Now, I promise that I'm not going to badger people who've decided they must abstain from voting or vote third-party this time around. We're all doing the best we can under difficult circumstances to decide how best to vote as serious Catholics, and though we may reach different conclusions we are still striving for the same goal. I wish I could say the same about Catholic Obama voters, but the best I can come up with is that they must be uninformed; the bishops have taught with such clarity this year that we can't draw parallels between abortion and other issues that would create the false illusion that abortion is no different, from a moral gravity perspective, from these other issues. Those of us who either vote for McCain despite our misgivings, vote for a dq3, or leave the presidential race blank on our ballots, are at least all trying to accomplish the same goal of limiting evil; we've just decided this means different things.
Having said that, though, and having struggled myself with the "what to do" question, I want to address one point that the dq3/blank ballot Catholics keep making, and which I came to reject as not quite true, or at least not true in the way they seem to think it is: the notion that we will ultimately influence the major parties by our actions in abstaining or dq3 voting.
Astonishing though it is to realize, if you add up all the votes for all third party candidates for the presidential elections from 1980 through 2004, they total 43,929,518 votes--not generally enough to win a single election, even if these had all been cast by unique voters, which they were not. That is, people who voted third party in 1980 might have voted the same way in 1988, and so on; the forty-three million votes took seven elections to accumulate. Even more astonishing is the fact that more than twice that many, or roughly one hundred million, Americans don't vote at all in most elections. So while the "message" ought to be that roughly one hundred six million (averaging the third-party votes over seven years) eligible voters find neither major party candidate even remotely worth supporting, that's not the message that is being received; the major parties simply concentrate their efforts on those who are likely to vote, and ignore the ones who don't--whether those are principled Catholics waiting for better choices or apathetic atheists who find voting as amusing and meaningless as the other ritualized behaviors of a specific carbon-based life form which is only slightly more intelligent than a chimpanzee, or anyone in between.
It doesn't matter to the major parties, in other words, why the non-voters don't vote, or why the handful of dq3 supporters vote for third-party candidates, with the possible exception of those few candidates who have garnered more than a few million votes in a single election; I'm sure Ross Perot's nearly twenty million votes got the attention of the two big parties, but I doubt anyone else in recent memory has garnered anywhere remotely close to that level of interest. We can deplore this, we can write about it, we can refer to the dangers of the two-party system, all of which I've done myself on occasion; but we can't, by mere magical thinking or ill-placed optimism, create a different reality from the reality that actually is.
None of this means that we should accept, with a defeatist air, that the flawed two-party system is the only way. But if we're serious about wanting other choices, then we have to stop pretending that we can somehow effect change on the eve of a hotly-contested election by sitting it out or voting for some relatively harmless kook who would never get our vote if he actually were a major party primary candidate.
We have to get involved.
Part of the problem is that some of us are people who love to hate politics. We enjoy bashing both parties for their shortcomings, but we'd never consider joining either major party, getting involved in a local race in order to help a really good candidate advance through the party ranks, getting involved in the pro-life arm of the party, or otherwise working to make things better so that four years from now we won't be stuck with the same sort of choices all over again.
Or perhaps we really, truly believe that a third-party is the way to go, but we have yet to pick one or create one and throw our energies and efforts into that party, helping them to get established and maybe convincing the party leadership to concentrate on state and local elections first, instead of aiming for the moon by running for the presidency from day one.
I know the objections: we're already involved in non-political good works, there's no time, political solutions aren't the answer, etc. But we can't pop out of our trash cans once every two or four years like Oscar the Grouch, complain that there's just no good choices, abuse the election participants as easily deluded saps on happy pills, and then slam the lid down to wait for the next opportunity for some cathartic public grouching about it all.
If we're serious as Catholics in a troublingly flawed era in a nation which seems to be forgetting the whole "under God" part, if we really do want to use Catholic social principles to help shape a more just and more righteous nation, if we really do believe that the law must not fail to protect the unborn, uphold traditional marriage, and otherwise protect the family as its foundational unit--then we can't leave to chance the idea that perhaps next time around one of the major parties will run a good candidate, or if not, at least they'll get the message that we're displeased which we will send by our continued lack of participation.
I think the only message they'll get will sound like the lid slamming down on the trash can of a notorious malcontent--and they'll ignore it as they always do, and move on.