In her carefully argued book, Law’s Virtues, legal scholar Cathleen Kaveny reminds us that the primary function of voting is to select the best candidate and suggests four general points to consider in making our choice: competence, character, collaboration, and connections. Starting with the last point, the issue of connections raises questions about party affiliation, individual and corporate donors and relationships to power brokers and lobbyists. Political parties tend to pick candidates who have a clean background and a compelling story, who are media savvy and effective public speakers and who can further the party’s policies, especially by winning an election. Noting the importance of party affiliation, Kaveny argues that “voting the party” may be a “morally justified” strategy: for example, we could imagine voters, who have been unable to learn much about either lesser known candidate, choosing one on the basis of party affiliation because they agree with the general philosophy of that party.
Given the extreme polarization of our current political process, the ability to collaborate takes on added importance. In the past, members of Congress were more likely to socialize across party lines and to form friendships and working relationships with members of the other party, which facilitated bipartisan legislation. Today, time and energy donated to raising money cuts down on socializing and reduces the possibility of forming close friendships. Furthermore, these days there is seldom a political payoff for bipartisan cooperation, which is more likely to anger the extreme base of both parties. We need political leaders who will promote bipartisan dialogue and collaboration even when it is not popular.
According to Kaveny, competent candidates have “the intellectual capacity, the experience, the temperament and the judgment” to do the job, which today involves managing major crises created by the pandemic, the economic downturn, the nuclear threat and global warming. We need a president and members of Congress who understand the gravity and dynamics of these challenges and who can develop effective executive and legislative solutions to them.
As to character, professor Kaveny argues that candidates need a good set of moral values and the integrity to pursue them in “situations of temptation and fear.”
In their voting guide, “Faithful Citizenship,” the American bishops emphasize the great importance of the virtue of prudence as a fundamental character strength of elected officials. Prudence is a cardinal virtue, an exercise of practical wisdom, which empowers elected leaders to make wise, courageous, consistent and realistic decisions to promote the common good in specific concrete circumstances. Prudent politicians recognize that the perfect can be the enemy of the good and that passing bipartisan legislation requires the “art of the possible.” Given the current deluge of misinformation and mistrust in institutions, we need politicians who respect the truth, even when inconvenient, and promote honest dialogue and collaboration, even when politically costly. Faced with wide-ranging challenges, we need prudent leaders who promote policies that protect the rights of all, especially the most vulnerable, who support our democratic institutions, and who are dedicated to foster a more just, peaceful and verdant world.
What strengths and weaknesses of candidates are most important to me?