Members Only | October 23, 2018 | Reading Time: 6 minutes

Voting and the Practice of Liberal Virtue

Voting matters even if your vote isn't counted.

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I find that liberals dislike talking about virtue, probably because talking about virtue, in a context including conservatives, makes them sound conservative.

I think we should get over that. For one thing, conservatism depends on liberalism. The former can’t exist without the latter, because without liberalism, conservatism isn’t conservative anymore—it’s just straight up fascism.

For another, liberalism isn’t only about a proactive government playing a legitimate role in our lives. It isn’t only about good-faith evidence-based solutions to complex problems. It isn’t only about the maximization of personal liberty. Liberalism is a set of virtues about citizenship, the common good and mutual obligation.

It’s about doing the right thing.

You may have noticed a pattern. The weaker liberalism has become politically, socially, and institutionally, the more conservatism has looked like, and has become, straight up fascism. Yes, part of that stems from a system that’s rigged. The Senate is anti-democratic. Congressional districts are gerrymandered. Voting laws are increasingly restrictive. (And liberals have played a role in all this, especially with respect to a globalized economy.) But part of fascism’s rise also stems from a lack of conviction.

It’s entirely understandable that many people have lost faith in government given the fact that so much of government is designed to favor the rich, powerful and well-connected. It’s especially understandable for minorities to see any form of government as an agent of evil, and want nothing to do with it. But losing faith in government is not the same as losing faith in doing the right thing. I’m talking about voting.

Why do we do the right thing? Is it because we are hoping for a material reward? Sometimes it is. But most of the time, there is no reward—none, other than having done the right thing. I believe liberalism, as set of beliefs about good citizenship, the common welfare and mutual obligation—about what we want to be as a society and nation–demands we do the right thing even if doing the right thing has no reward.

Voting is the right thing.

In Georgia, the secretary of state is running for governor. He’s also the official in charge of the voter rolls. He’s a Republican running against a dynamic Democrat who is a black woman. Citizens getting purged from voter rolls are overwhelmingly African American. That has a lot of black voters in Georgia believing their votes won’t count. So they are not planning to vote, according to this report from the Daily Beast.

The controversy is complex. Many black voters can still vote. They just have to present the right ID. But from this nuance has arisen a belief that voting doesn’t matter. Voting does matter. It matters even if your vote isn’t counted. It matters, because voting is the right thing to do. It matters, because voting is liberal virtue in action. It is what you do when you believe in the duties of citizenship, the common good and everyone’s moral and political obligation to everyone else. I know this sounds academic. What difference does it make if my vote isn’t counted? The difference is a matter of conviction, of the courage needed to face what’s coming.

Odds are good that the Democrats will take control of the House in November. But probability isn’t the same thing as certainty. There is still a chance the Republicans will keep the House, along with the Senate and the White House. If that happens, the next two years will make the last two years look like a cakewalk by comparison.

Think about it. If the Republicans control of all branches of government, the president will almost certainly fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, kill off Obamacare, cut taxes on the rich even more, devastate the lives of immigrants and refugees even more, and otherwise rule with total impunity. The president is talking right now about a military confrontation against thousands of immigrants at the border. It’s not hard to imagine him ordering the military to shoot immigrants on sight. Worse, the GOP will have no incentive to change, creating conditions that will endure for years and years.

If that happens, what are you going to do? Throw up your hands and say, my vote wasn’t counted so what can I do? No. It takes more than voting to realize a country deserving to be called a republic. It takes believing in democracy even when it seems out of reach, out of sight, and unworthy of the effort. It takes virtue, liberal virtue.


Liberal virtue isn’t my idea but I do want to amplify it. The spirit of democracy can’t die as long as the people who constitute democracies believe in it. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Melvin Rogers on John Dewey’s school of democratic thought:

In focusing on culture, Dewey asks us not to leave the fate of our politics and policies wholly up to chance. He asks us to see that securing freedom, equal protection, and human dignity requires that we fight to have those values enshrined as part of the self-understanding of the citizenry. “The necessity for judgment and choice,” he once explained in 1930, “comes from the fact that one has to manage forces with no common denominator.” And he asks us to test the moral reach of institutions and policies against the demand of those values. “If radicalism be defined as perception of need for radical change,” he argued in his 1935 study Liberalism and Social Action, “then today any liberalism which is not also radicalism is irrelevant and doomed.” Placing the fate of democracy in the domain of culture requires in our day, as it did in Dewey’s, that we see our present moment as a fight about what kind of people we want to be and what kind of society we long to create. This way of thinking ran through Reconstruction, the ambition of the New Deal (even as Dewey argued that it could be more radical), and the Civil Rights Movement. Dewey made it the centerpiece of his thinking, and we must make it the cornerstone of our engagement today.


Liberalism is ancient

Helena Rosenblatt wrote what she calls a “word history” of liberalism, tracing it back to the time of the Romans and their belief in liberalitas, or “liberality.”

Here’s how G. John Ikenberry started his review in Foreign Affairs:

Although liberalism dominates Western politics, there is little agreement over what “liberalism” means. For some, it is the Lockean idea of individual rights and limited government; for others, it is the doctrine of the modern welfare state. In this lively and penetrating book, Rosenblatt offers an intellectual history of the term, from its roots in Roman notions of civic duty and public morality down to its modern use. She shows how the idea was “Christianized, democratized, socialized, and politicized” over the centuries. She also challenges the traditional narrative of liberalism as an Anglo-American project, placing greater emphasis on nineteenth-century French and German thinkers who tried to conjure up “liberal principles” of politics—the rule of law, civic equality, constitutionalism, and freedom of the press and religion—that could answer the radical forces unleashed by the French Revolution. It was only in the twentieth century, particularly during the Cold War, that liberalism became a uniquely American creed of individualism and political rights. Rosenblatt shows that liberalism has survived thanks to its appeal as a moral ideal, a vision of political community that is based not just on interests but also on values: respect, tolerance, and justice.


Liberalitas, or ‘liberality’

From The Lost History of Liberalism:

To the ancient Romans, being free required more than a republican constitution; it also required citizens who practiced liberalitas, which referred to a noble and generous way of thinking and acting toward one’s fellow citizens. It’s opposite was selfishness, or what the Romans called “slavishness”—a way of thinking or acting that regarded only oneself, one’s profits, and one’s pleasures. In its broadest sense, liberalitas signified the moral and magnanimous attitude that the ancients believed was essential to the cohesion and smooth functioning of a free society.

Above is Bob Herbert’s interview with Rosenblatt published Monday.


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