In Binary Politics, a Conservative Voting for a Democrat Can Make Perfect Sense
A response to a recent Bernard Goldberg column.
Earlier this week, Bernie Goldberg (the owner of this website) wrote a piece on the “only kind” of conservatives that liberals have tolerance for. Unsurprisingly, I found a number of areas of agreement, but I also had some differing views on a few points he made, and figured that hashing out my thoughts here might make for an interesting column. We’ll see…
Bernie begins by describing some unspoken criteria that lefties (media-lefties in particular) apply to a conservative thinker before they can even entertain the notion that his or her views have credibility:
First and foremost, [the conservative] must hate Donald Trump — that’s mandatory. Then he or she must be someone who is disgusted by what the Republican Party has become. And for acceptance in liberal circles, it helps if the conservative voted for liberals (who share none of the conservative’s values) in presidential elections.
Bernie puts forth examples of such conservatives: New York Times columnists Bret Stephens and David Brooks, as well as former GOP political figures turned cable-news mainstays on liberal networks, Joe Scarborough, Nicole Wallace, and Michael Steele.
I mostly agree with him on this, though I do have a couple quibbles.
First, I don’t think such a person has to “hate” Trump. We’ve grown accustomed in our politics to equating sharp criticism of an individual with hatred of that individual, and while such cross-over sentiment absolutely exists, I think it’s far too broad of an assumption.
Case in point, like Bernie, I’ve been very critical of Trump over the last seven or so years, and a number of Trump supporters have insisted that means I “hate” the man. While some may actually believe that, I think most have adopted this response as a convenient, self-assuring mechanism for dismissing valid criticism (from me and others) of someone they like.
In reality, I don’t hate anyone, let alone Trump… though I do hate a number of things he’s done to worsen our politics, culture, and the Republican party. And I suspect such views would be enough for a number of media-liberals to at least “tolerate” someone like me. Though, as I’ve said many times, I couldn’t care less whether my political views gain either side’s approval (or spite for that matter). I’ve never written for acceptance, and I’m not about to start.
Also, I think we’re well past the point of framing this issue and others like it as a “conservative versus liberal” conundrum. Today’s political-right, at least its leaders and most impassioned members, isn’t particularly conservative. And I’m not sure “liberal” is how I’d describe much of the modern left. America’s political battlefield isn’t nearly as ideological or policy-fueled as it once was. These days, it’s more attitudinal.
Which brings me to my primary point of contention with Bernie’s column. He writes:
I understand why Brooks and Stephens and a million other conservatives didn’t vote for Donald Trump. I understand why they think the Republican Party has gone astray. But here’s what I don’t understand: If you really do believe in conservatism, how can you vote for liberals who don’t share any of your supposed conservative values?
There’s no law that compels any of us to vote in a presidential election. I didn’t vote for president in 2016 or 2020. I didn’t vote for Trump either time, but I wouldn’t vote for a liberal Democrat, who shared very few, if any, of my political values. Yet Stephens and Brooks voted for liberals instead of sitting out the elections.
My personal voting philosophy is pretty much the same as Bernie’s. I didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 or 2020. I also didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. I voted for a conservative third-party candidate in 2016, and wrote in a conservative individual in 2020. And if Trump’s the Republican nominee in 2024, I’ll do the same thing (hopefully it won’t come to that).
However, I’ve grown more understanding of right-leaning folks in the Trump era, including conservatives, who’ve crossed the aisle at election time to vote for a Democratic candidate.
It all comes back to the “binary choice” argument — the perspective that because only a major-party nominee has any real chance of winning the presidency, the only logical decision is to vote for the best (or least objectionable) choice between those two individuals. I stopped subscribing to that methodology seven years ago, but as I’ve written countless times, it remains a perfectly legitimate and respectable voting standard for most people (including several readers who’ve insisted to me that not adopting it is a dereliction of my patriotic duty).
It seems to me that if one adheres to the “binary choice” doctrine, or at least respects the decision of those who do, it should be neither inexplicable nor undignified that a conservative-leaning voter would vote for a liberal Democrat for president, dependent on who the Republican nominee is.
Think about it for a minute. If one feels compelled to vote for the lesser of two evils, wouldn’t that person have to fairly consider more than just the candidates’ stated positions on various issues before deciding which individual is, in fact, the lesser evil?
For some, the answer to that question may well be “no.” Others, however, may decide that because the presidency is an executive position (the highest in our government), and not a legislative one, more scrutiny of a candidate’s character, experience, history, and overall integrity would be in order before completing their evaluation. In which case, the decision may be less clear-cut.
