Vote, yes, but please study first

A few weeks ago I was with friends in a mountain town, soaking up the local color, when a woman in full stars and stripes regalia approached us.

Her: “Are you registered voters in the state of Colorado? Would you like to sign a petition to give local communities more autonomy?” (She shows us a stack of petition sheets full of signatures.)

Me: “More autonomy in what?”

Her: “Oh, it’s all written right here,” (points to her clipboard).

Me: “Do people actually sign this petition just because you say that it will ‘give communities more autonomy?'”

Her (cheerfully): “Why yes, they certainly do.”

[Meanwhile, my friend begins reading the petition. Stars and Stripes Woman immediately yanks it away.]

Her: “I‘m going to talk to those people over there. I don’t like your attitude. Good-bye.”

So apparently there are people—lots of them, given the stack of signatures I saw—who sign petitions on the street, simply because they are told that they will “give communities more autonomy,” without knowing how or what kind of autonomy or anything about what they are advocating. For all they know, their communities may be petitioning to withdraw from the state, or to secede from the Union entirely.

I have to admit that, if I were the Boss of Everybody, my first instinct would be to say that those people, whoever they are, should not be allowed to vote. In fact, maybe I would even make this a test. I would stand on street corners asking people if they will sign a petition to “give communities more autonomy.” If anyone signed it without question, I would immediately revoke their voter registration, and not readmit them to the polls until they had taken a course on American History, and written a five-page essay on “why I have no business voting if I have no idea what I’m doing.”

But I am not the Boss of Everybody, and a representative republic like ours doesn’t work this way. Self-government means just that. It works when we all participate.

But participating doesn’t just mean pulling a lever. It means studying the issues, and understanding the bigger picture of how government works and how various candidates and proposals will impact the way it works in the future.

I see many indications that this isn’t happening.

For instance, I see college students—and others who should be old enough to know better—suddenly enamored of this brand new, completely untried idea called “socialism.” Because, you know . . . free stuff! Free college! Free healthcare! Why didn’t we think of this before?

It turns out that we have an unlimited, heretofore undiscovered and untapped source of money in the coffers of certain individuals known as “rich people.” Thanks to them and their largess, we can eradicate poverty while enjoying lots and lots of free stuff! What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty. Those of us who study history—and current world events—know exactly what happens when we run out of “other people’s money.” And it isn’t pretty.

Worse yet, a government powerful enough to give you everything you want can also take everything away. And that includes not just your money but your liberty—particularly your religious liberty.

The current socialism “fad” is but one example of the damage voters can do when they are ill-informed about the consequences of their electoral choices. Voters on the left and the right seem to have forgotten—or never learned—why the United States was founded in the first place, the rights it was founded to protect, the proper role of government, and indeed what freedom really is. And we threaten our future by making ill-informed voting decisions based on our own interests (or ignorance) instead of respect for the God-given rights of every human person—rights this nation was founded to protect.

As I write this, religious colleges in California are fighting legislation that would subject them to “anti-discrimination” laws and lawsuits over traditional Christian morality—threatening their very existence as religious institutions. Other battles are emerging seemingly daily. And, of course, for the past 40 plus years the federal government has forbidden the states from protecting our most defenseless citizens—the unborn. The aged, the infirm are likewise threatened by impending euthanasia legislation, wherein they fear that the “right to die” will quickly become the “duty to die.”

And the list goes on and on.

As government grows bigger, the rights of the individual grow smaller.

And so, I am asking you to please, for the love of God and everybody else, educate yourself about what is at stake in this election. Study American history with your family, especially the story of our founding. (Hillsdale College offers excellent free online courses at Study world history—and current world events—and see how various systems of government have worked out in other countries. Read and share the “Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics” at Pray for guidance.

And then vote.

Your duty to vote doesn’t begin and end in the voting booth. It begins with educating yourself, reading, becoming informed. Voting should be the culmination of a long process of study and reflection.

Your vote is a precious gift. Use it wisely.

This column was written by Mary Beth Bonacci.

COMING UP: Homelessness, party-style

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

I grew up in what you might call a genetically-Democratic family, but one in which partisan heterodoxy was not uncommon. My parents voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower twice, for Richard M. Nixon in 1960, and for the occasional Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Maryland. But they were registered Democrats and, when I gained the franchise, it would have seemed somehow unnatural for me to register as a Republican. It would also have been stupid, in that Maryland was already en route to becoming one of the most reliably blue states on the map; and if one wanted a say in anything, it was going to be through the medium of the Democratic primaries.

In my early professional life in Seattle, I worked with and for Republican and Democratic representatives and senators and voted in a happily bipartisan way. But when I returned to Maryland in 1984, I had no hesitation about registering as a Democrat, despite admiring (and voting for) Ronald Reagan. (In fact, I haven’t cast a vote for a Democratic presidential nominee since 1980, when I voted for Jimmy Carter, but was delighted to see him defeated). Still, I told myself that I had to maintain my Democratic registration if I were to have any electoral leverage, however minor, in the Free State.

Declaring myself a Democrat, however, became impossible in principle after the 1992 Democratic National Convention. There, the last senior Democratic office-holder with whom I ever worked, Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey, was denied an opportunity to speak by the nascent Clinton Machine. Why? Because the twice-elected governor of a key state with a rich lode of Electoral College votes was ardently and intelligently pro-life. And pro-life people were heretics – misogynistic outliers to be expunged from the party’s national life – in the Democratic Party of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

So it was with a combination of relief and chagrin that I went to the appropriate county office and changed my registration, declaring myself a Republican – and getting a look from the clerk as if I’d declared myself a member of the Klan.

I now wonder if I’m about to make that journey again: not, of course, to revert to a Democratic Party that has ever more mindlessly arranged its affairs around an absolutist commitment to the sexual revolution and its relentless assault on traditional culture, but to declare myself the 21st-century equivalent, in party terms, of a stateless-person. The Democratic Party once left me. Now, the Republican Party has left me by embracing Donald Trump, a man utterly unfit by experience, intellect, or character to be President of the United States (a trifecta of disqualifiers, I hasten to add, that I would also apply to Mrs. Clinton).

I shall undoubtedly vote for Republicans down-the-ballot in November. Leading Republicans still promote an agenda of national renewal that seems to me more reflective of Catholic social doctrine than anything on offer from the Democrats. Prominent Republicans are still far more likely than prominent Democrats to defend religious freedom and to underscore the importance of the free associations of civil society in a healthy democracy, thus affirming the core Catholic social-ethical principle of subsidiarity. The pro-life agenda remains alive in the Republican Party; its lethal opposite is the declaratory policy of Democrats, ruthlessly enforced within the party. And for all that Republicans have failed in addressing the legitimate concerns of those unable to make it in a globalized economy driven by the IT revolution, I still think Republicans are more likely to come up with creative solutions to the chasm in our society between those who can prosper and those who can’t cope, than are Democrats chained to the notion that legislating further, deeper dependency on the state is the humane way forward.

But I cannot bring myself to cast a vote for Donald Trump for president, even under the rubric of playing strategic electoral defense. And while I hope the Republican Party repudiates Trumpism in the future, you’ll know where to find me if it doesn’t: among those who, taking their cues from Catholic social doctrine, will try to forge a new political instrument for advancing the truths in which we believe – and on which the future of the Republic depends.