Domestic Affairs

The Cult of Civic Engagement

If you were alive and breathing air on November 5 — election day in the U.S. — I can predict with near certainty that you heard some variation of the following buzzphrases: “It doesn’t matter who or what you are voting for, just vote!” or “every vote counts!” or, and most nauseatingly, “but remember Bush v. Gore!” 

Nowadays, most of the civic evangelicals at least respect your physical privacy and do their mission work on social media (a Facebook post has the added bonus of encouraging only the right people to vote: friends who probably agree with you already). However, if you, like me, live on a college campus, your day was probably physically intruded upon by partisans for the political process. In that case, you have encountered a devotee of the cult that breezes through town every fall: the cult of civic engagement.

The Secular Religion

The cult of civic engagement is founded on the bedrock idea that voice and loyalty are the only reasonable choices in the face of our decrepit political system. “Vote! Fix it from the inside,” they say. Exit is unthinkable. Confronted with the stagnation and festering corruption of Washington, their answer is to send another wave of starry-eyed youth over the top. 

Civic engagement’s main tenants are: 1) your vote really does matter 2) participation, especially voting, is an outcome-independent moral good; everyone should participate and 3) the political process is the best — and perhaps the only — way to enact meaningful change; disengaging from the political process is reprehensible. 

Importantly, civic engagement is unlike civil religion in that the political process and the government needn’t be seen as benevolent. It is not that politics is the most virtuous arena, but instead that it is the most important arena. Typically, this correlates to some idea that we are facing an existential political threat. The natural counterpart of this idea is that pettier problems — like nuance — should be put aside. Or, as Courtney Kardashian puts it to her sister who is bemoaning the loss of an earring, “Kim, there’s people [sic] that are dying.”

BELIEF IN THE importance of the American political process undergoes periods of revival and decline. In the 1850s, as slavery was becoming a nationally contentious issue, folks were shivving each other at the polls with shoemaker’s awls. In the postwar period of the mid-twentieth century, bipartisanship and national consensus were all the rage. That period ended in political disillusion with the revelations of the mendacity behind the Vietnam War.

Today, we are in a civic engagement revival. For many, national politics is nearly all-consuming. College campuses are the veritable burned-over district where a new political issue or protest grips the campus every other day. And for each of those issues, “there’s people [sic] that are dying.” 

And feeding this increased interest in the political process are the proselytizers of civic engagement. On campuses and in communities throughout the U.S., these disciples of the secular religion are encouraging everyone to participate, to vote, and scolding those who don’t for their privilege. However, blithely encouraging everyone to vote has consequences and the halo that partisans for the political process place on participation feels more like a crown of thorns for those of us who see the political arena as one of fruitless force and violence. 

“Their hysterical, innumerate worst.”

Everybody worships; we are all cultists of various and often conflicting convictions. Whether you call your deity God, or class consciousness, or the invisible hand matters little. The key is that there is some element of the un-disprovable in our belief: adverse evidence is brushed away and supporting evidence is stockpiled in case an opponent should attack our position. Belief mediates between the clangorous, brassy world and our limited capacity for complexity.

And partisans for the political process believe that your vote matters. Not symbolically matters — actually, mathematically matters. This belief structures their world and informs what events stick out in their memories. 

In a classic case of the representative heuristic, civic engagers almost to a tee cite Bush v. Gore. Voting matters always, all the time, in all places because in 2000, in Florida, the election was decided by 537 votes. (Even John Dickerson, who in my intemperate youth — c. 8th grade — was once my screensaver, commits this fallacy).

The problem with this example: it’s not 2000 and most voters don’t live in Florida. Voting calculus does not say that votes never matter — though even in 2000, the election was ultimately decided in the courts — only that they usually don’t matter. 

Most states vote predictably. In fact, only ten of fifty can reasonably be classified as “swing states.” If you don’t live in these states, the decisiveness of your vote is minuscule (in 2012, in Texas, vote decisiveness was close to 1 in a billion).

And yet, belief is a powerful thing. Civic engagement is premised on the efficacy of participation, and for most citizens, voting is the primary form of political participation. Trying to avoid too much Freudian nonsense, an attack on the power of the vote is an attack of the self-efficacy of the voter. Predictably, this threat to the self is dodged with all sorts of avoidance mechanisms.

The hagiography around the vote in the U.S. has deep roots, so I’m not shocked when my argument doesn’t spark a Pauline (or Sauline?) revelation. Nonetheless, it bears repeating: your vote does. not. matter.

YOUR VOTE “MATTERING” is a function of three things: 1) how likely it is to be the deciding vote 2) how much better your candidate’s proposals are than their opponent’s and 3) the contribution which your candidate makes to enacting those proposals. (Note: for ballot initiatives, it is just a function of one and two because they are automatically enacted.) 

