Politics & Policy

‘If Only the Voters Knew . . .’

(Carlos Barria/Reuters)
‘Voter education’ is really just ‘voter flattery.’

Political activists, in rare moments of deep despondency, have been known to poke around at the truth: The problem with mass democracy is voters. Activists, whether of the Left or the Right, are almost always Do-Something types (hence activism rather than inactivism), and so they toy from time to time with schemes for engineering a better voter.

For sunnier sorts, this means pushing for better and fuller voter education; for those of a more nubilous disposition, it means an electoral cull.

What we call voter education often is an exercise in flattering ourselves to the point of delusion. One hears this sort of thing all the time: “If the voters only understood our position, they would support our position.” Maria Svart of the Democratic Socialists of America, a Bernie Sanders supporter, says: “Many Americans, if they understood socialism, would like it.” Similarly: “If they understood libertarianism, they would probably be libertarians. It’s a PR problem.” And: “If they understood conservatism, they wouldn’t be liberals.” Etc.

It never occurs to political activists that the reason their preferred policies do not do well at the polling place is — radical thought — that people do not like them. Free-traders won the argument on the merits two centuries ago during the debate over the Corn Laws (the party organ of the Anti-Corn-Law League lives on as The Economist), but that does not matter. Many (perhaps not most) reasonably well-educated people understand gains from trade (though Tufts students apparently do not know what comparative advantage is), and Pat Buchanan probably encountered the works of Ricardo at Georgetown, but they still do not want free trade. They probably have their reasons, mostly bad ones, but the problem with anti-free-market voters isn’t that they have failed to read Economics in One Lesson. Likewise, what’s holding back voters who think that maybe social democracy under a constitutional monarchy isn’t the best road for these United States isn’t that they’ve never heard of Sweden.

What we call voter education often is an exercise in flattering ourselves to the point of delusion.

There isn’t some magical incantation that is going to make them understand (and therefore concur), or some clever argument or example that hasn’t been thought of. Those of us who oppose abortion, for example, have indeed heard of miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, and the like. (If I get one more daft email smugly asking if I’ve ever wondered why we celebrate birth anniversaries rather than conception anniversaries . . .) It isn’t that we haven’t thought about these things or heard those arguments: It’s that we’ve thought about these things and found those arguments unpersuasive.

It isn’t that voters are not profoundly ignorant, it’s just that making them less ignorant isn’t really going to help much on Election Day, because political preferences are not, in the main, a function of knowledge.

The second approach — soft disenfranchisement — is probably even less defensible on utilitarian grounds, but talking about it provides activists, especially conservative activists, with a great deal of emotional satisfaction.

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You’ve heard it all: Only net taxpayers should be allowed to vote. Only those with a positive net worth should be allowed to vote. People on welfare should be disenfranchised. People who work for the government shouldn’t be allowed to vote. This is generally framed as a moral-hazard argument or as a conflict-of-interest argument. And it isn’t that there isn’t anything to it (while neither Alexander Fraser Tytler nor Alexis de Tocqueville nor Ben Franklin actually wrote that democratic government “can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury,” the point nonetheless stands), but that the principle is impossible to apply consistently: Do we treat Social Security dependents and disabled veterans the same way? Kindergarten teachers and TSA goons? Police officers and city-bus drivers? Welfare recipients and Pentagon contractors?

#share#Progressives are a funny bunch in that they do sincerely believe that government should be empowered, almost without limitation, to do the will of the People, who are sovereign, but they imagine that the People speak with one voice, or at least that they should speak with one voice. When the People get froggy and refuse to fall in line behind, say, the Affordable Care Act, which the best experts drew up on behalf of the People, who (so the story goes) gave Barack Obama a mandate to reform health care, then something must be wrong. And we all know what that is: Too much debate and too much political discourse including too many voices, some of which — those of Charles and David Koch, for instance — must be silenced in order for the People to be heard as one voice, the way it was intended. (No, we are not allowed to ask: Intended by Whom?) So we arrive at the strange situation in which the Left desires maximal formal participation in democratic processes but heavy restriction of everything ancillary to those processes, most especially political speech.

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The cynic might here observe that what’s really going on may be something entirely different, that progressives want more participation by voters because they assume that those new voters will agree with them, and less participation in political discourse because they believe that those new voices are less likely to support them, while conservatives want fewer voters because they believe the ones remaining will be more conservative, while they do not worry about all the new forms of political persuasion because those have been mainly conservative. And it probably is the case that many among our political professionals are exactly that calculating.

That doesn’t mean that their calculations are correct.

What is actually needed is a set of conditions under which fewer questions are decided by democratic politics.

What’s actually needed isn’t more voters or fewer voters — though, for the record, I do suspect that our traditional method of voting (going to a polling location on Election Day and casting a vote in person) does act as a modest pro-conservative screening device, and I am perfectly happy with that. But the American people chose some pretty rotten presidents when voting was severely restricted: Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson come to mind, along with four-term wonder Franklin D. Roosevelt. Voters are not great deliberators: They career back and forth, from Johnson to Nixon to Carter to Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Bush to Obama to . . . God knows what comes next. That isn’t a rational progression, and it isn’t a series of decisions based on dispassionate evaluation of the issues of the day. Better voter education, whether that means more (and more intelligent) media voices or reformed civics education in the schools, isn’t going to change that, either.

#related#What is actually needed is a set of conditions under which fewer questions are decided by democratic politics, which is, even in its highly refined American form, a pretty blunt instrument. Some questions are inherently political, but most are not. We needed a positive act of the federal government to rally the country in making war on the Nazis, but invading Normandy is a different thing from invading the kindergarten toilets in Grover, N.C. I’m with Henry David Thoreau: “I heartily accept the motto,—‘That government is best which governs least;’ and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.”

Which is to say, there’s a time for political activism, but we could do with a bit of political inactivism, too.

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