It seems that no matter who you vote for, a politician gets elected. Given that outcome, how can we make sure that the person we elect has the character and abilities to do the job properly?
The solution doesn’t lie with staying away from the polls – though evidence suggests this is what more and more people are doing around the world, whether it’s in South Africa, Australia, countries around East Africa, the US or during the UK’s recent Brexit vote.
When potential voters choose not to exercise their right to vote, they effectively abdicate any decision-making and potentially allow the few to choose for the many. Not voting doesn’t make things better. It can actually make them worse.
The tragedy of the commons
There is an old problem in philosophy known as the “tragedy of the commons”. One version goes something like this: there is a common area of farmland used by all the villagers in the area to graze animals. This land has supported the village for many years, but now the population is increasing and the land is feeling the pressure. In response the community decides to limit access to the land, to ensure that each farmer only uses it to feed the bare minimum of livestock.
All well and good, but each farmer thinks along the following lines: if I can graze one extra animal on the commons it will make a very small difference to the community – but a huge difference to me.
Of course, each of them is correct. But the end result of this individual preferencing is a collective calamity. The land degrades as a result of a large number of individual, small-scale effects.
What we potentially have in an election situation is something of the reverse. If everyone thinks that what they have to contribute is too little, and so refrains from participating, then the few who do vote will end up making the decisions for them. This may also be calamitous.
It’s exactly what happened during the recent Brexit vote. Many young people who wanted to remain in the European Union did not vote. They didn’t stay away en masse as was originally reported, but older voters, many of whom wanted to leave the EU, turned out in bigger numbers. The result? The decision was made for those youngsters who had backed “remain” but stayed away.
A politician always gets elected at the end of the voting process. But this is where the critical thinking bites. For just as each person who votes is a chance to make things better, each person who doesn’t is a chance to make things worse. Each action, voting or not voting, has an equally significant consequence – it’s just that not voting can only produce a negative one.
Not voting can have serious consequences regarding the kind of society we end up living in. Disengagement can mean a lowering of quality of life.
Politicians who win by default or because the voting public isn’t interested can make spurious claims, a point recently eloquently outlined by Australian author and public intellectual Clive Hamilton.
The most significant claim is that they have a mandate to do what they want. The simple fact of being elected is seen as a manifestation of the will of the people. Moreover, they therefore think themselves entitled by this “mandate” to ignore the claims of those who voted otherwise, even though these voters might make up a significant proportion of the population.
The number of politicians who emerge from a narrow victory feeling anointed rather than lucky is disturbingly large. A result of this delusion is that anyone who opposes them must also be opposing the collective wisdom of the nation. This puts some people in an even more powerless position.
There’s no neutral option
Politicians have a range of strategies to make sure they attain and maintain power. All of them rely on influencing how we make decisions on their terms rather than ours. I’ve written in part about this before.
If only those swayed by political rhetoric end up voting, we end up valuing political spin and shallow sloganeering above substantive policy, personality cults over political leadership, and private interests over the public good. In short, power goes to the best salesperson with the best show – not the best leader with the best policies.
It’s a corruption of the very idea of public reasoning and collective decision-making that is the only alternative we have to dictatorships and oligarchies.
Just as the more people vote, the better the chance of good government, so the fewer who vote improves the chance of bad government. And we’ve surely had enough of that. It counts when you vote and it counts just as much when you don’t. Only one of them counts for the better.