Voting, Cynicism, and Irrational Optimism of Democracy

Act of voting requires us to overcome cynicism

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-06-16

Most Californians elected not to vote last week. Statewide voter turnout was less than 30%. Fresno County turnout was around 20%.

It is rational not to vote — especially in an election like this one. There were a couple of referenda where your vote might have made a difference. But in other races, the incumbent had no viable opposition. Republicans already knew that Romney was the party’s choice; and Democrats had no choice at all. It is remarkable that anyone bothered to vote, given the inevitability of much of the ballot.

What is even more remarkable is that some voted for candidates who had no chance of winning, like Ron Paul, who got 10% of the Republican vote. This seems quite irrational. Why vote for a candidate who cannot win? Isn’t it easier to just stay home?

I talked about voting with professor David Schecter, the chair of the Political Science Department at Fresno State. Schecter maintained that democracy is not a spectator sport. We have the opportunity — maybe even an obligation — to get involved and to vote.

Schecter suggested that there are many reasons why people vote. Voting can be an expressive act. When we vote, we affirm solidarity with others who have fought and died to achieve the franchise. When we vote, we act as role models — showing our children what we value. Some may even view voting as a moral obligation or a duty of citizenship, along the same lines as military service or jury duty.

Schecter pointed out, however, that social scientists also explain voting behavior as a matter of habituation. If your parents vote, you are likely to vote. People who voted in previous elections are more likely to vote in the next election than people who have not voted. Political scientists also can predict electoral behavior based upon demographic data.

But we like to believe that there is more to our own decisions than mere habit or demography. Can mere habit explain why we continue to vote when we know our votes don’t matter much? Or why some people vote for candidates who have no chance of winning?

One explanation is hinted at by the American philosopher Josiah Royce and his analysis of “lost causes.”

Royce discusses the spiritual power that is generated by those who persevere in the face of loss. When we remain loyal to a lost cause, we grieve what we’ve lost while renewing our efforts toward the future.

In many cases, it is rational to give up and surrender. But for some people, the lost cause provokes even more effort.

Royce describes a kind of energy and joy that comes from idealistically serving a cause “of which the world, as it is, is not yet ready.”

Royce’s idea helps explain why people remain committed to religious faith. It even helps explain why people keep getting married despite the fact that many marriages end in divorce.

And it explains our irrational faith in electoral politics. We want to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that our votes count.

Every election season, we somehow find the will to believe that this time things will be different. We set our cynicism aside and go to the polls. Even when we know our votes don’t count for much, we vote. Or we vote for candidates who have no chance of winning.

There is a kind of irrational optimism and idealism among those who vote. Voters express faith in the system when they vote for losing candidates, the lost causes of American politics.

Why bother? The lost-cause voter wants to somehow send a message to someone, hoping that someday the world will be ready for a change.

The act of voting requires us to overcome cynicism with enthusiasm.

Voters were right to conclude that their votes didn’t matter much last week. Chances are that the turnout will be greater in the fall — when there are more choices that really matter. But we might worry that we’ve lost our idealism and given in to cynicism.

The 70% to 80% of voters who stayed home last week may suspect that American politics really is a spectator sport. If that’s the conclusion, then democracy itself is on its way toward becoming a lost cause.