America holds more elections than any other democracy. The reason is federalism. Because of decentralization there are more offices for the electorate to fill and thus more elections. Of course, the elections that receive the most attention and the largest voter turnout are federal elections, particularly presidential elections.
But there are two perplexing issues that force us ask why we should vote at all. The first points out that since individual votes are not decisive, it might be irrational to vote. The second shows that if voters have a sufficient number of choices there is no electoral procedure that can accurately establish the public’s preferences. In short, this position contends that no voting system is fair.
In political science a school known as “rational choice” argues that it is a waste of time to vote. These scholars proved mathematically and by experience that any single vote is unlikely to be decisive in any election. That makes voting, in their view, irrational and leads to the disturbing conclusion that your vote does not in fact count. The chances of your vote being decisive go down as the prominence of the election goes up. So more people vote in elections where their vote is least significant. That makes voting particularly irrational in presidential elections. Of course, this school of thought has have a very narrow definition of rationality. Rationality, in their view, is just maximizing your economic well-being. Since your vote is not decisive, you really do not influence who holds office or the laws passed by office holders. If your vote was decisive, it would make sense to vote since you could determine policies that would improve your well-being. But instead when you vote you are spending your resources—time, effort, money for gas—on an activity with no personal benefit. This criticism, however, depends on most people not believing it. Paradoxically if everyone behaved the way rational choice scholars recommend, voting would become more rational since your vote would be the only one and therefore the decisive one.
Does this mean that Americans are in fact in the grip of a deep irrational psychosis when they vote?
It would surely be odd if the most prosperous nation on Earth were filled with people incapable of determining their interests. Undoubtedly for many the reason is a sense of civic duty. Self-government means selecting those who wield power on our behalf. Even if our participation has little individual influence, we know that living in a free, self-governing society is a profound gift that others have died to create and preserve. Of course, by the standards of rational choice dying for your country could count as irrational too. Even if an individual vote does not count, it does contribute to shaping public opinion, which is an incredibly powerful force in a democracy.
The second and potentially more troubling question about voting is whether any voting system can be both fair and actually determine what the public wants.
At the core of the American republic is the principle of consent of the governed, or as Alexander Hamilton put it, “Here, sir, the people govern” (Alexander Hamilton “Remarks on the U.S. House of Representatives, at the New York state convention on the adoption of the Federal Constitution,” July 27, 1788). That presumes that we can identify what the people want and our primary mechanism for this is through elections that indicate voter preferences. But a problem emerges from the fact that there is no system of voting that is both fair and accurately reflects the public’s wishes. This is known as Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, named after the economist Kenneth Arrow. While Arrow proved the theorem mathematically, the logic of the proof is easy to grasp and can be seen just by considering presidential elections. For example, in the 1992 election Bill Clinton won with 43 percent of the vote while George Bush received 38 percent and Ross Perot 19 percent. What if the Perot voters preferred Bush over Clinton and would have voted for him if Perot had not run? Bush would have won with 57 percent of the vote. While it is extremely unlikely that they all would have preferred Bush there is in fact evidence that Perot’s candidacy cost Bush the election. Regardless, the election shows that the third most popular candidate could have won the election. And the problem is not solved if you only have two competitive candidates. Undoubtedly there were many Republicans and Democrats who had other candidates they would have preferred to vote for but who lost their party’s nomination or did not run at all. While this example shows the problem of plurality system, Arrow showed that it afflicts all voting systems. The conclusion is that there is no perfect method of voting and thus no way to truly know the public’s preferences. Because nothing works unless it is perfect.
Fortunately this problem is not catastrophic for the American political system. In fact, the Founders were well aware of the problems with various voting systems. While they believed in consent of the governed, they were also deeply afraid of majority tyranny.
The goal of the Constitution, as Madison said, was to “refine and enlarge the public views” not simply capitulate to every whim of the public (James Madison, Federalist No. 10, 1788).
And public opinion can be ephemeral. What the public initially wants might not be what it would want after sober reflection. And just because the majority wants something in no guarantee that what it wants is appropriate. If five muggers take a vote before robbing you, their theft is not made legitimate by the fact that at least three of them voted to unburden you of your possessions. In the same way, if the public voted to deny your right to freedom of speech, the fact that they voted does not make it less unconstitutional. The Constitution’s complex institutional arrangements are designed to slow down the legislative process so that laws cannot be passed with undue haste and without deliberation. Thus the Constitution itself seems to recognize that there is no such thing as truly knowing exactly what the public wants at any given moment. The United States complex legislative process is the best method for determining the public interest since it slows down decision making and forces deliberation.
