20 November 2018

Voting and the 2018 Elections

by Hohn Cho

I     used to be a political activist when I was younger, an ardent hard-core Socialist in college and the beginning of law school, before settling in as a left-wing Democrat who thought Bill Clinton was a stealth conservative. I was especially active in the 2003-04 Presidential election cycle, before God radically saved me in December 2004. I may tell that story here another time, but for now I'll just say that as I learned more and more about the Word of God and began to adopt an increasingly Christian worldview, my political activism and government-centered leftism morphed as well.

When one's earnest desire is to put Christ at the center of everything, other things tend to change and fall away. My politics remained quite liberal for a few years, albeit with a growing unease and discomfort and ultimately full opposition to abortion, then shifted dramatically and swiftly in 2008-09 after a fleeting interest in theonomy, before once again settling in as what I would now approximate as conservative libertarianism . . . and that's libertarian with a small "l" because I'm no longer a "party" man.

In fact, as someone who was once deeply involved in political activism, I marvel at how something as temporal and transient as the biennial ritual of federal elections has so regularly become "the most important election of our lifetime" as many hype them to be. Having an eternal perspective can help keep Christians grounded when all around them are dire and even apocalyptic warnings and rhetoric about the consequences of this or that party gaining (or maintaining) power. In this regard, I believe it's extremely profitable to remember the theological fact that our sovereign God reigns, and my friend Nathan Busenitz just preached a tremendous sermon from the book of Daniel on the Sunday night before the midterms on this very subject.

Regardless, there are some overly zealous Christian electioneers who at times seem to forget that theological fact, particularly when they go beyond well-meaning encouragements and exhortations to vote. Unfortunately, some go so far as to say or imply that if we don't vote, or even more, if we don't vote a specific way, we're in sin. If someone were to say that to me, I like to think I'd reply, "And what possible verse can you cite that shows I am breaking a commandment of God by spending the time and vote-resource over which God has given me stewardship in the way that I choose, rather than in the way that you prefer?"

And no, general propositions such as seeking the good of the city or loving one's neighbor aren't quite the same as insisting someone else's conscience must be bound to vote—a particular act on which the Bible is silent, perhaps because we don't really see democratic systems of government during the periods of the Old and New Testament writings and their preponderance of theocracies, monarchies, and dictatorships—in an oddly specific manner. Because after all, in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 10:29-30, perhaps I will dare to seek the good of the city and love my neighbor in the way that I see fit, rather than the way that you think I should? Christian liberty and the freedom of conscience is an important doctrine, and R. Scott Clark has written extensively and helpfully on this topic.

To dig into this a bit more, I live in the extremely liberal state of California, so the chances that my conservative vote will have any impact whatsoever on the major federal or statewide offices is pretty much zero. Now, I do take the stewardship of my vote seriously, and there were a few local races and ballot initiatives that appeared like they could be close, and so both my wife and I did in fact vote. California makes this easier by allowing permanent vote-by-mail, and so there's no need to wait in line . . . it's just the time to read and fill out the ballot, and the cost of either a stamp or the gas (which remains more expensive in light of the failure of California's ballot initiative to repeal the gas tax, I believe due to the misleading advertising and summary of the initiative by the partisan Attorney General, but I digress) to one's local polling station.

But I would have no criticism for Christians who were to decide differently. Especially for states without vote-by-mail and long lines, I think I could make a strong case that the time driving to and from the polls and standing in line might be better spent evangelizing the voters, phone banking for a passionate cause, working some overtime and donating that money to missions, pleading with pregnant women at an abortion mill, or on one's knees in prayer for the nation. Frankly, to get a bit less spiritual about it, if a person were even just to spend that time joyfully with his or her own family, I would still have no criticism for that person!

At the end of the day, the decision of whether and how to cast a vote, and the time required for that vote, is between a person and the Lord, and my sense of it is that most people tend to have a highly overdeveloped sense of the significance of each individual vote, especially in a nation with over 325 million people. Yes, one vote really can make the difference in an election, but the reality is that only one vote in 89,000 is expected to make such a pivotal difference in a Congressional election, and an adult would typically make only about 38 such votes over the course of his or her lifetime between the ages of 18 to 80, inclusive. Your odds are a bit better at the state legislature level, but even there, it's one vote in 15,000. Instead, the great majority of votes are actually "wasted" votes, which are votes for either losing candidates, or winning candidates in excess of the precise number needed to win.

Now, obviously no one but the Lord knows how any given election will turn out in advance, and again, I take seriously the stewardship of the vote that citizens in this country receive. Generally speaking, I encourage Christians to exercise their right to vote! And I deliberately chose to wait until well after Election Day before posting this article, because I didn't want to cause any of my brothers and sisters who cared passionately about the 2018 midterms to stumble. With that said, humility is a fundamental virtue for Christians, and I think it's important to remember that each of us is merely one person in a very large nation, and that no one should expect any single vote to be either a panacea, or the property of any person or party other than the specific individual in question.

