So Your Family Voted For…

How do you survive the inevitable tensions of a post-election Thanksgiving, particularly after the most divisive and disturbing election in recent years? How do you navigate the tension between anger at your family and loved ones for their political decisions, and the desire to maintain good relationships with people who are important to you (or, at least, who are important to other people who are themselves important to you)? This post is meant to help help you work that out by offering philosophical considerations on the ethics of voting you can apply around the dinner table.

If your family voted against your interests, they did something bad which hurt you

A vote is not the private expression of a political opinion, or a statement of values without any consequences. A vote is a public expression of civic power, the use of a fragment of sovereignty to help bring about concrete political ends. That means it is perfectly legitimate to view voting as an ethical action – one which affects other people positively or negatively – and to make a judgment as to whether a particular vote was right or wrong. The commonly-expressed idea that people should not judge others for their political views misses the point here: what is under discussion is the casting of a vote, not the mere expression of a view. A vote is a piece of power, and it is possible to wield that power-fragment in unethical ways.

In this election, we have a pretty clear case of voting-as-ethical-wrong. Voting for Trump – a manifestly unfit and gross candidate – is not ethically defensible on any level. There is no way a reasonable person could justify a vote for Donald Trump to be in the best interests of the USA (people will offer justifications, of course – but none of them are reasonable in the sense that they would convince a rational and impartial observer). So if your family members voted for Donald Trump, they in some sense acted against your interests and therefore harmed you. That is wrong.

If you are a member of a marginalized group – LGBTQI+, a person of color, a woman, a Muslim, Jewish, poor etc. – this argument becomes stronger. It is highly likely that you will be targeted by the Trump administration, and that your life will be made more difficult over the next four years because he is in office. If your friends and family voted for Trump they voted for that – they did something bad which harmed you, and reveals a little bit about where your life lies on their personal scale of political priorities.

You have every right to be angry at this betrayal and thoughtlessness on the part of your loved ones. Just as in any other situation in which someone you care about hurts you, pain and anger are appropriate responses. Just because the hurt is political, doesn’t make it any less real. You are entitled to your feelings of hurt over the votes of your family.

Voting is “just another thing” that a person can do to hurt you

All this being said, ethically speaking I don’t think voting against a person’s interests is inherently worse than many of the things family members do which hurt each other. Family members say cruel things to each other, are vindictive towards each other, get angry and mean, just as in any other relationship – and many of those things are more directly hurtful and damaging than is casting a vote against your interests. Just as a single hurtful exchange between you and a member of your family doesn’t need to define your whole relationship with that person, neither does their vote. You have every right to factor it into your decision as to how to manage that relationship, but you need not give their vote disproportionate weight in your decision making.

Voting distributes responsibility for the actions of the elected

Finally, let’s say your family member voted for Trump. They don’t thereby bear the entire responsibility for everything Trump and his administration does while in office. At the very least they split that responsibility with everyone else who voted for him, and in reality they bear even less responsibility than that, because Trump himself (and his staff and appointees) bears much of it. Voting for Donald Trump doesn’t make someone turn into Donald Trump. The relationship between the elector and the actions of the elected is complex, mediated, and distributed – and this should affect our ethical judgments.

So this Thanksgiving, when you’re trying to determine how to react to your family’s political choices, remember 1) that voting is a public and civic exercise of power, and that it is legitimate to take exception to others’ vote; 2) that voting is one action among many someone can do which might hurt you, and may be no worse than many other things you have already forgiven; and 3) that voting is a complicated civic act, and that no one person bears the entire weight of responsibility for the actions of a politician who they voted for. I say this not to excuse the decision to vote against your interests, but merely to put it into perspective, and to offer you a way to make some peace with the decision they have made. You Thanksgiving need not be defined by your family’s political decisions – unless you judge them that important.

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