Most of our country believes this election is a disaster. Unless something changes, America — the greatest experiment in self-government the world has ever known — is going to spend the next four months shouting that the other party’s nominee is the bigger liar. Tragically, everyone knows that neither frontrunner tells the truth.
My intent tonight is not to throw rocks. It is instead to start a larger conversation about what voting means and about the kind of candidates we want in the future — so that this never happens again.
This letter is actually not primarily about the 2016 US election. But the need to highlight three often overlooked distinctions has been made more urgent by the shallow debate surrounding our troubling presidential choice. We need more wrestling together about: 1) What voting means; 2) How DC should be disrupted; and 3) Why admitting that everyone is broken and fallen does not mean we stop caring about the character of the person in the Oval Office.
Distinction I: Strategic vs. Conscience Voting
Many people I admire and some I deeply love have made thoughtful cases that voting is just a matter of “choosing the lesser of two evils.” I understand their argument, and I respect what we will here call “strategic voting.” It’s not my intent here to bind anyone’s conscience or to persuade them to vote differently. If you want to do that, that’s surely your right.
I do hope, however, to explain to these strategic voters why many other Americans think that voting means more than just the least bad option on the ballot. Call us “conscience voters.” To us, voting is not merely about 1/130-millionth of deciding who should preside over 1/3 of the federal government from 2017 to 2021. To us, the act of voting is also a civic duty that tells people what we think America means, what we want to teach our kids about moral leadership, what face we want America to present to the world, and what sort of candidates we want more of in coming years.
Distinction II: Constructive vs. Destructive Disruption
One of the strangest aspects of the last year has been hearing defenders of my party’s frontrunner respond to questioning of him by claiming that skeptics of him are merely defenders of the status quo. Nope. (I was elected less than two years ago over the strong objections of the Washington establishment.) DC is not a serious place, and it is not focused on the biggest problems we face. The establishment absolutely needs to be disrupted. This is why I ran in the first place.
But now we must ask a second question: Exactly why do we want to disrupt this city? Because some men just want to watch the world burn? Not me. I have no desire to see the National Archives, where the Constitution sits in DC, in ashes. Rather, I want to see our Constitution dusted off, followed, and restored to its rightful place in American life as we again teach our kids about universal human dignity, natural rights, limited government, and public service. It isn’t enough to simply tear down — nihilism never built anything or ultimately satisfied anyone. We do need to disrupt Washington, but not for disruption’s sake. And so, if a candidate says they want to disrupt Washington, then they darn well better be able to explain why — to what end. They need more than slogans; they need to lay out an actual vision for the future and where they will take us.
Distinction III: Civil vs. Theological Righteousness
A republic — that is, a form of government where “we the people” ultimately rule — depends upon virtue. Now look, I get it: As soon as the word “virtue” is uttered — especially by politicians or the media — most of us immediately get the creeps. We have many good reasons to be cynical. We assume that the speaker is either a moralist, a hypocrite, or both.
So let me begin by stating clearly: My faith begins with the simple fact that “all have sinned” and that doesn’t just happen to include me — it especially includes me. Like the Apostle Paul, I’m “chief of sinners.” I need a Savior. You might not use Christian language like this, but whatever your worldview, no one who is at all honest about his or her heart denies that they have sinned against their neighbor, that they have at some point lied, or stolen, or hurt the people they were supposed to love. Okay, good: So we have defined theological righteousness according to the Christian tradition.
But that is different than political righteousness or civic virtue. There is much still to say, although most of it will be in shades of gray, about the kind of people we elect. In any character discussion of the people we elect or consider electing, let’s begin with some basic realities: Most of us are not guilty of murder. Some are, and I think we can all agree that murderers should be excluded from the pool of those we consider for the presidency.
But not all law-breaking is equal. For instance, I have a lead foot. I have received multiple speeding tickets in my three decades of driving. Many of you are guilty with me; others are not. But as a general rule, careless driving should not disqualify someone from being considered for public service by the voters.
Our situation today lies somewhere between those two extremes. We don’t have a murderer on our hands, but neither of these people are just low-level speeders, either. Sadly, they both appear to be willfully dishonest.
Our public square is plagued by habitual, brazen lying. This isn’t entirely new — there have always been some politicians who lied — but I do not believe this country can long survive if the public concedes in advance that people in government do not need to be consistently aiming to tell the truth. In other words, it’s one thing to elect someone who ends up lying to us after the fact. (That’s terrible.) But it’s another thing entirely to conclude in advance that they are both liars, and simply shrug and elect them anyway. That does something to the national soul that tears at the fabric of who we are.
By the way, this is a good time to say that if you really think one of the two presidential frontrunners is genuinely trustworthy, then fine, you should vote and sleep soundly. Sadly, I do not regard either of them as worthy of our trust. This matters a great deal, because before I can vote for someone, a minimum-bar prerequisite is that I must believe that, on January 20, 2017, he or she would be taking the oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution” and actually mean it.
Today, I do not have this confidence about either of the current frontrunners. I think one of them does not even know what the Constitution is about, and the other doesn’t care.
So Now What?
I am writing this open letter in advance of the national conventions with sympathy for the millions of Americans who yearn to cast our ballots for someone we judge to be trustworthy. One of the conventions in Philadelphia or Cleveland could still surprise us and nominate someone the Founding Fathers would be proud of, and someone our kids and grandkids won’t be ashamed of. Ask yourself: Why are these two the most unpopular candidates in the history of presidential polling? Because they are not honest. And everyone knows it. They do not embody the best of America.
To be clear, I have a strong desire for a candidate who is a conservative. But this is more foundational than mere policy differences right now. More important are the virtue of the individual who would serve as our president, as our face to the world, and their understanding of limited government — which is that we believe in the universal dignity of our people and in their inalienable rights.
This discussion is about much more than one election. It is about who we are as a people. It is about what this nation stands for — it is about what America means. Our two dominant political parties will probably come apart, and many of us are going to need to recognize that, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept fundamentally dishonest leaders.
If we shrug at public dishonesty — if we normalize candidates who think that grabbing power makes it okay to say whatever they need to in the short-term — then we will be changed by it. Given what we now know about them, choosing to vote for these two individuals is in some ways less about them than it is about us. I’m not sure how we come back from that.
In closing, I started writing this as a letter to a friend last Monday, early in the morning on the Fourth of July, at Camp Resolute Support, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Although my outdoor table was backed up against razor wire, what a blessing it was to feel safe because of the service of the men and women in uniform on the other side of that wall. On that base, just like at U.S. bases I’ve visited across the world, troops almost never want to talk about the divisive parts of politics. They rarely mention candidates or positions on marginal tax rates. Instead, troops talk about “American values” — about what we’re fighting for — and about how we’re seen by the folks we are persuading to help us fight the jihadis.
Having looked these young men and women in the face, it is my sincere hope that we return to a tradition where a man or woman’s word is his or her bond, and where our public servants are virtuous leaders who run campaigns based on constructive ideas about where the country needs to go next. For that, tens of millions of Americans would happily vote — and our broken civic life could begin to heal.
It seems like we’ve gone from “I cannot tell a lie,” to “I need not tell the truth.” What am I missing? You tell me…
Ben Sasse if the U.S. Senator for Nebraska