Look, I know this year’s been rough.
And I know the last thing you need to hear is another person telling you that they “know this year’s been rough.” They always follow it with an unconvincing— “but we’ll make it through!” Will we, though?
In fact, depending on what happens Tuesday, between the fires, this virus, and the election, the world might very well implode. I mean, if Trump is elected, there is not enough voltage in this world to electroshock the Left back into coherence.
So please, just for the sake of the stable blood pressure of at least 50% of our country (and possibly the existence of the free world) go vote. And for Christ’s sake, fill in someone else’s name. If it’s the capital gains tax you’re worried about, I’ve talked to the liberals, and they’ve assured me they’d find a way to pool some money together to compensate your losses on your multi-million dollar estate sale. Don’t worry, they’ll just add it to the government’s tab.
But, in all seriousness, after Tuesday, whatever the outcome, I think some things need to change. Including how we look at voting and elections, but mostly, what we do in between them.
And that’s what I’ve wrriten below: about why I didn’t vote for so long, and why I was wrong, but not for the reasons you might think. This election aside, I think there is something much more important than voting…
Don’t Didn’t Vote
Ever since I was young—as you have— I’ve been told to vote.
I’ve been told this because that’s my responsibility as an American. Because It’s the only democratic voice I have. Because it’s the right thing to do. And yet, I remained paralyzed. I haven’t voted in one single election— I might as well fess up at the start— until this year. Now, before you recede in horror and move to burn me at the stake, noble suffragette, allow me first to share my plight.
The reasons I had for not voting were three. First, though I wasn’t yet aware of the statistics, I felt that my vote didn’t matter. Living in Maryland, New York and California, three pretty liberal states, I didn’t see the point. It seemed like pouring a glass of brackish water into the Chesapeake Bay.
Second, I lacked faith. Even if I did vote, were Bush or Kerry or Obama or McCain even going to do what they said they were going to do? I wasn’t convinced.
But it was the third reason was the most overbearing: I didn’t really know anything.
What I Didn’t Know
Don’t know anything? Justin, surely you know more than most of the unlettered dunces casting ballots in this country, a particularly impassioned friend would say. And in one, limited, sense, she was right. I guess I “knew” something.
Like you, I watched the debates. Those meandering, excruciating displays of evasive maneuvering and empty tropes. I gathered little.
And I read the websites. The ones that showed where Paul and Romney and Santorum stood on issues of economic policy, immigration and foreign affairs. They’re served up nicely, after all, in so many neat, bulleted lists, as if they were steps to cook a cake. Steps that would undoubtedly lead to a pastry half-baked.
Yes, I listened to NPR and read candidate profiles in various left and right publications. Nice stories, but what can you really glean from 3000 words of creative nonfiction? Not much.
And, just like you, I had a gut reaction about which issues I agreed with. And I defended those positions with unfounded statements that seemed to always start with: “I feel like…” But did I really know anything about what was the most effective economic policy? That is, was there even reason to listen to such an uninformed intuition?
Of course not.
The problem with the above sources–a couple-hour scanning of the debates, profiles, and policy lists— it doesn’t give you any knowledge about what really works, let alone the basis for your beliefs. You don’t get a better sense of your values by watching the Daily Show.
After the above, standard prep, I still didn’t have the slightest idea about whether or not increasing or cutting taxes helped or hurt an economy in the long-run. Indeed, at least on a state level, experts seem to disagree. As Dartmouth’s Charles Wheelan wrote, discussing the many factors that impact whether or not a tax raise or cut is beneficial: “I can now offer a simple, straightforward, and unequivocal answer: it depends who you ask.”
I watched the vice presidents debate health care policy. But the question of should we make healthcare cheaper and more widely available? Clueless. Sounds good— what’s it cost? How do you actually do that? How has it worked elsewhere? And that’s just domestic— let’s not even consider what I know about the efficacy of this or that strategy of foreign militaristic engagement. I assure you, that was not covered in Dick Cheney’s New Yorker profile.
The bottom line: I didn’t vote because I didn’t know enough to vote.
The Folly of “I Side With”
Allow me just one example—I think it’ll clear things up.
There is a website called “I Side With.” If you go to the website, you’re meant to be able to take this multiple choice quiz, and see which candidate you most align with. Pretty simple and easy— which should be our first clue. There’s a glaring problem.
Take the quiz’s first question— “Should the electoral college be abolished?” I assume most people blithely check yes or no here, as they mouth another spoonful of natural, crunchy peanut butter. Perhaps they even read one article in the Atlantic or The Daily Beast on this topic (but, who are we kidding, its more likely that they heard about it in the middle of a John Oliver rant). But how many people have a well-founded answers to this question? I sure didn’t. You’d have to have a pretty good understanding of how it works, how it started, where it has or hasn’t worked before. What are the competing alternatives? How have they faired, etc.
