Silly Ideas About Voting

October 27, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Elections are silly season,” says Katherine Mangu-Ward at Reason.  I agree, but on different grounds.  Mangu-Ward says that voting itself is silly, and so are the reasons people give for voting.  My view is that what’s silly are articles like Mangu-Ward’s. 

She repeats the usual arguments against voting:
  •  your vote will not make a difference – elections are almost never decided by a single vote
  •  “people do not typically vote in ways that align with their personal material interests.”
  •  “the expected utility of your vote still amounts to approximately bupkes.”
  •  the wrong people vote –  “Get-out-the-vote campaigns promote precisely the kind of morally condemnable ignorant voting we should be discouraging.”
  •  people vote for “expressive” reasons – “Ignorant expressive voters, even rationally ignorant ones, may be committing immoral acts”
Underlying all these arguments and underlying her contempt for voting is one crucial assumption: the only worthwhile motive is calculated, individual self-interest.   Little wonder that most of the people who make these arguments are free-market economists* –  the people who also have a hard time wrapping their mind around economically irrational customs like tipping and Christmas presents.

The individual rationalists do manage to see the social motives that bring people to the polls – for example, a feeling of connection to wider communities.  (An earlier post on this sentiment is here).  But that connection as a legitimate motivation seems to have lost strength. That’s why Obama’s brief mention of citizenship in his acceptance speech was so unusual.  Much more common is the idea implicit in Romney’s statements:  Ask not what you can do for your country, ask how you can make a lot of money as an entrepreneur.

That difference in the way we think about citizenship (or don’t bother to think about citizenship) is nothing new.  Nearly thirty years ago in Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and co-authors wrote about Biblical and republican traditions in America, traditions embodied in the small-town America we feel so much nostalgia for.  We feel that nostalgia because in the America of modernity and mobility, political discussion often speaks the language of “ individual utilitarianism.”  Mangu-Ward provides a stunning example.  She seems to be aware of the concept of citizenship – voting or participating because you are a member of the polity  –  but rather than celebrate citizenship as an important foundation of the nation, she dismisses this sentiment as unworthy.  It is “silly” and even “immoral.” **

And they say that it’s the liberals who are elitists.

*Mangu-Ward is a journalist with an undergraduate degree in political science and philosophy, but the people she cites are conservative economists like Casey Mulligan and Greg Mankiw).

** Andrew Gelman (here) finds other flaws in Mangu-Ward’s essay – the “innumberacy” of some of her calculations and her assertion that “Rich people are not more likely to vote Republican,” which is just factually wrong. 

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