Responsible Voting: A Historical Analysis & Praxis

Folks, we have got to come to our senses about the realities of modern power. If I had a nickel for every I don’t have to vote for the lesser of two evils because [insert self-righteous diatribe here] I’d be drowning in sauternes and not wasting my time responding to Internet memes. However unfortunately, this waste of time is necessary for the stakes are too high. So, before you post your next I can vote for who I want regardless of the consequences I would like to kindly ask you to think about the following historical considerations. 

Firstly, democracy is a very old idea. You don’t need me to lay out the ancient Athenian roots of our favorite form of civic engagement; however, you might need me to point out that the United States of America is not a democracy. It is a constitutional republic and therefore not able to meet the goals of early AD democracy. While the ideal of delegation democracy is beautiful (by that I mean one person one vote on an issue) it is not efficient. Counting a hundred million votes on any particular issue would not be conducive to effective decision-making. Therefore, we practice representational republicanism. Instead of electing delegates to represent our views in the body politic we elect trustees to vote on our behalf. Now, ideally that would mean that these representatives would check with their constituents before making a decision but that is not how our modern system is set up. Instead we elect our trustees to trust them with decision-making power. 

The other potentially grave misunderstanding we, as 21st century Americans, have is that of power. We as a collective seem to view power as the magical means by which decisions are made. While validation is an important responsibility of power it is not the sole defining feature. Power is the ability is allocate resources. When we vote for trustees in our Republic we are essentially voting for who we think would best allocate resources based on their character. Essentially, we are saying “we trust you (whichever candidate you may be) to allocate out tax dollars and deploy our resources in whatever way you see fit.” (Obviously, when it comes to President there are additional responsibilities but I am painting in broad strokes here so I beg you: humor me.) Therefore, your vote is not about what you want but about who you think is best to allocate those resources. 

Now at this point you may be saying to yourself “my third party vote is cast because I think they (the third party candidate) is the best person for the job.” Granted, you may feel that way but remember that is democratic thinking. We are trying to outline the responsibility of the vote in a constitutional republic in our modern times.

I emphasize modern times there to draw a stark contrast between the responsibilities of voters in 400BC and 2016CE. Why? Because in the previous epoch Athens contained about 30,000 eligible voters which is about the population of Pascagoula, MS, the 497th most populace urban center in the US. While 40,000 is still a significant number of voices to deal with it is negligible compared to the roughly 50 million who make up the top five cities in our country. Not to mention that in our meta-culture the monstrous amount of eligible voters must also be balanced by competing concerns. The United States is made up of communities and cultures from all over the world which means that any contentious issue that is dealt with must also be balanced by the myriad concerns of the voting populace, sometimes making compromise impossible. The US Constitution framers may have had this built-in impasse in mind when they designed our system of government but personally I doubt that the US, which had a voting bloc of about 400,000, could have foreseen the difficulties of balancing the concerns of the hundreds of cultures of some 300 million.

Classical Athens was a little under a mile in diameter. Around 250,000 people resided in the city but, again, only 30,000 were eligible voters. Having such a small area in which to conduct the state provided ideal conditions in which to spread information. If an issue needed to be debated the voting public, or at least a sizable contingent of it, could gather to discuss news and any considerations that would be needed before deciding on a vote. However, Colonial America took up around 430 thousand square miles. Today’s United States 3.8 million miles. You may be thinking that my thesis is going to be that it is a lot harder to transmit information over those 3.8 million miles, however that would take for granted the technological innovations that make transmitting information nowadays easier.

At this juncture I am going to have to draw a difference between the Athenian ideals (AI), constitutional republican ideals (CRI), and modern praxis (MP). In the AI, information was a lot simpler than it is now. One opinion was worth its weight in votes. The landscape of consequences from any given decision mostly extended to the community that was voting on it (with the exception of war) therefore the amount of necessary information needed to make an educated decision was relegated to about a square mile. With the Thirteen Colonies and its geographical and cultural expanse the amount of information needed to make an educated decision extended roughly ten times that of Athens. However, the printing press and newspapers made access to that information readily available to the voting public. Unfortunately, with the expanse of land and population came the unintended consequence of increased quantities of information needed to make an educated decision. Newspapers were good for transmitting information but it created a necessity of synthesizing information and commentary as modes of communication. Therefore, instead of getting information and questions firsthand from decision-makers, voters were reliant on journalists to inform them. Furthermore, it is an axiom of communications that something will always be lost in translation. 

When we time travel back to the present, MP amplifies these effects exponentially. The geographical expanse of the United States multiplied by it’s myriad cultural representations make the amount of information needed to make an educated decision for the populace nearly impossible. Furthermore, the amount of journals, lobbying interests, and news outlets create such an informational mosaic that we can no longer speak of truth but must settle for a pluralistic perspective. The Internet and social media even further amplify this effect such that making an educated decision isn’t as black and white as it used to be. Now there are multiple educated decisions that can be made which bear positive fruit which means that truth or idealogical purity is not a prerequisite to decision-making. Quite the contrary, it is antithetical to it. With the advent of smart phones, the annihilation of space and time needed to communicate ideas has withered to almost zero which means that our hyper-specific identities (which if seen to their logical conclusions would produce 330,000,000 different competing concerns) make it impossible to operate in a directly democratic society in 2016. Direct democracy was intended to function in an area of about a square mile with just enough people to effectively scale communication. 2016 America is not conducive to such an enterprise. Indeed, given our size, scale, and multiplicity the only way we are able to function as a representational body politic is as a constitutional republic. 

