Monday, November 03, 2008

The Only Reason I Feel Conflicted About Voting Against McCain

Abortion. That's it.

(And yes, this is another long one. Cut me some slack; I've been tossing this back and forth in my head for months now.)

Please note that I'm not saying this because I believe that anything relevant to abortion policy is in any way going to be affected by my vote. I'm confident that won't be the case, because the possibility that my vote as a resident of Kansas will have any kind of electoral significance one way or another when all is said and done tomorrow evening is just ridiculously unlikely. (Check out the polls if you're curious.) Sure, sure, upsets are always possible, nothings over until the fat lady sings, etc., etc. But basically, I see this vote of mine as being entirely a matter of personal expression, of standing up and being counted for something, rather than being at all likely to contribute electorally to the direction of the country, much less the direction of abortion policy. Fortunately, self-expressive voting doesn't bother me; I've done it more than a few times before, after all.

Another note: I don't mean "abortion" here to be taken as a Trojan horse within which I am bundling up a host of socially conservative or "faith and values" views, so as to once again regretfully voice my by-now patented complaints about the lack of morally-traditional-and-economically-progressive voices in American politics; in this case, I really am just talking about abortion policy and abortion rights. That's not to say there aren't plenty of other areas where I could petulantly voice my frustration at the world's refusal to sign on to my old manifesto and appreciate what I see as the importance--both electorally as well as intellectually--of politically articulating a "left conservatism" or a populism than genuinely expresses both the religious and the socio-economic side of the communitarian sensibility which I believe makes for decent individual lives and a decent society. But this isn't about them. Some culture war battles (like those having to do with sexist body images and pornography), I think are extremely important; others (like the one my own church has heavily committed itself to in California), I simply nod my head in regards to, acknowledging the importance of the argument in the abstract, but finding the practical efforts involved in the issue often misconceived and directed against the wrong target (as usual, Noah Millman got this right long ago, observing that the question of divorce is a hundred times more relevant to a defense of tradition and marriage than anything having to do its definition). But in neither case do I usually see my singular cultural concerns as sufficient to trouble my overall electoral judgments. But abortion...abortion stands apart from all the rest. And as such, abortion frustrates me this election, enough to make me feel guilty for voting for the man who is, by practically every other measure in my judgment, clearly both the better candidate and the better man.

In 2006 I put my support behind the Democrats, and my concerns about abortion policy and rights really didn't trouble me at all; why are my feelings different this time around? Partly because that wasn't a presidential election, and while I may grouse about the imperial presidency and how the role of Congress has been eclipsed and how much better some things would be if ours were a parliamentary democracy, I'm hardly blind to today's reality that American presidents generally set the tone and agenda for American politics. Hence non-presidential elections get weighed differently in my mind that presidential ones. More importantly, I was able to focus on numerous Congressional races that year (Bob Casey in particular, but also Harold Ford, James Webb, and numerous others), in anticipation that, assuming they got into office, they might be able to contribute to a change in the party along the lines of my social hopes. Did that happen? Looking back at what I wrote following the 2006 midterms, I'd say the answer depends on your frame of reference--more than a few socially conservative and economically progressive representatives and senators did get elected, but did that suggest a movement in the Democratic party towards a greater acceptance of traditionalism and populism, or rather towards a kind of Perot-style "soft libertarian" nationalism? Or neither? Either way, 2008 and the rise of Barack Obama to the presidency is changing so much of what had been anticipated or calculated regarding the Democratic party; it's better to treat his candidacy and what he will mean and do as president on its own terms--and that means, for me at least, looking at his position on abortion separate from all that came before, and making a fresh judgment. Unfortunately, that doesn't making me feel any better.

