Contra-Texan: Civic Engagement is Less Important than Ever.

This post is in response to Lloyd Doggett’s August 28 piece, “Civic engagement more important than ever.” 

Your vote does not matter. Votes matter; votes decide elections. Your vote does not; it decides nothing. In the 2008 presidential election, the average American’s chance of deciding the election was 1 in 60 million; in Texas, closer to 1 in a billion. To use a common shock-value comparison, your odds of being struck by lightning in a given year (1 in 700,000) are much higher. Voting is the most common form of political participation and many view it as the primary way of making their voice heard in politics. If this is true, your voice is quieter than ever; your exit from the political arena altogether, however, speaks volumes. 

The Power of a Vote

National elections are, of course, the worst of the bunch when it comes to electoral power. As the size of the electorate shrinks, such as in state and local elections, the decisiveness of a vote increases. But, as the size of the electorate shrinks, so does the power of the office being voted for. Less is at stake, generally, in an election for a senator than for a president; less for a congressional representative than a senator, etc. In other words, as the probability of being decisive in an election increases, the effect of that election on political outcomes tends to decrease in magnitude. 

This trend is only exacerbated by population growth. Presidential elections feature one candidate and an ever-increasing electorate, meaning that decisiveness is ever-decreasing, an effect seen likewise with the Senate. Though congressional representation does scale with population growth, this scale is not linear. According to Drew Desilver of PEW, in 1910 there was one congressional representative for every 209,447 people; as of 2017, that ratio is one for every 747,184 people. The size of the House of Representatives has remained static at 435 since 1911 and was capped at this number by the 1929 law authorizing the 1930 census. The depressionary effect of population growth on vote power also holds true at the state and local level. If voting is the primary form of civic engagement, civic engagement, at least in this form, is less important than ever. 

Decreasing vote power is contrasted by the increasing power of the government, particularly at the federal level. At the same time that the political process is responsible for an increasing number of personal, financial, and economic decisions, that process is decreasingly responsive to the people it affects. 

These are the facts that Rep. Lloyd Doggett glosses over when he says that “civic engagement is more important than ever.” In his August 28 piece for the Daily Texan of the same title, Doggett highlights critically important issues — immigration, affordable education, democratic security — that are, at least in part, decided by the political process. He then, as the title suggests, emphasizes civic engagement — what he calls “getting involved” — as a key way of affecting the outcomes in these issues. 

Doggett makes a fundamental error in his article: he confuses the importance of political issues with the importance of political action. The issues he raises are of monumental importance, affecting the lives of every citizen. Civic engagement — broadly defined as trying to affect these issues in the political realm (the civitas) — is, however, an inefficacious method for most citizens to create change. 

This follows from the lack of voting power that citizens have. If an action is more than symbolically important, if it is actually important, then it must be measured by its impact. In most cases, your vote is simply too indecisive to have much impact at all, particularly in light of the other things you could be doing to effect change. 

Alternatives to Voice: Exit

Albert O. Hirschman famously identified the options available to members of an organization that is in decline in his 1972 work Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. In summary, exit is the choice to leave the relationship, voice the choice to work within the system to improve the organization, and loyalty a measure of an individual’s dedication to the organization that can affect their choice between voice and exit. 

Doggett unambiguously advocates voice. His concept of civic engagement involves voting, letter-writing, and contacting your representative as a means of affecting change. Much of the article highlights Doggett’s own efforts on the issues he raises, such as provisions he has authored and bills his party (Democrat) has sponsored. Unsurprisingly for a man of the system, Doggett wants you to also expend your efforts to effect change within that system. 

But your position is likely very different than Doggett’s. The chances are good that you are not an elected representative, a prominent political activist, or a social influencer. Doggett’s voice is a lot different, and more powerful, than yours. Given this, exit is likely a more powerful, potentially even much more powerful, way of effecting change. 

But what does exit in these scenarios look like? 

Doggett raises the issue of protecting DACA recipients (Dreamers) which I will generalize more broadly into the issue of immigration reform. In no uncertain terms, the U.S. immigration system is economically inefficient, overly bureaucratic, and inhumane. Doggett implores citizens unsatisfied with these atrocious conditions to vote, write their representative, and speak out, in a word: engage. This activity all fits into Hirschman’s strategy of voice. 

