We Make Our Votes, and Then Our Votes Make Us

(Essay) The Misrepresentation of Voting, the Stickiness of Social Issues, Impressions, Free Versus Package Choices, and State Growth

We need to stop believing we can determine what people think and who they are based on how they vote: I believe this assumption is tearing the country apart. Why people vote the way they do is incredibly varied and complex, and if we assume that how people vote is enough by which to know how they think, we’re likely just to use these conclusions to support our confirmation bias, ideology, and the like. Our voting almost always misrepresents us, but if we think it tells us all we need to know, our willingness to listen to one another, heal divides, and become fellow citizens may suffer immeasurably.

I

Audio Summary

No one wants to vote for an adulterous, lying, and power-hungry tyrant, but if you believe that he is the only candidate who doesn’t support murdering babies, then though the choice to vote against this individual is obvious to people who don’t believe abortion is murder, the choice is not so simple for Pro-Lifers. Similarly, if an adulterous egotist is the only candidate who isn’t a racist, perhaps it’s best not to vote at all? But not voting or voting for a third party might be a form of running away.

A tyrant is terrible, but if the tyrant hasn’t committed murder, then the tyrant is arguably not as bad as the abortionist and those who support the abortionist; in fact, for the Pro-Lifer, when Pro-Choicers call a tyrant a monster, they are hypocrites. This point will strike the Pro-Choicer as ridiculous, but it is indeed how the Pro-Lifer can think, and a significant problem I think we face today in society is that people don’t take the time to understand one another’s “first premises” and worldviews. Note that diplomats can spend hours talking with their foreign counterparts about philosophy and “the big issues,” realizing diplomacy is impossible if they don’t understand how the two societies think differently. Empathy requires extraordinary critical thinking.

Music for Reading

But then should the Pro-Lifer vote for the tyrant? If the Pro-Lifer votes for a third party, the Pro-Lifer risks someone entering office who will not stand against the murder of babies, and thus voting for a third party suggests that the Pro-Lifer is not that concerned about abortion. The same logic applies to voting against the tyrant: the Pro-Lifer who doesn’t vote for him is someone for whom the murder of babies only matters but so much. But perhaps the tyrant doesn’t actually care about abortion and is just taking a Pro-Life position to gain Pro-Life votes? Perhaps, but perhaps all politicians are lying and just saying what they say for votes and political leverage? Indeed, but once we entertain this kind of thinking, up is down, left is right, and the ground is air. And yet it’s a valid possibility, so perhaps we should desire for political involvement in our lives to be less versus more? And even if the tyrant is simply engaged in political manipulation, a man who says he is Pro-Life and might be lying is a more rational choice for the Pro-Lifer than a candidate who says he or she will support abortion. If at the end of the day the tyrant and the Pro-Choice candidate are practically identical, at the time of the vote, the tyrant could still be a more rational gamble.

Social issues cause incredible existential and psychological tensions that make choosing between a possible tyrant and someone else very difficult. Indeed, if a tyrant is Pro-Life, in what real sense is the person a tyrant? Similarly, someone who supports LGBT rights, ending wars overseas, stopping racism, etc. could find themselves in identical situations: if the choice is between a tyrant who supports LGBT rights and someone who doesn’t, a tyrant who vows to fight racism and someone who says racism isn’t a problem — who do you vote for? The person who believes LGBT rights are not a priority will view the person who votes for the Pro-LGBT rights tyrant as brainwashed, ideological, and idiotic; similarly, the person who believes abortion is not murder will view the person who votes for the Pro-Life tyrant as the equivalent of a German manipulated by Hitler. Social issues are uniquely “sticky,” meaning that if you believe x social issue and y person shares x view, you are uniquely stuck to voting for y regardless the nature of y. Tyrants who are aware of “the stickiness of social issues” may use them for self-gain.

II

When it comes to politics, everyone is forced to make a cost-benefit analysis between candidates and ultimately make “tragic trade-offs” between competing goods (see The Fragility of Goodness by Martha Nussbaum), and yet we talk about political choices as if they are pure and free choices. A Pro-Lifer who votes for a tyrant is assumed to share all of the tyrant’s views, when it’s possible the person disagrees with every position of the tyrant except his stance against abortion: the voter may just feel as if stopping the murder of babies is more important than all other issues combined. Is this true? Perhaps not, and certainly it won’t be to those who don’t think like the Pro-Lifer. But isn’t that the trick with politics? Everyone votes according to different priories, scales, axioms, standards of certainty, focuses, etc., and must by definition believe their unique hermeneutical vantagepoint is the one everyone should occupy. Politics necessitates conflict, misunderstanding, and tension, so perhaps less politics, and less power concentrated in the political class, should be desired. Otherwise, conflicts and conflicting scales of judgments seem inexorable.

If I am Pro-Life and support Black Lives Matter, between Republicans and Democrats, I must either vote in a way that creates the impression that I don’t care about unborn babies or that I don’t care about minorities.1 In truth, I care about unborn babies and minorities (and perhaps I consider unborn babies a minority), but this will never be reflected in my political vote: my voting record will always create an impression that I either do not care about unborn life or that I don’t care about suffering minorities. And if I don’t vote at all, then I come off as not really caring about either that strongly. And do note, perception is reality: if people perceive me as disliking minorities or not caring about unborn babies, then that is likely what people will believe and the media will talk like is the case. A collective impression may then form, along with collective delusions, and I will be trapped in the middle of them. I may argue that my voting record doesn’t reflect my true views, but I will be arguing against the record, and why should anyone believe me? After all, I don’t care about minorities or babies.

