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Really. It’s Okay to Vote Your Conscience

Clay Shirky is wrong about protest voting (and Voting in General)

by Max Borders

The late George Carlin once said he doesn’t vote because “it’s meaningless.” This country was “bought and paid” for a long time ago, added Carlin.

Clay Shirky needs to listen to more George Carlin.

You see, Shirky wants us to Rock the Vote. But he doesn’t want us rocking that vote outside the two-party system. To Shirky the choice is binary: R or D.

If you cast a protest vote, or fail to vote at all, you might be sending a message…

But it doesn’t matter what message you think you are sending, because no one will receive it. No one is listening. The system is set up so that every choice other than ‘R’ or ‘D’ boils down to “I defer to the judgement of my fellow citizens.” It’s easy to argue that our system shouldn’t work like that. It’s impossible to argue it doesn’t work like that.

Witness, folks. Clay Shirky — author of Here Comes Everybody, a techno-manifesto for the wisdom of crowds — arguing on behalf of a Democratic Operating System (DOS) that only runs two apps.

So sorry. Suck it up and pick one.

Shirky’s might be a good argument for people who know they’re going to vote — though Shirky’s argument for even the most civically-engaged voter is basically this: It’s just the way the system is “set up.” Alternative choices don’t work.

Is it an accident that Shirky would have us perpetuate the very system people are keen to protest? He’s been an advisor to high-level partisans. And that’s fine as far as it goes. But one wonders if his case against protest voting is anything other than an attempt to keep his own herd from straying too far from the flock. After all, many in that flock (Sanders supporters) got burned by the decidedly undemocratic DNC colluding with Hillary Clinton.

Still, let’s grant Shirky’s point about the inefficacy of protest votes for a moment. Shirky cannot argue that voting is somehow better than staying home.

First, Shirky assumes we want our vote to count or our messages to be “received.” By whom? History. Society. Those in power. To that end, his strategic rationale appears to be Everyone has to vote for the D or the R. To be heard, you’ll join one of two herds. Even if that choice is analogous to offering a vegan the choice between beef or pork, by God, the vegan ought to make a choice.

But let’s move away from the lesser of evils argument — because if Shirky’s right, vegans gotta eat even with no veggies on offer.

Swing States and Lightning Strikes

According to NBC News, only people in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, have anything but an infinitesimal chance that their vote will affect the outcome of the 2016 election.

Let that settle for a moment…

You have a better chance of being struck by lightning on the way to the voting booth. As Jim Pagels puts it at Forbes,

The most generous estimates claim you have a 1-in-10 million chance of being the deciding vote in an election, and that’s only if you live in a swing state and if you vote for one of the two major parties. Overall, the estimate is roughly 1-in-60 million.

That means it’s almost 100 percent assured you could switch your vote in every state-wide election your whole life and the outcome would be the same. In other words, following Carlin, your vote is “meaningless.”

Or, as political philosopher Jason Brennan notes,

telling someone they can’t complain about an election if they didn’t vote is akin to telling a homeless person that they can’t complain about being poor unless they play the lottery every day.

Ouch. But matters are even worse.

Even when you do follow Shirky’s advice and vote D or R — that is, you add your teardrop to the ocean — “it doesn’t matter what message you think you are sending … no one will receive it.” That’s because the two parties aren’t listening.

This is Public Choice Theory. (And for that matter, it’s George Carlin.)

Duke Professor Michael Munger puts it another way. The problem is not just with voting. It’s with the very idea of the state as a steward of the good — this idea at which we cast our votes.

In debates, I have found it useful to describe this problem as the “unicorn problem,” precisely because it exposes a fatal weakness in the argument for [the state]. If you want to advocate the use of unicorns as motors for public transit, it is important that unicorns actually exist, rather than only existing in your imagination. People immediately understand why relying on imaginary creatures would be a problem in practical mass transit.