Even though there is no perfect system for determining public opinion, there is no doubt that public opinion wields immense authority in a democratic republic. Or perhaps more accurately those who can to speak on its behalf and can shape it wield immense authority. It was Alexis de Tocqueville who best explained the reason for the astonishing power of public opinion in a democratic age. Because everyone is the political equal of everyone else in a democratic republic, no single person’s opinion is considered better than anyone else’s. However, because we are equal we assume that we all have the same ability to reason. This leads us to conclude that whatever the majority thinks has the balance of reason on its side. Reliance on public opinion is then exacerbated by our tendency to retreat into our own private lives rather than engaging with other fellow citizens. But as this impulse towards privatism increases, individuals look even more to what the public says to shape our opinions. In the end, public opinion exercises a kind despotic authority.
“In America,” Tocqueville explains, “the majority draws a formidable circle around thought. Inside those limits, the writer is free; but unhappiness awaits him if he dare to leave them…he is the butt of mortifications of all kinds and persecutions every day. A political career is closed to him: he has offended the only power that has the capacity to open it up. Everything is refused to him, even glory” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835).
Making Tocqueville’s analysis all the more prescient was that he made it before the advent of public opinion polling. With polling all of the problems he identified have been exacerbated. Mass communication, particularly the telephone, made it possible to ask large numbers of Americans their attitudes on a range of political questions, but polling also created its own problems. Since public opinion exercises such power, there are incentives to create polls that show that the public supports the position of the person doing the polling. And polls can be easily manipulated to generate results rather than accurately measure opinion. That is why it is crucial to always be skeptical of opinion polls at least until examining the questions used by the pollsters. Leading questions, ambiguous questions, double-barreled questions can all distort results. Push-polls, which are polls filled with leading questions, are one tried and true method of fraudulent pollsters.
American voters doing their civic duty at the polls.
One must even be careful about the order in which questions are asked. Scholars have shown that switching the question order can lead to dramatically different results because prior questions can prime those being polled to favor one response over another in subsequent questions.
But perhaps most troubling is that the public is often profoundly uninformed about important political questions. For decades scholars have found that individuals often give completely different answers to the same question with no discernible reason why. The best explanation for this is that the public is often rationally ignorant about important issues. Rational ignorance means that individuals recognize the cost of obtaining information exceeds the benefit. It does not mean that Americans are stupid. Instead, they lead busy lives and know that their ability to shape political events is limited. They devote their scarce resources to things that immediately affect them. While rational ignorance makes the randomness of public opinion polls explicable, it does nothing to ameliorate the troubling conclusion that we often base our own opinions and that government officials base their decisions on measures of public opinion that do not in fact measure public opinion at all.
The instability of public opinion raises the unsettling thought that public opinion can be shaped. This can make public opinion a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where if you can make something perceived to be true you can make it true. That also implies that the media has extraordinary power to manipulate public opinion. The media is most responsible for disseminating political information and shaping opinion. Elite institutions such as the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal decide what stories the public hears and give their own interpretation of what those stories mean. Those choices then shape the choices of other media outlets who take their cues from prestigious national media organizations. This makes having a range of media sources with a range of political perspectives all the more important. Without diversity among media organizations, the groupthink of a few shapes the opinions of the many.
As with the other issues discussed in this section, the problems with accurately measuring public opinion point to the wisdom of the American Founders who did not want public opinion to simply be accepted and acted upon. To protect individual rights, particularly those of political minorities, opinion needed to be filtered through representative institutions which themselves would be divided and checked by each other. The deliberative process created by the Constitution would help tutor public opinion rather than obsequiously cater to it. Additionally, the decentralization of power created by federalism allows for a more accurate approximation of the public interest on many divisive questions. Trying to gauge “national” opinion on local questions is both impossible and counterproductive. Allowing states and local governments to decide policy on state and local questions means that those closest to the problem to voice their opinion and shape the eventual outcome.