Posted by: Jeff | November 2, 2010

It’s Okay If You Don’t Vote

As it’s another election day, you and me and everyone else we know will no doubt be inundated (and may already have been inundated) by a slew of rhetoric from all corners about the critical role voting plays in American public life, how important it is that everyone exercise their right to vote, etc. It’s one of the few sentiments pretty much everyone, liberal and conservative alike, can get behind.

So, in the spirit of contrarianism, I’d like to point you towards this piece by Will Wilkinson arguing why that sentiment is wrong. (He’s making his case in the context of Canadian politics, but his argument applies universally.)

Contrary to the folklore of democratic health, low turnout can signal social solidarity, reflect real civic virtue, and even make democracy work better.

We humans are adversarial beings, easily riled by us-versus-them conflict. (Even Canadians!) Democratic politics is a wonderful way to peacefully channel social antagonism into ritual symbolic warfare. High voter turnout is as likely to reflect angry social division as it is to augur the reign of Kumbaya social cohesion.

Indeed, lower levels of turnout may suggest that voters actually trust each other more — that fewer feel an urgent need to vote defensively, to guard against competing interests or ideologies. Is it really all that bad if a broad swath of voters, relatively happy with the status quo, sit it out from a decided lack of pique?

Moreover, if you want to be civic-minded, your duty isn’t to fill in ballots just to fill in ballots. You shouldn’t do it in ignorance, out of emotion, or to win approval from your political friends. Your duty is to vote well — to participate in a way that, at the very least, makes the outcome no worse.

Everybody has an incontestable and absolute right to his or her vote, but that doesn’t mean it’s always right to vote. Abstaining can be a way of looking after the public good, too. Not all of us have the energy, inclination, or opportunity to learn what we need to know in order to vote well. And that’s OK. There’s more to public-spiritedness than showing up at the polls. You can run a small business or coach a kids’ hockey team with the common good in mind. That’s an expression of civic virtue, too.

Read the whole thing. Wilkinson’ goes on to make some specific points I’d sort of quibble with about what political science tells us about how and why people vote. But broadly speaking I really do think Wilkinson gets this right — so in all seriousness this actually isn’t just me being a contrarian ass.

He also did a Bloggingheads episode with a philosopher a while back on this same topic.


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