The Rational Irrational Voter
Yesterday, guestblogger E.C. Gach asked:
So the question I leave to you is, are Americans driven to crappy prime time sitcoms to escape the mess that is our national politics, or is our national politics a mess because Americans cannot spare a night of crappy sitcoms to deal, even superficially, with the political issues facing them?
Easy: Both! And neither.
Jamelle Bouie, in an unrelated post, touched on a big part of the problem yesterday:
To choose correctly for a judicial position, a voter would have to know when that judge was appointed, who appointed her, and how she has performed on the bench. To do this for more than a dozen candidates across five different courts is beyond a tall order; it’s insane. A well-informed voter — our editorial assistant, for example — could easily spend hours sorting through candidates and positions, assuming the information is on the Web and readily available. I can’t imagine how the average low-information voter would fare; odds are good that he wouldn’t bother to vote for most offices.
And therein lies the problem. Elections are a way to hold our leaders accountable, but we have a limited capacity for accountability. There’s only so much attention to go around, most people — even political junkies — don’t have the time, ability, or inclination to evaluate a dozen-plus candidates. For most people, the rational choice is just to choose a few candidates to focus on, and go from there. A whole group of other, obscure candidates are left to their own devices, and can keep themselves in office without actually having to account for anything to the mass of voters.
American voters aren’t unusually lazy and uninformed, they’re just caught in a system where making a rational decision requires a huge investment of time and self-motivation. Formulating even a half-informed picture of the state of modern American politics means not just sifting through huge piles of information, but having enough context and training to separate the bad information from the good and form a nuanced interpretation of the latter. Unless you work in politics full-time, or are a hardcore news junkie — and either way, I feel your pain — then there are much better things you could be doing with your time.
In Poli Sci 101, we’re asked to weigh the opportunity cost of driving all the way to a polling place and standing in line to vote against the infinitesimally small impact made by a single ballot. The conclusion: voting is irrational. And if that’s the case, imagine how much more irrational it is to do a ton of research beforehand to make sure you make a well-informed decision in the voting booth. For most people, it’s actually more rational to vote irrationally.