I used to wonder why so few people voted on a consistent basis and why even fewer were politically active in determining who gets on the ballot in the first place. Don't people understand that our politicians' actions have an immense impact on our individual lives?
The answer to this conundrum is both complex and simple. For every action we can potentially take, there is a cost and a benefit. It may be more correct to say that inherent in each possible opportunity is a perceived package of costs and a perceived package of benefits.
At any given moment we weigh the perceived cost-benefit ratios of myriad potential activities against each other to decide how we will spend the next moment. All of these parts are moving: time, known opportunities, perceived costs, and perceived benefits. Past choices govern some of these factors. So our decisions can vary from situation to situation.
We also run cost-benefit analyses with respect to political activity. Despite the lifelong haranguing we get about the importance of doing our civic duty, the understood cost-benefit ratio of doing so often loses out to other opportunities for many people. How is it that these people place such a low net value on voting or more fundamental political activity?
We have all heard stories about how individuals have made big differences politically. Many of these tales amount to slick marketing by politicians, campaigns, and agenda-driven activists. But there is no denying that some individuals have achieved significant political results. These are the outliers—the rare few. Most can only hope to be part of a mass that produces some effect.
Voting exacts a cost. Unless voting in total ignorance is internally acceptable, time and effort must be spent to become somewhat informed. Some time and effort are required to cast a ballot.
And the benefit? Ah, there's the rub. Except at the most local level, an individual vote seldom has more value to the individual voter other than to produce a feeling. That is, the outcome of the race would likely have been no different if a given voter had failed to cast a ballot.
But even if the candidate the voter supports wins, how likely is it that the winner's activities in office will produce results that the voter wants? Elected officials respond to the incentives inherent in the political culture in which they operate. They act chiefly in their own interests within that culture. Their interests occasionally happen to coincide with those of the voter. As one observer put it, the lines of politics and morality run parallel and never intersect.
Moreover, many newly elected officials are shocked to discover the limits of their capacities to accomplish what they had hoped. Over the years we have built at every level of government a massive bureaucracy of unelected agents that usually goes on its merry way working to expand its reach and power, nearly heedless of the pesky politicians that go to the trouble of campaigning for office.
When potential voters run the cost-benefit ratio of voting vs. competing opportunities, it should not be surprising when some of them choose to do something else instead. They sense their own powerlessness and find little reason to undertake an exercise that will simply increase their frustration. It may be more appropriate to be astonished at how many people vote rather than how few people vote.
The low net individual value of a vote means that few voters put much effort into becoming truly informed of the issues. They understand that knowing about the issues will make little difference in the long run. The low vote benefit means that outside of political junkies few put the kind of effort into researching candidates and issues that the average person would put into the purchase of something like a car.
Given the low chances of a voter getting much of what she wants from a vote, most voters are likely to put less effort into political research than into what kind of shampoo to buy at the supermarket.
Members of the political class understand this all too well. Consequently, campaigns are not designed to inform voters, but to work on voters' emotions and tribal tendencies. They know that more people will vote if they feel like they are doing something for their 'team,' even if, in the long run, government mostly continues its current course regardless of which team wins. Style may differ—all part of the show, you understand—but form differs only slightly.
Although voters can't explain it themselves, many end up voting for the same reason that they cheer for a sports team. And their votes have about as much impact on the total scope of how government affects their lives as cheering at the TV has on the outcome of a sports game.
Political powerlessness is not lost on average Americans. Not voting is a perfectly rational response to this. It is at least as rational as voting on a tribal basis.
I used to think that non-voters had no right to complain about the state of our political systems. I now believe that my thinking on this point was wrong. For many non-voters the decision not to vote is their way of expressing frustration with their lack of power in the political system. They see voting as akin to banging their head against a wall. Suggesting that they have no right to comment on the system because the refuse to bang their head against a wall strikes me as narrow minded.
I have consistently voted since age 18, although, I often vote for candidates that do not win. I have been politically involved at the grass roots level. I used to deride those that didn't vote. But I now see this as an understandable political response and I am much less likely to be critical of non-voters.