Millions of Americans struggled with this very dilemma in 2016 and 2020, not liking either party’s nominee, but weighing policy positions with leadership considerations, and ultimately deciding who was the lesser evil. It’s why Trump won the first time, and Biden won the second.
It’s also why, as unpopular of a president as Biden has been, and as far-left as he’s governed, I suspect few righties who pulled the lever for him regret their vote. And if Trump is the choice of Republicans again next year, after costing the GOP an inordinate number of seats over three election-cycles (including the presidency, a House majority, and two Senate majorities), I think conservatives and others on the right will have an even harder time voting for him.
Sure, the MAGA base will stick with him (no matter what), but many others on the right had a big problem with Trump’s efforts to overturn U.S. democracy, and his provocation of the January 6 riot. That was clear from a lot of split-ticket voting in the 2022 midterms, with a number of Republican voters looking at a “binary choice” between a Democrat and a MAGA-world election-denier, and choosing the former.
But the issue goes beyond institutional concerns. Let’s review something Bernie wrote:
If you really do believe in conservatism, how can you vote for liberals who don’t share any of your supposed conservative values?
It’s a perfectly reasonable question. Here’s another reasonable question: Which values do Trump, and the party he beat into compliance, share with conservatives? The list has gotten quite small.
Any semblance of fiscal conservatism went out the window with the $7.8 trillion in national debt added during Trump’s tenure, most of it coming before the pandemic, during a strong economic growth period. Trump enjoyed Republican majorities in the House and Senate during his first two years office, and what we got from him and Congress was an epic government spending-spree, and a total surrender to the Democrats on the issue of desperately needed entitlement reform.
In fact, trying to save Social Security and Medicare from insolvency is now cast as a cardinal sin within the Republican party, as recently evidenced by GOP sentiment at the State of the Union. Trump is even using the issue as part of an early attack strategy (ala the Democrats) against Nikki Haley:
Think about that for a minute. Even simply endorsing the idea of addressing the national debt, in the only way it can effectively be addressed, is now essentially a political crime… within the Republican party!
Remember free trade and free markets? They were hallmarks of conservatism just a few years back, defended passionately by GOP leaders, voters, and pundits alike. Then, the Republican in the White House got us into a self-harming, Bernie Sanders-approved trade war. It ratcheted up subsidies, raised taxes, hurt commerce, and ushered in an era of economic populism that set the table for Republican leaders’ comfort with using the power of government to punish political speech from “woke CEOs” and other perceived foes in the private sector.
Hawkish, “peace through strength” foreign policy — the kind that Ronald Reagan championed, and that resonated with traditional Republicans and conservatives for decades? It’s taken a huge hit within the party too. A Republican president, with virtually no push-back from other party leaders, teed up the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal (ultimately implemented by Biden). The loudest, most consequential voices in the GOP frequently spread unabashed pro-Putin sentiment, and cast Volodymyr Zelenskyy as the problem in the Russia/Ukraine conflict, while flirting with cutting off military aid to the invaded country. They use liberal-coined terms like “neo-cons” and “war-mongers” to describe those, even within their own party, who don’t share their selectively non-interventionist vision.
Has the Republican party completely abandoned its pre-Trump, traditionally conservative positions? No, not entirely. Views on some social issues like abortion, for example, have (kind of) remained. But for principled conservatives, there isn’t a whole lot left beyond empty rhetoric and culture-war demagoguery.
To be clear, I’m by no means arguing that the Democratic party is filling a conservative void left by today’s Republican party. I wish that were the case, but it’s absolutely not. And that’s why, despite my many problems with today’s GOP, I haven’t been voting for Democrats, and don’t expect to down the road. Bernie and I are in agreement there.
But for conservatives who earnestly believe our elections are a “binary choice,” the goal of voting for their values isn’t necessarily attainable when neither party, or at least neither party’s candidate, seems to share or promote those values. That leaves non-policy considerations, as in who would be the better or more fit executive. And if that’s ultimately what it comes down to, it’s hard to imagine, especially after his atrocities following the 2020 election, that anyone could sincerely and objectively say that person is Trump.
So there you all have it — a valid case for a conservative voting for a Democrat, brought to you by binary politics. It’s not a road I’m personally willing to go down, but the rationale at least holds water.
The better approach, of course, would be for Republican primary voters to simply nominate a fit candidate (or even just an adult), to spare a lot of folks from such anguish.
But that, unfortunately, is unlikely to happen.