Anyway, that was a lot of methodological prelude to get to what I'd originally planned as an analysis of the 2018 midterm elections. As it stands right now, the Democrats look to be gaining thirty-something seats in the House, while the Republicans seem to be adding two Senate seats. Governor races were a mixed bag, with Democrats picking up seven statehouses from the Republicans in Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, but falling short in the critical 2020 states of Florida (assuming the recount doesn't overturn the current results), Iowa, and Ohio, where projections at the "gold standard" of polling analysis, fivethirtyeight.com, had showed "likely" (for Florida) or "lean" (for Iowa and Ohio) Democrat.

Of course, both parties appear to be "spinning" the results for all they're worth, so much so that I felt a viewpoint from someone with a Christian (and politically, as I said, a non-Democrat, non-Republican, conservative libertarian) worldview might be interesting for some. This is already getting a bit long, so I'll focus the analysis on the House and Senate. (The governor races are interesting, and will definitely have significant local impact, particularly on the issue of gerrymandering. They may also serve as an interesting preview of how states might vote in the 2020 Presidential election, and even have a potential impact on that race as partisan governors potentially use their state-level machines to assist their chosen candidate. But I think that's enough about that.)

First, the House. It has become quite standard for the party of a newly-elected President to lose seats at the first midterm election. We saw this in 1982 (when Reagan's Republicans lost 26 seats), 1990 (when George H.W. Bush's Republicans lost a modest 8 seats), 1994 (when Clinton's Democrats lost a whopping 54 seats), and 2010 (when Obama's Democrats lost an even more eye-popping 63 seats). The only exception in recent history was in 2002, when a post-9/11 George W. Bush's Republicans actually picked up 8 seats, with American troops in Afghanistan and Congress having just passed a resolution authorizing any means necessary (including war) against Iraq, and that reckoning was apparently just delayed until 2006, when GWB's Republicans lost 31 seats.

By this measure, the Democrat pickups in the House this year appear to be as expected, perhaps a bit above average, and generally in line with pre-election polling and predictions, which according to fivethirtyeight.com was 36 seats at the midpoint of the estimate. And the fact that the Democrats now control the House will obviously have ramifications pertaining to both legislation (you can count on nothing conservative making it through, and a raftload of liberal proposals passing which will never make it through the Senate . . . and to the extent there is bipartisan desire and will, some possible compromise bills in areas such as infrastructure, the environment, and middle-class tax relief) and oversight (with many Democrats promising investigations of various Trump administration people and policies). Impeachment in the House has also been floated by some of the more left-leaning Democrats, but the unofficial leadership line from the Democrats is that doing so would be an unwelcome distraction at this time.

Next, the Senate. As with the House, the usual pattern has been for the party of a newly-elected President to lose Senate seats at the first midterm election. The pattern is less robust, however, likely due to the smaller number of seats at issue and the nature of the particular states voting for open Senate seats in the midterm election in question. Even so, the party of a newly-elected President typically does not gain Senate seats at the first midterm election, especially when House seats are concurrently being lost. So the likely addition of two Senate seats to the existing Republican majority is significant, and although it's still within the 80% confidence range of pre-election polling and predictions, it's quite a bit more favorable to the Republicans than the projected 0.5 seat gain at the midpoint of the estimate. You can see this come out especially strongly when you compare the Senate polls for Florida (showing D+3), Indiana (D+2), Missouri (D+1), North Dakota (R+5), and Tennessee (R+5) to the actual results of Florida R+0.2 (pending recount), Indiana R+7.5, Missouri R+5, North Dakota R+11, Tennessee R+11.

So the Republicans beat expectations in the Senate, and that has two major ramifications. First, for the next two years, President Trump has the continuing ability to nominate and confirm conservative judges and (potentially) Justices. More than that, with a cushion of three extra Republican Senators, the nominations can be even more conservative, as the margin allows for defections by the last two "pro-choice" GOP Senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, should the President nominate a clearly pro-life judge <cough>Amy Coney Barrett</cough>. And second, it will be easier for the Republicans to hang onto control of the Senate in 2020, which in turn would allow for continuing confirmations of conservative judges by a re-elected President Trump, or aggressive use of the Senate's advise and consent power against liberal judges by a newly-elected Democrat President. Given that the 2020 Senate map already includes a very likely pickup in Alabama and potential losses in increasingly blue Colorado and Maine (albeit in a race against a long-time survivor in the form of Collins), the battleground for control will likely be fought in (relatively) redder Arizona and Iowa, rather than, say, (relatively) bluer North Carolina and New Hampshire, depending on which party controls the tie-breaking Vice Presidential vote.