I begin--and I know that for many of you this is old news, but bear with me--with the Democratic party's new platform language on abortion, language which Obama and his people helped to shape. It's language which drops the old Clintonian phrase about needing to make abortion "safe, legal, and rare," replacing it with an even stronger affirmation of the fundamentals of Roe v. Wade, while also making substantive, practical promises to assist women who choose not to have an abortion. As such, it's been praised by Democrats on both sides of the abortion divide. No one has done a better job at parcing than this language Steven Waldman, whose reporting--and conclusions--on this issue I've really come to trust. Here's his upshot:

It's classic Obama, really. Ultra-pragmatic, consensus-building, favoring incremental steps in the right direction over broad culture war battles....But the plank will end up as meaningless if Obama doesn't push the Third Way approach aggressively. He spoke a bit about it at Saddleback but it was overshadowed by his lousy answer on whether determining the beginning of life was above his pay grade. Dropping a sentence or two into Q&As is not going to do the trick, especially given the attacks against him as a pro-abortion extremist. The abortion issue is stuck in a particular groove. Both pro-life and pro-choice forces have something in common: they like to focus on questions about legal restrictions. Most Americans take a different view, wanting abortion to be legal despite thinking that it's wrong. The Democratic Party plank opened the door to a new abortion politics, but it's far from clear that Obama is going to plunge through the door and attempt to rally the country behind a Third Way approach.

What is the "Third Way" approach Waldman--and therefore presumably Obama--is referring to? In this case, it's the idea that arguments over abortion ought to eschew discussions of rights and restrictions, and instead treat the topic like a social problem, the sort that can best be resolved through changing the economic and health circumstances under which abortion as a choice enters into the discussion between a couple or between a woman and her doctor in the first place. Hence the argument, advanced by some (see here and here), that the Democratic party, under Obama's leadership, would do far more to practically advance the heart of the pro-life cause--namely, reducing or stopping or deterring abortion--than any amount of Republican braying about liberal appointments to the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade ever will.

Waldman, to his credit, is dubious about all this, and rightly so. The problem is not the proposals, all of which sound pretty appealing to me; indeed, the failure of the Republican party and the pro-life movement generally to think about social spending and instead to fetishize "life" as a slogan without thinking about the context within which it may be recognized as valuable in the first place is a huge failure on their part. But the same thing, only in the reverse, applies to Obama's Democratic party. In order for the "pro-Obama, pro-life" argument as a set of policies to be fully enacted, to even just be treated as a fully respectable policy option for a President Obama to pursue, there needs to be some recognition that the practice of abortion is, in the great majority of cases anyway, a wrong, a harm, one that may be and should be, however minimally, however subject to other civil rights and prudential concerns, a topic about which democratic and popular judgments which acknowledge that wrong or that harm can legitimately be made (as I've argued for before, and which, for all their limits and pitfalls, really do make a difference). And Obama's promises on the campaign trail, especially about the Freedom of Choice Act, would make that important element of pursuing a true Third Way, if not impossible, then perhaps at best only a little better than mere window dressing.

This does not mean that Obama has nothing at all to offer voters who, like me, consider abortion to be a wrong and a harm, and want to know if his apparent disagreement with or lack of acknowledgement of our considerations--at least insofar certain definitions of "wrong" or "harm" are concerned--means that our point of view is completely anathema to him, one with which there is no common ground possible. Such is not entirely the case, at least not insofar as I can tell. I'm not comfortable with the culture war language many others have used to describe the man; he doesn't strike me as an "abortion radical," if only because a great deal of the raw material used to construct that label depends upon extremely marginal evidence, such as his vote in the Illinois senate on the Born Alive bill. To be sure, the conclusions which can be drawn from Obama's vote against that bill, and the excuses he has come up for doing so, are pretty clear evidence on their own that Obama isn't often thinking seriously--when he thinks at all--about abortion. But to build a major case against the man on the basis of a legislative movement that is, to a great degree, a distraction and semantic trap, strikes me as a mistake, especially in light of his comments from the final debate, comments which, as Waldman insightfully observed, suggested an appreciation of those voters worried about abortion rights for reasons having to do with sexuality and responsibility and religiosity and dignity. Which really means me, I guess. (The fact that strongly pro-choice defenders of Roe v. Wade read his comments the same way suggests that I'm not wrong in seeing Obama's words in this light.)

But maybe all this just suggests that I'm the problem; that I'm looking for words and possibilities--not likely ones, but at least glimmers of potential ones, if nothing else--to put off having to put my own beliefs regarding abortion fully on the line, and measure them against a candidate I'm not crazy about, but whom, despite his flaws, I've nonetheless really come to respect. So maybe I should do that here.

