When it comes to policies and politics, Better Angels members generally can’t agree on anything. As a result, Better Angels doesn’t take positions on particular issues. It doesn’t rate or endorse candidates. I hope it goes without saying that the views expressed in this column are merely my own, not a reflection of Better Angels policy.
But I think that applying the Better Angels principle of seeking solidarity with those with whom we disagree can offer us a powerful new lens through which we can think about democratic elections, and how we choose to vote. For most of us, elections are about choosing the candidate we most agree with, but I’d like to suggest a different standard for making our choice. I’d like to suggest that, instead of choosing the candidate we most agree with, we each consider voting for the candidate who we consider most likely to earn the respect and support of the greatest majority of Americans.
This is a surprising suggestion, at first glance. It seems perfectly natural to support the candidate who best represents our political convictions. After all, we each have a point of view, and it’s natural to support a candidate who shares that point of view. This is the way I’ve always voted in the past, and I think it’s the way nearly every American votes.
But there’s a fatal flaw in this approach, however natural and common it might be. In our system of winner-take-all elections, the losing side inevitably feels unrepresented. Perhaps this wouldn’t be as great a problem if that winner’s victory were more decisive, winning 70 or 80% of the vote, with the losing side being relatively small. But in our polarized times, an election in which the winner earns 50.1% of the vote will leave half of Americans feeling unrepresented.
Some might respond, So what? Isn’t that the nature of democracy?
Actually, it’s not. Nothing in the U.S. Constitution dictates how we elect our representatives, and voting eligibility and practices have changed over the centuries. In the long term, I can think of no reform more likely to reduce polarization than the widespread adoption of ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank their preferences from a list of candidates instead of choosing just one.
Under this system, a candidate emerges from a large field who has the broadest support, even if he or she is not the first choice of the most people. For example, in 2016 Trump was the first choice of the most people, but only because those who did not prefer Trump split their votes among many other candidates. In most of the primaries, the majority of Republicans voted for a candidate other than Trump, and a ranked-choice system likely would have shown another candidate to have more support among more people.
Ranked choice voting, I hope, is the future of our elections, and it might do more to depolarize America than would any other structural change. But that’s not going to happen before 2020. In lieu of it, I would suggest that we push for a cultural change to accomplish a similar result. We should be asking ourselves, which candidate would garner the widest support among our fellow Americans, even if that candidate is not my first choice?
For example, no candidate for president in 2020 represents my conservative, small-town, communitarian, agrarian values. In some ways, Trump speaks to my frustration with “the swamp” and overseas entanglements. In other ways, Elizabeth Warren’s desire to strip corporations of outsized influence best represents my views. But neither of these candidates would enjoy the wider support of a more centrist candidate like Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg or, if he were running, Mitt Romney. If we elect Trump again, a huge portion of the American population will be devastated. If we elect Elizabeth Warren, a huge portion of the American population will be devastated. The likely Democratic frontrunner and the GOP de facto nominee will both alienate large portions of America’s population, regardless of which one wins.
But Biden is a Democrat some Republicans can feel good about. If Romney were running for president, he would be a Republican some Democrats could feel good about. Electing a candidate with whom a significant majority could be comfortable, despite disagreements on policy, would go a long distance toward healing our partisan divide.
Voting for a candidate who is not my first choice, for the sake of the public good, might not feel intuitively proper to many people. But I’m convinced it’s the right thing to do. What’s at stake is whether we think of our democracy as a competition, in which one inevitably has winners and losers, or as a collaboration in which we seek the common good which most can accept and benefit from. This distinction– between competitive politics and collaborative politics – is an essential one, I think, and one which doesn’t receive the attention it deserves.
A politics of collaboration is not one which starts with the premise of winners and losers, but with the premise that our common humanity and shared identity as Americans are stronger bonds than any disagreements about policy, even hard ones like abortion or gun control.
A politics of collaboration sees opponents not as enemies but as friends.
Collaborative politicians humbly recognize their own strongly-held values as just that– strongly-held values– instead of absolute truths handed down from on high.
Collaborative citizens view their countrymen not with suspicion but with the warmth and affection based on the common bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood, the recognition that all Americans are members of the same family.
Collaborative politics recognizes the necessity of compromise in a diverse society, that democracy is messy and that rarely can we get exactly or all that we want or that is right.
Collaborative politics understands that a compromise which leaves others feeling respected is better than the “right” policy which leaves others feeling abandoned. It understands that democracy is not a form of government for those who want to force others through coercion to adopt their “correct” views. Totalitarianism is the form of government for those who think it is essential for everyone to believe the “right” things.
Seen in this light– once we reorient how we think of the democratic process—voting for a candidate that the greatest number of Americans feel good about seems like a no-brainer. Why would I vote for a candidate that a significant number of Americans can’t respect? I could only do that if I ignore or discount my fellow Americans, if I treat them as less worthy than I am, despite our common bond of equality as Americans.
We all know this in our interpersonal relationships. On a date, we don’t go to a restaurant our date hates, no matter how much we might like it. If my wife is a vegetarian, I don’t cook T-Bone steaks for dinner, however much I like them.
If this is so obvious in our interpersonal relationships, why does it seem so counterintuitive in our politics? I think it’s because we’ve developed the bad habit of thinking of politics as impersonal and abstract, more about ideas and less about relationships.
But this is a fatal flaw. The more we adopt healthy habits of interpersonal relationships beyond the family– in our work, in our churches, and in society at large– the healthier those institutions and our politics can become.
We have much to learn from our history, and we should study it carefully and emulate all that is best in it. But on the history of polarization, our story is pretty bleak. As Michael Tomasky’s wonderful book If We Can Keep It clearly shows, a consistent, society-wide bipartisanship has been extremely rare, really only existing in our public life during the public lifespans of the WWII generation (circa 1945 to 1995.) The historical circumstances which gave rise to this consensus are hard to recreate. As Greg Steinbrecher has recently argued, we shouldn’t even be pursuing such “vague and anodyne” platitudes as seeking “common values” or “common ground.” He argues that “Americans have never really shared much in common, and frankly don’t need to.” Greg makes an important point that deserves consideration, and I agree that bipartisan national unity is not the historical norm.
But I disagree with Greg that we don’t need to share much in common, and I’m not satisfied with our history of rancor. Frankly, republics don’t have the greatest track-record over time historically, as they typically lead to anarchy and the rise of a strongman. I’m seeking ways to strengthen and improve our republic so that it doesn’t meet the same fate as the ancient Roman republic, or the fate of the American republic between 1860 and 1865. In order to thrive, a democratic people can disagree about all sorts of things, but they need a shared culture of decency and respect.
So as we enter the election season of 2020, I would earnestly encourage Americans to consider a new way of voting, and frankly, a new way of thinking about our responsibilities as citizens, a way which takes into greater consideration our fellow Americans, not as strangers or enemies or combatants, but as family, whose needs and desires are just as valid as our own and whose voices deserve to be heard. My vote in 2020 won’t just be a reflection of my own personal hopes and values but an attempt to reflect the hopes and values of as many Americans as possible.