Some 59 million people chose to enact horror and obscenity, and they’re agents in the world. They acted wrongly and are blameworthy. Whatever mistakes other people made in persuading them don’t lift the moral responsibility from their own shoulders.
I’ve got arguments aplenty with other people who rejected Trump, and there are of course prudential reasons to care intensely about how best to persuade those who chose him not to choose horror and obscenity in the future. But I’m going to try to avoid the temptation to be angrier at the people who seem closer to me—because they’re smart and could have chosen differently!—than at the directly responsible actors.--Jacob Levy "They Make Choices, Too" @Dailynous.
There are few people I admire more professionally and personally than Jacob Levy (who was on faculty when I was a PhD student at Chicago and whose writings I often engage with), so I was startled by his anger and by his treating electoral agency primarily as the occasion for moral judgments. Levy and I share a scholarly and emotional fondness for the complexities of classical liberalism as a living tradition -- and the Constitutional order of the U.S. is, warts and all, one of its central legacies. The tradition recognizes human imperfection and emphasizes that our knowledge of social reality tends to be occluded to agents at a given time. (The preceding sentence explains some of the tradition's warmth toward markets.) Even so, I do not share his perspective on the Trump voters.
In particular, voters qua being voters should not be judged in moral terms (on the whole); whatever the responsibility of voters is, it is not primarily a moral one. Levy's remarks share here a tendency, also notably present in recent just war theory and often on display in Jason Brennan's anti-democratic theory, to moralize exactly bits of social reality where morality is out of place (and also likely to lead to permanent and increasingly harsh conflict).
For, first, voting is not primarily a moral act. It is an opportunity to express one's choice for a political representative or a political leader. There are lots of a-moral and even immoral considerations that enter into such a choice. To be sure, I am not denying that a voter can legitimately chose to let morality guide her vote or that she can choose to be concerned primarily with morality in her vote. But it is not reasonable to demand that other voters be guided wholly by (your sense of) morality. Let me elaborate.
Voting is the wrong sort of behavior to evaluate morally. Because of secret balloting we have no access to the intentions and characters of particular voters, so there are no deontic or virtue-theoretic grounds to judge voters qua voters. The outcome of a vote is a merely a winning candidate (or party in some countries); that is, the main effect of voting is, on the whole, fundamentally a-moral. So, there is no easy consequentialist ground to judge a voter morally. It's only the behavior of the elected representatives and leaders that can be judged morally. But crucially voters do not control that behavior. In addition, due to the division of labor and lack of government transparency, voters often know very little about what their representatives do. (How little and to what degree this matters in judging the nature of democracy is subject to controversy [recall].)
Moreover, any voter's individual responsibility for the outcome is trivially small. (This is analogous to a kind of argument rational choice theorists love to trot out to claim that voting is irrational--I don't accept that interpretation of voting.) This suggests that the blameworthiness that attaches to their action, if any, is rather thin.
Levy may suggest that it is a foreseeable consequence of this election that as President Trump will enact horrible things, and so his voters have a collective moral responsibility for these outcomes. Let's stipulate, for the sake of argument, that Levy is right about the future President Trump and that the horrors to be produced by him are worse than what the alternative candidates would have offered. (Bill Clinton's execution of Ricky Ray Rector remains, I think, the most horrid thing done by an American politician while running for office in my adult life-time, and I say that without wishing to justify any of Trump's awful things.) Liberals ought to be cautious about going for collective moral responsibility. In part because it prepares the way for the very illiberal collective punishment. (We learned that lesson in our reflections on the war-crime firebombings of Dresden, Tokyo, and than the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) This is not to deny such a thing as collective complicity in the horrors perpetrated by others; but this complicity is not a feature of voting, but rather a feature of the silences and passivity during hate crimes and other horrors.
In his post, Levy explicitly rejects the idea we should criticize others for the rise of Trump. This is a bit odd because the media and several other politicians enabled the rise of Trump through their actions and in-actions. The media's role is especially important because it raises challenging questions for liberalism more generally--both for the nature of free speech as well as about the role of profit in the media-landscape. In addition, the anti-intellectual celebrity culture of a wealthy, capitalist society played some role in generating Trump's fame (not to mention the absence of serious estate taxes). If we are going to continue and revive our tradition, we will have to face these challenges (and --to briefly mention my own interests -- the foreseeable byproducts of technocracy and meritocracy, and here) unflinchingly. The political class seems to have been entirely oblivious to the existential threat to and fragility of the body politic until rather late in the day--again stipulating Levy is right about this (for some of my views on Trump see here). By contrast, I claim (to paraphrase Spiderman), with greater power comes greater moral responsibility.
Levy's post instantiates a peculiar and recent reversal of understanding of liberal democracy. Rather than requiring moral voters, it is an institutional response to human imperfection (including immorality). It is designed to mitigate the dangers of civil war and to ensure peaceful transfer of power. It is designed to empower people's tribal feelings and other aspirations; when the institutions and political class function properly, these are channeled to slightly better ends. It is undeniable that we're living through a period in which liberal institutions are malfunctioning; the voters' decisions are a symptom of this.
Finally, assigning moral responsibility to (other) voters is also futile.+ It is unlikely to change behavior and if it is heard at all, it is likely to be interpreted as a kind of sanctimoniousness that only entrenches positions in ongoing cultural conflicts.* I doubt it will invite the kind of conversations that are needed to have people recognize and acknowledge each others fears and aspirations.
*Yes, I am aware that some of my philosophical peers think I am sanctimonious. Some other time, I'll return to that.
+In this post I am ignoring his anger (because I have no complaint against it).