In most cases, assumption one is statistically unrealistic. Tied elections do happen, but they are vanishingly rare. In all of U.S. recorded history, it has happened only a handful of times. And even when a vote is initially tied, a recount will usually reveal a winner. 

Two may seem promising — party politics wants us to believe our candidate is the angel and theirs the devil — but in reality, candidate’s policies only differ on the margins. Much of U.S. public policy is deeply entrenched and outside the realm of debate: social security, Medicaid, military spending, etc. 

Finally, given that your candidate’s proposals are significantly better, they still have to get them enacted. Even presidents have only a limited and contingent ability to make significant changes. Congressional representatives are typically more impotent.

This is all to say that your vote “mattering” depends on a series of low-probability outcomes. First, your vote must break a tie, then your candidate’s policy proposals must be better than their opponent’s, and then that candidate must get those proposals enacted. Only after all that does your vote “matter.” Voting is like buying a lottery ticket for a chance to play roulette, only to find out you still have to roll snake eyes. 

At some level, civic engagers know this. When they receive pushback on their math, they are quick to pivot to the more ~ineffable~ (read: ethereal) values of voting — building civic habits, honoring the sacrifices of those who died for the vote, etc. 

If we could get those for free, I probably wouldn’t quibble too much with those who don the white shirt and tie for the political process (though to be sure, I’d still shut my door in their face). Unfortunately, pushing others to vote has a cost, and it is much more, ahem, effable than the airy-fairy virtues of civic engagement. 

Squandering a Miracle

If you encourage others to vote on campus or on social media, you are implicitly operating on the assumption that your encouragement will be the thing that tips their scales in favor of voting. Anything else is just performative virtue signaling. 

Most civic engagers promote voting under the allegedly nonpartisan guise of ensuring “all voices are heard” in an election. If civic engagement is a cult, encouraging voting is their version of the Mormon mission. But it is not without its costs. If you are operating on the assumption that your encouragement will be the deciding factor in someone’s choice to vote, you might stop to consider the characteristics of that person, and most importantly, how informed or uninformed they are likely to be. 

A LARGE GROUP of complete ignoramuses can come to the right decision so long as there are some learned few in their midst. Or so the miracle of aggregation would have us believe.

In his seminal work on rational irrationality, Bryan Caplan details how given a few assumptions, groups can make rational decisions even if the group, on the aggregate, is highly uninformed. This, he refers to as “the miracle of aggregation.” 

Two critical assumptions undergird the miracle of aggregation: 1) ignorant voters are perfectly ignorant — they have no meaningful information influencing their decision — and thus they vote randomly and 2) informed voters converge on the correct answer. 

A paradigmatic model can show that neither of those assumptions is particularly controversial. 

Consider a quantum physics problem with correct answer B, and answer choices A or B. 900 laypeople and 100 quantum physicists are tasked with voting on the right answer. The problem is so complex that to laypeople, it might as well be in a different language — they glean no meaningful information from the problem. 

Here, assumption one is relatively intuitive: with no meaningful information gleaned from the problem, laypeople will randomly choose A or B. Assumption two is equally intuitive as there is a clear answer and the experts predictably converge on it, voting unanimously for B. The final vote will be 550 to 450 in favor of the right answer. Almost miraculously, a group of mostly dolts and a handful of doyens predictably selects the correct choice given only two assumptions. However, as Bryan Caplan goes on to show, neither of these assumptions hold in reality. 

The first issue is that a little knowledge really is a dangerous thing. No voter is perfectly ignorant. Caplan calls this a “systematic” bias in voter preference. Voters know a little about each issue or candidate and so even though they are ignorant, i.e. they don’t have enough information to reach a rational decision, they are on the aggregate biased towards one choice.

Caplan uses the example of free trade. Economists, he argues, almost uniformly agree that tariffs are bad for the economy, albeit with some “provisos.” However, the general public is largely in favor of tariffs and protectionist policies. Importantly, this is not a principled, informed disagreement — most voters have never taken an economics class or have even a marginal understanding of basic economics. Their positions are informed by a gobbledygook of random noise and are systematically biased in favor of the wrong answer. 

So what does this mean for the miracle of aggregation? Imagine in our example that at the top of the equation is Ayn Rand’s favorite equality, A=A. This means nothing to the problem and the experts rightly disregard the information. However, the laypeople latch onto this meaningless fact and it causes a 6% systematic bias in favor of A. Now, instead of 450 laypeople choosing A, 504 do so and the miracle of aggregation vanishes because of a systematic error.

This brings us back to the problem with promoting participation. If public entreaties for participation are going to be anything other than performative, civic engagers must accept the assumption that their pleas are somehow causally operative. In other words, for some people, public pressure to participate must be the deciding factor in their choice to vote. 

