Yeah, We Probably Shouldn't Be Voting (Newsletter 060)
Greetings fellow travelers.
Is voting a right or an obligation? This traditional question misses the more pertinent point. When I look at how U.S. politics works, a better question might be how dangerous is it for us to vote? We need to look at several groups to make sense of the question: voters themselves, the media and our sources of information, individual politicians, and government as a whole.
Voters are grossly uninformed
Voters are as a group massively uninformed. We don't have any deep understanding of almost any issues. For all the arguments about laws and policies, fewer than one person in a hundred will have any idea about the text of actual laws under debate, and what the impact of those laws will be.
What we have in abundance are strong feelings and emotional reactions to the daily provocations we're exposed to. The reason for this is that each of the other parties (media, politicians, and government) counts on our emotional reactions and so stirs them up with inflammatory and misleading information.
What this means is almost no one is interested in giving voters accurate and impartial information. Everyone is trying to influence us, typically to make us mad.
This state of affairs is not conducive to good decision-making.
The media is filled with partisan liars
The media arouses our emotions to generate engagement and clicks. We know that false news travels faster than the boring truth, hence even true things are exaggerated out of proportion to enrage or titillate us.
Sorry, there is no kind way to say this. The major media outlets in the U.S. have become hopelessly partisan. The rationale of defying Trump, first during the campaign, and then during the four years of his administration, led many people to behave absolutely unethically.
If we needed a demonstration of the risks in applying the saying "the ends justify the means," the last several years have delivered it in spades. Each side thinks the other side started the lies, or at a minimum escalated the rhetoric. Both sides feel justified in using the same tactics as the other side. We're left with a pitched battle to see who can lie most persuasively.
This state of affairs is not conducive to producing informed citizens holding reasonable debates.
Politicians have no interest in telling the truth
Politicians want to get elected because holding office is what gives them power. And because money improves your chances of getting elected, politicians use outrage to generate attention and donations.
Moreover, whenever a politician mistakenly blurts out the truth, they are pilloried by an outraged citizenry. We don't want to hear how messed up our country is. We want to hear how we're going to be taken care of. Politicians quickly learn that truth telling is good for one thing only: getting voted out of office.
This state of affairs is not conducive to producing politicians who act in the long-term interests of citizens or the country.
The government hopes we won't notice how badly they perform
Any representative government functions only with the consent of the governed. That is, unless that populace is itself distracted. The more voters fight with one another, the less they notice and question the government's performance.
And our government seems quite interested in keeping us distracted from their generally dismal performance. How else to explain the plummeting approval ratings for all three branches of government? Recent Presidents have struggled to keep their approval ratings from falling into the 30s, and Congress itself has had approvals only in the teens for more than a decade.
This state of affairs is not conducive to a government that holds itself accountable for delivering good results for its citizens.
It doesn't have to be this way. Let me describe Switzerland to compare and contrast.
Switzerland's democratic federal republic is quite similar to our political system in the U.S. What makes the Swiss system stand out is direct democracy at the federal level. That is, Swiss citizens have the opportunity to vote not just on laws affecting them locally, but on laws affecting the country as a whole. The Swiss don't vote on all laws, but typically any law that is significant or controversial becomes the subject of a referendum or initiative leading to a popular vote. Thus, the most hotly debated topics in society usually end up before the citizens.
Unlike in the U.S., Swiss citizens are remarkably well informed when they go voting. They do not get their information exclusively from TV commercials or a hopelessly biased press. They are not left with no choice but to vote along party lines. For each law under discussion, the government sends every voter a detailed information package before each vote. Citizens receive a summary of the law's main objectives, a statement by the proponents of the law, as well as a statement by the opponents. The government shows how parliament voted and how they recommend citizens vote and why. Finally, the information package contains the full text of the law under discussion.
Every Swiss citizen thus has relevant and useful information at their fingertips when they vote. In our experience, the average citizen views voting as both a right and an obligation, and they inform themselves accordingly. Does that mean everyone reads the full text of every law? Certainly not. But it means that anyone who does not want to be misled by a partisan advertisement can check for themselves what a law actually says.
The great virtue of the Swiss system is this: when politicians know that some, and likely many, citizens will see the true details behind proposed laws, they are incentivized to do a good job. Politicians know they can't rely on inflaming emotions to drive votes solely along party lines. So they negotiate to arrive at the best acceptable outcome. Most Swiss laws are the result of significant compromise.
An additional virtue is that by having citizens vote on important laws, the process not only is democratic in practice, it feels democratic. As a result, there is much less lurching left and right with each election, with one party desperately trying to undo what the previous administration put in place. Laws tend to stay in place, being modified to address unintended consequences and changes in the real world.
The whole system is so refreshing. It's also hard to argue with the results. To take but one measure, over the last 25 years when national debt as a percent of GDP more than doubled in the U.S., Switzerland reduced its debt by 35%.
What I want to suggest is this: when we delegate to politicians our obligations as citizens, we are at the mercy of our politicians faithfully executing our wishes. That may have worked well when politicians' incentives were aligned with those of average citizens. But that doesn't seem to be the case anymore, at least in U.S. politics.
Politicians are only dimly accountable to citizens, and rarely for their accomplishments as legislators. Instead, our politicians' fortunes rise and fall according to how well they score points against the enemies in the other political party. The way we're currently voting doesn't seem to be working very well.
I think the spark that could ignite a change is more citizens considering voting as an obligation much more than a right. And until we're prepare to be diligent in how we vote, and consequent in demanding accountability for the results we want, yeah, we probably shouldn't be voting.
Our Moral Letters this week reinforce the point. Moral Letter 119 On Nature As A Guide addresses the responsibility we have to apply our thinking to our circumstances. Our thoughts and our decisions are the ultimate driver for why we make things better or worse. We cannot delegate our obligation to think for ourselves, and to take action consistent with our reasoned thoughts.
In Moral Letter 120 On Divining Virtue, we discuss the methods we have to determine what is the right, or honorable, course of action. In all cases, we start by observing the world around us. If our perception is accurate, and our judgment sound, we can draw direct conclusions from what we see.
I hope today we've made some accurate observations of the world around us, not as we wish it were, but the way it actually is. If so, then perhaps the conclusions we've drawn will help us start to move in a direction of our choosing towards a better place.
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