So here’s a case of character-based voting–not a particularly dramatic one, I’ll admit, but a case just the same, and evidence that character-based voting can, under the right circumstances, make perfect sense.
I recently got my mail-in ballot for the upcoming general election. One of the offices on the ballot is that of Hunterdon County Clerk (for Hunterdon County, New Jersey). The Republicans are running incumbent Mary H. Melfi as their candidate; the Democrats aren’t running a candidate this time. Assuming that I vote in this election (as I plan to), I have three options:
- I could vote for Melfi.
- I could leave the relevant part of the ballot blank.
- I could write someone in besides Melfi, or write something in the relevant slot, whether or not it’s the name of a candidate, up to and including a ballot-spoiling piece of profanity.
As it happens, I’m a Democrat strongly opposed to the Republican Party in its current incarnation. In previous elections where a Republican was running unopposed by the Democrats (or I was, due to a bureaucratic glitch, forced to vote Republican in a primary), I’ve either left the ballot blank, or in some way voted against the Republicans by some ad hoc expedient–e.g., making use of the write-in option, and writing “Not X” with the Republicans’ name for “X,” or writing in “NOTA” (None of the Above) in rejection of everyone on the ballot. In general, I have no problem with taking a party-line stance on voting, whether for the Democrats or against the Republicans.
In this case, however, I’ve decided to vote for Melfi on grounds of character. So yes: voting on character means voting Republican, at least in this case.
Why? Well, I can’t say that I know Melfi particularly well, at least not in the way that one might know a personal friend, but I know her in the politically and professionally relevant sense: I’ve dealt with her on a couple of occasions as “customer” of the county clerk’s office, some of them involving tedious requests of one sort or another. In every case, I’ve found her diligent, empathetic, friendly, and efficient, all traits we might sum up in the phrase “professional competence.”
Granted, that’s just one person’s testimony about one set of personal experiences, but my view of Melfi seems to be widely shared. Going by reports in the local press (themselves going back for years), Melfi appears to have a bipartisan reputation for having all the Boy Scout virtues: trustworthy, loyal (to the law and constitution), helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient (to the dictates of her office), and thrifty. I don’t know whether she’s “brave, clean, or reverent,” but I do know that she exemplifies the lesser-known Girl Scout virtues: honesty, fairness, friendliness, considerateness, caring, strength, responsibility, respect, prudence, idealism, and (OK, this is a guess) sisterhood. This bipartisan reputation for professional competence and ethical propriety seems a good explanation for why Melfi has held the office of county clerk for fourteen straight years, and why the Democrats have not bothered to run a challenger against her. No point in contesting someone’s incontestable claims to merit.*
Leading authorities on the ethics of voting tell us that we have “a right to a competent electorate.” We might, by a similar logic, take ourselves to have a right to competent office-holders. If so, candidates and officeholders like Melfi seem to fit the bill. “Competence” is a trait of character. So when you vote primarily on competence, you’re engaged in character-based voting. We seem, then, to have a prima facie case for voting for Melfi on character: being meritorious, she deserves the reward she seeks; she seeks the office of county clerk, so she deserves a vote for it.
That seems plausible enough, but there are plausible objections worth considering. Let’s grant that Melfi has good character in the relevant sense, and treat that fact as a prima facie basis for a vote in her favor. Still, given current political circumstances, you might think that we ought, regardless of her character, to hold her party affiliation against her. Membership in the (Trump-influenced) Republican Party, we might say, trumps good character in elections nowadays. Being a Republican (at least nowadays) either entails that, all things considered you lack good character, or that the goodness of your character is politically irrelevant.
Put the argument this way: History tells us that fascism is a real possibility for a regime like ours, and an unmitigated horror when it comes to pass. The dangers of fascism are always real, and always demand vigilance and resistance. Ordinarily, those dangers are relatively attenuated, but post-Trump, they no longer are: the Republican Party of recent years is arguably a proto-fascist organization, and at least loosely allied or affiliated with straightforwardly fascist organizations which it helps promote, whether directly or indirectly. There’s dispute about how elevated the fascist threat happens to be, but little dispute that the threat level is higher than it was, say, ten years ago.** Once it crosses a certain threshold, alarms should go off, and trigger a concerted strategy of what we might call anti-fascist de-platforming.