A strategy of exit, conversely, would involve none of these collective actions. Unhappy with the immigration situation? Buy a would-be immigrant a one-way plane ticket and suggest that they peruse the research on how many immigrants overstay their visas. Upset by how expensive college is for the average student? Sponsor a scholarship. 

Exiting means ending one’s relationship with the institution of politics as a means of effecting change. Exit is based on the sober recognition of one’s power, or lack thereof, in the political arena. If voice is the sphere of the collective, exit is that of the individual. Choosing exit is choosing to recognize the impotence of one’s vote but refusing to accept the impotence of one’s actions.

But why choose exit over voice? Because, when assessed on the margin, it is clearly more effective. 

Consider the strategies of voice versus exit on immigration reform. 

A common voice strategy involves “getting out the vote.” One of the most direct and effective of these strategies is canvassing. According to Alan Gerber, successful canvassers can expect to increase their target’s chance of voting by 4.3 percent — that is, if they reach their target. Gerber notes that only about a quarter of targets will answer the door. In a neighborhood of 400 homes, a canvasser might reach 100. At 4.3 percent, they can expect to increase voter turnout by a whopping four voters. And remember, each of those voters has the same snowball’s chance in hell of being decisive as you do. Spending hours canvassing a neighborhood to get 4.3 people each with a 1 in 60 million chance of changing the election result — at least in presidential elections — seems like a dubious way to effect change on immigration.

Even at state and local levels where the outlook is somewhat less grim, proponents of the voice strategy must consider that even if they are successful at determining the outcome of the election, this does not guarantee that change will follow. Representatives are smaller parts of larger bodies and even the most zealous advocate of a position faces an uphill battle in getting their initiative into law.

Conversely, an exit approach to immigration is less about reforming the system and focuses instead on allaying the worst aspects of a system that one has little individual power to change by working outside of that system. 

An exit approach to immigration could take many forms: purchasing plane tickets for immigrants who might then overstay their visas, strategically funding the legal expenses of immigrants, or using your special knowledge as a lawyer, accountant, doctor, etc. to help them directly. 

A similar approach is available to those unsatisfied with the cost of college. Sponsoring a scholarship, offering to pay for a student’s textbooks, or, and probably better yet, offering would-be college students an apprenticeship in a career with growth opportunities are all better ways to allay the costs of college than throwing one’s time or money — notice that the exit strategist recognizes that the distinction between the two is largely superficial — into the meat grinder of politics. 

The exit strategy focuses on the maximally efficient use of one’s time and efforts. For most people, working in their specialized field is the highest value use of their time AND the best way available for them to enact change. If you have ever wondered why the church-going lawyer spends an hour working at a bake sale for her parish that nets $200 when she makes $500 an hour, the exit strategy asks this question of politics writ large. 

To Accept the Things I Cannot Change; To Change the Things I Can

Those who choose exit recognize the many barriers that the political process throws up in front of the would-be activist. Barriers to change make sense in a political system capable of using force against others and in a world where truth is a moving target. No force is more oppressive than a government convinced of its righteousness and capable of acting on that conviction unilaterally. 

For the individual, this is not a problem. Those who sever their relationship with the political process, those who chose exit, forego force as a means of imposing their truth on others. There is nothing forceful about trading one’s valuable skills for money and using one’s money to effect positive change according to one’s values. That other’s values differ from yours is no issue, let your time and money speak louder than theirs. (If they choose a voice strategy, this will be all the easier).

Exit strategists recognize that individuals are differently positioned in the political process. Doggett’s advocacy of civic engagement makes sense from his perspective in a position of political power. For most others, however, politics is an arena of extremely limited efficacy. The tool that we are given — the vote — is simply too indecisive to be a true means for individuals to effect change. 

Those who choose exit perceive what Doggett seems to gloss over in his piece: the secular truth behind Niebuhr’s serenity prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” (Note: Niebuhr’s authorship of this prayer is contested). In most cases, the larger political system is beyond our ability to change. Choosing exit does not mean nihilistically accepting that change is impossible but rather choosing to exercise the “wisdom to know the difference” and direct one’s time and money where it is most effective. An added benefit is the serenity that comes with exiting the realm of force — i.e. politics — and the Storm und Drang that attends it.

Categories: Ideas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s