Civic engagers are likely to beam with pride if they discovered they got someone to vote. However, they might rethink their blitheness if they consider how likely a voter is to be informed if they had to be coaxed and cajoled into the polling booth.

Voters don’t base their decision in the booth on self-interest. In his section on the “self-interested voter hypothesis” (SIVH), Caplan clearly demonstrates that the data don’t support this view. Instead, voters “focus primarily on national well-being, not personal well-being.” 

However, the decision between candidates is different than the decision to become informed about the candidates. Studying a candidate’s policies critically — i.e. looking at opposing views, reading a few whitepapers, assessing the financial costs of their policies — requires a significant time investment. For most, the opportunity cost is simply too high

Civic engagers must ask themselves where on the spectrum of informed/uninformed someone for whom their “go vote” Instagram post was the deciding factor is likely to be? It’s certainly possible that they persuade an on-the-fence professor of public policy to go vote; it is much more likely that they ensnare a hungover brother of the prestigious Phi Zappa Krappa fraternal society. 

And prodding ignorant voters to the polls has real costs. Returning to our model, imagine that the civic engagers are marvelously successful and get 500 more people out to the polls. Now, instead of 900 ignoramuses, there are 1500 and still only 100 experts. What was a comfortable 55% to 45% margin narrows to a 53% to 47% lead in favor of the right answer. 

More importantly, where before a 6% systematic error among the laypeople squandered the miracle, now only a 3.5% error is needed. As the ratio of ignorant voters to experts worsens, the population’s tolerance for systematic error decreases. 

Of course, if nonpartisan civic engagement is just a smokescreen for partisan self-interest, this is not a concern. Encouraging your like-minded friends to vote knowing that they will vote for your preferred party regardless of their information level is essentially just a way of strengthening your vote power. But surely such partisan hackery is unthinkable to an apostle of the civil religion, right? 

What’s so Wrong with Clean Hands? 

Pontius Pilate washing his hands of Christ’s blood is a potent image regardless of your belief about its historicity. Pilate was not simply washing his hands of the imminent violence of Christ’s death, he was also abjuring the broader violence and force that inheres in the political process, at least at that moment. (Civic engagers who believe the historical accuracy of the crucifixion story would do well to remember that the crowd essentially “voted” for Jesus to die over a convicted murderer, Barabbas.) 

Politics is America’s favorite blood sport — contrary to my previous assertion that it was actually football. Regardless of how diffuse or well-hid the force is, a monopoly on force is the raison d’être of the state and force is the primary way that the state acts. As Penn Jillette puts it, “(t)he government is the guys with the guns, and we are the people who tell the government what they can do.” Bruisers in uniforms and in suits may hold the guns, but we aim them.

The question we must ask ourselves, then, is what percentage of government action would we feel comfortable using a gun to accomplish? For me, that percentage is vanishingly small — some defensive military spending, policing, and a minimal welfare system. Beyond that, the line between government action and common thuggery blurs quickly.

Unfortunately, the government does more with a gun than what I would be willing to do, much more. Which is why I don’t vote. If my vote decided how the government used force, I would vote. If my vote had even a 1 in 1,000 chance of deciding how the government used force, I would vote. 

But it doesn’t. Knowing that what the government does, it does without my sanction is more important to me than the marginal utility of my vote. This is true, I suspect, for many other citizens as well. 

And for those who feel differently, that is fine. Perhaps your tolerance for force is higher than mine or perhaps you practice the form of realpolitik that accepts force as a given and hope simply to direct it toward the best ends available.

However, for those partisans for the political process who see exit as reprehensible, consider the unintended consequences of your encouraging political participation. 

First, there is the inherent problem of screwing with the miracle of aggregation. Poking and prodding voters into the poll-booth chute makes the entire polity more susceptible to systematic errors. Some experts, like Caplan, have suggested that weighting votes based on the knowledge level of voters, or even restricting the right to vote altogether based on knowledge-level could help ameliorate this effect. And that is certainly possible. 

But maybe the easier answer is to just destigmatize disengagement. Ivory tower pundits who whinge about both rampant voter ignorance and abysmal voter participation remind me of the elderly women in the Annie Hall opening scene who complain that “the food at this place is really terrible,” to which the other replies “and such small portions!” 

More fundamentally though, there is a less quantifiable risk in pushing everyone towards the political process. The realm of civil society and political force are frequently anathemas to one another. When parties are unarmed with no weapons in sight, peaceful bargaining seems like a good choice. 

However, once one party picks up a gun, i.e. the right to legally force the other through the political process, well, there’s not really an adage about bringing the NAP to a gunfight, but it isn’t likely to go well. If the political process becomes the default method of interaction and mediation, our society becomes one where force, like Dothraki ghost grass, begins to cover everything, leaving no room for peaceful civil society. 


Categories: Domestic Affairs

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