How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Electorate
A friend asked me as I poured over my sample ballot in the run up to midterms: Does it bother you that most of the electorate will vote having done less research on their ballot?
My answer: No
I have come to be encouraged by what I see in the electorate. Lack of research included.
A scant year ago I would have thought very differently. It runs very counter to what I have been told all my life. Get informed and vote, that is the only way to keep the nation of the people and by the people. To be sure, there is value to getting informed and voting. However, that alone does not protect the nation.
An incredible claim, surely.
Let me explain my new view:
People vote in a lot of different ways and for a lot of different reasons. To simplify things I am going to talk about 4 very basic voting behaviors: Tribal, Surfer, Sleeper, and Calculator
Tribal voting — casting a solid ticket for a certain party. Even disagreements with candidates can be set aside for the good of party unity.
Surfer voting — focusing in on hot topics, scandals, major news stories, etc. The media consumed by a Surfer will heavily influence their vote.
Sleeper voting — does not engage to vote except when roused by a certain issue very close to them. A ballot might even be cast for a single issue or candidate and the rest left blank.
Calculator voting — carefully researches and weighs options to cast a ballot. The ballot represents how the Calculator wants the world to be.
There are several points I want to make about these very basic behaviors:
1 — All of these have their strengths and positive impacts
2 — All of these have their weaknesses and negative impacts
3 — All of these together protect a free nation
4 — Why I stopped worrying because of them
Tribal voting provides an anchor against wild swings of government. This grants a certain inertia and stability to the system. This may be blind or even fanatical party loyalty. That is just fine. Some people are exactly this when it comes to politics. That is part of the price of freedom. We need to enfranchise all people. The service they provide is to keep any one side from gaining an overwhelming mandate to change everything as they see fit. To allow that would by nature oppress the party in minority.
Surfing voting provides a means for a people’s government to react quickly in times of great need. There are times when fast action needs to be taken. Provocations of war, emergency actions to prevent war, scandals of ethics, miscarriages of justice, these all need to be considered on a single instance basis. No two of these instances will be alike and so are hard to address with any single system. Beyond that the Surfers bring vial energy and urgency to the waves they ride. Without them extraordinary cases would be handled by systematic processes not designed to handle them and without the proper urgency to make a difference in time.
Sleeper voting provides a kind of circuit breaker for the government. Usually Sleepers are politically disengaged. This allows them to be more focused on other pursuits. Not least of these is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These voters are free to focus on work, family life, invention, etc. However, when an issue comes to affect them personally they will vote to look after their interests. This may sound selfish but remember that these are the interests of the people that otherwise focus on keeping everything else working. When they are disengaged chances are that things are generally fine. Not fantastic, but not intolerable. There are strongly mobilized when things grow intolerable.
Calculator voting provides a researched and considered force to check and guide government. Calculators try to free themselves from the considerations of partisan politics and emotional appeal. They diligently vote to shape the government to as close to ideal as they can get. They are not free of bias. None of us are. Nor are the options they are given to vote on perfect. The ballot is more of a constant balancing act. Calculators try to limit damage and move slowly to a more ideal place.
You may not agree with all of the positives presented. If a voting behavior does not appeal to you it is only natural to see it as less positive. I am no different. I personally find it helps to remind myself that these need not be taken to their ultimate overwhelming conclusion. Instead think about having just a little bit of each. A minority, say, an equal 25% of the electorate for each. So, imagine an equal mix where none of these has a deciding say. This is obviously not the actual case but it helps show how each can balance against the others.
Tribal voting creates party wars. Beyond actual wars, a government overwhelmed by Tribalism can either deadlock or become actively oppressive to all other parties. It deadlocks when no party has the upper hand. Nothing can get done so the government freezes and starts to break from the tension. If one party gains a significant majority the minority is at their mercy. It is possible for a majority to be merciful but history does not show us a good record of this over long periods.
Surfer voting is erratic and volatile. It can be manipulated by bombast and bad information. It is also prone to making bad choices. This is because there is a rush to judgement without waiting for the full story. A majority of this type of voting leads very quickly to mobs of outrage and injustice. There is also a common temptation to want continued excitement by moving from wave to wave. This creates pressure to find the next big wave to surf regardless of justification. It can also mean that no single topic is ever fully resolved as Surfers jump to the next rush.
Sleeper voting is disengaged and lets a small minority shape the government. If a majority is Sleeping then control is ceded to an unrepresentative group of engaged voters. The most major fault of this is that if a minority group is oppressed it can be made invisible. The Sleepers will not be roused because not enough of them are disturbed. Terrible abuses can take place quietly while the majority slumber because things just aren’t bad enough for them. More insidiously, the government can be made to slowly go off the rails so that the Sleepers do not wake until it is far too late.
