Wednesday, November 3, 2010

On Voting

Nothing surprising seems to have occurred on election night. As predicted, the Republicans picked up a number of House seats and a few Senate seats -- enough to take control of the House and to narrow the Democratic majority in the Senate. These results are the product of a number of factors, not least of which are our current economic woes coupled with dissatisfaction (even anger) at the boondoggle that is Washington. Add to these the fact that the party in control of the White House frequently loses seats in Congress in the mid-term election -- a fact explained to a great extent by the impossible expectations that the American electorate pins on presidents, something that is particularly apparent in the inflated, almost preposterous expectations that burden the current incumbent in that office.

Election time always brings forth many calls for citizens to vote, to exercise their rights as citizens of a "democracy." But this sort of platitude does little to provoke real thought about what citizenship means, and actually gets some important things wrong. We need, as a people, to think more about the real content of citizenship and we need to get much clearer about the nature of the polity established by our Constitution. Those are topics that I cannot address in any depth now (though I have done so in a number of publications). But I do want to say something about the relationship between voting and citizenship in our constitutional democracy.

A citizen is a member of the constitutional people established by the Constitution itself when it began with the well-known (and often misused) phrase, "We the People of the United States." That phrase creates a new nation -- the United States -- and establishes a new national citizenship, neither of which truly existed in the decades prior to the Constitution.What does it mean to be a member of "We the People"? And what is the content of this new national citizenship, a citizenship that has been revised, reformulated, re-envisioned over the past 220 years? Big topics.

In his forthcoming book, The Ethics of Voting, Jason Brennan contends that "while citizens have no duty to vote, if they do vote, they must vote well." By that, he means that they use "sound moral and empirical beliefs in order to promote the common good." (HT: The Daily Dish)

Brennan is partially right, and partially wrong. I agree that citizens do no have an obligation to vote. Rather, they have an obligation to act as free, autonomous individuals, and that can mean choosing not to vote in some circumstances. I could spend pages unpacking the notion of "free, autonomous individual," but suffice it here to say that autonomy means I set the rules for myself (and my rule could be not to vote if not voting makes a thoughtful statement about the political situation or about the candidates or about a particular issue). And by "individual" I do not mean to imply that we are totally self-created, isolated atoms, free from all ties or links to others. That's just plain wrong, as I have argued in print many times: who we are is the product of our past, our heritage, our given and chosen associations, and so on. Our obligation as humans is to engage our given identity in a conscious and critical way, and so who we are presently may or may not be a product of our intentional choices.

For present purposes, however, let us descend from these heights. The point is that we do not have a duty to vote unless we give ourselves one, and that decision can be revisited as circumstances (candidates, political environment, particular issues) change. Good citizens make this decision after deliberation, with themselves and perhaps with others. Good citizens do not fail to vote because they just do not get around to it or because it is inconvenient -- such citizens, as Rousseau would have put it, deserve to lose their freedom since they refuse to exercise it. (Remember, the freedom at issue here is to choose whether or not to vote.) That, like so much else with Rousseau, may be hyperbole, but it makes an important point. (I shall return to the dark side of Rousseau below.)

Notice that this line of argument also suggests that those who simply drift into voting -- because that's what they have always done, because they have been indoctrinated with the belief that voting is an obligation, because it just worked out that it was convenient to stop by the polls, because they did not want to admit to someone else that they did not vote -- are not good citizens either. The good citizen thinks, deliberates, decides, and acts. People who are simply carried along by the tides of prejudice, convenience, and comfort are not being good citizens primarily because they are refusing to engage in the ongoing conversation with other citizens, the ongoing speaking, deliberating, and acting that distinguish citizens in a polity from residents in a territory. Casting a vote is not speaking. If your vote is your only voice, we the people no longer govern -- they just choose their masters.

So far, then, Brennan seems right: citizens do not have a duty to vote, at least not one grounded in the mere legal status that comes from being born or naturalized in the United States. I think Brennan is also right in suggesting that when we vote, we should do so on the basis of sound moral and political views, and on the basis of sound empirical information. To a great extent, that is why decent civic education is essential in a constitutional democracy like ours. Citizens cannot be expected to hammer out sound (by which I only mean coherent, non-contradictory, and thoughtful) moral and political beliefs if they are not taught how to think, how to examine their lives and beliefs, how to critically engage with their prejudices. And unless they do that thinking, examining, and engaging they are simply reacting rather than acting, responding to passion rather than reason, reflex rather than choice.

Where Brennan runs aground, I think, is in his repetition of the republican shibboleth of the common good. One of the great achievements of James Madison and, to a somewhat lesser extent, some of the other framers, was the recognition that "men are not angels," that they are not always (or even frequently) driven by a desire to achieve the common good, but are rather caught up with their own situations, their own goals, their own interests. Even those who examine their lives and critically engage their prejudices and all those relationships that help form who they are as individuals, are never free from the influence of those lives, prejudices, and relationships. Most people most of the time come to the public square deeply rooted in their own places in the world; they do not find it easy (and we should not necessarily find it desirable for them) to strip themselves of all those ties that bind them and think solely in terms of some (most likely mythical) general will. As I have said in print, selfless instruments of the common good are rare and can be dangerous. And we should not expect that more people will give up their individuality and autonomy in order to become servants of the good of all. (There is plenty in Madison to support my argument here.) Nor should we educate people to turn themselves into devotees of the common good, unless we want a citizen body composed of willing tools or of the sort of "citizen" Rousseau admired in the person of the Spartan mother who wanted to know the result of the battle rather than mourn the loss of her son. That way lies despotism.

So, while we want thoughtful, deliberative citizens who, when they choose to vote base their decisions on reasoned analysis of moral and political ideas and on sound empirical information, we should not insist on their making their electoral choices solely on the basis of some vision of the common good. Recall that Rousseau insisted that a voter needs to ask himself what the general will is and vote on the basis of his answer to that question -- and recall that Rousseau shows us the logical, and frightening, conclusion of civic republican thinking, where those who dare to criticize or to seek their own interests in the debate in the public square can be censored, banished, or forced to be free.

In short, citizens sometimes vote, and they do so more often the better society has done in providing decent civic education that has developed citizens who think and act in a reasoned way. Sometimes citizens think in terms of the common good, where it is obvious and unitary (a rare occasion indeed), but most often they bring their own interests and concerns into the public square where they are willing to speak, deliberate, and act together with their fellow citizens in making hard public choices. In the final analysis, voting is a flaccid, passive form of citizenship. If that is all we have to offer our citizens today, so much the worse for the future of constitutional democracy in our nation.

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