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A Narrative Theory of Voting

February 20, 2019

Economists struggle to explain why people vote. Conventional accounts have been variously described as circular or paradoxical. The paradox: It is a near certainty that a single vote will not change the outcome of a large-numbers election, and although those who are well-educated and well-off are most likely to understand this, they are also the most likely to vote. The circularity: The various economic models used to explain voting— group mobilization, cat-and-mouse, minimax-regret, and others—all ultimately acknowledge that those who vote derive a “consumption value” from doing so. If voters vote because they like voting, you could say that to explain pretty much anything people do. (See https://faculty.westacademic.com/Book/Detail?id=18210 at pp.26-31 (summarizing literature and collecting authorities)). 

 

People are not entirely irrational when it comes to voting. Lower the cost of voting, for example, by giving time off, not demanding government-issued voter IDs, etc., and more people vote. Raise the cost of voting, for example, by demanding ID’s or requiring jury registration as a precondition, and fewer people vote. If people voted based on a commitment to civic virtue, the opportunity to serve in a jury should raise, not lower, enthusiasm. Alas, it does not. (See id.).

 

This week, Senator Bernie Sanders (D VT) announced his candidacy to become the 2020 Democratic nominee. Two memes have emerged on social media since the announcement. First, some call for caution among his detractors, positing that it’s wise to wade gently into the Democratic primary cycle without risking alienating those with whom we sharply disagree and whose support will be needed to defeat Trump. Second, and more bluntly, some are seeking pre-commitments, obviously legally non-binding, to support the eventual Democratic nominee without regard to our preliminary assessments. I personally reject both memes for reasons that relate to my understanding of why people vote.

 

Conventional economic accounts of voting share a peculiar framing. They assume people vote to affect election outcomes, and therefore, that those who consider voting weigh the miniscule probability of affecting the outcome against the certain costs of getting up to speed on candidates and issues, and heading to the polls or caucuses come election day. I am increasingly convinced that this framing gets voting upside-down. Except perhaps for those who are young or inexperienced, I do not believe that the vast majority of voters conceive of such engagement in terms of cost. Rather they view it as part of their personal identity or narrative. Yes, they do it because it’s what they enjoy, but as far as any cost function goes, the act of voting itself is rather beside the point. Voting is merely the final in a long series of steps that inform the voter’s narrative identity. Voters engage because doing so is part of who they are; and having been engaged throughout the lengthy run up to an election, voting itself is rather like remembering to put on your gloves before heading out on a cold day. It is merely the final step after all other preparations are complete. It is hard to fathom a voter seriously engaging with calculations on her personal odds of affecting an election outcome. Not voting based on such assessments would be rather like not gifting because cash transfers are more efficient or defecting in a parlor game with one dollar at stake. It misses the point.

 

The narrative characterization of voting is, of course, more finely grained than a Hamlet-like existential binary: "to vote or not to vote." And this is where the Sanders memes come in. Political identity is a critical personal attribute and, for many, more religious than religion. Rare is the Christian willing to go Jewish should the right Rabbi comes along, or vice versa, in the case of an inspirational Priest. Politics forms a crucial, yet voluntary and changeable, attribute of our core identity. We weren’t “Born This Way,” and that makes us more accountable for, and perhaps prideful of, our choices. 

 

The 2018 midterm notwithstanding, the Democratic party is in a deep struggle in search of its soul. There are two emerging visions: a centrist vision, likely embraced by the declared Senator Amy Klobuchar (D MN), and, should he declare, by Vice President Joe Biden, versus a democratic socialist vision, embraced by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D MA) and Bernie Sanders (D VT). Although Kamala Harris (D CA), and perhaps others as well, might seek to bridge the two camps, eventually she will almost certainly be forced to choose.

 

Conventional political wisdom holds that those on the wings in either party will hold their noses and vote centrist if necessary and that the opposite is less obviously true. This conventional wisdom is increasingly suspect. Third party candidates who compete against a major party’s base risk becoming spoilers, as was the case on the left with Ralph Nader in 2000 and as Pat Buchanan, less successfully, threatened on the right. The Schultz campaign, which poses the serious threat of pulling moderate Democrats away, complicates this, and in my view, he should run in the Democratic primary to make his case. But he won't. Ultimately I'm persuaded that a Sanders or Warren candidacy spells doom for Democratic prospects of defeating Trump, whereas a Klobuchar or Biden candidacy will take the wind from Shultz's sails. 

 

Throughout this blog, I have explained why I’m a centrist, why I’m anti-Trump, and why restoring the traditional left-right political balance, which Trump has eviscerated, is essential to restoring our politics. That’s my narrative identity. The memers, to coin a phrase, are insisting that moderate Democrats, like me, provide commitments today that would lower the cost of the party’s far-leftward tilt tomorrow. We are expected to do so by pre-committing this early on not to call out the far left candidates loudly and forcefully, and to promise today to support whoever gets the eventual nomination. I won’t do it. Of course, I’ll never vote for Trump, and, of course, I anticipate voting for whomever stands the best chance of defeating him. Even so, I am willing take the necessary steps to pressure the Democratic party to avoid a suicide mission in 2020. The stakes are too high not to. 

 

I welcome your comments.

 

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