I went on in the quiz—it got no better. All of the questions are like this: Do you support nuclear energy?, Should government increase spending on transportation? Should the US assassinate suspected terrorists in foreign countries? Hmm— what’s are my options again?
These are hard, moral, and historical questions. They aren’t gut feelings. And, looked at in that light, I didn’t know the answers.
What I Did “Know”
WHAT I DID KNOW is what most people know when they decide to cast a ballot.
I knew where I grew up and who my parents (we’re a liberal family), and friends, and people-I-wanted-to-be-like voted for. So I had at least two choices. I could have fallen hard into my community views, as some research suggests is the likelihood. Or, far more fun, I could play the rebel, forever decrying any heretical interference with the infallible, free market, a “Capitalism Kicks Ass” bumper sticker on my Pathfinder, the boundless ambition of John Galt in my eyes.
And knowing that—we must know—isn’t knowing much.
I also knew about some, remote, specific issues. By the time of the 2008 election, I had already taken several classes on historical and contemporary social issues. So I did have a stance, by then, on things like the death penalty and abortion, both even more so by the time I graduated law school.
But those kinds of issues— the one’s that often leave people in the categorization of “single-issue voters,” felt uncomfortably arbitrary and embarrassingly incomplete on which to base the selection of a president. How much, we have to ask ourselves, does one’s stance on capital punishment, or contraception, indicate about one’s fitness to effectively run the executive office?
This went on for 15 years. Then, about eighteen months ago, I decided that, just like that rash on my inner thigh, there was a probably a better way to go about this then simple avoidance. It was finally time to stop copping out. It was time to do the work.
And so I hit the books. And perhaps no book was more helpful in framing this issue than Michael Sandel’s, Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do?
What’s The Right Thing To Do?
Professor Michael Sandel is the architect and teacher of the most popular class at Harvard.
The class is called Justice, it’s companion book underscored by the pithy subtitle: What’s The Right Thing To Do. The auditorium-sized class is filled instantly every semester by eager, and it turns out, naïve, students. It was also the first Harvard class to be made free online, and has been seen by millions across the globe.
Should we kill one person to save many? Should we be able to buy our way out of a war draft or into a favored list of kidney donee’s? Is abortion wrong? Is it OK for advantage-taking vendors to raise the prices on necessities like clean water and ice in the wake of a natural disaster, just because demand has risen? For 15 weeks, in trying to answer these questions, the students are prodded and questioned, forced to defend their positions on answers of right and wrong.
In Sandel’s class, it’s not good enough to declare, conclusively, without the support of reasoned logic and example— as we so often hear on TV or amongst friends—that “democracy is obviously good,” or that killing a person, cow, or a fetus is obviously bad. Here, as in Plato’s academy, or in the Supreme Court chambers— these naked statements are wildly insufficient. Instead, you have to use actual reason (as opposed to rationalizing cleverness to make a point). And, judging by the struggle of kids that are probably a lot smarter than you or I— this is no easy task.
The conclusion Sandel’s class— indeed, the mission that he appears to be screaming from stages across the country— is that there is something missing in our society. And that something we better replace, lest we risk it’s fall. But, even though only about half of the eligible public votes, this missing something is not voting.
According to Sandel it’s the base requirement for a flourishing democracy. A civic engagement centered on confronting the hard, ethical problems he discusses in his class (and book), first by yourself, and then in public forums. Forums, crucially, not divided by class, race, religion, or income— but purposely mixed.
It’s a sense of active, thoughtful democratic citizenship. In a word: thinking.
Voting Is Not The Point; Thinking Is
Here’s the thing: yours or my individual vote— it’s nearly meaningless.
The chances that your vote is going to impact this election, according to a few academic quants, is about one and ten million. Now, while that percentage might be good enough for Lloyd Christmas, it essentially ensures that your send-in ballot would do just as well to be lost in the mail. This fact is why most people educated in statistics— like economists— apparently do not vote. In an interview in the Washington Post, Freakonomists Stephens Dubner and Levitt confess as much. “I don’t know a single economist who bothers to vote,” Dubner said, almost proudly, “so worthless do they consider the act.”
And to muddy the voting waters further, the above doesn’t even matter. Because (again, statically speaking) you don’t even vote because you feel you’ll impact the election. You probably vote for wholly other reasons.