So what, you may be asking? Well, if you agree with my thesis then that means that your vote is not about what you want it is about who among the available options should you help win

You see, in neither Athens nor the Thirteen Colonies was information about who your neighbor is voting for so readily available. Polls and social media make it increasingly, if not nauseatingly, apparent who is leading a vote count. In neither Athens nor the Colonies would anyone be able to know how strongly their neighbor feels about something because they would be too many and too far. They were not able to freely tack up hyper-partisan-focused articles on their house walls where literally every friend they have can see. We know well in advance what the outcome of certain elections will be or at least the general cultural thermometer. Hyper-identification, ease of access to information, and over-pining make decisions and their potential consequences more stark and therefore turn votes from desires to responsibilities

Voting is not about what you want, that’s desire. Desire is best left to art and business. If you want something either make it or work to buy it. Making decisions about who to trust with the allocation of our tax dollars and military decisions is not only a responsibility to yourself but also those with whom your are in community, namely those roughly 329,999,999 other citizens that the outcome of any given election will affect. We live in a technological age that is unparalleled in terms of ability to get necessary information into the hands of those who must make educated decisions. Furthermore, we are one of the most, if not the most, educated societies in history which means we are in an unprecedented time of being able to access information, understand it, and incorporate it into our decisions. If we understand our political landscape as a constitutional republic and not treat our votes like we live in a square mile democracy then we will understand that our choices are not about what we want but what we think will be best for the whole. However, we must not forget that we have unprecedented access to the world which means that we are also in a better place to make predictions based on knowledge we’ve received because remember we are not voting for our views on issues but for whom to endow power. There are simply too many individual and collective concerns for them to be proportionally represented in the political, educational, and technological landscape we live. We are voting on who will have power. Explaining how that power would be exerted is the responsibility of the candidates; In whose hands it should ultimately lie is the responsibility of the voter.

Lastly, I want to say a word about elections and primaries. While I have chosen to avoid processional intricacies up to this point, I find it necessary given the goal of this paper to say a few words about why we hold primaries in a constitutional republic such as ours. 

Primaries are intended to determine the viability of candidates. 

Imagine with me if you will an ancient kingdom about a square mile in diameter. In this kingdom the king has just died but instead of appointing a successor he decided to give his subjects a choice: do they want elder A or elder B to succeed him. Elder A goes into the town square and starts giving speeches outlining how the taxes have been too high, how he wants to use what taxes are gathered to build better water systems and schools, and how the king was unwise to provoke the king in the north. Elder B comes along and says that the king was a coward, that the glory of the empire was contingent upon sacrifice, and that the king in the north must be destroyed at any cost. Now the citizenry is divided. They know that elder A has a reputation for being a liar but they are also weary of more war as a third of their city is still starving from food being sent to the front. They don’t like either one. However, here comes elder C who is a professor at the city school. He enters the town square and starts proclaiming that the monarchy should be abolished, that the treasury should be divided up among all the people, and that we should make peace with all kingdoms. 

A lot of people like what elder C has to say. So much so that a group of citizens organize themselves and go around knocking on doors proclaiming the new day that elder C will bring. However, they are taking for granted that they are talking to war weary and starving people. They know that elder C only has about 50 followers and his movement doesn’t seem to be growing. While they like his ideas they also do not want to continue sending their children to war and since elder C is dividing votes with elder A (because supporters of A and C have more in common that they do with B) they feel that they must vote for elder A in order that B is not made king for surely that will only mean more death. 

As election day comes every voter has a responsibility. They, having listened to each elder and spoken with their neighbors, have looked into the future and to the best of their ability weighed the consequences of their actions. Keep in mind they have not had the computer to type on which to type their thoughts, newspapers where “experts” comment on their choices, or social media on which to easily and accessibly debate ideas. All they know is that if elder B is elected more people are going to war and if elder A is elected they are getting a liar. A lot of people sympathize with elder C’s idealism and even vocally support him but they have not had 50%+1 of their friends say they support his ideas. Therefore, they feel the responsibility of their choice. They are not choosing the lesser of two evils; they are responsibly exercising what little power they have

With the level of access, education, and information we are privy to in our 2016 constitutional republic we must take responsibility for our actions. While we will most definitely not get everything we want, for such hyper-minority rule would not even be democratic but fascist no matter how noble the aims, we do have unprecedented levels of information educating us to the possible consequences of our actions. The US Constitution was based on Enlightenment thinking which means that using something resembling the scientific method in our politics is probably a wise idea. We should be skeptical, create a hypothesis, test our theories with measured control, and see where our results lead us. If we do this politically then when we evaluate the efficacy of our vote. We do not end up voting for everything we want. Ideological purity is what has gotten the 2016 US political landscape in such shambles. Our people have been so polarized that we have forgotten the efficacy of our vote in favor of passion and blindly following dogma or party identity. Constitutional Republics are not about demagoguery, the rule of the majority, or ideological purity from any angle. It is about creating the conditions necessary for a pluralistic society to deal with the difficulties of living in harmony with each other and allocating resources on behalf of everyone, not just those who agree with us. Again, we have more information about our candidates and the potential consequences of our votes than anyone in history but like Uncle Ben said: With great power comes great responsibility. 