Calculated voting is slow and prone to arrogance. It has at its root the idea that Calculator knows what is in the common good and voting to shape things to that ideal. A Calculating majority is prone to being paralyzed. As ideals are explored more in depth, the more differences splinter the Calculators. This leads to endless debate on even the most minor details. The other major problem is allowing a majority to form to enforce a specific cultural ideology. History has shown us that this situation leads to tragic sacrifices being rationalized in service of the greater good.
I find it is easier to see how these behaviors can go wrong. All except for the ones we are prone to. Sometimes we need reminded that anything taken to an extreme becomes oppressive. For each of the types consider what happens when an overwhelming majority of voting is done this way. For me, it has helped to consider how it would feel being ruled by one type where I could do nothing to resist it.
All Taken Together
The most important thing to remember with these voting behaviors is that we voters shift between them. A single person may tend to behave a certain way but a given election cycle, political environment, life events, and even weather may change how a person casts their ballot [or doesn’t].
This makes this next point all the more powerful:
There is no single way to manipulate the electorate
What appeals to one behavior will not appeal to another.
What appeals to one behavior will often antagonize another.
What appeals to a voter in one election may not appeal to that same voter in another.
What appeals to a majority of the electorate one election may not appeal to a majority in another.
How does this protect the Nation?
Consider being a politician trying to get their way —
Tow the faithful party line:
Tribal — your side will support you, the other side will not
Surfer — are likely to be bored with the same old lines
Sleeper — will mostly ignore business as usual
Calculator — will pick you apart regardless of party
Sling muck at your opponent or champion an in vogue issue:
Tribal — risk mobilizing a Tribal reaction in your opponent’s partisans
Surfer — will mobilize and ride the waves of scandal and hot issues
Sleeper —tend to care more about long, basic issues and disengage from dirt
Calculator — are irritated by exaggerated rhetoric
Champion solving the sustained basic issues that are common to the majority:
Tribal — if partisans feel this will benefit the other side more, they will oppose
Surfer —tend to care about more minority and sensational issues
Sleeper — addressing common living issues mobilizes the Sleepers
Calculator — the majority self interest may not be a good long term plan
Lay out a meticulous platform in detail:
Tribal — your plan will be labeled as being on a side and voted accordingly
Surfer — meticulous details are not exciting, Surfers will look elsewhere
Sleeper — do not have the time and energy to consider fine details
Calculator — those that share your ideals closely enough will support you
An additional layer of protection is given to us by the nature of those that tend to seek power. Disingenuous manipulators tend to fight the last war. When they find something that works they will continue to work that angle. This may be especially true in democracy because they come to believe their own story. They believe they represent the people and not a specific mixture of appeals that worked in one election. If a candidate or party gets out of touch it ends up with the wrong mixture to win an election.
This would be hard enough for those seeking power if people always behaved the same — We do not.
Here are some examples of shifts in voting behavior:
A person is usually a Sleeper but was mobilized by an intolerable single issue and Surfed that wave to not only vote but to mobilize others. The next election that issue is back in tolerable limits and they return to Sleeping.
A person has voted reliably Tribal but no longer feels represented by party leadership. They turn to Calculation to find the candidates that represent their ideals.
A Calculating person has a new child and simply does not have the time to spend on research. They become a Sleeper rather than vote a mistake.
A Surfer finds that opponents to their issues are always from a certain party. They become Tribal and opposed to the party that stands against them.
With the electorate constantly shifting in behavior each election must be addressed as a new situation. So, if you want to win you need to be in touch with all the people and appeal to as many as possible. This varied behavior from the electorate results in chaotic cycles. Sometime it is easy to predict. Other times it can upend established models and shock expectations.
We, as people, are very good at gaming any system we find. We optimize for it. That is not possible with our electorate because even though our system of voting does not often change the electorate is confounding to pin down. As long as the electorate is made open and free it will continue to confound those that seek power and control.
Why I Stopped Worrying
A Republican vote in a blue state and a Democratic vote in a red state are not thrown away.
They are bulwarks against the total dominance of a single party moving too far to the extremes.
Peaceful activism, protest, and even outrage is not unhealthy for our system.
It allows us to mobilize to face emergencies and other issues not being handled by the current system.
Low voter turnout and ‘no-votes’ are not automatically a tragedy.
It is an indication that everything is going well enough.
Undecided voters are likely not fence sitting and afraid to commit.
They are weighing their options diligently.
With this view I cannot look down on those that did less research than me. The next election I might not be as Calculating. It would be hypocritical to claim other behaviors to be worse now. Even if I hold Calculating as the single best way to vote I would do well to keep in mind that the other types have their positive effects. I should also be wary of the downfalls of my current behavior.
A scant year ago I would have seen things very differently. The uneducated voting, the low turnouts, the numeric futility of a single vote, being trapped in an area where your views are in the minority, all seem so dismal.
Now I have hope. I see the place for all these behaviors in the electorate. I embrace the continued chaotic shifting in our behaviors. This way, we are not only free, we are collectively difficult to manipulate.