Deciding who gets to vote
Democracy no doubt looked like a good idea to the Founding Fathers, though they clearly had a different idea about what it meant than we do today. Basically, a voter needed to be a free man who owned land. Another way to look at it would be that the people who made the rules liked being the ones that made the rules, thought they were good at it, and didn’t want to take the chance that different types of people would make different rules. Some argued that people without means would be prone to bribery. Others claimed that those of a weaker disposition would be ill affected by the coarseness of politics. Then, others put it more bluntly- some people were just too dumb to vote.
We have not traveled very far, have we? Over the centuries,voting rolls have greatly expanded, but consider the aftermath of recent elections. All those reasons for excluding certain people from voting have resurfaced as explanations why a given election went the way it did. Were the Founding Fathers right? Would we be better off by limiting the franchise?
Before we get too far into the right to vote and what our expectations of democracy ought to be, we should note some baseline problems with human decision-making. People are bad at weighing alternatives, evaluating risks, and identifying truth.
Supermarkets know how bad we are at making decisions
Watch people in the cereal or greeting card aisles. Those have the largest selections combined with so-so brand loyalty. Most everywhere else, we know exactly what we want, but we dawdle among the flakes and oats because of too many choices. And then we engage in self-recrimination over our inability to decide and self-doubt after we choose. We’re stuck with two main presidential candidates because we don’t even want to consider all the ingredients on the side of one more box. Someone should consider a study on the cereal purchased by people who vote for third party candidates- such as whether they tend to enjoy more variety in their breakfast from week to week than the rest of the population.
Let’s consider the dismay expressed over the 2016 presidential election. The reasons that are generally tossed about by the rest of the voters for their fellow Americans selection of Donald Trump seem to fall into the following categories:
- Like-minded bigotry – Trump voters found a candidate who reflected their desire to pillory some group of people from which they excluded themselves
- Ignorance of facts – Trump voters were unable to identify the better candidate, i.e. the candidate who would best serve their interests, either because their criteria were invalid or their baseline ability to think was not optimal
- Best candidate on offer – Trump voters did, in fact, select the best candidate available; essentially their criteria were valid enough
- Disenfranchised desperation – Trump proved to be the only candidate to cultivate the disenfranchised; not an appeal to divisiveness, so much as an appeal to those who have felt left out of recent progress
Does it really matter what the Founding Fathers wanted or thought?
The dirty secret about the Founding Fathers is that they probably did not look at ancient Athens and its pluralistic democracy as an inspiration. They probably thought that it was essentially a model for letting the rabble run amok. For that matter, that’s how most philosophers of the past have viewed the Athenian experiment. Bear in mind, Athens still disenfranchised the vast majority of adults as women or slaves, so the world has a long history of a people viewing each other as unfit to participate in “democracy.”
That’s a bell that cannot be un-rung, isn’t it? Once somebody asks whether the Founding Fathers matter, then we all have to nod in unison. It’s sort of like asking whether or not the flag, apple pie, baseball and Chevrolet matter? All right, maybe not Chevrolet quite so much anymore, but still… Surely baseball remains our most popular sport? Then again, how much of all that was familiar to our Founding Fathers anyway? Is it possible that many of our ideas about our own country are the creations of decades of advertising? Are we truly more unified by our shared vision created by television commercials rather than by a shared conviction to representative democracy?
Let’s consider the place of emotions in voting
Outside of the government, we have all been invited to vote in other elections- from clubs to PTA’s to stock-related voting, we all get asked to vote for people to fill positions. Sometimes it is more acquiescence to the apparent majority will. (“Sure, you can be treasurer if you want.”) And we have next to no basis for making a selection.
In some cases, we can see a resume (or have one outlined by the candidate). We might hear a speech about the person’s intentions and priorities. None of us are so naive to believe that any of it means much. Nor are we so cynical as to believe that the person does not have our best interests at heart. After all, they are willing to fill a job that we don’t want. The big “unless” here arrives after the office has been assumed and the candidate convinces us that they do not have our best intentions at heart.
When we do vote, we have a preference strong enough to take action
In the end, we abstain from voting when it feels like too much of a crap-shoot. We feel removed from the results. For example, how do we evaluate those elections of corporate officers because we own some stock? We don’t know anyone on the slate. We don’t entirely believe that one or the other candidate will have a different impact on our future.
The run up to elections is always filled with candidates marshaling all their arguments. Policy positions fill a significant component of their positions. That’s the handout that goes along with the speech given by the candidates running for the presidency of your local club.
Then we vote. Somebody wins. And we get to wonder how anyone voted for so-and-so.
When we look at the numbers, don’t forget the people who abstain
We live now in a society so spoiled by our rights that the voting population can afford to be self-selecting. A majority regularly choose to sit it out. In an era of irony and the near-universal desire to unmask secret agendas, none of the abstainers ever seem to question who might gain from their self-removal. The tragedy of not voting has far less to do with an inability to see the value in exercising the right than it has to do with acknowledging that you might have been manipulated into the rabbit hole.