Suppose, in other words, that the Republican Party is the primary agent of fascism in this country, not yet fascist itself, but evolving in that direction with the possibility of taking the country with it. If that’s right, then given the party’s proximity to the levers of power, any reasonable threat-threshold already has been crossed, and demands that its opponents enact anti-fascist de-platforming right now.*** In other words, it’s not just that the Republican Party is a danger to the republic; causally speaking, it’s the fundamental danger to the republic, the single organization with both a strong propensity to fascism, and the power to turn the nation fascist. In that case, it would be instrumentally rational to want to de-platform the party as a whole, to remove it from power as a party, rather than to vote discriminately against this or that bad actor within the party. At this point (the argument continues), the party’s worst actors control the party, rendering the good ones powerless and politically irrelevant.
If so, there’s no point in picking and choosing between the good and the bad, the meritorious and non-meritorious. If the aim is to eliminate the bad within the party, the aim has to be to eliminate the party. To eliminate the party, one has to vote against the party in a party-line way. To vote for this or that meritorious or supposedly meritorious Republican is a distraction and an unintended subversion of the strategy of wholesale anti-fascist de-platforming. Deviations from party-line votes strengthen the Republicans (implicitly promoting fascism) while operating at cross-purposes with attempts to take the party down as a whole. But if the Republicans really are fascists (or proto-fascists en route to fascism), nothing short of wholesale de-platforming will suffice.
And, one might conclude, that applies to the likes of Mary Melfi as well, even in a case where she’s running unopposed. Mary Melfi may be nice and competent, but she’s a Republican, and the strategy of wholesale anti-fascist de-platforming demands that we vote against Republicans, regardless of their niceness and competence. So we have to vote against her, even if that means writing in “Not Melfi.”
It’s a tempting line of argument, but I don’t buy it. A basic problem with the argument is that even if we grant that the Republican Party is now a proto-fascist organization (which I do grant), there’s a distinction to be drawn between an organization that is more bad than good, and one whose bad elements control its good ones in a wholesale way.**** I don’t think the evidence yields the latter conclusion. Since it doesn’t, while I do think that anti-fascist de-platforming is justified (indeed, obligatory) with respect to the Republican Party, we’re not at the point where that de-platforming should be done in the wholesale way that the preceding argument suggests. There are costs to wholesale de-platforming that should be avoided when feasible. Unless the Republican Party becomes fully fascist, we should try our best to avoid those costs.
What costs? Precisely those of competence and merit. Obviously, in this case, if Melfi loses the election through de-platforming, Hunterdon County is left without a county clerk. So the costs in this case would be a matter of having a fully competent clerk versus not having one at all. But even if Melfi were running against a candidate of lesser competence, the costs of having a less-than-competent-county clerk should not be discounted, except as a last resort. You’d only casually discount the costs if you casually discounted the importance of the office itself. I’ll return in a moment to why that’s a mistake. For now, suffice it to say that merit and competence matter, and shouldn’t easily be dismissed as collateral damage of a broader anti-fascist campaign. (A look at republican incompetence during the Bolshevik Revolution, the Weimar Republic, or the Spanish Civil War should drive this point home.)
One way of thinking about the costs here is to ask whether one’s vote should be based on “character” or on “policy considerations.” You might think, for instance, that we can avoid character-based voting by focusing on policy.
But it’s not really clear what that’s supposed to mean in this context. For the most part, a county clerk doesn’t make policy; she carries out highly rigid, rule-bound policies already made.***** What makes for a good county clerk is the consistency and impartiality with which she implements existing policies within the scope of her authority, not how good she is at making new policy. Executive offices like county clerk are one context where character (in the professionalized sense that gets summarized by “professional competence”) functions as a good proxy for policy: if the relevant policies are already in place, an honest, trustworthy, efficient, diligent clerk will produce the right outcomes through those policies; a dishonest, untrustworthy, inefficient and lazy clerk will do the reverse. Something similar might be said of judges, prosecutors, and sheriffs–offices that, in some districts, are elected.
