Voting and Belongingness

Why do we vote? I mean, those of us who do.

I'll begin with something that appears completely different: the case of a German rueful about insufficiently resisting the Nazis in 1935. From there, we move to the broader question of Kantian fantasy -- and from there to our popular rationales for voting, and why they miss the point.

Milton Mayer's book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45 (originally published 1955) includes a story of a German who says,
"The world was lost one day in 1935, here in Germany, and it was I who lost it."
The man tells how, in 1935, Germany adopted the National Defense Law. The man was employed in a defense plant at the time, and the new law required him to take an oath of fidelity. The man opposed it in conscience, was given 24 hours to think it over, and, in those 24 hours, changed his mind. He took the oath -- and, in so doing, he recounts years later, "I lost the world."

There was certainly coercive pressure. Had he not taken the oath he'd have lost his job. He would also, he knew, have been blackballed from subsequent employment. He could have left the country and found work elsewhere, but he rationalized that he might be able to help some people from "within" -- whereas leaving the country would make him powerless to help any friends in trouble. How did the oath of one defense-plant employee "lose the world"? The man explains:
"There I was, in 1935, a perfect example of the kind of person who, with all his advantages of birth, in education, and position, rules (or might easily rule) in any country. If I had refused to take the oath in 1935, it would have meant that thousands and thousands like me, all over Germany, were refusing to take it. Their refusal would have heartened millions. Thus the regime would have been overthrown, or indeed, would never have come to power in the first place. The fact that I was not prepared to resist, in 1935, meant that all the thousands, hundreds of thousands, like me in Germany were also unprepared,...if my faith had been strong enough in 1935, I could have prevented the whole evil."
Empirically, this is untrue. The man's decision to refuse the oath would not have caused anyone else to refuse the oath. The day I decided to become vegetarian was not a day -- or even a decade -- that hundreds of thousands of demographically, economically, and educationally similar people also decided to become vegetarian. If I enter my voting booth and decide to vote for a minor party candidate who has been polling at about 2 percent, changing my mind from what I told (or would have told) the pollster the day before, that candidate will still finish with about 2 percent of the vote. Moral decisions made in the individual isolation of conscience are, unsurprisingly, individual and isolated.

"Don't waste any time mourning. Organize!" telegrammed labor organizer Joe Hill in the days before his 1915 execution on false charges. Hill understood that mass movements that bring real change require organization. One person's strong faith doesn't strengthen anyone else's faith unless there is an organized effort to frame and disseminate a certain story about that person. Case in point: Hill's own faith mattered because the story of that faith became the rallying cry, "Don't mourn -- Organize!"

The German man's reasoning adhered precisely to the ethics of his country's philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who argued that the "categorical imperative" was to "so act that the maxim of your actions may be willed a universal law for all." When considering a choice, Kant is saying, we should ask ourselves, "what if everyone did that?" Kant seems to have mostly had in mind bad consequences. If everyone lied, or murdered, then society would be destroyed -- no one could wish for a world in which everyone lied constantly or murdered even occasionally -- therefore, we should not lie or murder. The man in our story is imagining a good consequence: if everyone had refused the oath, Nazism would have collapsed. Either way, it is a fantasy to imagine that "the maxim of your action" could become a "universal law for all" -- or even a regional law for a few. So whether the imagined consequences be good or bad, what we're seeing is ethical reasoning via Kantian fantasy.

As long as we recognize Kantian fantasy as an ethical exercise and don't make the mistake of imagining that mass movements really will form around our example, Kant's fantasy is sometimes helpful. Asking ourselves, "What if everyone did that?" isn't the only question worth asking in an ethical context, but it is one of the questions. The empirical utilitarian question, "What will actually be the results of my action, to the best of my ability to predict?" -- and the question of calling, "What is it that I, and I alone, am called to bring to the world?" -- are very different but also worthwhile questions to consider.

Let us now consider the matter of voting. Here's a case where the arguments encouraging people to vote tend to indulge Kantian fantasy. The individual voter is asked to imagine that her vote matters because if lots of other people followed her example then it would matter. The nonvoters who could have voted tend to be poorer, younger, and disproportionately people of color. If they voted in larger numbers, then more Democrats would win more elections. But from the standpoint of a single individual deciding whether to go to the bother, it is Kantian fantasy to imagine that her decision will have any effect on a significant portion of everybody else.

