Monday, November 01, 2004

Voting (3): Low-Information Rationality

I'm going to be a poll greeter at my precinct tomorrow, a Democratic Party volunteer. I went to a meeting tonight to pick up signs and printed materials and find out what I'm supposed to do. Rule 1 on the handout I got: "Attitude is Important!... Be sure to smile, be positive, and be non-confrontational."

One volunteer spoke of his experience as a greeter during the early voting period, and encouraged us to introduce ourselves and be cordial with the Republican greeter at our site. Help voters relax, create a bipartisan spirit. Some folks joked that they'd like to unload their leftover Halloween candy on the voters standing in line. The Party's response is, fine, but hand it out impartially to donkeys and elephants alike.

It was also stressed to us that a key part of our job may be to offer support to the people still in line at closing time. The rule is that if a person is in line at 7:30 pm, he is entitled to vote, even if it takes half the night. We want to help that person to stick it out for that hour or more--to keep his place in line and finally mark that ballot, resisting the little voice that says screw it, let's go home and watch Law & Order re-runs. If I can cajole, cheerlead, run out and buy donuts, whatever it takes to help last-minute voters persevere--it's all good.

Plainly, the Democrats value turnout for its own sake. At least this time around, they do. That seems right to me: the most tentative and marginal voters--immigrants, minorities, poor whites--are ones who belong in the D column. Perhaps that's naive to say, but it sure is borne out by the fact that the GOP obviously hates new voter registration and robust turnout--they keep pulling dirty tricks to try and thwart those things. And the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

I've thought for awhile that lowering voter turnout is a deliberate Republican strategy, and one that is unhealthy for the body politic. One effect, if not goal, of the Lee Atwater - Karl Rove school of scorched earth politics is to breed general disgust with politics-as-usual and politicians as a profession. They're all the same: all liars and crooks and scumbags. Right? Isn't that the common-sense wisdom out of the mouth of Joe Sixpack nowadays? I suppose it's hard to trace causation in this chicken-and-egg relationship between negative campaigning on one hand, and widespread disdain for government and politics on the other. But surely there's a correlation.

The Atwater - Rove approach, and the overall sense of alienation it fosters, leverages the structural advantages the Republicans have. The negative political climate is like a thick smog, blinding and irritating. It discourages the tentative, weakly-committed voters. Why leave the house and breathe that shit if you don't have to? So the contest is between the parties' respective bases, and it's harder to organize the Democratic base, which is like a herd of cats (trust me, I was just at a meeting with them), than it is to organize the Republican base, which is more like a team of sled dogs--hungry blue-eyed purebreds with a narrow field of vision and an authority fetish. Anyway, it's an article of faith with me that being positive and encouraging turnout--more universal suffrage--is a good long-term strategy for Democrats.

A tip of the hat to Phil at Here Be Monsters who got me thinking with this recent post , which is partly about whether voter turnout in this country is an absolute good, or whether it would be better if pig-ignorant citizens (not to mince words) stayed home on Election Day. Further thanks to Phil and Chana for helping me re-discover this New Yorker piece by Louis Menand, a really interesting examination of the cognitive processes of American voters.

Phil bemoans the stupidity of the electorate and its rising stupidity in recent years. Mr. Menand observes the extremely tenuous grounds most people base their votes on, as well as on the fact that even Americans who "vote their pocketbooks" do a piss-poor job of accurately gauging what voting decision would most benefit their pocketbooks. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that most folks hold political opinions that are meaningless.

As a practical matter, of course (and I think Phil would agree), smart people governing dumb people is an unworkable idea--even less workable in this country than giving all the power to the rich and/or high-born, who at least could be easily identified. Menand gives us a glimmer of hope: a theory of "low-information rationality" in which through symbolic and associative reasoning (e.g., use of party labels and other generalizations), even poorly-informed voters can make the "right" choice in the aggregate.

Some of us cultivate our opinions lovingly, while others toss them off casually. But is any political opinion meaningful outside the context of maximizing its influence? A vote is a vote is a vote. As an ordinary voter, how is my opinion more potent than that of my Southern Baptist neighbor who votes however Pat Robertson tells him to? Well, I type my opinions into persuasive posts on this nifty blog... but then I must conclude that Atrios's opinions are about 100,000 times more meaningful than mine.

I don't know quite where I'm going with that last part. I do know that I'm impressed with Menand's conclusion that "[f]or most people, voting may be more meaningful and understandable as a social act than as a political one." And when I ponder the apparent surge in voter interest in the US this year, I can't imagine it is mainly attributable to enthusiasm for Bushism: for straights-only marriage, tax cuts uber alles, and blind loyalty to Dubya's war council. No, I think it's a Bush backlash, and what it lacks in coherence it more than makes up for in size and energy.

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