2020 and the company U.S. voters keep

Why collective responsibility is the essence of democratic politics

Published October 29, 2020 6:45AM (EDT)

A ballot is dropped off at an official Vote by Mail Drop Box for the 2020 US Elections on October 5, 2020 in Monterey Park, California, on the first day drop boxes are available to voters. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
A ballot is dropped off at an official Vote by Mail Drop Box for the 2020 US Elections on October 5, 2020 in Monterey Park, California, on the first day drop boxes are available to voters. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on The Globalist.

Guilt by association is a troublesome notion. As a matter of law, Americans learned just how troublesome in both the Mitchell Palmer raids of 1919-20, and the McCarthy era commotions over fears of communist infiltration. 

The question is arising once more in Michigan and elsewhere with extremist threats to attack or overthrow established governments. 

The challenge is not only to law enforcement officials forced to assess whether extremist plans cross legal lines. 

Keeping good company?

It also requires answers from those associating with militias or other groups whose tendencies threaten the good order of the nation: Is that the company they wish to keep? Are they satisfied by an ambiguous message to those who offer arms instead of arguments merely to "stand back and stand by"? 

In society more generally, and especially in families, the issue is crucial. Parents worry over their children's choice of friends. Will a family's efforts to mold a healthy character be frustrated by peer influences — bad language, bad habits, bad behaviors? 

Inevitably, raising a child demands wholesome examples, praying that a child will emulate admirable conduct and forswear the corrupt temptations that life presents. 

A healthy community reflects those familial concerns. Thus, it is not surprising that the issue becomes acute in politics. 

In choosing a public officer, voters cannot escape the need to judge a candidate's character, as well as his or her policy positions. 

The power of example

The power of example in the public square can never be ignored. Will a leader's expressions or conduct shape a constructive or destructive social environment? 

A forgiving community may overlook past misdeeds, for a tolerant society cannot expect perfection in the lives of public figures. 

However tolerant it may be, it cannot ignore conduct in office that betrays commonly held norms of truthfulness and integrity. 

There are, to be sure, tricky aspects to any discussion of guilt by association. Collective guilt appears repugnant on its face. 

Collective responsibility

Yet collective responsibility is the essence of democratic politics. When people elect leaders, they assume a degree of responsibility for the overall character — wise or foolish, effective or incompetent, moral or immoral — of the side they choose. 

The common assertion that elections have consequences is true, and at bottom voters are responsible for those consequences. 

America's current political campaign presents this challenge to a degree that exceeds historical experience. That helps explain the recent call to civic responsibility by prominent evangelical leaders. 

For the health of the nation

Their full-page advertisement ("For the health of the nation") urges a moral appraisal of the options offered to the country. Without specifying a choice in the election, those ads are an implicit, yet devastating, critique of the current administration. 

The difficulty runs very deep in the American polity. The 72 million citizens who voted for other candidates in 2016 cannot justly accuse all 63 million who favored the incumbent of sharing his turpitude. 

The constitution respected that minority's choice and their votes installed a president for four years. But the majority who opposed that choice can fairly expect the minority to consider the consequences of their votes. 

Most emphatically, a nation aspiring to tolerance is entitled to expect that minority to meet the civic obligation to judge rationally the example set by the individual in whom it invested executive power. 

A litany of dubious behaviour

No need to rehearse here the litany of dubious behaviors displayed by Mr. Trump. In the rawest and simplest sense of the terms, do Americans wish to associate with a man who has brought the nation into domestic turmoil and international disrepute? 

Those in Congress and beyond who enable Trump's behavior will face parallel questions of accountability. 

The point here is that every voter, in judging whether to associate with Trump or his minions, will decide to bless or condemn the conduct shown to the nation. 

What is the alternative? One thing we know for sure: Joe Biden is a big "D" Democrat with a small "d" democrat's respect for those who are not big "D" Democrats. 

Republicans and independents who have worked with him testify to his trustworthiness as a coalition builder. 

As good a man as god ever created

Long before today's campaign intensities, even his current adversary Lindsay Graham called Biden "as good a man as God ever created." 

Every voter is right to ask whether Mr. Trump's defiance of customary civility demonstrates genuine concern for anyone other than himself. 

And they should be mindful that the ballot they cast will signal their own small "r" republican — or big "A" authoritarian sympathies. 

This article is republished from The Globalist: On a daily basis, we rethink globalization and how the world really hangs together.  Thought-provoking cross-country comparisons and insights from contributors from all continents. Exploring what unites and what divides us in politics and culture. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And sign up for our highlights email here.

By Alton Frye

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