But my own beliefs regarding abortion aren't the sort of thing which are really amenable to being put on a line, because they aren't black and white. Or rather, I believe that there are black and whites out there in the thicket of issues surrounding the practice of abortion, but they aren't always blacks and white which can be codified morally, much less legally. Sometimes they can be, and indeed, I would insist that perhaps often they both can and should be...but still, not always. I admire--and in some ways even envy--the serious but relatively straightforward electoral calculations that Ross Douthat describes abortion opponents needing to make here, drawing upon the wise words of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. But then, I'm not Catholic--I'm not even, as the words are usually used, "pro-life." I don't, to get right down to theological fundamentals, believe that after my death I will be confronted by the souls of the victims of abortion in the next life; Mormon theology just doesn't support a reading of the human spirit and its creation along those lines. Or, at least, it doesn't mandate such a reading. But I must admit it may be--for a variety of reasons, grounded in scripture as much as politics and culture and demographics--moving in that direction, and is therefore calling me out as a believer and as an opponent of essentially unlimited abortion rights to oppose Obama's candidacy, if only with my own symbolic vote here in Kansas. This is almost certainly would be the view of Mormon bloggers I respect like Adam Greenwood; I would be willing to wager it is similarly--and more importantly, for a believer like myself--is almost certainly the view of many, if not all, of the leaders of my church. Implicitly refuting the facile answer Obama gave at the Saddleback forum to a question about abortion and the status of the fetus (his "that above my pay grade" comment, a comment which he subsequently admitted was too flip, but which hangs around his neck nonetheless), Elder Russell M. Nelson defended a basically Catholic/natural-law understanding of human development by detailing the growth of a person from conception on, and asserting that "to legislate when a developing life is considered 'meaningful' is presumptive and quite arbitrary, in my opinion." Moreover, rebuking the Obama's idea that abortion is a "moral and ethical" issue about which we need to respect the "profound struggles" which go into making a decision about abortion, Elder Dallin H. Oaks suggests that it is our obligation as believers to shape society positively, which means in particular in this case to "encourage righteous choices on matters [like abortion, which] God’s servants have defined as serious sins." And there are many more instances I could invoke besides these. Put it all together and it suggests a much more simple calculation--a calculation that may not involve a confrontation between our spirits and those which abortion killed whom we did not express ourselves on behalf of, but perhaps something close. Something much more substantive, anyway, than my own preferred mucking about with questions of responsibility and relationships and reduction. Something which--when set against Obama's honest statement at Saddleback that "if you believe that life begins at conception and you are consistent in that belief, then I can't argue with you on that because that"--seems to point towards only one conclusion.

And then there is this: just as above I admitted that the election of a president alters the way I prioritize voting issues, even though I don't think I should, it is similarly the case that discussions of Roe v. Wade affect me, even though I wish it were the case that the Supreme Court played a much smaller role in our lives as American citizens than it does presently. Because Roe v. Wade was, in my view, not just badly decided, but one of the most pernicious decisions the Supreme Court has ever given us, a decision which has had massive and mostly negative consequences for our collective ability--or even our willingness--to use legislatures to seek for the kind of democratic compromises which true self-government depends upon. In other words, again, I find myself nodding along with Ross Douthat: "returning control over abortion law to the hands of the voting public remains a necessary goal for any pro-life, socially-conservative politics that takes itself seriously as a change agent in American life." (And again: "[A]ny middle-ground, 'compromise' position on abortion [worth being called such]...would have to entail returning control over abortion policy to the legislative branch, and implementing, at the very least, more European-style restrictions on second and third-trimester abortions.")

So perhaps that clinches it? It's a presidential election, and there is likely to be at least one--if not two or three or four--position on the Supreme Court that'll open up over the next four years. Shouldn't I vote for McCain, if only for my own personal satisfaction, so as to vainly gesture (vain because 1) McCain isn't going to be elected, and 2) McCain probably wouldn't be able to get a truly reliable pro-life judge past a Democratic senate) in the direction of a defeat of Roe v. Wade? Moreover, perhaps Obama's language regarding abortion is all therapeutic nonsense and weak promissory notes at the very most. Shouldn't I vote for McCain, if only as the only responsible candidate on my ballot who can receive a vote to register my frustration at being obliged to overlook many admirable things in order to be counted in opposition to one truly evil thing?

