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The Morality of Single-Issue Voting

by John Langan, S.J.

Father Langan is a research fellow at Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. This article appeared in the Christian Century August 4-11, p. 818. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

On what basis should we as American voters make our choices in major political races? Since the winning candidates will have to make decisions on many complex matters during their term of office, is it reasonable or right for us to choose them because of their stand on a single issue? In the aftermath of the 1980 election, in which several Senate races are thought to have been decided by single-issue voting, we may also want to know whether such. a practice is likely to have good effects on our political processes and on the shaping of national policy.

These questions are easier to put than to answer, in part because single-issue voting is not so simple a phenomenon as pundits would have us think.

In the first place, single issues often travel in packs. These packs may be held together by logical bonds or by cultural affinities. Both candidates and constituencies can link together opposition to abortion and support of prayer in public schools, or gun control and nuclear disarmament, or opposition to nuclear energy and support for wilderness preservation. A variety of issues can be seen as contributing to more fundamental or comprehensive values, such as defense of the traditional American way or respect for life or protection of the environment. Any one issue may also be linked with different issues by different groups. Thus opposition to abortion can be combined with opposition to pornography or with opposition to nuclear weapons, depending on whether the fundamental value at stake is considered to be chastity or the protection of life.

Also, single-issue voting is only one part of the larger phenomenon known as single-issue politics. This includes lobbying, fund-raising, demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns and propaganda. In a democratic society, these may all rely in some way on the implicit or explicit threat of single-issue voting. But they present special problems of their own, particularly with regard to possibilities for manipulation of people and ideas and for the misuse of funds. Our society wants to encourage the widest possible expression of popular opinion on issues of public concern, while at the same time protecting the human and civil rights of all citizens and preventing harm to the fundamental values of truth and civility. Just how public regulation, journalistic investigation, informed criticism and organized opposition are to be mixed so as to keep the political forum open to all comers on a fair basis is a difficult problem for American society in both theory and practice.

Without dismissing the importance of the wider problems raised by single-issue politics, I would like to focus on single-issue voting as a choice that can confront the individual elector. By single-issue voting, I mean casting a ballot for a candidate with whom one is in substantial disagreement on major issues of present public concern, or whom one judges to be inferior to an alternative candidate in character or competence, because one is in agreement with the candidate’s views on a single issue which one judges to be of overriding importance. This definition is vague in many ways, but I would argue that such vagueness is a necessary result of the imprecision with which issues are delineated, the varying weights that different people at different times accord to various values, and the plurality of viewpoints that have to be considered in a democratic political process. It is not helpful to get a purer definition: candidates with whom a voter agrees on one and only one issue would be very hard to find.

The question that I want to explore is whether it is reasonable or morally justifiable for a person to vote on the basis of a single issue. Here we should observe that the issue does not have to be primarily a moral one, though nearly all significant political issues will have some moral aspect to them. The overriding issue for a voter could be the size of the defense budget or the possibility of a grain embargo. He or she may be voting on the basis of interests rather than moral convictions. The single issue that is potentially overriding for the individual voter may or may not be an issue that is treated by the media as a “single issue.”

A hypothetical case from the past may help to make some of these points clearer. Consider the presidential choice confronting a Jewish Republican lawyer in 1940. He has some reservations about Roosevelt’s character as devious and manipulative, he deeply disapproves of the court-packing scheme, he thinks the economic policies of the New Deal are muddled and ineffective at best, he is opposed to a third term on principle, he thinks Henry Wallace is a lightweight -- but he also judges that Roosevelt is the candidate best equipped to stand up to Hitler and to protect the Jewish people.

Few of us would, I think, object to this man’s voting for Roosevelt in such circumstances, even though one might disagree with any or all of his specific positions and even though, in his motives, one could not sharply distinguish between an interest in personal and group survival and a principled opposition to racism and aggression. In this case, at any rate, it seems right and reasonable for a voter to make his decision on the basis of a single overriding issue. But we should look at the case for and against single-issue voting in more general terms.

The case for single-issue voting is roughly this. First, it is the exercise of a right by the individual elector, who makes a free decision on the basis that he or she freely determines. The individual voter is free both to vote and to offer any further views in explanation or justification of the vote. No one should lay down laws for the autonomous exercise of this right.

