Wednesday, January 1, 2014

National Referenda: A Solution for Christian Communitarians?

This essay was originally published in Ethika Politika.

Our political system doesn’t make it easy for an ideological Christian democrat to vote with a clear conscience.

We frequently feel that a vote for either the Democratic or Republican Party amounts to a compromise of core values.  All too often, it seems that our decision amounts to a choice between greater economic injustice and complicity in the continued legality of abortion.  Even those who recognize a clear distinction between negotiable and non-negotiable values (e.g., between economic justice and life) and, accordingly, vote for a Republican often feel a certain compunction in doing so.

My intention is not to disparage Democrats or Republicans—and I apologize in advance to anyone who takes offense to my comments—but simply to address, and present a possible remedy to, the problem that stems from the fact that Christian democrats hold to a distinct set of political values that no major party adequately embodies.

When pursuing solutions to this dilemma, ideas involving changes to our electoral system or campaign finance laws normally come to mind.  While these are certainly avenues worth exploring, I want to focus my attention on a possible solution that doesn’t appear to have received much attention: national referenda, something that a majority of Americans favor.  I relate the lion’s share of my discussion to the specific issue of abortion.

What are some of the pros and cons of national referenda?

National referenda strike a balance between representative and direct democracy.  It is widely agreed that we need the former because most people have neither the time nor the interest to occupy themselves with daily political affairs, and prefer delegating this task to elected representatives.  Most believe that we also need the latter since some issues are of special importance to us, and if we were given an option, we would prefer not to entrust decisions over these sensitive matters to others.

Arguably, therefore, citizens must be able to directly legislate on issues that are exceptionally important to them.  Take abortion.  If this issue were wrested from party politics and put to a popular vote, the Christian democrat could (at least until the new American Solidarity Party, to which I belong, is firmly established) vote for a Democrat without troubling his conscience.  Indeed, referenda would arguably increase the likelihood of victories for the anti-abortion movement.  Public opinion analysis reveals that a plurality and nearly half of Americans regard abortion as morally wrong, and describe themselves as pro-life.

Whereas direct democracy may be a boon for the anti-abortion movement, it could also result in policies that conflict with Christian values.  To cite but one example, social conservatives will point to growing public support for the legalization of same-sex marriage (of course, one could always counter that referenda would simply expedite what appears inevitable anyway).

Referenda could also pose dangers to religious freedom, especially in an increasingly secular society that is at times hostile to Christianity.  This should serve as a reminder that the ultimate political end of the Christian democrat shouldn’t be democratization; rather, democracy is a means to an end that isn’t universally applicable across space and time (One shouldn’t conclude from this statement that Christian democrats are less committed to democracy than others.  After all, few people advocate for popular rule without harboring optimistic expectations of how the people will rule).

A tough road ahead

Of course, not everyone is totally enamored with the idea of introducing referenda to national politics.  Regarding the abortion issue, opponents of direct democracy might include Republicans, who benefit at the polls on account of their greater, at least ostensible opposition to abortion rights.  Even those social conservatives who embrace progressive economic values may feel compelled to vote Republican, due to the moral imperative to oppose abortion rights.  If abortion were to be restricted or banned—following a referendum, for instance—Republicans would find it more difficult to maintain this crucial part of their electoral base.  In other words, referenda could liberate many pro-lifers from GOP captivity, and Republicans would presumably do everything in their power to ensure that this doesn’t happen.  It’s probable that Democrats would, in spite of their party’s name, also oppose resolving the abortion issue in a directly democratic way, given the public’s stance on abortion (see above).

In short, advocates of national referenda appear to have a tough road ahead.  Whether this is a journey worth undertaking is certainly a matter of debate, and I hope I play a small part in bringing this debate to a national audience.