I’m a generally agreeable person. So I rarely find myself in a situation where, 10 minutes into meeting someone, they say, with utter contempt, “I’m not interested in hearing what you have to say about anything.”
This happened yesterday. Why? Because I didn’t vote.
My abstention was not due to political neutrality; I preferred Democratic candidates and hoped they would win. I abstained because my vote didn’t matter. In the counterfactual world where I did vote, the outcome would be exactly the same. We all know this. Even “close” elections virtually never come down to differences in the single digits, much less a single vote.
The classic counter-argument goes like this: “If everyone on our side did what you did, then the other party would win.” Or the non-partisan equivalent: “If everyone did what you did, then Democracy would fail.”
Neither argument is relevant. They are both “If p, then q” statements, where the p-clause is false. Everyone on my side won’t do what I do, so whatever comes after the “if”-clause doesn’t matter.
Consider the argument, “If your dad comes home, then you’ll have to stop playing video games.” If you knew that your dad wasn’t coming home, because he never comes home, would you still conclude that you’ll have to stop playing video games?
I tried to explain this to my friends, but to no avail. I suspect that on some level they knew it was true, because they shifted to a new argument: “If you don’t vote, then you don’t care,” or “If you don’t vote, then you can’t complain.”
By way of response, I argued that, in fact, I do care. My caring is evidenced by the fact that I spend an ungodly amount of hours, day in and day out, writing about political issues with the hope of influencing society. Writing about politics requires much more work (and care) than voting; and I have had a much greater influence on politics by writing than by voting. These arguments, however, failed to persuade them as well.
I was prepared for disagreement, but not for outright contempt. I thought to myself, I’ve never experienced contempt this immediate and intense in my entire life––not for any reason. Something is going on here.
Perhaps to ease the tension, one friend asked, “Is it OK to socially shame people who don’t vote?” It hit me. Fear of social shaming is the actual reason why people vote to begin with. Sure, people (myself included) care about policy issues. But all of us know that, in the counterfactual world where we, as individuals, did not vote, all of the policy outcomes we care about would be exactly the same.
It is impossible to persuade a rational person to vote by appealing to the effect that they, as an individual, will have on political outcomes. And it’s precisely because this is impossible that we socially shame those who don’t vote. Social shaming fills the void left by rational argument.
Of course, people tell a different story about why they, as individuals, vote. It’s about the policies, or electing better politicians, or preserving democracy, or resisting Trump. All fine goals, I say, but none of those goals are served in the least by you going to the polls. This story paints people as virtuous, but doesn’t actually explain their behavior.
My story––that people vote because they fear social shaming and desire social praise––explains not only voting behavior but also other features of political life. Consider those “I Voted!” pins that everyone wore yesterday. What do those pins have to do with advancing policy goals or resisting Trump or preserving democracy? Nothing. They are (almost literally) badges of virtue.
Does accepting my argument mean we should stop shaming people? No! To the contrary, shame away! Voting is important, and if shaming people is the only way to get everyone to do something that’s individually pointless but collectively essential, then we should continue to shame intensely.
Still, it would be nice if people owned up to their real motives for voting every once in a while. A world with less moral grandstanding and more honesty would make me happier. But I doubt it will happen. Besides, “I Voted Because I Fear Being Shamed!” doesn’t quite fit on a pin.