On voting, should you let your conscience be your guide? Part 2

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on exploring the individual conscience as political power. Part one can be found here.

From Jiminy Cricket to Thoreau

In talking with a colleague of mine about voting one’s conscience, he recalled that top hat-wearing cricket, Jiminy, who sat on Pinocchio’s shoulder and urged him (and us) to “always let our conscience be our guide.”

That kind of “Jiminy Cricket conscience” asks us to follow our own beliefs, possibly at the expense of others.

What about a conscience grounded in an awareness of collective need? I’m not sure the concept of “conscience” is even a proper term here. We may need a new lexicon, given the term’s use and development in American cultural tradition.

In his classic essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” Henry David Thoreau, reflecting on his political and social responsibility as an individual, wrote, “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

This he concludes in response to his question, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?”

Thoreau’s thinking here is firmly rooted in and shaped by the romantic individualist tradition. This brings me to wonder about the way this concept of conscience, when exercised in a political function, tends to be rooted in an individualist ethos divorced from genuine collective concern. He may be the chief theorist to elevate individual conscience as political power.

The conscience, as Thoreau conceives it, can easily disregard the needs of the collective. Indeed, for Thoreau in this famous essay, collective struggle and organization are beyond the pale of his political imagination, as his thinking is premised, unwittingly I believe, in a concept of the individual as already alienated from others.

Thus, he can assert quite confidently and blithely, “I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society. I am not the son of an engineer.”

In other words, if society collapses and devolves into chaos, it’s not his problem-but, of course, he has a piece of land and a cabin on Walden Pond and access to resources should social structures crumble.

Chris Hedges, Robert Reich and Thoreauvian acts

Thoreau’s essay came to mind for me recently when I was trying to assess a Democracy Now!  debate between Chris Hedges and Robert Reich about which candidate Bernie Sanders voters should support now. Hedges made it clear that while he endorses Jill Stein and the Green Party, his larger target is voting against and stopping what he calls “neoliberal poison,” which is larger than any individual political personality. For Hedges, achieving substantial change means thinking beyond an election cycle and understanding we have to vote for and against systems, not personalities.

In elaborating this view, he points out, “We have to remember that 10 years ago, Syriza, which controls the Greek government, was polling at exactly the same spot that the Green Party is polling now-about 4 percent. We’ve got to break out of this idea that we can create systematic change within a particular election cycle. We’ve got to be willing to step out into the political wilderness, perhaps, for a decade.”

In response, Reich argues that while he agrees with Hedges’ critique of neoliberalism, risking a Trump presidency “will not be just political wilderness, that will actually change and worsen the structure of this country.”

I suggest we see Hedges’ willingness to risk embarking on the rough odyssey into the chaos of a political wilderness as a Thoreauvian act of conscience, meaning as an act rooted in individual ego and indulgence rather than a care and awareness of what the masses need most immediately and which can be addressed short-term in an election, if only partially, while we continue to organize collectively for change in the long-term.

More to the point, this romantic sense of conscience seems to be a luxury premised on class privilege. Perhaps it is those socio-economically positioned to survive a chaotic upheaval, in a way the most vulnerable and precariously in need may not be able to, who can afford to listen to their Jiminy Crickets and recommend the descent into a wilderness.

While revolution must disrupt the world as it is, it also requires organization. Hedges’ thrill for an errand into the wilderness seems more rooted in a romantic individualist stance against a system, than a concern for the welfare of others.

“An existential choice”

Ironically, it was the recent comments of Republican strategist and head of a Trump super-PAC, Alex Castellanos, on Meet the Press that spurred this train of thought for me. In rationalizing a vote for Trump despite his temperament, he said:

“So I think, yes, there are a lot of questions here about temperament, but character and strength are important here, too. And you know, we’re in Washington, we’re the protected class, we’re going to survive this election without disturbance, no matter what, right?

“But that’s not true for the rest of America. This is an existential choice for a lot of families. So you know, I think we ought to have a little bit more, its– temperament can be a little aggressive sometimes, sure. But you need strength to hold the country together and get us out of the ditch here.”

Clearly, Castellanos was parroting the faux anti-elite railings of Trump that targets President Obama and Clinton as representatives of the protected class. But there are kernels of class truth here. There is a protected class and this election is “an existential choice” for millions.

Perhaps the conscience of the protected, albeit visionary, intellectual is downplaying the immediate needs of our most vulnerable fellow citizens, insisting on an ideological narrative of change that will entail suffering for those most in need of aid, which he himself will not have to endure.

In contrast, the choices of those like Sanders and Reich to work within existing structures and attempt to invest those forms with a new radical content can be understood as a rejection of this highly individualist and purity-insistent conscience, unwilling to abandon the most needy to a desolate wilderness. Sanders easily could have chosen to run as an independent, in which case he might have by now drifted off into the margins, reduced to a figure of little consequence or influence.

As it is, at least as evidenced by the Democratic Party’s platform, he seems to have succeeded in bringing his ideas from the margins to the center.

Whether Clinton’s and the DNC’s ventriloquist act is sincere is a matter that remains to be seen, but let me suggest it is fair to say that should Clinton win the presidency and not demonstrate a sincere effort to pursue the policies of Sanders she has begun to parrot, she will be a one-term president, losing the support of those progressive constituencies that warily risked crossing over to support her.

Activism matters

Of course, when it comes to voting one’s conscience, we also need to remember that Thoreau put little stock in voting, dismissing it as “a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon.” He asserts, “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.”

In short, for Thoreau voting one’s conscience is of little consequence. Finally what matters is one’s political activism and collective action (though Thoreau wouldn’t say that) that pushes politicians to respond to people’s needs and desires in the platforms and policies they craft.

A third party, or any genuine political alternative to the current duopoly, likely won’t be forged through an election. I agree with Hedges about that. That said, why let one’s vote potentially do harm by linking it to a narrow sense of conscience, lest we find ourselves in some other version of the Iraq war?

I am not suggesting we not act with conscience per se, but I am suggesting that the call on conscience tends to root us in an individualist stance that removes us from our relationship with the many others in our world and prevents us from seriously imagining the impact of our voting behavior on their lives.

For the public good

We might just need a different term, maybe something like “social justice” or the “public good” which takes us out of our individual sense of rightness to think in broader terms. Indeed, the very problem with neoliberalism is its evacuation of the concept of a public good, its denial of its very validity, as it insists we are motivated only by private interests.

Re-vitalizing the concept of the public good could go a long way toward pushing us to develop a political imagination that recognizes our radical interdependence.

What does seem to matter in the way we exercise our “conscience” in both voting and action is our ability to think through the effect of our choices not just on ourselves but on the many others with whom we are related in radically interdependent ways.

Photo: Tom Arthur/CC/Wikimedia


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.