This is not to say that county clerks make no policies whatsoever. Among the policy decisions they make is how to manage elections, e.g., what voting machines to buy, and how to deploy them. But those policy decisions are too technical to be within the competence of the average voter, or even the above-average voter. Nor are they a matter of being able to pass a competency test of the sort that certain epistocrats favor, or of mastering the basics of Economics 101, or even of being able to pass standardized exams in statistics, probability, or econometrics. They’re a matter of professional judgment known only from the first-person perspective of the people charged with making the decisions (year after year), and of being held accountable for the results.
Armchair philosophers and economists–people who never make such decisions and have no idea what it is to make them–are not qualified to make them. Nor is their “policy advice” (or advice to track policy) of much help in guiding real-live voters to real-live votes. In such cases, we have no choice but to defer to the judgment of professionals like Melfi. That judgment functions best when governed by character, both moral and epistemic. So even when it comes to “county clerk policy,” character is in the driver’s seat–unless you’d like to pretend that you the voter have the competence to evaluate voting machine vendor specs on your own, in which case, maybe you should be the one on the ballot. What a voter needs is, fundamentally, the capacity to judge whom to trust to make the right decisions once in office–a matter of character.
Do things change if we imagine Melfi running against a challenger? Not in ways that alter the basic principle. Consider some cases. Imagine that….
- Melfi was running against a challenger of markedly inferior character.
- Melfi was running against a challenger of markedly superior character.
- No clear information was available about the challenger’s character.
In cases (1) and (3), it makes sense to vote for Melfi on grounds of character. In case (2), it makes sense to vote for the challenger on those grounds. But the principle of character-based voting holds throughout.
The rationale for cases (1) and (2) should by now be relatively obvious, but case (3) might require explanation. If fitness for the office in cases like these is fundamentally a matter of character (in the sense of professional competence), then if we know that the incumbent has good character, we know that she’s fit for the job, but if we know nothing about the character of her challenger, we don’t know whether the challenger is fit for it. The situation is no different from what one faces in cases of ordinary hiring. Of two candidates, if you know that one can do the job, and know nothing about the other, it’s instrumentally rational to choose the former. It may be that you’re making the wrong decision, but the evidence suggests that you’re making the best decision you can. Knowing that someone is fit for a job seems to trump not knowing whether they are, while gambling that they might be. There are gambles and there are gambles, but gambling from sheer ignorance seems a bad bet.
So there you have it: character-based voting entails voting for a Republican. Not the most dramatic case, and not the most dramatic consequence. But a case and a consequence nonetheless. And one with implications beyond this particular election, and beyond how to vote for a county clerk.
So was the title of this post clickbait? I’m afraid it was. No, voting on character doesn’t in general mean voting for Republican candidates. On the contrary. But there are contexts and elections where it can. Does it show poor character to resort to the use of clickbait to attract readers? It sure does. But as I’m not on the ballot this year, and you’ve reached the end of the article, there is at this point little you can do about it. Feel free to leave a comment, and don’t forget to subscribe!
**See this as well, and the Wikipedia entry on “proto-fascism.” Though I haven’t done a comprehensive “lit review,” the stuff I’ve read on the Republicans’ tendency to fascism though ultimately persuasive, is regrettably weak, hobbled by (a) a general failure to define “fascism,” (b) the inevitable vagueness of what counts as “proto-fascism,” (c) a lot of breathless, virtue-signally rhetoric intended to indicate the author’s sense of moral urgency, and (d) a focus on Trump rather than the Republican Party. That said, by the time we get a rigorous, peer reviewed literature in top-flight journals, the practical issue will be moot. So there’s no avoiding reliance on journalism. The Vox piece linked above in the text strikes me as the best of the bunch.
***Though I’m currently in love with this phrase, it isn’t ideal. By “anti-fascist” I really mean, “pre-emptively anti-fascist,” since my point is that the Republican Party isn’t quite fascist yet. And by “de-platforming,” I mean “removing from power,” but couldn’t think of a snappier verb to do the trick.
****I didn’t want to clutter up the text with too many distinctions, but we really need a three-way distinction between a party that’s more bad than good, a party that’s irreformably bad, and a party whose worst elements are in control of its best (where that itself might be divided by degrees of control). I would say that the Republican Party satisfies the first two criteria but not the third. It’s the third that triggers wholesale de-platforming.
*****This is a nice summary of what county clerks do, at least in New Jersey (from Union rather than Hunterdon County).