An NPR story this morning asked why so many Americans don't vote. (SEE HERE.)

Let us not ignore the fact that, as the NPR piece points out, "Hundreds of thousands of nonvoters want to vote, but can't." Restrictive voter ID laws, registration difficulties, or ineligibility due to a criminal record are true and real problems (or, for the party that benefits from suppressed turn-out, true and real solutions).

Still, many nonvoters could vote. They just don't. Here are some excerpts from the story:
"Some are apathetic or too busy. Others don't like their choices, they don't think their vote matters, they think the system is corrupt, or they don't think they know enough to vote....Megan Davis, the 31-year-old massage therapist in Rhode Island, never votes, and she's proud of her record. 'I feel like my voice doesn't matter,' she said on a recent evening at a park in East Providence, R.I. 'People who suck still are in office, so it doesn't make a difference.'....Tammy Lester, a 42-year-old fast food worker in McDowell County, W.Va., can't remember the last time she voted. 'We vote these people in and they don't help McDowell County,' she said, as she walked along the deserted streets in the rundown downtown with her daughter. 'There's nothing...there's no jobs when our kids graduate, they have to leave....What good does it do, though, when they'll promise you anything and then it's a lie?'....'I just don't think my vote matters,' said Josh Mullins, as he pushed a stroller along the street in McDowell County. The last time Mullins, a 33-year-old unemployed former restaurant worker, remembers voting was in 2004 for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. Nowadays, he sees no point, saying the system overrules what people want....Many analysts predicted that Donald Trump's offensive rhetoric about Latinos would mobilize records numbers of Latino voters in 2016, but turnout remained relatively even with 2012. 'You may be upset about somebody like Donald Trump and what you're hearing,' said Romero. 'But if you don't see how or why...politicians and the political landscape matters for you...you don't think you have agency.'"
Included in the audio of this story, but not in the on-line print version of the story, is a brief interview with a nonvoter named Raymond Taylor, who explains that his vote won't matter because his state is a red state anyway. The reporter goes on to add,
"He told me the one and only time he voted was in 2008 for Barack Obama. He said he wanted to be part of history. But this idea that his vote doesn't matter because of the political leanings of the state he lives in is something we see across the country. If you look at turnout from 2016 you'll notice that some of the states that had the highest turnout were places where the margin of victory was less than five percent."
All of these rationales for nonvoting are perfectly rational and true. But did you catch that brief aside -- so minor a point that it didn't make it into the print version online? Raymond Taylor voted in 2008, because he wanted to be part of history. He wanted to be part of something. Something bigger than himself. He wanted to add meaning to his life by placing it in the context of something as large as "history." Voting didn't make any more difference in 2008 than it has any election since -- but when it meant joining a larger context of meaning, he voted.

We don't vote to make a difference. Manifestly, as individuals, we don't make a detectable difference. Even in an incredibly close race, decided by only a few hundred votes, my decision to vote will not make even a few hundred others also vote. We vote -- those of us who do -- because we feel we are a part of something bigger than our ourselves. Voting is an act of social-spiritual connection. It places the meaning of our lives in a larger context, joins us with something bigger.

This makes sense of why it is that nonvoters tend to be poorer, younger, and people of color. These are people who would naturally have a harder time feeling a part of the larger systems that constitute the body politic. As I listened to the NPR story, what I heard nonvoters Megan Davis and Tammy Lester and Josh Mullins expressing was that they don't feel connected to their fellow citizens in one big decision-making body. Without that connection, voting is only about, "Will it make a difference?" And it won't. But when you do feel that connection, voting is not about, "Will it make a difference?" It's about participating in action that affirms, enacts, and embodies connection.

Voting is an expression and affirmation of belongingness, of being a part of something bigger than ourselves. When we don't feel belonging, we're a lot less likely to vote.

Kantian fantasies will not persuade nonvoters to vote. They see right through that. If we want more people to vote, we have to think about what would help them feel they belong and are connected in meaningful community with their fellow citizens.

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