But they may not immediately see why “the State” that they can imagine is a unicorn. So, to help them, I propose what I (immodestly) call “the Munger Test.”

i. Go ahead, make your argument for what you want the State to do, and what you want the State to be in charge of [or the “message” you want to send].

ii. Then, go back and look at your statement. Everywhere you said “the State,” delete that phrase and replace it with “politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist.”

iii. If you still believe your statement, then we have something to talk about.

This leads to loads of fun, believe me. When someone says, “The State should be in charge of hundreds of thousands of heavily armed troops, with the authority to use that coercive power,” ask them to take out the unicorn (“the State”) and replace it with “George W. Bush.” [Or Donald Trump!] How do you like it now?

When Shirky says the only way to “send a message” is to vote one of the two parties, he has fallen victim to the Unicorn Fallacy. It’s not so much that your message won’t be received if you do. It’s that it will be crumpled up and thrown into a dumpster in an alley behind K Street.

Why We Vote

Shirky goes on to set out three theories of change by protest voters (which of course he thinks are false). For the sake of brevity these are:

  • Boycott – which is meant to threaten the establishment with a loss of legitimacy;
  • Defection – where voters believe they can force a loss on either the Democrats or Republicans, and thus make that party adopt their preferred policies, and
  • Victory – where people think their third party candidate has a chance in hell.

Notice all these purported protest vote strategies are based on some hoped-for outcome. The trouble is, very few people actually apply such theories of change to justify their votes. So when criticizing these theories, Shirky is appealing to strategic brains in the heads of voters most people simply don’t use. Paraphrasing Jonathan Haidt, Shirky is talking to the “rider” (strategy) atop the “elephant” (intuition). Most people are bundles of emotions, intuitions and groupthink and they use little in the way of any coherent political theory or strategic bent.

Notice all these purported protest vote strategies are based on some hoped-for outcome. The trouble is, very few people actually apply such theories of change to justify their votes. So when criticizing these theories, Shirky is appealing to strategic brains in the heads of voters most people simply don’t use. Paraphrasing Jonathan Haidt, Shirky is talking to the “rider” (strategy) atop the “elephant” (intuition). Most people are bundles of emotions, intuitions and groupthink and they use little in the way of any coherent political theory or strategic bent.

More specifically, though, people are actually far more likely to be motivated to vote for other reasons:

A) Rational irrationality — People vote to express themselves, because the immediate cost of doing so is negligible;

B) Ideology — People vote in accordance with some abstraction — a wished-for state-of-affairs, ideal, or unrealizable Utopia;

C) Tribal-Coalitional — Means people vote in solidarity with those they perceive as their group, team or tribe.

Shirky is trying to persuade people to choose more strategically rather than to choose out of some other motivation. But are people likely to change?

More importantly, politicians aren’t going to change.

Politics Without Romance

Why do politicians consistently disappoint us? Because they face perverse incentives. The late Nobel laureate, James Buchanan set all this out in cold, dispassionate terms. He called it “Politics without Romance.

If the government is empowered to grant monopoly rights or tariff protection to one group, at the expense of the general public or of designated losers, it follows that potential beneficiaries will compete for the prize. And since only one group can be rewarded, the resources invested by other groups—which could have been used to produce valued goods and services—are wasted. Given this basic insight, much of modern politics can be understood as rent-seeking activity. Pork-barrel politics is only the most obvious example. Much of the growth of the bureaucratic or regulatory sector of government can best be explained in terms of the competition between political agents for constituency support through the use of promises of discriminatory transfers of wealth.

In light of this insight, the very idea of voting fails to pass the Munger Test. People vote for all kinds of reasons. But none of them vote because of politics without romance. Not even Shirky. If you tell him about it, he’ll cover his ears and go ‘la la la la…’ all the way to the prayer voting booth.

The Salve

But Shirky isn’t done criticizing protest voters just yet. He writes:

This is the legacy of protest votes: None of the proposed theories of change change anything. Boycotts don’t work, since non-voting is a normal case. Defection elects the greater of two evils from the voter’s point of view — and that’s if it works — while doing little to the parties. And victory never happens; not one third-party candidate has ever won, or come close. Advocates of wasted votes don’t bring up this record of universal failure, because their votes aren’t about changing political results. They’re about salving wounded pride.