Second, single-issue voting is an effective and important means of communicating the desires of the electors to officeholders. It “sends a message” to Washington or Springfield or Sacramento, especially when an otherwise favored candidate is defeated. It is a way of indicating intensity of feeling on an issue, and it offers an opportunity of cutting through the loose and undefined connections between candidate, party platform and policy decisions.

Third, it represents the triumph of conscience and principle over interest and image. Instead of voting one’s pocketbook, or following old lines of ethnic loyalty or patronage, or responding to the images of a soft-sell campaign and a visually attractive candidate, the voter makes a decision on the basis of where the candidate stands on a matter of principle.

Fourth, single-issue voting is sometimes a clear necessity. Sometimes the evil threatened or brought about by a particular group or policy is so great that it must be opposed, no matter what the possible cost to other values. As Churchill said after Hitler’s invasion of Russia, “If the Führer invaded Hell, I would have to say a good word for the devil in the House of Commons.”

The case against single-issue voting can be put in parallel terms. First, single-issue campaigns can be set up to persuade voters to go against their overall interest. Thus a white worker can be urged to vote for antiunion candidates on the ground that they oppose school busing. Voters may not be really autonomous but may be manipulated for ends not their own.

Second, single-issue voting destroys the spirit of compromise and the respect for conflicting points of view, which are necessary for the preservation of an open and democratic society. By encouraging some voters to attach overriding importance to the resolution of one problem -- a resolution which is usually very controversial and which often accentuates existing racial, religious and class divisions -- single-issue voting damages the fabric of democratic society and dissolves the broad political coalitions necessary for effective government in this country.

Third, when single-issue voting is practiced, divisive “social” issues on which people feel passionately shape the pattern of politics more than do reasonable calculations of interest. The temperature of political debate goes up, and clarity of political vision is lost. Democratic stability and civility are imperiled, and we witness not the triumph of conscience over interest but the overwhelming of reason by the passions.

Fourth, in certain instances, at least, single-issue voting is counterproductive and may very well be wrong. Voting for an antiabortion candidate who favors vastly increased spending on nuclear weapons may not be a net gain for the sanctity of life. Voting for a states-righter because he will “keep blacks in their place” seems just plain wrong.

Where do these two sets of considerations leave us? Do we have a standoff between two equally strong views? Do we lapse into a relativistic silence? Do we leave the matter open to individual decision? Do we say, sometimes Yes, sometimes No? If so, on what basis do we judge when to say Yes to single-issue voting and when to say No?

We can look at the question of single-issue voting in three different ways (at least), which we can call the first-person, second-person and third-person approaches. The third-person approach is the one usually taken by political scientists who write about voting or, as they call it, electoral behavior. Their main task is to explain or predict how people have voted or will vote. From statistical data (election returns, polls), along with personal interviews and observations, they attempt to isolate the significant factors that influence the way people vote.

Such research is important for answering questions about how widespread single-issue voting is, what groups of people are most likely to practice it, and with regard to what issues. Journalists and political commentators can help us to understand the different ways in which this phenomenon is perceived by other participants in the political process: Together with reflective politicians, they can give us a sense of how single-issue voting alters the direction and sets limits for the practice of American politics; and they can help us to estimate what some of its consequences may be in the current political context.

Studies of electoral behavior by political analysts and reporters can also serve to correct the tendency of ethicians and preachers to think of voting and the political process in highly moralistic and rationalistic terms -- terms that apply to a Kantian moral agent or a Thomistic theologian rather better than they fit a Houston oil executive, a Youngstown steelworker, or a Las Vegas waitress. Political scientists and observers do not usually set out to answer the first-person question about what I as a voter ought to do; the information they provide can be helpful and enlightening, but is not morally decisive in itself.

