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Protest and Voter’s Remorse

On the dangers of the ill-considered passions of a constituency provoked by demagogues.

October 22, 2016

On the dangers of the ill-considered passions of a constituency provoked by demagogues.

“Oh Brooks, if I’d known you were gonna lose, I never would have voted against you.”

That tearful call from an old friend came to Congressman Brooks Hays (D-AR) on election night in 1958. A moderate Democrat and president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Hays was a saintly presence among more secular members of the House.

His political mistake: he had worked to ease the stress of school integration in Little Rock after the Supreme Court ordered an end to the separation of races in public education.

Attempting to resolve the crisis, Hays arranged an unsuccessful meeting between President Dwight Eisenhower and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus.

A few months later the racist governor prompted a write-in campaign by a segregationist that brought down the incumbent representative.

The episode is a cautionary one for all politicians. If a politician as beloved as Hays could fall to the passions of a constituency provoked by demagogues, elected officials had best be wary of offending voters.

Voting with the people – or for them?

With modern communications lending themselves to inflammatory campaigns, the incentives of incumbency shift inexorably toward self-protection and safe votes that avoid risking reprisal at the next election.

The Burkean ideal – that a representative betrays his constituents if he sacrifices informed judgment to less informed public opinion – fares poorly in modern circumstances.

Ubiquitous, relentless mass media foster the illusion that all opinions are more or less equal, when in fact the complexity of major policy issues defies superficial points of view.

The Hays experience is also a cautionary tale for voters. It underscores the danger of yielding to instinct and emotion in political campaigns and especially in the ballot booth.

The most potent tool of protest is, of course, the vote itself. The ultimate power that defines a free people is the right to “throw the bums out.” The exercise of that glorious power, however, imposes on every citizen the burden of prudence.

Voter’s remorse

Voters serve neither their own long-term interests nor that of the community if they indulge anger or prejudice or momentary impulse rather than shaping a balanced verdict about the multiple issues presented for electoral decision.

Protest is an essential nutrient of a healthy democracy, but it can also turn toxic. In its wake, voter remorse often follows.

Of the thousands whose protest votes in Florida contributed (among many factors) to defeating Al Gore in 2000 many came to feel profound regret, especially after the unjustified war of choice in Iraq. Just survey those who voted for Ralph Nader.

However, it is often not the “third” option that is the protest vote. It is often the contrarian major position that truly qualifies as a kneejerk protest vote. After all, far more people vote for the big reactionary than some minor option.

For a current example, ask those British citizens now bemoaning their support for Brexit. Voting one’s conscience is truly conscientious only if one carefully considers the risk that doing so will help elect a person who is one’s least -favored choice.

The raft of state

The British historian, Sir Denis Brogan, once described the difference between an authoritarian regime and a democratic regime.

An authoritarian regime is like a great ship moving in stately fashion through the sea until it strikes an iceberg and sinks like a rock.

On the other hand, Brogan said, a democratic regime is more like a raft – the damn thing won’t sink but your feet are always wet!

In the campaign of 2016 all Americans are getting their feet soaked. It falls especially to those citizens who are feeling real pain in their personal lives to reflect carefully about how best to channel their grievances.

That is a heavy demand to place on them, but they are the most vulnerable to the vitriol and mean-spirited appeal of the Republican presidential candidate.

The real 2016 protest vote

No one knows how many voters are inclined to cast protest votes, but polls suggest that there are millions. The burden of prudence also weighs on those attracted to vote for a third-party candidate.

They, too, must judge whether their protest in support of a certain loser will work to elect a menace to the republic.

Unlike institutional partisans dancing desperately to protect their down-ballot candidates from too close an association with the divisive head of their ticket — a true RINO (Republican-In-Name-Only) for the moment — those searching for an effective way to protest face a different calculation.

But there will be far more voters this year whose “protest” against the status quo is to choose Trump himself.

This is unwise. Even if no choice seems palatable, a voter can tell the difference between castor oil and cyanide. For their own sake and that of the country, they should ponder the consequences of a Trump victory.

Will they be saying after the election, “If we had known Trump was gonna win, we never would have voted for him”?


Ubiquitous, relentless mass media foster an illusion that all public opinions are more or less equal.

For their own sake & that of the country, voters should ponder the consequences of a Trump victory.

US voters may say: “If we had known Trump was going to win, we’d never have voted for him.”