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Imperium Watch: The Robust Art of Voting

Single-issue voting is reductive?and perilous for the country.

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

This election season has seen fierce debate among Jewish Americans about whether to vote for Obama or Romney—debate heated by Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu's hardline position on Iran.

In an article entitled "Five Reasons Why Jews Should Not Vote for Obama," Michael Freund in The Jewish Press.com gave as one reason: "Under Obama, relations between the U.S. and Israel have been more tense that at any time in recent memory. Who can forget how in May, 2010, the president made Israel's prime minister enter the White House through a side door in an act intended to humiliate him? Or how Obama has now refused to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu this month in New York. ... Rather than standing by Israel at this perilous juncture, Obama has chosen to distance himself from the Jewish state. Jewish voters should respond in kind and distance themselves from Obama."

In the opposite corner was Haim Saban of the Brookings Institution, who wrote in a New York Times op-ed: "When [Obama] visited Israel as a candidate he saw firsthand how vulnerable Israeli villagers were to rocket attacks from Gaza. As president, he responded by providing full financing and technical assistance for Israel's Iron Dome short-range anti-rocket defense system, which is now protecting those villagers. In July, he provided an additional $70 million to extend the Iron Dome system across southern Israel. That's in addition to the $3 billion in annual military assistance to Israel. ... When I enter the voting booth, I'm going to ask myself, what do I prefer for Israel and its relationship with the United States: meaningful action or empty rhetoric? To me the answer is clear: I'll take another four years of Mr. Obama's steadfast support over Mr. Romney's sweet nothings."

Somewhere beyond the specifics of this disagreement hovers a point that needs urgently to be made: when people enter the voting booths, they should ask themselves one question. That question, to American citizens voting in an election in the United States, should be, which candidate will best serve the interests of the United States and its people? That's the question they're there to answer—not the question of what will best serve the interests of another country.

The point is not that Jewish people are the only people who should search their consciences about voting a single issue. We all should. Jewish people are not the only ones who face a conflict about whether to base their votes on affiliation with or loyalty to another country. Irish Americans; Cuban Americans; Iraqi Americans; any number of people face, or have faced, that issue.

And there are all kinds of single issues. There are temptations to vote for the candidate who supports gun rights. The candidate who will allow media conglomerates to control multiple outlets in the same city. The candidate who will not regulate financial services. The candidate who opposes abortion rights, or supports them. The candidate who favors gay rights, or opposes them.

With the fabric of American society being tested in so many ways, there's even more to be lost than usual this year if the election degenerates into a contest between special interests and single issues. In an increasingly complex world, the complex matter of voting seems simpler if one decides to make a single issue the touchstone.

But the challenge of voting is to consider all that's at stake with our votes, and balance everything so as to shape a set of priorities that enable us to vote well. That's hard. It takes broad, varied information, much of it dismaying information, and a willingness to weigh what is important to us against what is important to other people.

Historically, studies of voting have included discussions of the positive and negative sides of special interests, pressure groups and single-issue voting. One such discussion is an article by John Langan, a Jesuit priest who taught ethics at Georgetown, Yale and other universities, on the morality of single-issue voting. Published in 1982 in Christian Century, a magazine with many readers who have experienced crises of conscience about such matters as pre-emptive war, nuclear proliferation and abortion, the article contained examples of the need for balance in voting: for example, if one is concerned with the preservation of life, does one vote for a president who opposes abortion if he also favors military adventuring and liberalizing the use of nuclear weapons? Among its conclusions:

"There must be a willingness to consider negative consequences for other issues as I make my decision, and a readiness to move beyond this issue to collaborate with others in dealing with the multitude of evils that afflict our society and humanity in general. A single issue should not degenerate into a monomania."?

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