The first-person question is one that we as individual voters must resolve for ourselves. No amount of expert guidance or exhortation can absolve us from the responsibility and the opportunity of free, conscientious decision. To vote or not to vote, to vote according to party or moral principle or expectation of advantage, to vote in the belief that there are no significant moral differences among the candidates or in the belief that these are a matter of character and personality rather than policy -- all of these are possible options for us as citizens in a democracy. The fundamental position here, one which would be agreed on by most religious and nonreligious moral theorists alike, is “Let your conscience be your guide.” No moral system that I know offers comprehensive rules for weighing all the factors that are relevant to moral decisions and for overcoming all the differences in perception and interpretation in a way that would give a unique right outcome for each case.

Moral systems and some generally accepted moral principles do rule out certain possibilities as immoral and irresponsible when these are described in general terms; for instance, voting for an overtly racist candidate. But one can readily imagine situations where the choice is between two racist candidates or not voting at all. In such a situation one can reasonably argue that the wise thing to do is to vote for the less obnoxious racist or the one likely to do less harm. But one can also reasonably argue that it is better not to vote than to give support to a candidate of evil principles. The complex specifics of the situation and the mystery of human freedom and responsibility combine to leave each of us with the burden and the glory of answering the first-person question for ourselves.

Is there then nothing more to be said? Not at all. Moral philosophy and theology and the shared moral reflections of people of experience have a great deal to say on such matters -- a great deal that can be both relevant and instructive. Most of this material falls into a second-person mode of discourse that is distinct from both the reports of political experts and the wrestlings of personal conscience and that cannot be replaced by either of them.

Most moral discourse, however abstract and lofty it may be, has a second-person edge to it which enables us to move from “It is wrong to lie and cheat” to “You should not lie and cheat.” Moral instruction can be starkly imperative (“Thou shalt not”) or subtly persuasive (“Consider what an impartial benevolent spectator would approve”). But it never loses this second-person edge. It deals not merely with what I think right, but with what is right for us, for both you and me. In using moral language I am committing myself on matters of principle, but I am also offering norms to guide you as well -- which is one reason why some very polite people shy away from moral discourse altogether.

What, then, are the principal reflections that a moral philosopher or theologian can offer to voters in this second-person mode of discourse? There are three principal themes that should be addressed. For one thing, we should notice that the question before us is not a primary or basic moral question about what it is right or wrong to do in a given class of situations, like, say, telling the truth under oath or treating defective newborns. Rather, it is a higher-level question about how much weight to accord a position on a specific issue in comparison with other values, concerns and positions. How we make up our minds on this higher-level question is very likely to be influenced to a great extent by our views on the more specific items that will surface as single issues. Thus a person with strong views for or against abortion may well have correspondingly strong views against or for single-issue voting.

But the higher-level question is considerably more general, and our attitudes may well fluctuate when we realize the diversity of single issues that can fall under it. Thus in our past history abolition and prohibition and opposition to the Vietnam war served as single issues; we can readily imagine situations developing in which gun control, the survival of Israel, nuclear disarmament could serve as single issues energizing large movements and affecting American political life profoundly. This diversity of concerns is one of the things that make the morality of single-issue politics hard to discuss in abstract and general terms, especially if what we really want is for voters to come out with the “right” answer on each of the particular issues.

But this diversity should also suggest to us a first step in handling the problem; namely, that there is no way to avoid making up our minds on the primary question of principle or policy. The single issue must first be examined on its own moral merits. Thus, if a candidate has in the past urged voters to make the preservation of segregated institutions the single issue, he deserves rejection because of his stand on the primary or basic issue even before we get to the level of reflecting on the propriety of responding to single-issue appeals.

In saying this, I want to oppose a certain agnostic tendency in American political, legal and philosophical discourse which says in effect that on really important moral questions we have to agree or disagree; that it is illegitimate or illiberal to allow substantive moral positions to shape decisions in a democracy; and that on fundamental moral questions we are simply expressing nonrational preferences or emotional attitudes. Such agnosticism is, I would argue, in the long run destructive of the moral fiber of a democratic community. In effect it attempts to rest the values of personal freedom and diversity on a skeptical or even nihilistic basis. It dismisses the moral concerns of most Americans as irrelevant and puts them outside the sphere of public debate.

