Voting Is Essential. It Is Also Overrated.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Protests across America have prompted discussion about the value of different types of political action. There is even debate about how useful voting is. Unfortunately, our political culture and (mostly non-existent) civics education do a really poor job of explaining the role of voting in the U.S. and how it relates to democracy.

Our political culture envisions voting as the fundamental act of democracy. Moreover, it is generally thought of in its ideal form as an individual, rational act. We’re told to vote the person, not the party. We’re supposed to study the “issues” and base our votes on which candidate comes closer to us on policy questions.

Formal candidate debates are seen as central to campaigns, covering all those issues because that’s a good way for voters to learn how to choose someone who shares their positions. We should pay attention to facts and not emotions — to thick booklets (in the states that produce them) of neutral basic information and not to what we see in political ads. 

All of that is mostly or entirely bunk. 

Most of us vote for the party, not the person. On most questions of public policy, we loosely adopt the views of our party, rather than choosing the party based on pre-existing policy positions. We act collectively, not individually, when we vote with our party — and we mostly choose parties based on where we think people like us affiliate. “Like us” may be an ethnicity, job category, religion or something else. We’re not letting down democracy when we do that — we’re fulfilling it. 

Is voting the fundamental act of democracy? It’s a fundamental act — but hardly the only one. It’s no more basic than protest marches, campaign rallies, board meetings of organized interest groups, donations to candidates and groups, seminars at think tanks, press reports of city council meetings, lobbying, interactions within a party network, and so on.

It’s difficult to imagine democracy without voting, yes. It’s also difficult to imagine democracy without political parties, interest groups, legislatures, mass media and more. 

Furthermore, voting by itself is … well, it’s not useless, but it’s a blunt instrument that can’t really do much. A vote can’t tell the government to reform the police force, let alone give specific instructions about how to do that or any other complex task. It can’t tell the winning candidate to lower taxes, or negotiate a trade treaty with China, or make abortion illegal or marijuana legal.

All it can really do is either throw the bums out or keep them in office. And that’s not a defect with the way that elections work in the U.S. It’s inherent in the nature of voting in mass electorates.

Don’t think of all of this as a flaw. It’s just a recognition that voting is only a limited part of how a self-governing republic works. It’s a reminder that anyone who really wants to be in the business of republican governing needs to find ways of getting involved beyond being just a voter, whether it’s through social movements, organized interest groups, political parties, or more than one of these.

It’s the interactions of those groups and elected officials that set the agenda for government action and fill in the details; it’s also those groups, along with the mass media, that create and change public opinion, which in turn changes what elected officials and others in government choose to do. That’s where much of the richness and texture of self-government are really found, not in voting booths. 

So far I’ve only explained what voting is not. You can look at it, from the individual’s point of view, as the training wheels of democracy: It’s relatively easy to do, it alerts us as individuals to the entire concept of making choices that are also collective choices, and it teaches us about the structure of the government and political life. It would make sense if the republic was organized so that people could begin with voting at a young age and then, if they wanted, move on to more substantive political action. 

From a group point of view, voting serves as the ante in a poker game — it buys you a seat at the table. Politicians and other party actors think of voters in groups, not as individuals, at least as soon as constituencies get beyond a few hundred people. And they aren’t going to pay a lot of attention to any group that doesn’t vote, no matter what other political action they may undertake.

Direct action and protests were extremely important in producing civil rights gains in the 1950s and 1960s — but so was the migration of African-Americans to states in the North, Midwest and West where their right to vote was respected, and therefore politicians and parties started caring about winning those votes. Not only do parties care about voters; they tend to care a lot about their most loyal voters.

So choosing not to vote or to vote for a fringe party rather than a major party because voting doesn’t “work” is a mistake, even if doing nothing but voting means that one’s influence will be minimal at best.

While I do think that politicians and others who mainly urge people to vote are sincere in thinking it matters, it’s probably not an accident that only urging people to vote, and not to otherwise get involved, leaves the bulk of self-government to those already doing it. 

The other important thing for people who are just now getting involved in political action to be aware of is that they are certain to be frustrated. By its very nature, political action in a republic involves an awful lot of people, and each of us is only one of them. And even the largest group activity any of us have ever taken part in includes only a tiny fraction of 330 million Americans. There are going to be times when political action seems to be wildly popular to the individual actor but it loses anyway.

Even worse, any organization is subject to a status quo bias: It’s always easier to stay the same than to change.

The Madisonian system in the U.S. has a strong status quo bias, thanks to separated institutions sharing powers at the national level, federalism, supermajority requirements for some actions, and other devices that make it difficult for winners of a single election to carry out policy. Though it may appear your side has won, it may turn out that not a lot will change. It’s not necessarily undemocratic to require large or sustained or intense majorities to effect major changes, but it certainly does add to frustration. 

So change is hard, whether it involves something relatively simple like adjusting tax rates on capital gains or something infinitely more complicated like eliminating systemic racism. It also requires an all-of-the-above approach: voting, protesting and other direct action, and organizing into formal organizations, including political parties.

There are no shortcuts. Self-government can be fun, but it’s always difficult.  Moderate success is built on earlier failures.

Yet because no one wants to march for incremental improvement or donate their time or money for marginal change, what’s achievable can’t actually happen unless people fight for far more than can be achieved, which sometimes has the effect of making things possible that no one ever imagined could happen. Indeed, the nature of political action is that it is unbounded — and the essence of democracy is that it is at least potentially available to every citizen. 

Sure, citizens in multiparty democracies have more choices, but voting itself can only pick party, not give detailed instruction on policy. Switch to ballot measures that do give specific instructions to the government? Then at best you’re choosing between two choices framed by someone else, with the real influence held by whoever gets to pick which things to vote on and what choices are allowed. Not to mention that in the real world even the most politically attentive of us find it impossible to choose candidates without shortcuts such as political party affiliation; give us more choices, and we’ll be more reliant on others to tell us how to vote, not less reliant.

One additional reason for this is that voters who are loyal to one cause or issue and who decide to become more involved often gravitate to the political party they are already loyal to. Eventually they often become important party actors themselves. In other words: If someone cares about abortion rights and therefore votes for Democrats becomes more active, she'll likely become a Democratic activist or donor or campaign professional or politician who still cares about abortion rights. The result? The party is itself ultimately a construction of its most loyal and active groups.

Indeed, coalition-building is painful, and self-government eventually involves deliberation, and taking the arguments of others - even others one is little prepared to respect - seriously. It's hard work.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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