But no. To walk away from standing up for many good things in the name of speaking out against one great bad thing doesn't necessarily lead to McCain: it could just as easily, here in Kansas anyway, lead me to Charles Baldwin and the Constitution Party, or Bob Barr and the Libertarian Party, and then I'd be investing myself, however nominally, in a whole host of presumptions--social and economic, as well as moral--that run even further against my overall political philosophy than McCain does...there have, after all, been a few things that I've supported McCain on, once upon a time: national service, election reform, etc. (Of course, there's also Ralph Nader, who is pretty squishy on the whole matter of abortion, but I believe I'm going to arbitrarily rule that I refuse to vote for the same person for president more than twice. Anyway, when I look at that range of options, I demur. I just don't believe it--or a I don't want to believe it. Maybe, on some terribly insignificant level, my turning away from the strong likelihood that an Obama presidency will take stands on abortion that will make things, in my view, worse rather than better in regards to that one issue; my grasping at straws ("sexuality is sacred," the responsibility of parents, reducing the need for abortion through social spending, etc., etc.) in the face of the obvious conclusion that Senator Obama is, while perhaps not a radical, than at least, as Steve Waldman put it, "very, very, very pro-choice"; my denial, if that's what it is, is simply some evidence in favor of all those conservative Republicans who have insisted that Obama's celebrity, his "cult," has convinced people to abandon their good judgment in the name of "hope."

Well, I do have hopes for what a President Obama will do--a lot of hopes, in fact. And my fears regarding what his presidency will mean for the future of abortion in America do not outweigh those hopes. Perhaps this is because I guess I'm not fully a believer in my own church's stated doctrine (or, to be exact here, in the direction which that stated doctrine seems to be evolving, even assuming that my own interpretations and applications of said doctrine adhere completely with the ones promulgated by church leaders; in the meantime, the fact that my church officially distinguishes between "the crime of abortion" and "the shedding of innocent human blood" suggests that there is at least a little bit of ambiguity left yet). Perhaps this is because Obama's focus on the social and economic context within which choices are made--whether for aborting a child or for raising and nurturing it as one should--fits in better with my own basic understanding of how to build a more egalitarian world in the midst of diversity and poverty. Perhaps this is because my own grasp of the communal dimensions of human life and politics necessitates that any serious ethic in the service of life and families and tradition--which would include a deterrance of abortion--be joined with a concern for the common good which focuses on overall well-being, and not just one's "ownership" of that which one claims as one's own. (In this final analysis, the Republican party platform today is more obsessed with "rights" than the Democratic party one, and all the worse for it.) Perhaps this is because I really am more interested in social justice than social righteousness. Or, perhaps I'm superficial, and I just like the cut of Obama's jib.

In the end, I feel conflicted. I feel conflicted because it may very well be that in four or eight years, the movement to discourage or deter abortion will, in the face of a newly invigorated Roe v. Wade-supporting majority, have been ground down to nearly nothing, with the concomitant result that one of the most important obstacles, in my view, to the thorough-going commodification of our sense of human life, to the increasingly disposable way in which we view relationships and sexuality and the obligations they should entail, will be all but silent. I hope I'm wrong, and I hope that all the good things that an Obama presidency may involve--a return to responsibility, a grasp of both the costs of and the need for genuine compassion and fairer taxation and better health in America--might rebound to make neighborhoods and families and jobs sufficiently more secure and stable as to make those same trends somewhat more minimal, or at least to hold them in place. And I hope, most of all, that my doubts are validated, and that when I die, my support in this election for a proponent of a terrible (perhaps very occasionally necessary, but still terrible) abortion regime, won't count against me at the judgment bar.


Anonymous said...

A very RAF monologue.

-Adam Greenwood

Russell Arben Fox said...

Yeah, these kind of endless navel-gazing ruminations have become typical for me, haven't they? Thanks for reading it all Adam, just the same. Maybe I'll through up something shorter and less ruminative about the race today.

Kathryn Soper said...

I feel your pain, Russell.

Thank you for this.

Rick M said...

