Yes, There Should Be Single-Issue Voters. That Issue Is Voting

by Neil H. Buchanan

In the United States, talking about single-issue voters is almost always a discussion about anti-abortion fundamentalist Christians.  With Donald Trump in the picture, their single-issueness has become glaringly clear, because they are his most devoted supporters even as he embodies everything that they claim to despise.  It used to be possible to imagine that right-wing Christians, for a variety of reasons, happened to have views that lined up with Republicans along a number of important dimensions, but that pretense is now simply gone.  Trump promises to give them anti-Roe judges and attacks on Planned Parenthood (and further attacks on reproductive rights), and that keeps the Christian Right firmly in his camp, no matter what.

Not that there is anything wrong with being a single-issue voter.  It so happens that anti-abortion true believers have incoherent and unsupportable views even on their own religious grounds, and they are only too happy to impose their views on women's bodies and liberty, but that makes them wrong about being anti-choice.  If their ill-formed view on that issue is also the only political matter that motivates them, however, then they have every reason to vote on that basis.

Even so, most people in most situations are likely to say that they care about a variety of issues, and they understand that they cannot expect to get what they want all of the time, or even a lot of the time.  Being a single-issue voter seems strange and creepily extreme, because it is so easy to wonder why such a voter would answer "yes" to the question: "If I gave you what you wanted on every other issue, but not on your single issue, would you still refuse to change your vote?"  Views so fiercely held almost scream "I'm an unreasoning zealot!"

Well, zealotry has a new convert.

Actually, my conversion happened awhile ago -- not coincidentally, almost immediately after the 2016 elections.  A month after that shocking result, I wrote: "The Democrats Now Have One, and Only One, Priority."  I argued that "the Democratic Party's "priority -- not merely their top priority, but their only priority -- is to protect and restore free and fair elections."

With Trump entering the White House with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress -- and especially with now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy having failed to deliver on his repeated teases regarding Supreme Court intervention to stop gerrymandering -- it was obvious that Republicans would increase their efforts not only to gerrymander electoral districts but also to suppress the votes of poor, young, and nonwhite Americans.

The good news is that, when Democrats took over the majority in the House of Representatives earlier this year, their first bill -- H.R. 1 -- was a strong public statement about the need to guarantee free and fair elections.  Yes, that bill (nor any part of it) had no chance of being adopted by the Senate or signed by Trump, but the Democrats appropriately announced that the first thing that they wanted to do was to make democracy more small-d democratic.

That this would also be good politics for the Democrats -- that is, that it would also make democracy more large-D Democratic -- does not matter at all.  For a party to say, "You know what, we'll win every time if elections are fair, so let's make them fair," does not mean that the party would do what Republicans have done if given the chance, and certainly not to the degree that Republicans have shamelessly pursued such schemes.

It is true that the Democrats have engaged in their own gerrymanders, notably for congressional districts in my home state of Maryland, but not to do so where they can in the current environment would be nothing less than unilateral disarmament (which Democrats are all to prone to do in any number of areas).  It is similar to the Electoral College, where any Democratic presidential nominee would be crazy to campaign in non-swing states even though she thinks that every vote should matter as much as any other.  Until the rules change, Florida and Ohio voters are going to receive a lot more attention than California and Deep South voters.

One worrying data point arose last week, which Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig described in a piece on March 22.  It seems that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- the powerful political and financial operation that coordinates House races for the Democrats -- has issued a warning to anyone who might consider working with a campaign to challenge a sitting Democrat in a primary.  Work with an intra-party challenger, snarls the DCCC, and we will blackball you from all future work.

The obvious target of this move was people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has talked openly about having liberal insurgents (like her) challenge not-liberal-enough Democratic insiders.  As a political strategy, one can understand what the party establishment is thinking, and they are not necessarily wrong.  Primary campaigns have low turnouts and can be won by highly motivated activists, and that can then spell trouble in the general election.  For the greater good, as it were, one might argue that the insurgents must be crushed.

As Bruenig points out, however, that is not only arguably wrong on the merits (I certainly disagree with what the DCCC did), but it is terribly off-brand right now for the party.  Her column ends with this:
"[T]he DCCC’s decision, and establishment Democrats’ placid acceptance of it, call into question just how serious the party of democracy is about the practice of democracy. The committee doubtlessly has its reasons for jealously protecting its incumbents, but its members should ask themselves if those reasons ought to supersede the voters’ right to choose among candidates in free and fair elections carried out on even fields. If they think they know better than the voters, then by all means, blacklist vendors and consultants who work with primary challengers. But they should be aware that, in doing so, they are undermining what could be the Democrats’ clearest and most resonant message heading into 2020 — and beyond."
Clearly, she is right about that.  "We'll think for you, so please elect whoever we tell you to vote for" is not exactly democracy at its finest.  My argument, however, is not merely that the Democrats should not be doing this.  I am saying that voters should be willing to vote for anyone who can credibly promise to make democracy great again.

Anyone?  Am I truly saying that people should be single-issue voters, willing to trade off other things that they hold dear if necessary to reinvigorate democracy?

I am saying exactly that, but I confess that it is only possible to do so as a hypothetical matter.  By that I mean that there really are no current real-world Republican or independent conservative candidates who are pro-democracy in the sense that matters.  It is not as if Ted Cruz is awful on every other issue but happens to have proved his chops when it comes to expanding the franchise.  He is awful on everything, most definitely including bigotry-motivated attacks on the American electoral system.

But what if there were, say, a governor whose views were simply repugnant to me across the board -- not just pro-gun buy pro-must-carry, Pence-like views about women and LGBT issues, eager to harm the poor and to lavish more tax cuts on the rich, cruel and dehumanizing policies on immigration, and on and on -- but who could credibly say that he would do what is necessary to make democracy in his state real (and that only he could do so, not his opponent from my party)?

Even worse (from my standpoint), what if I had reason to believe that this governor would likely win under fair electoral rules, and he would be popular and campaign vigorously for Trump/Cruz type candidates in his state?  Would my answer stay the same?  Well, would it?

Yes, yes it would.  One of the reasons that I think truly fair elections are good is that I suspect that most voters will reject the policy views that I just ascribed to my hypothetical governor, if not this time then next.  But a fair loss is still fair, and I should be willing to live in a world where my fellow citizens elect people to do things that I do not like.

What is even more interesting to me, however, is how long the answer to my hypothetical question would have to continue to be yes.  Would it be only for one election, or would I have to keep voting for this troglodyte who happens to believe in honest elections?  The answer, I think, is that it would depend on whether future elections would include candidates who not only would not have fixed our broken electoral system but who would and could break it again after it was fixed.

If the system's repair can be made as permanent as one can make things in a constitutional democracy, then the single issue for this single-issue voter would simply become irrelevant.  I could then say to the governor: "Thanks for your service.  Now please leave."  And if he truly believes in democracy, he should not have a problem with that.