There are at least three reasons, psychologists tell us, that people vote, all conspicuously decoupled from the outcome of the election. First is for feeling— it feels good to vote. Like you’ve done something right or good. An accomplishment. Second, identity. If you can see yourself as a capital “V” Voter, then you are one of the responsible citizens, doing your righteous duty. Third, for group inclusion. In other words, we vote just to say we did it. In this way, we signal to the group—much like wearing a mask alone in your car, or in your facebook profile— that we are one of them, and thus we gain admission to the election parties. As Mark Twain wrote: “We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going, and then go with the drove.”
NOW, DON’T GET ME WRONG. Voting, certainly in the aggregate, is important. To the extent we want a democracy, it is vital. And I understand that there are reasonable responses to the above. The Slippery Slope argument, for example (What if everyone thought this way? The democracy would be broken). Or the argument that by not voting we are giving power to the ones that do. Or as I recently heard it put: “when it comes to voting, you can either have a seat at the table, or you can be on the menu.”
And the non-outcome associated benefits of voting— feeling, ego, and fitting in— those are important parts of human behavior. Why do you think I wear NIKE athletic gear just to walk around? Because it tells myself— hey, you’re an athlete, I don’t care what those bigger boys say.
The reason I brought up the whole your-single-vote-is-probably-worthless thing is to, just for the moment, demote the idea that voting is an ethical good, in and of itself— and to make room for another idea.
It isn’t voting, or even protesting or volunteering, that is most important. Those are acts that might be better looked at as final acts. Things you do— or, if I had it my way, things you earn— in the short-lived, interim spells between good-faith, iterative, and infinite discussions. Discussions— with yourself, and neighbors— about what we want to do as a society and why.
Which gets me back to the real reason I was wrong.
The reason I was wrong—Sandel and host of historical others helped me to see— is because in addition to turning my back to voting, I turned it on thinking. In the face of complexity, while staring down the hard and long problem of learned reflection, I balked on the activity of not just civic engagement, not just voting, but a serious and important audit of what I value, what I believe, and why.
What’s The Point, Ventura
The upshot of all this? In my view, it’s the following.
Yes, vote. But, according to political thinkers from Sandel back to Socrates, voting is merely one factor of the duties of democratic citizenry. But voting, in and of itself, amounts to precious little if it is not fortified by active study, discussion, listening, and reflection. The true value is not the election— it’s the work in between elections— both introspective and societally attuned— of thinking and thoughtful discourse. Michael Jordan doesn’t just show up ready to take the game winner. He’s taken that shot 100,000 times in his own backyard.
To vote, just cause, is a hollow proposition. Why would we want you to vote if you know nothing of policy or interests— whether your own (in the long-term) or the state’s? If you’re just walking up to the polls because your uncle told you it was your duty as an American, you may want to reflect. I’d rather an uninformed voter not vote, rather than blindfolded, throw a dart at a board, probably influenced by bias of their upbringing.
And perhaps even worse is the person who, due to a strong feeling in their chest, but little understanding and study, votes on the candidate that sounds the best or that accords with their one view of taxation or their family’s view of it, or their tribe’s. Surely, our passionate financier has an idea of what has actually worked or not worked in the past, haven’t they? And hopefully they’ve done the harder work of reasoning with themselves, honestly, about why or why not—getting to their bedrock values— they would institute such a policy?
What we know about intuition is that it is useful only in predictable domains in which we have built up a store of knowledge. In all other situations— like the one most voters find themselves in with respect to most policy issues—- it is not only not useful, but dangerous. Endowing its owner with type of Greek hubris that led to the famous fall of Achilles.
So if you’re going to vote for Biden or Trump (oh, dear lord) or someone else, do yourself, and all of us a favor and pretend you’re in Sandel’s lecture hall. Make sure you know why. But not why based on your gut, but linked with practical governmental implications. Not based on an instinctual disliking of someone unlike you. But an honest, reflective effort to see.
It’s not easy. As I said, it is harder than it looks. And it will take a long, long time– probably forever. But, as long as we are living in a society, and as long as humans are guided by the things they value and prioritize most, I can’t think of anything more important.
HAVING SAID ALL THAT, I still voted this year.
Why? The same reasons you did: to feel good, to be a Voter, and to get into some of these super woke election parties.
Plus, I’m still holding out for all of that one and ten million talk.
 Is brackish the least widely applicable, greatest word in the dictionary?
 Stolen phrase from Sam Harris
 Naked Economics: Undressing The Dismal Science, pg 100
 Seriously, that’s a question
 Unless you went to Stansbury
 So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance?
 I know, too jokey. But I have a quota to reference Ace Ventura at least once per article. Rules are rules, guys.