I stand by those who are debating the efficacy of the third party vote. I, like many many dissenters in this country, am fed up with how the political parties in this country devalue our votes and even rig primaries to favor certain candidates. Seeing and calling out corruption is an essential quality of any democratically-minded citizen. However, corruption is a cause for takeover, not a protest vote. If we are fed up with the system it is our responsibility to change it, not complain when we don’t get what we want. Because the system is designed so that every group and individual has an equal say in the process. Unfortunately, in 21st century America that means watering down the qualitative value of the individual vote. We must learn that voting in a Constitutional Republic is not about getting we want but exercising what little power we have for the benefit of the whole. Power is not gained at the ballot box; it is validated. For a candidate of political office in 21st century America, their whole life has been a job interview and the election is the boss (us) giving them the job. If I have a business I of course want the perfect candidate for the job. I want the candidate who is going to be the most honest, hardest working, and perfectly reflects the culture of my business. Unfortunately, the perfect candidate does not come through the door. Some times whether by some malice or chance you are stuck with choices: who can do the job though they are far from the perfect candidates. If I need the job filled immediately then I cannot afford the luxury of holding out for perfection. I need to fill the position. 

Electing a candidate to office is a lot like that. How someone gains power enough to run for office is done way ahead of them getting on a ballot. If we as individuals or groups have a vision we want to see in our society it is our responsibility to gain and exert the power necessary to achieve it outside of the context of elections. Elections are episodic; change requires constance.

When we do come to our elections we have a responsibility to use every means at our disposal to make the most use of the power we do have. Which means we must consider the consequences of our actions while remembering that elections in a constitutional republic are not about getting what you want; they are about researching and choosing the candidates who have already gained the power to be available to best reflect your values in the allocation of the resources. In a trustee form of government you are essentially handing your power over to a candidate with the consequences of your vote, not the vote itself. Your vote does not transmute power; the collective results of an election do.   

When you go to the polls to vote on November 8th, I sincerely hope that you take advantage of the plethora of tools you have at your disposal to determine what the consequences of your vote will be. Remember you aren’t giving your power to the person you vote for; you are giving it to the winner. Because we do not live in a democracy we cannot expect the outcome of our vote to reflect our personal values. It must reflect the collective value which is by definition broader. With the complexity of today’s world it would be impossible and even if it wasn’t you wouldn’t want to live in a world where you are the dictator, would you? If you said yes then you are taking for granted that at the end of the day someone else will then be dictator which will overthrow your noble (or not) intentions and traditions either way. Therefore, consider the consequences of your vote and not just your own self-validating ideological purity. Who will be the best out of the choices available to have the power to allocate the collective’s tax dollars and act on their behalf in matters of state? We all want our perfect candidate but if we all got our perfect candidates then none of us would. While it may not feel good to have to choose between what’s available realize that you don’t have a choice. As harsh as it may seem to say, this is the reality of the situation. We are not going to get what we want but we can be the most responsible we can with our vote while we gain our own power outside of the context of elections so that the next election will feature candidates closer to our values. This is the responsibility of living in a thriving constitutional republic. Living in a participatory democracy in the 21st century US is logistically impossible if we are to maintain the common defense and national infrastructure. However, we need not hang our heads at the realization. 

We simply must come to terms with our responsibilities as citizens of this republic and exercise our power in as responsible a manner as possible when it comes to elections. What we do outside of elections is about building the power necessary to get what we want. The ballot box is about validating one of the job applicants who has already put that work in. Our responsibility is to choose from the available options for the best logical outcome for everyone. Dreaming is admirable, but that’s what we do between elections, not at the ballot box. Remember, faith without works is dead. You will inevitably give your power to the winner of the election. Use everything at your disposal to ascertain as much information as you can and vote accordingly. Remember you are voting not your own personal values but for the outcome. 

I am not and will never be one of those people that say that anyone is “throwing their vote away” on a third party candidate, but I will say that you are giving your power to someone in this election and at the end of the day that will be the winner, not who you chose. So, my final exhortation is to use wisdom in casting your vote. If you vote for someone who doesn’t have a chance at winning because their base is too small, then you are effectively giving your power to whoever wins regardless of your values. Do you really want to leave that to chance or do you want to actively contribute? The choice is yours.

In the end it will be our actions, not our beliefs, that define who we are. Choose wisely.