Really nice post Russell. Very thoughtful and thorough. (Rick M from the T&S thread by the way.) I really like Mary Ann Glendon's discussion about the abortion issue in her book Rights Talk (are you familiar with it?)...she contrasts the U.S. rights-trap language with the much more pragmatic approach of Germany. Much different, and very much reduced abortion rates.

I guess I'm more confident (but not very confident) that Obama could help get the country past the polarized debate and toward that third way; more confident than I would be with a Republican anyway. I feel all hell would break loose if Roe were overturned. I think the answer lies in what the brethren have said, which is basically, let's help people make the right choice. Seems to me an Obama who is actually governing could still be pro-choice but move to a more pragmatic approach to the issue that actually puts policies in place to help facilitate the right choice. But that will take some change in thinking. While the platform does have new language about service to help women who choose to keep their child, if you look at the language carefully it is implied that unwanted pregnancies create a "need" more pregnancies. I would much rather that say demand.

I think you're right, that until Obama can acknowledge the wrongness of abortions of convenience, he probably will not move us toward that third way. But still, if you just look at the historical data, the likelihood is that the abortion rate will drop more under a Democratic versus Republican administration. See

I think we can safely cast our ballots for Obama (I did!) without fear of going to hell. I think the brethren meant what they said in the First Presidency letter. It is our choice and judgment. And of the choices on the ballot, I'll wholeheartedly say that I feel Obama "will act with integrity and [that he is] wise, good, and honest" and he will "most nearly carry out my ideas of good government." Even if he doesn't exactly line up with my favored policy approaches each time (abortion for one, sure, but also health care...I'm for a single-payer system).

Anyway, thanks again for the great post, and go Barack the vote.

Rob Perkins said...

Wow, Russell, I think you went through some of the same agonizing that I did, before deciding that I should cast my vote using a different calculus than who has the least insensible social policy.

Mostly, I vote for the sake of faction control and for a dampening of partisan excess (quite apart from fiscal irresponsibility). I think this approach guarantees good centrist government.

But the conflict was still so great, and my wife's just as great as mine, that we entered into a kind of soul-saving pact to affect the outcome not at all. I voted for Obama. She voted for McCain. We together cancel one another out, and Washington State goes along its way with a null result from Rob's household.

Regarding the social agenda, it occurred to me that the chances of the Dems going filibuster-proof this election were small. (20% or so, according to Since my state doesn't have Senators in the classes up for election this year, I don't really have a say in that, either.

And something else occurred to me. The Justices on the Supreme Court are human, and not immune to partisanship. They'd wait for a President who would replace them with a like minded legalist.

That plus a number of other factors lead me to believe that no matter who is elected today, abortion law will not change. Right now it seems like the ideological pro-choice stance has primacy, and that there isn't any way to move that needle with current political tools.

Seen that way, wouldn't it be one valid strategy to hand the GOP such an electoral drubbing that they choose to either peel off the ideologically stubborn on the question, or face a generation of being marginalized on every other issue?

Not everyone I know is very confident that such a strategy will work. In fact, they're willing to give the Democrats a veto-proof hegemony for at least two years, so that their leftist misbehavior becomes so egregious that a new center party emerges in the United States, perhaps even with specific congressional redistricting reform, nationwide.

Russell Arben Fox said...


I really like Mary Ann Glendon's discussion about the abortion issue in her book Rights Talk (are you familiar with it?)...she contrasts the U.S. rights-trap language with the much more pragmatic approach of Germany. Much different, and very much reduced abortion rates.

Mary Ann Glendon's books is a bit of an ur-text for a lot of communitarian thinking, so yes, I'm familiar with it, and yes, it is a real eye-opener. Some of her data has been challenged, but her basic argument reminds sound, I think.

I think the answer lies in what the brethren have said, which is basically, let's help people make the right choice. Seems to me an Obama who is actually governing could still be pro-choice but move to a more pragmatic approach to the issue that actually puts policies in place to help facilitate the right choice. But that will take some change in thinking.

