any and all support for the poor? Are we not culpable for the policies and actions of those we put into office? That doesn’t mean every decision is equally weighty, it doesn’t mean there won’t be things we can disagree on and consider less important, it doesn’t mean we can’t have frameworks in our mind to think through what those things are. But in the end, if all we’ve got is one issue in our mind, we are likely to spend the next few years realising that we are partly responsible for some heinous decisions elsewhere.

No candidate is perfect. Nobody will agree with us on everything. There may even be moral matters that matter more than others. But single-issue voting is surely not wise or sensible for believers for we may limit sin with one hand whilst drastically increasing it with the other; and that doesn’t seem to be very faithful to me.