Voting Part I: I Am Jason, of the Lizard People.
Any competent political scientist — or anyone with a working knowledge of arithmetic — can tell you that individual votes are almost never decisive to the outcome of an election. The popular press loves to cite 2000, but even there, an individual vote never mattered, and there was never a scenario in which it might have.
All the emphasis on Florida in 2000 is odd when you consider that it was far, far, far from the rule in presidential voting. Its invocation seems aimed at denying an important truth: The world in which you do not vote would appear to be basically identical to the world in which you do. It’s as if, in the Trolley Problem, you may divert the runaway car away from five hapless people — but only to make it hit the exact same five people. It’s a switch that does nothing.
Which raises an interesting question: Why does anyone vote?
Ultimately, I think it’s because voting makes them happy. Voting is a consumption good. In this post, I’m going to suppose that you are exceptionally altruistic. You want to make me happy. I’m going to tell you one way to do it.
First, though, more about voting and happiness. I suspect that people who vote are a lot like sports fans who cheer at a game. If enough of them do it together, it might make a difference. It’s called the home-team advantage.
But adding or taking away just one fan? Nothing. Like the outcome of the election, the score of the game will be the same. You can even cheer for the wrong team, and it almost certainly will not matter.
To me the really interesting part of the whole team-cheering phenomenon is at the individual level, where cheering always has a pronounced effect. It provokes a strong emotion. It’s what anthropologists call a rite of intensification, in which social cohesion or community well-being are called into doubt and then reaffirmed.
Why does the tribe perform a ritual sacrifice before the hunt? They’ll tell you it’s because they want the deer to be plentiful. No doubt they do. But the act of sacrifice also says something totally different — it says we’re still in this together, even if the hunt fails, and even if we starve.
The tribe is the political party. The sacrifice is voting. Starving? That’s if the wrong guy wins. Mutatis mutandis, we have professional sports fandom, too.
As a result, the first way you can vote that would make me tremendously happy is as follows: Vote for the “wrong” guy. Cheer for the wrong team. Pray for dearth. Simply to experience it. Learn how it makes you feel, then write to me and tell me about it. I’ll put together a post of summary, extended quotes, and analysis.
Vote for Obama, if that’s the last thing you would otherwise do. Or vote for Romney, but only if you never thought you could. Vote communist. Write in John McCain or Jimmy Carter. Write in Lizard People.
Vote wrong. Then write me a short note about your experience. I’m curious, in that mad-social-scientist way that I sometimes get.
“But if it won’t matter,” you might say, “why shouldn’t I vote for the candidate that I prefer?”
The point here is to take you out of your comfort zone — or at the very least to remind you that you have a comfort zone, and on a fairly peculiar little thing that shouldn’t actually matter.
My guess is that almost no one will even want to think about voting “wrong.” Many will find it both silly and offensive. Which itself is an interesting result. And I’d like you to think about that: On the margin, the individual act of voting is not an act of selection of candidates. It’s a ritual that we do to affiliate ourselves with a tribe. That’s why we do it. On the margin, the part of voting that matters is entirely between your own ears.
In a future post, I’ll have some more serious recommendations, just in case you really did want to use your vote to make me happy, and on the off chance you didn’t feel like voting for any Lizard People.