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Midterm elections are well under way in the US. Since Michigan allows anyone to vote absentee, I’ve already fed my completed ballot into the friendly maw of the ballot dropbox at the local library. I slid my envelope into the box with a tiny fist-jab (woo-hoo! suffrage!) and a big prayer. As usual these days, so much is at stake in these midterms, so much seems balanced on a knife’s edge.
During election periods in the US—when the horrors of over-the-top, fear-mongering election ads compete for TV time with a tiresome array of “Spooktober” programming—I always wonder what we think we mean by a vote. What does a vote mean? What do we think it does? What is, you might say, our theory of voting? It seems to me that we Americans operate out of a variety of confused, mostly unconscious, somewhat conflicting theories. I will say right off, I feel all of these operating in my own amateurish political mind as I make my choices.
Me, me me. Remember when candidates competed to see who could promise voters the most goodies aimed directly at them? Tax cuts, new jobs, pork-funded local projects, this or that benefit. In those days, votes seemed like deals we made: I get you in office, you give me things. Voting was ritualized self-interest. Obviously, people still think this way somewhat, and candidates love to signal vaguely about creating jobs and benefitting the middle class, but doesn’t it seem as if this theory of voting has faded in importance? It’s not that we’re not selfish. Maybe we just doubt that candidates will deliver? Or maybe we’ve moved toward other theories. Such as…
Identity marker. After the 2016 US presidential election, this theory rose to the surface of the commentariat’s commentary. People seemed to vote a certain way because that’s who they were. They were the kind of people who voted Republican or Democrat. It mattered less who the candidates were or what they said or promised or what norms or laws they violated. The point of the vote was to declare: this is who I am. Identity voting is a convenient theory for parties to promote, because people will vote for your party whatever shenanigans you (or your mega-funders) are up to while voters aren’t looking.
Tribal pledge. This is the next step. Once voting = identity, then your vote becomes a renewal of tribal loyalty. Again, this can be strategically played. People will vote against their own self-interest, short- and long-term, if a vote is about belonging to a tribe. People need to belong. Blow the right tribal dog whistles and folks will line right up.
Virtue signal. Perfect for one-issue voters and the parties/candidates who want to attract them. The abortion issue is the obvious example here. Reduce voting to a virtue test on a single issue, and you reduce the moral complexity of voting to a manageable size. People find it a huge relief when they don’t have to study thirty candidates’ positions on thirty different issues. Ask one question, yes/no, done. Nothing is ever, ever that simple, but we sure wish it were.
Note: Identity, tribal pledge, and virtue signaling make for powerful overlaps with religious communities. Leverage some religious language to cement these theories of voting in people’s minds, super-glue your party to religion, and people will have a tough time unsticking themselves.
Confession: In my own small way, I can see myself attempting to super-glue religious faith to single-issue voting, too… on climate action. Just to say: I’m not personally immune to this theory.
Stick-it-to-the-man. Sometimes we use a vote simply as a protest. Want to punish a party? Vote for all their opponents. Want to say how much you hate a candidate? Vote for the other person, whoever it is. Protest voting helps us feel the tiniest pulse of anger-power in a system where we often feel helpless against huge, entrenched systems.
Hiring process. This is the one I try to stick with as my main operating theory. Political positions are paid jobs on behalf of the electorate. Which candidate is actually qualified for this job? Which one will do the work faithfully and well? What are the main tasks and issues this person has to deal with and can they do it? Of course, as with any job hire, that means the person has to be on board with the “company’s mission statement”—which, in this case, means they have to see the broad mission of government the way I see it. As with any job hire, I don’t need this person to agree with me on every last thing, but I do want this person to have integrity—I don’t want to “work with” a crazy-maker or someone who clearly can’t be trusted. And the person has to understand the job and demonstrate they can do the work.
I once heard my Calvin political science colleague Prof. Micah Watson describe his “bus driver” theory of voting. (This was mostly about the US presidency.) He suggested that we could think about voting like choosing a bus driver: you want someone who can get the keys (i.e., win), knows how to drive the bus, is not going to crash it, and wants to take the bus where you think it should go. I thought this was very helpful.
However, it almost puts too much weight on the candidate themselves to do and be everything. When I think about what it means to “do the job” in political office, a lot of it seems to be about hiring good staff. You’re not choosing a bus driver so much as a whole bus support team.
Reality TV. This is the only explanation for some people currently holding office. I won’t name names. Sometimes voters seem to approach the ballot as if this is Survivor or The Bachelor or something: we choose people who provide the most outrageous drama. We want sensation of the most primitive kind. When, for most of us, our only encounter with our politicos is through media, what do we expect? We’ve been trained to crave drama in media. So we vote for it.
[Not voting]. This, too, is a theory of voting. People might not-vote as a form of protest. Or maybe they go vote-less out of apathy. Or disillusionment, or helplessness, or despair—they feel nothing they do will make a difference anyway. So why bother? But of course, not-voting ultimately leaves matters in the hands of those who have the most to gain from the power vacuum not-voting creates.
None of what I’m describing here is news. It just helps me, at least, to try to lay it all out in the open. I may sound cynical, and maybe I am, but I emphasize again: I feel all these theories operative in myself. And I do try to submerge my cynicism in chastened hope, and I repeat and repeat that big prayer: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…
Image credit: Matthew Rourke/AP/npr.org