Such agnosticism is inconsistent with the value we ascribe to standing steadfast on matters of principle. Despite all the uncertainties of both theoretical and applied ethics, we can reasonably affirm that certain human interests are fundamental, that certain principles are necessary for our living together as social beings, and that human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” More specifically, we can recognize the overriding importance of those principles and rights which protect what is necessary for personal and communal survival. We can affirm that it is appropriate for people to take stands of principle to protect basic human rights, whether their own or those of others. This very general consideration is one that can be appealed to in arguments for single-issue voting on a diversity of topics: abortion, nuclear disarmament, El Salvador and Guatemala, the survival of Israel.


Another principal consideration is the fact that even if we grant both the inadequacy of moral agnosticism and the necessity of examining the specific issue on its moral merits, we have still not resolved the question of single-issue voting. For the measures to be acted on by political officeholders, the concrete policy decisions to be taken, are rarely so clear-cut as defending or attacking a fundamental human value or right. Therefore, one has to look closely at the fit between the problem and the solution, between the value to be protected and the measures that are proposed for its protection.

This question of the fit may arise with regard to the competence of the candidate who appeals to the issue. Thus, candidates have been known to argue strongly for capital punishment even when, if elected, they will not be in a position to prosecute criminals, to grant or withhold executive clemency, or to enact relevant legislation. For a voter to make the candidate’s views on such an issue the overriding consideration would be an exercise in gullibility. For in such cases the issue serves the candidate, whereas in matters of high principle the candidate is to serve the issue.

The problem of a fit on a more general level arises with regard to the issue of abortion. Even among those who agree that abortion is a grave evil, there may well be disagreement about the effectiveness of legal prohibitions and criminal sanctions in actually protecting innocent lives, given the depth and intensity of conflicting opinion on the issue and the inherent difficulty of police activity in such intimate matters. As Thomas Aquinas pointed out, not every evil is appropriately forbidden by human law. Questions of fit are not answered simply by reaffirming the basic values at stake but require a careful look at the circumstances, at plausible alternative ways of safeguarding these values, and at the sincerity and competence of those who are appealing to the single issue. These questions can be answered in different ways by people who are in agreement on basic moral principles.

The question of fit is distinct from the question of electoral success. Certain evils are worth opposing, even if the struggle against them is unlikely to be very successful. The question of success does become morally significant when serious damage to other important values is likely to result from pursuing single-issue politics.

Finally, both for voters and for candidates who believe that a single issue should be decisive, there are further tests that have to be met if such a belief is to be held in a morally responsible way. These tests apply primarily to the individual moral subject, but they have a great deal to do with preserving the integrity and the persuasiveness of the appeal to a single issue and with protecting it from the dangers of fanaticism and cynical manipulation. They involve three “others.”

First, other actions. What other things besides voting can I do to show my effective concern for the issue? If I really believe the issue is of overriding importance, shouldn’t I be doing something more about it than simply casting a vote for or against a candidate because he or she is right or wrong on the given issue? Without the readiness to do other things, to undertake new actions, single-issue politics can collapse into sullen and passive resentment.

Second, other issues. Granted that there is good reason in these particular circumstances for making my political choice on a single issue, can I allow my moral and political horizon to be narrowed to a single issue on a lasting basis? Clearly not, I think. There must be a willingness to -- consider negative consequences for other issues as I make my decision, and a readiness to move beyond this issue to collaborate with others in dealing with the multitude of evils that afflict our society and humanity in general. A single issue should not degenerate into a monomania.

Third, other persons. As a citizen of a democratic society and as a believer in the God of biblical faith, I am committed to showing respect for the consciences of other persons. This does not mean endorsing their views or approving their actions. But it does mean that, especially on matters of profound moral conviction, we treat each other with patience, with honesty, and with charity. To paraphrase St. Ignatius, “Every good citizen ought to be more willing to give a good interpretation to the statement of another than to condemn it.” This frame of mind is especially necessary when we are making a case in moral terms which, as we have seen, puts demands on other persons.

To come back to our original question after this some-what sinuous survey, I answer that single-issue voting, lobbying and campaigning can in some cases be morally justifiable and even required. Single-issue voting can in some cases be an appropriate expression of the politics of principle. But it must be undertaken for a goal which is theoretically an attainable and fitting objective for the political process, and it must be conducted in a principled way.

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