Our ‘lesser of two evils’ politics has become unbearable

A Minnesota voter exits the polling booth on November 8 (AP)

As a matter of full disclosure, I voted in the US presidential election. While my absentee ballot was cast more than a week before polling day, my mind was made up months before that. Not that my mind was closed to the various twists and turns that took place in the final weeks of the campaign; I simply did not need a leaked video to convince me that Donald Trump was a boor or an FBI investigation to flag up that Hillary Clinton might be a criminal.

In fact I voted for neither. I wrote in my preferred candidate for president; not someone terribly famous on the national or international scale but a fiercely intelligent, honourable, deeply Catholic man, and a published expert on American constitutional law to boot. In fact, I have never voted for either of the two main candidates in a presidential election. Likewise, I have always registered to vote as an independent, rather than as a republican or democrat.

In recent days, a number of friends and colleagues have taken me to task for my supposedly enabling and immature insistence on voting for the person I think most fit for office, rather than making a negative determination by voting against whomever I think least qualified. I have been told that I, and people like me in Florida, Michigan and other marginal states, am responsible for the election of Trump by passively permitting his victory. I take the opposite view.

The general trend in politics across western countries, and in American presidential contests especially, has been towards accepting a choice between the lesser of two evils. Last week’s election was the logical end, reductio ad absurdum, of this trend. The more ardent opponents of Trump, I won’t say supporters of Clinton, have been loud in claiming that democracy is broken, and in this I am inclined to agree with them. But it is the acceptance of every election degenerating into the lesser of two evils which has broken it. If every voter wrote in the person they truly wanted to be president maybe Trump would still have won, maybe Clinton, but the paucity of support both major parties really have would have been laid bare.

Such a demonstration would illuminate the single greatest contributing factor to the present sorry state of affairs, which is that the two major parties now present many, if not most voters with platforms they find morally and intellectually incoherent. For Catholics especially, there hasn’t been a real choice on offer in decades.

Voters for whom the right to life is central are asked to choose between abortion and the death penalty. Those who want less government interference in the home and in schools are asked to accept similar minimalist intervention in the financial sector and on behalf of the poor.  A reasonable preference for affordable healthcare for everyone comes at the cost of nuns being made to purchase contraceptives and abortifacients. Belief in racial equality and a loathing of casual misogyny must now be held inseparable from an assent to the poisonous pseudoscience of gender theory.

The result is a polarising of debate until we are left with a Hobson’s choice between ever expanding liberal technocracy or radical libertarianism, all or nothing, total government or no government.

In the last few days thousands have been prepared to take to the streets to protest against a “broken system”, still more have gone online to issue splenetic verdicts against the democratic result and those they feel caused it. Far fewer seem willing to do something positive about it.

Third party candidates are a byword for a waste of time in American politics, eccentrics and billionaires offering answers to no one’s question. But this is essentially what Trump’s candidacy was, a walking protest vote against first the Republican establishment and then the Democrats. His victory was the triumph of vitriol and hubris over candidates and policy platforms no one wanted.

Economists speak of periods of “creative destruction” during which huge and eventually positive change is brought out of the collapse of an old industrial model. Trump’s victory can be a moment of greatly politically creative destruction if people are willing to invest their time, efforts, and their votes in demanding a public debate that reflects the actual strains of public opinion, rather than continuing to accept a dead choice which yields only bad results.

I am not suggesting, by the way, the formation of some sort of explicitly Christian party or movement. The inevitable lesson of such Christian democratic parties is that they are unworkable. In a pluralistic society they are, for obvious reasons, often unappealing beyond their own self-identified base (how many Catholics would vote for a Hindu party?) – and when they do achieve a measure of electoral support or success, as they have in some northern European countries, it usually comes at the expense of those aspects which made them Christian in the first place. What is needed is not necessarily new parties or structures, but a new relationship between those standing for office and the people whose votes they seek – one in which the electorate is rather less accepting of being asked to choose between the things they care most about, as if they were mutually exclusive.

The challenge facing everyone who voted through gritted teeth this week is to seize the moment and force a new political conversation either within or without the two major parties. The alternative is a desperate attempt to shore up a system of which we are all thoroughly sick.