Thursday, September 27, 2012

Why should I vote, even though it seems to make no sense?

Tonight I addressed around 40 or 50 young minds at a nonpartisan event sponsored by the UVA-Wise Young Republicans on why informed voting matters.  I thought I'd share my notes - hope you enjoy them. [Thanks to Todd Galyean for organizing the event!]

The question, ladies and gentlemen, which brings me here this evening is a simple one: why should I vote?

The answer isn’t an obvious one, honestly.  Here is the problem. 

In the United States of America our electoral model is a plurality-based democratic-republican system.  I’ll break that down for you.  First, democratic-republican means that we have a representative system of government in which the candidates are chosen via popular election.  Nothing too dramatic there, eh?  But wait – there is more! In every democratic-republican system there is a simple truth – representatives will only be sent from a place if they win an adequate number of votes.  The more people that vote, the less likely any single vote will determine the outcome of the election.  Occasionally votes are close in modern polities, but functionally every office is determined by a single vote – the vote that pushes a candidate over the threshold.  Thus, the cost of voting (in time, primarily) is difficult to justify given the potential benefit that your vote will be the vote AND the potential risk that, by failing to vote, you might determine the outcome of an election in favor of a candidate which you would prefer not be elected.      

Secondly, as I noted earlier, the American political system is a plurality-based system.  This is understandable easily enough – whichever candidate in a given contest receives the most votes wins the contest.   A majority is not necessary in the American system.   Political scientists have lots of nicknames for the plurality system that illustrate pretty well how the system works.  One of these is “first-past-the-post” the other is “winner-take-all.”  These both refer to races – after all, whatever horse crosses the finish line first, whether by a nose, a length, or a lap wins the race.

This has several implications on its own, of course.  First, plurality based systems tend to limit the number of political options in a given race AND in a system of races.  Political scientists call this Durverger’s Rule: if you have a plurality race, then only the faction or coalition of factions that wins exercises powers.  Therefore when factions align under umbrella parties, they are more likely to win.  This results in, typically, two-party systems.  Secondly, these parties are often a bit problematic – lump too many factions into a single party and the outcome is that no particular voice wins for very long and the ideology of the party tends to become moderate and ambiguous. 

Finally, plurality systems constrain the problematic rationality of voting to its most extreme form – what are the odds, in a contest in which two gigantic groups of people are voting, in which only one group wins, that a single person’s vote will matter – under proportional systems of election at least you have a chance of electing a minority candidate – under this system minority party candidates have virtually zero chance of winning (on average). 

Damn.  Voting is beginning to seem downright silly.  Hold on – I’m going to make it look sillier.
In the United States we have an arcane system known as the Electoral College that we use to elect our Federal executive, the president.  The idea is – um – not simple.  But let’s see what we can do.

Every state is allotted, prior to the election (as of the most recent census) a number of electoral votes equal to the number of representatives it receives in the House of Representatives and senators it receives in the Senate (which, of course, is always two).  Each state is then allowed to allocate these in any manner that they wish.  All of the states except two (Nebraska and Maine) do so by employing a winner-take-all system – whichever of the candidates takes the plurality of votes in the state, that candidate receives all of the electoral votes for that state.  The result? In each state, functionally speaking, there will be a single vote that makes all the difference – all of the others? Well, they end up not really mattering (at least to the election).  Crazy, right?

Then of course, the electoral votes are counted – if one candidate gets a majority (at least 270 electoral votes) he or she is president-elect.  Nobody gets the majority?  Well, it goes to the House of Representatives where the states vote as delegations from among the three top vote-getters to determine the winner, over and over again, until somebody gets the majority.  Which of course, means, that the limited democracy of the popular vote is watered down yet again. 

Madness, you say to yourself, this is all madness.  Why should anyone calculate that voting makes sense given these hard truths.  Well, I’ll tell you why.   

(1) You should vote because it is your unique privilege to do so.  The vast majority of human beings, across the scope of history and space, have never had an opportunity to select a candidate for office, or to throw an officer of the state out of office in a manner that didn’t involve pitchforks or torches.  This isn’t merely true of humanity in general, however.  Consider in the United States the history of discrimination based upon property requirements, gender, ethnicity, and race.  We live in a wonderful time, and not participating in the political system is tantamount to spitting in the face of those men and women who fought to give you that right, both by force of arms and force of words.

(2) You should vote because it is your duty to do so.  The term political philosophers use to describe the origins of the modern state most commonly is the social contract.  A contract implies an exchange of goods and services between the actors party to the contract.  You don’t fulfill your end of the deal, the contract is dissolved and you can expect to lose your benefits in whole or in part.  Well, in the United States of America our contract is with one another – we wrote it down and we edit it from time to time.  It is called the Constitution.  In it we assert that certain things are absolutely true – that we have certain unalienable rights, that our logic of government is competition and exchange within rule of law, and so forth – but here is the kicker – in order for the contract to function we are all to be participants in the state insofar as we are able.  We are not merely obliged to passively submit to the state, but rather are expected to hold our state to certain standards.  The bare minimum manner in which an American citizen can do this, the very least, is to participate in elections and juries of our peers, to determine who is acting in the interests of our Union and who is violating its trust. 

(3) Just because the chances are that your vote will not be the vote does not mean that your vote won’t be the vote.  Somebody always wins the lottery. 

(4) Aristotle once noted that human beings are political animals, that it is in our nature to participate in the management of a state.  I however, feel that his sentiment is inadequate.  Rather, I turn to Thomas Hobbes.  Hobbes insisted that power, with regards to human society, could have three fundamental forms.  One of these forms was the physical power the human animal has in his or her frame – hardly much to speak of – humans are weak, slow, tender, fragile beasties.  Another of these is technological power, and it is on this front that humans begin to shine.  When human beings analyze their surroundings we seek to make our lives safer, more predictable.  We do this by creating tools, devices which increase artificially our strengths – they make us faster, stronger, smarter, safer, more durable, and so on.  It is important to note that we do not merely make tools from inanimate objects – rather, when we raise and manage plants, animals, fungi, and other life forms for the purpose of our service, of improving our persons, we are engaged in increasing our technical power.  Finally, Hobbes describes political power.  Political power includes all those means by which human individuals persuade other human individuals to alter their behavior to accord with their desired wills.  Influence, political institutions, rhetoric, and so on all fall under the realm of political power.  For power to be political, however, the assumption is that free, rational, equal human beings are engaged in discourse, debate, discussion, and mutual self-service – that is to say they are actively engaged in determining political decisions. 

This means, then, that human beings not engaged in actively pursuing politics, but rather only fulfill their socio-economic function, are not really human.  They are tools, devices, objects, domesticated animals controlled by those who do care about politics and engage in them.  Don’t like politics? I don’t care.  If you throw aside your political responsibilities you cease to be human in a meaningful sense. 

I suspect the Greeks were right - only gods and animals are beyond politics, and as I look out on my people, the American people, I don’t see many deities. 

Thank-you for your attention.