I want to agree with you, and considering that I'll be voting for Obama today, I suppose I do. But I'm not confident that the counsel of the general authorities of the church is as conducive to "merely" pragmatic approaches to abortion reduction as you suggest it may be...I think that at least of the general authorities really do want the membership of the church to draw a line in the sand in regards to abortion, and you and I are probably on the wrong side of it. This gets into sticky issues of obedience and interpretation and so forth of course, which for today I'm happy to leave aside. But they still bother me, and will likely continue to do so, as the almost inevitable Obama presidency moves forward.

And of the choices on the ballot, I'll wholeheartedly say that I feel Obama "will act with integrity and [that he is] wise, good, and honest" and he will "most nearly carry out my ideas of good government."

On that, I completely agree. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Russell Arben Fox said...


Glad to know I'm not alone! Thanks.


I'm not much for "faction control" and "centrism," as least as the terms are usually used; I tend to think a responsive democracy requires a government capable to truly translating the will of the voters into legislation, and if the voters hand out a big victory, then the spoils--and control of government--ought to be unambiguously theirs, whether left or right. But, as I said, I'm glad to know I'm not alone with all my navel-gazing out here!

Anonymous said...

I too, have been conflicted. My vote for Bush in 2000 was cast in reaction to Stenberg v. Carhart and the two candidates' reaction to it. As much as my choice then has turned out to be a really bad president, I don't regret it at all. It's just a reminder of the kind of choice that voting is.

But as much as I still respect McCain and would expect some good things from him if he were elected, I can't vote Republican this time. If nothing else, his campaign, in some ways in spite of McCain himself, has showed the fundamental unseriousness of the conservative movement right now.

How lucky was I though, living in Indiana--the two places we lived are represented by pro-life Democrats.

Jeremiah J.

Rob Perkins said...

Russell, I don't think I'm using faction control the way it's generally understood, but I could be wrong. The point is simply to pit them against each other, so to speak, so that substantive debate is possible.

The Clinton years, for example, there seemed to be well-oiled government and much more careful use of the military.seemed this way, primarily because Clinton, for all his faults and foibles (and I'm thinking primarily of partisan strategizing, the kind of thinking that got Bill Orton of Utah tossed under the bus, not the Lewinsky impeachment), had to contend with Republicans more than a bit, in order to get his policies passed.

I liked that balance, and didn't begrudge him his Supreme Court choices on those grounds.

But I admit I'm still quite callow compared to the likes of Rove and Ickes...

Rob Perkins said...

One other comment seems apropos. At least as far as the Presidential races have gone, I don't recall any really big popular vote victories during my lifetime, with perhaps the exception of Reagan/Mondale.

Thus I don't know if your reasoning can apply to a presidential race. Peggy Noonan had something to say about that recently, about how a minority as large as 43% is not something that can or should be fairly ignored or marginalized too completely, mostly I think in the name of not fomenting an excess of unrest.

Naturally, if Obama gets a 60/40 popular split, or a 400+ electoral wipeout, I'd expect the Democrats to run with the ball, as it were, just as much as I'd expect rightist strong-executive ideologues to "support the President!" in his defense decisions.

Rick M said...


I think that at least of the general authorities really do want the membership of the church to draw a line in the sand in regards to abortion, and you and I are probably on the wrong side of it.

I'm still not convinced of that. I think Prop. 8 in California is an example of the line-in-the-sand deal you are speaking of (though members are still free to vote how they want of course with no punishment for feeling differently as I understand it). But with abortion I think there is clearly a line drawn in terms of personal morality, about the gravity of it(like unto murder) and the boundaries (exceptions in case of rape, incest, health of the mother, but still in counsel with Bishop), BUT, in terms of public policy, no clear direction that I see. Vague references to being for the right choice, but I don't take that to equate with making the procedure illegal in all cases. Am I missing something?

And in terms of an either/or choice, both platforms are "wrong" on the issue if measured against church policy (one platform to the right and the other to the left). So I guess I don't see it as starkly as you do. But I do agree very much with you that it is a terribly thorny issue for any progressive-leaning member of the church (or person of faith in general I suppose) in terms of supporting certain candidates or parties. Harry Reid has done pretty well though being a progressive without adopting the hard "pro-choice" stance. I take heart in his success in the party.

I appreciate the dialogue. I think we've got a lot in common (as in LDS faculty members in similar fields). And yes, I've read a lot of communitarian writings. Also interested in American pragmatism.