Let’s pause and rest on a point of agreement with Shirky. It’s true that protest votes are often about salving wounded pride–or some other less strategic motivation like A), B) or C) above.

But that’s one of the biggest problems with Shirky’s assumptions. People are almost never strategic voters. Again, if they were, they wouldn’t vote at all. They’re certainly not likely to adopt any of the theories of social change Shirky ascribes to protest voters. And though most people do vote R or D, few will do so for the reasons Shirky says they ought to.

But Max, you might be thinking, Shirky’s whole case is meant to persuade people to vote more strategically — to vote within the duopoly. And that’s okay. But we should at least be honest with ourselves about voters’ actual motivations. Because when we do, we’ll realize Shirky is really just compounding his own salve.

The Spectacle

You see, a more rational, well-informed person would be right to see electoral politics for what it is: A spectacle that somehow legitimates all the antics that go on in Washington. It offers us an illusion of control. In reality, legislators play unending games, which include King of the Mountain, Tug-of-War, Horse Trade, and All-pay Auction.

Even if we can grant that protest voters vote for fluffy or fruitless reasons, it’s not clear this insight helps Shirky’s case. Still, he adds:

Throwing away your vote on a message no one will hear, and which will change no outcome, is sometimes presented as ‘voting your conscience’, but that’s got it exactly backwards; your conscience is what keeps you from doing things that feel good to you but hurt other people. Citizens who vote for third-party candidates, write-in candidates, or nobody aren’t voting their conscience, they are voting their ego, unable to accept that a system they find personally disheartening actually applies to them.

Note that this is the passage that got all the lime-green highlighter by Medium readers. Finally!, they tell themselves, someone has given me permission to vote for someone morally execrable. It’s not just that the ends can justify the means. It’s that if I don’t choose between Evil Mouth and Evil Deeds, then I’m voting with my ego! I’m hurting other people!

Dutifully they post the Clay Shirky article on Facebook as a means of signaling their newfound virtue.

To hell with that.

With all the caveats about the statistical absurdity of voting, a few protest voters out there might well be playing a long game. One or two more election cycles of third-party growth and we might actually see some systemic change.

Shirky’s insistence on the status quo is probably designed to create a self-fulfilling prophecy to preserve that status quo. But, really, if you’re going to do something as irrational as voting, why not do it for posterity?

Posterity, Change and Exit

Consider that neither the costs nor benefits of voting for some candidate accrue immediately. Why not look at protest voting as laying the groundwork for a fairer and more open system in some distant future? Why not pave the way to a system that could very well be fueled by the sort of online revolution Clay Shirky sets out in Here Comes Everybody?

It’s sad that in the nascency of the DAO, the only thing anybody can think of — much less Clay-freaking-Shirky — is DOS. And if we are to accept Shirky’s electoral nihilism, then we’d better start thinking not about how else to make the two-party system work, but whether to move to New Zealand.

But what about the protesters who vote out of some combination of A), B) or C) above? Are they justified at all?

“Noisily opting out as a way of demonstrating your pique is an understandable human act,” says Shirky, “It’s just not a political act. It’s an elaborate way of making the rest of us do the work of deciding.”

Come now. None of us is “deciding” anyway, though we might be doing light work. At best you’re adding your teardrop to the ocean. If you wanted to get right down to what makes sense — that is doing the world some good, versus what is merely puffing oneself up on civic rectitude — you’d volunteer at a soup kitchen, you wouldn’t vote.

And in that spirit, turnabout is fair play:

“It is, famously, a free country. And you can vote for anyone you like, or for no one. But if you do, don’t kid yourself — and certainly don’t try to kid anyone else — that you are creating some kind of positive political change.”

When folks like Clay Shirky argue we should be more selective about the tears we drop into the ocean, tell them elections have always been about just having a good cry.

We might all want to vent at the voting booth. But we should also start to look beyond politics. We can be pioneers of new communities. We can make new rules. We can criticize by creating.

Max Borders is co-founder of the Voice & Exit experience. Join us for a good cry right after the election.