“Vote the Man, Not the Party” is Bad Advice

November 4 is Election Day. The major question that this election will answer is whether the president’s political party, the Democrats, will remain in control of the United States Senate. Right now in the House of Representatives the Republicans are in the majority. If the Senate follows the House, it will not only in effect spell the end of the Obama presidency, it will leave an unpopular president politically isolated.

There are, of course, non-senatorial contests as well, including congressional, gubernatorial, state attorney general, state legislative, and local races. When discussing any of these races with friends and family, you may hear someone say (or even you may say) something like this, “I vote the man (or woman), and not the party.” 

It sounds very principled and noble, suggesting that the person saying it so independent minded that he will not be saddled by something as trivial as political party loyalty.  But like a man without a country, such romantic notions must ultimately give way to cold hard reality.  After all, just as the universal ex-pat needs to be on some slice of Earth governed by some regime, the high abstraction “above it all” voter has to live somewhere, and he wants that somewhere to be better tomorrow than it is today. 

But his idea of what counts as “better” depends on what he thinks is the good, the true, and the beautiful. If he is one sort of voter (whom we will call Voter-1), he will see the ideal society as one that advances the cause of a large administrative state, a regime that is quietly led by appointed experts who tell us why the regulations they issue will achieve the highest levels of preference satisfaction for the greatest number of citizens. For Voter-1, “rights” are malleable entitlements given to us by the state that may be overridden by the experts when “justice” demands it.

Another sort of voter (whom we will call Voter-2) may hold a completely different set of beliefs about the nature and role of the state. She may think that the Constitutional Republic devised in the American Founding – a divided government of separated and limited powers that did not invent the inalienable rights its servants are sworn to protect – assumes a much more realistic view of human nature and the common good than the one offered by the advocate of the modern administrative state.

        Cuba: for those who dislike partisanship

Suppose the two platforms of the major political parties – A and B – roughly correspond to the views of Voter-1 and Voter-2 respectively.  There are, however, some candidates from A and B who claim not to embrace the entirety of their parties’ platforms. So, when they campaign, they say something like this to the voting public, “Look, I know you do not agree with what my party believes about issue X, but I disagree with my party. If I am elected, I am going to represent you, the people, and not my party.” It is truly astonishing how many people still fall for this flim-flam.

Imagine such a candidate is running for the U.S. Senate and the issue is the sanctity of human life.  The candidate says that he believes that the intentional killing of a prenatal human being is unjustified homicide, though his party in affirming in its platform the “right to choose” implicitly denies that prenatal human beings are full-fledged members of the human community. Suppose Voter-2 disagrees with the party platform but agrees with the candidate’s prolife stance. Should Voter-2 cast his ballot for the candidate? Assuming that the other party’s platform and a sizeable majority of its U.S. Senators are strongly prolife, the answer is clearly “no,” even if the candidate’s opponent supports a “right to choose.”

Here’s why. Whatever party takes over the Senate will not only be able to appoint the body’s Majority Leader, it will control the committee chairmanships, which in turn will determine what types of legislation will be entertained by the Senate. Because the Senate has the power of advise and consent when the president appoints judges and justices to the federal bench, the partisan composition of the Senate will shape the development of the courts’ jurisprudence for many decades to come. Thus, it is of little consequence what one or two dissenting Senators may have said on the campaign trail.

Those who utter the “vote for the man, not the party” slogan, though undoubtedly offering it as a sincere call to “rise above” partisan politics, do not really understand that partisanship is embedded in the very nature of our political institutions. To lament partisanship is to lament one of the consequences of being a free people. So, if you don’t like partisanship, you should move to Cuba.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).