Scene 9: College students sparring

In which three college student housemates, and one guest, together casually debate what voting is about.

Political Science’s understanding of voter motivation and self identity will expand.

“No!  Smart voters are even dumber!” retorted Finney.

Carl’s face scrunched, and he snorted,  “Man, what are you fuckin’ even talking about?”

Ramesh tossed the pizza box onto the stack of empties.  He offered, “Lots of people just ask Know The System who they should vote for.”  Then, attempting to project an air of bored self-assurance, chimed in,  “What I think?  I think people just vote with their pocketbooks.”

College students sparring

Finney rolled his eyes helplessly.  “Oh, right.  I’ll vote for you if you give me all my tax money back.”

Ramesh smirked.  “Shut up.”  He was a little nervous about going toe-to-toe with Finney and Carl, who were Poli Sci majors and generally got the upper hand in their arguments about politics. Though, if Ramesh were honest with himself, he'd have to admit that the regular sparring amongst them was exciting to him.

Carl’s eyes had returned to his tablet, and stayed there as he pushed back to his argument, “No, voters are stupid.  They don’t understand economics, and they vote for policies that are the opposite of what would benefit them.  Thank God that policy-makers ignore them, mostly.”

“That would benefit whom?” Finney asked rhetorically.  “Economists don’t know how to measure value.  People aren’t as stupid as you think.”

“Voters are pretty rational,” asserted Frieda.  She was a graduate student whom they had met recently, and she had accepted their invitation to hang out at their house this evening.  “But it’s not about personal gain.  The odds are, you know, infinitesimal that their one vote is going to swing the election results. Anyone who believed otherwise would be, you know, deranged.  So their expected gain is less than the effort that they put into their voting decision.”

"Right," said Finney encouragingly, suddenly remembering that Frieda was an honored guest, and that he wanted to make her feel welcomed and to make it apparent that they all thought she was cool. "It's more that they vote to impress the people they know and like. Yeah?"

“Kind of like that, yeah,” said Frieda.  “Humans are hard-wired with, you know, a ‘team’ psychology.  Us versus the bad guys.  The facts don’t matter as much as the emotion.  Especially when each team is homogeneous.”

Taking the subtle hint from Finney, the other two young men respectfully nodded.

Carl assented, “Yeah, that’s true.  And like you said about the rational calculation – a quarter of the voters don’t even want to be bothered with anything related to politics.  They think it’s a waste of time.  And they distrust the elites and they just don’t want to be played for suckers.”

“Which is why I want the Amendment,” inserted Ramesh.

Finney concurred with Carl.  “Yeah, they think national problems should be trivially simple to solve.  They just can’t even conceive that other people have different values, and different people prioritize the goals differently.  Like… let me think… like: caring, versus loyalty, versus freedom, et cetera.”

All of them considered this.  Frieda suddenly blurted out, “I didn’t know that tonight we’d be performing ‘The Blind Men and the Electorate!’”  It took a moment for everyone to process the quite-clever pun, but then there was a burst of appreciative laughter.   “Ah,” Finney chuckled belatedly, “…‘and the Elephant.’”

Ramesh said hesitantly, “But isn’t the goal for government to solve problems, and to be more effective?  Doesn’t that require smarter voters?”

“Well, that’s what the principal-agent thing is about,” replied Carl.  “The people are supposed to express preferences, and the government is the agent that’s supposed to implement those preferences.”

“But—“, interjected Finney.

“Right, but, it’s never worked that way.  The government decides everything.  The people don’t even have any idea what to do.”

“Sure,” agreed Finney.  “That’s one of the reasons for the national plebiscites.  That it gives people—well, in theory, that it gives people more influence, and makes sure they actually understand the options.  And the state plebiscites, too, though I don’t know if very many states do it…”

Frieda asserted, "Well, and studies show they do work.  But, Ramesh, you said…”  Her brow furrowed.  “Yeah, effectiveness is one thing certainly.  But… it's not the only reason we have the vote. Voting is an end in itself—it gives people dignity, it gives them a tiny amount of control over their society. It recognizes that everyone's view means something."

“Who cares,” said Carl, eyes still on his tablet.  He immediately regretted his remark.

“You should fucking care,” said Finney angrily.  “We don’t need voters to decide policy, we need them to like their leaders.   You should care how they feel—anything else leads to populism, guaranteed!”

There was an awkward pause, and then Ramesh asked, “So, Finney, guess that’s why you don’t like the Amendment?”

“Twenty-nine,” said Carl.  All three of them looked at him incredulously.  “EH?” barked Ramesh.

“Twenty-nine states have state plebiscites.”

It was enough to break the tension.  Finney laughed and shook his head.  It was one of Carl's favorite pastimes—during conversations, he was exceptionally good at pulling right-on-target statistics off the web.  Often, so quickly that it seemed weird.

Rule by The People sounds good.  But democracy has its issues—in theory, and especially in practice.  Is there a better way to “do” democracy?  Will there always be a small group of elites and activists who understand the issues, and a vast majority that does not (or at least has many incorrect understandings)? Do "ignorant votes" matter, do they have a purpose?

Thomas Jefferson told us we need an educated citizenry.  Of course, his idealized vision of democracy may not have been completely disinterested: he was a country gentleman who did not want urban moneyed interests to impose a strong centralized hierarchy, so he wanted the power to be spread around. Maybe his vision was unrealistic.

Political scientists today like Larry Bartels have demolished the so-called “folk theory” of democracy, showing that today's voters are disturbingly ignorant about politics.  Lilliana Mason has shown us how political polarization has developed.  Many others have documented serious failings of US democracy.

There is much to love about the government that our Founding Fathers set up.  However, in the US now, there are a hundred times as many people as then.  And the industrial revolution happened.  And we have computers, and mass media, and the internet. And it seems like it's getting harder to maintain that today's educated citizenry is creating good government.


cast of characters