So what does all of this mean from one Christian's perspective? Speaking for myself, I consider the murder of nearly a million unborn children every year to be the single most important political issue (or rather, human rights issue, as Samuel Sey has so aptly written) facing the United States. And to say it again, I actually am not a "party man" and I am not a Republican. But the reality of our two-party system is that one party has enshrined into its platform that it will "continue to oppose-and seek to overturn-federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman's access to abortion" while the other (at least ostensibly) affirms "that the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed."

Given that abortion was instituted not by legislatures but by the Supreme Court in 1973's tragic Roe v. Wade decision, and that subsequent efforts to pass laws against abortion have been similarly governed by the Supreme Court, at this point under our current system of government, it is only the Supreme Court that has the power to limit or reverse Roe. This is precisely why many conservatives have so prioritized the importance of the composition of the Supreme Court!

The problem is that in our (small-r) republican form of government, things are indirect. We elect Presidents and legislators who we hope will represent our views, and sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. The Supreme Court is one additional step removed, in that they are nominated by Presidents and confirmed by the Senate, but then they have a lifetime confirmation and the nine Justices have a separate body of their own, with rules and precedents and procedures.

And sometimes conservatives might elect a President who we hope and believe will appoint pro-life Justices, but then that President either doesn't follow through (e.g., Sandra Day O'Connor), or is prevented from doing so by the Senate (e.g., Robert Bork), or perhaps even believes a nominated and confirmed Justice is pro-life, but actually is not, or has a change of heart while on the bench (e.g., David Souter). Meanwhile, there is a competing ebb and flow over the years to both the Presidency and the Senate, such that Democrats are actively trying to nominate and confirm Justices who are fervently in favor of abortion.

All of this has resulted in a "five steps forward, four steps back" type of situation since 1973's Roe decision, and it has been a slow and at times very painful process. In fact, I have even seen some evangelicals (many of whom lean toward the "social justice" side of the discussion, incidentally) try to use this glacial pace in the fight against abortion as an apparent justification for reducing the importance of abortion in our political calculus.

From my perspective, this argument is at best naïve, showing a lack of deep understanding of the political process and the uncertainties that come along with representative democracy. At times, the argument comes across as bizarrely prioritized, as efforts to stop murder of the unborn are minimized (I previously objected to one example of this I perceived in a national secular newspaper) while efforts to promote, say, mere socioeconomic improvement among certain portions of society in an already incredibly wealthy nation are maximized. And sometimes, the argument is even intellectually dishonest, attempting to pretend as if imperfectly trying to do something good is the same thing as overtly promoting something horribly sinful.

Barring divine intervention, there is zero chance Democrats will move the ball on abortion in a positive direction, whereas Republicans might at least try to do so in certain (important) contexts. Despite his many faults, President Trump has at least been delivering on his promise to nominate conservative judges and Justices. And speaking as someone who didn't support him, deplores a lot of his rhetoric and some of his actions, and thinks voting is one of the least effective ways of either "doing justice" or engaging with the public sphere as a Christian, I've been pleasantly surprised to see the gradually increasing prospects of Roe being overturned. Meanwhile, unless the Lord returns first, I will continue praying fervently and supporting other active and lawful efforts to protect the lives of the unborn.

This probably was not "the most important election of our lifetime." However, at some point, these elections impact the composition of the Supreme Court and thus the future of Roe. Ultimately, the question I have for professing pro-life Christians is this. If you're truly concerned about abortion, about the nearly one million unborn lives ended every year in the United States alone, how high of a priority is it for you? Is it high enough of a priority for you to at least vote against it, should you opt to exercise your stewardship of voting? And when it comes to that voting, if one party proudly proclaims to the entire world that it is adamantly and fervently supportive of that murderous practice, while the other is at least attempting (however imperfectly, especially given the indirect nature of the process) to stop it, how will you vote?

I know my answer, for which I will be accountable to the Lord. And as you process through your own answer, I pray God will grant you clarity, wisdom, and the joy of a clear conscience informed by Scripture.

Hohn's signature


Unknown said...

I agree with most everything said except maybe the underlying thesis of the recent elections (2016 and 2018) as not being most important especially when I consider the conversations we would be having today if Hillary Clinton were our President. The 2016 election was as much about keeping Hillary Clinton out of the oval office as it was about Trump being president.

Hohn C said...

Hi, thanks for your comment. I actually don’t disagree that the 2016 was important; my point was more that we’ve been hearing that every two years since about 2000 or so. Think of it as urgency/importance inflation, perhaps. Regardless, I certainly don’t view 2018 as more important than 2016 (or just about any Presidential election year, for that matter) despite the recent rhetoric to that effect.