Everyone who votes for a Republican candidate must create the impression that they support the entire Republican platform (regardless if they do or don’t), as all Democrats must create the impression that they support the entire Democratic platform. Does this mean it is bad to completely algin with a political party or “almost” completely align? Not necessarily, but considering how naturally our brains self-deceive and rationalize, we should check ourselves if the party we vote for just “always happens” to be right and/or if there just “always happens” to be an explanation that justifies their actions. More importantly, my focus is on how voting and the impressions it creates makes it (on a social level) practically irrelevant if we completely agree with a platform or not: everyone regardless leaves an impression of either being “for” or “against” a party without any shades of gray (the impressions are necessarily blunt). And certainly, there can be people out there who don’t feel alienated by their “impressions” at all, but I believe that this is a minority of people. For the majority, we are not represented by our “blunt” impressions, but for those who are, the concerns of this paper will perhaps not so readily apply to you (though perhaps they should).

Impressions are all we have, for we cannot occupy the minds and souls of people around us to know what they really think and feel. And politics demands responses to how the country is changing, what laws are being proposed, etc. Thus, politics both creates impressions that are necessarily blunt while simultaneously demanding we respond to those general impressions (especially if the State is large and consequential). It is not surprising then that politics causes so much alienation and conflict (considering this, perhaps it would be wise to reduce the involvement of politics in our lives).

We cannot vote in a manner that suggests we are nuanced even if we know everyone is more nuanced; practically, we must all be blunt. And practically, it is to this bluntness we must respond and live in light of (not surprisingly, once a person decides to vote Republican or Democrat, a rationalization of the entire party’s platform — the majority of which the voter may dislike — can naturally follow to restore existential stability, mitigate guilt, etc.). Ironically though, politics often deals with issues that are incredibly complex and nuanced, but ultimately, citizens must make decisions about those complex issues that are general, blunt, and lacking of sophistication. We in essence just vote “yes” or “no,” and not even for issues directly, but for representatives of issues.

If we vote, we cannot escape creating an impression about what we think and feel, and that impression will reflect the entire platform of the party we vote for, even if we only agree with one issue of that party. Especially to those looking in at the voting record of say Raleigh NC from afar, this means (if residents there) that we will contribute to the impression that Raleigh NC supports the entire Conservative platform (for example), when it is very possible that everyone in Raleigh dislikes everything about the Republican candidate except the fact that he will appoint Supreme Court Justices who lean Conservative. If the Republican candidate enforces a racist law a few months later, the impression will be that Raleigh wanted that racist law to be passed, and for Democrats, this may prove that Republicans are racist and Raleigh a racist city. And indeed, perhaps Republicans are racist: that’s the impression, and what else do we have but impressions?

If as a Christian I agree with nothing else a specific Republican in the Georgia State Senate supports but her Pro-Life position, in voting for her, I have a created a few possible impressions: I support the national platform of the Republican party; I believe Republicanism is more important than Christianity; Christianity is identical with Republicanism; I am a fool; etc. (and if I don’t vote, that creates its own impressions, say that I don’t care enough about racism to take a hard stand). Perhaps none of these impressions are accurate at the time of the voting, but no one but me can know that for sure, and the political system will compel people to react to those impressions I create, seeing as politics impacts their lives. And perhaps people will ultimately be right to react wrongly, because after rationalization sets in, I may transform my views and simultaneously transform their overreactions into justified reactions. But precisely because those I disagree with react so strongly (justified or not), I may feel more justified to rationalize voting Republican; after all, do we really want Democrats with supporters who are willing to treat me so badly running the country?

Because voting creates impressions we cannot escape, voting is existentially destabilizing and something we may afterwards, for our own mental health, feel compelled to rationalize. In this way, the impressions can become realities, as if they were always realities, when in truth they were not that way until after we were forced to give off the impressions. If I only support a Republican’s Pro-Life stance and strongly dislike his other positions, after I vote for him, I will gradually feel compelled (perhaps subconsciously) to look for the good in what the Republican does and see positives to the positions I previously felt were ridiculous (things the Republican does well will be overemphasized, and things he does horribly will be underemphasized — vice-versa will apply to those who dislike him). Knowing that I supported his rise to power (especially if the Republican doesn’t do anything “practically meaningful” against abortion), to live with myself, I may feel a need to lighten my dislike of his other policy positions. Gradually and slowly, the impression can remake reality, and just in time for the next election when a new impression will be created, and the process will begin again (perhaps becoming evermore extreme). Unless a candidate perfectly represents all our beliefs, for us to vote is for us to create an avatar of ourselves that, in light of, we will be shaped (as is the case with all our “social media”-avatars). We make our votes, and then our votes make us.2

If we don’t feel ready to vote because we don’t feel ready to stand against the way voting can shape us, then we forfeit our ability to influence the forces that rule over us (in proportion to the size of the State). There is a pressure to vote, and also an erroneous sense that voting doesn’t change us but instead simply reflects and represents who we are already. The more powerful the State becomes (and arguably the State naturally becomes larger through time), the more the pressure to vote grows, and thus the more people who will be transformed by voting, which may help the State grow even more and contribute to further pressure to vote and be changed. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t vote, only that we shouldn’t vote if we are unaware of how voting can shape us and aren’t ready to stand against the rationalization, self-delusion, and trickery our minds can engage in after we vote. If the general public though is never up to this challenge (who can say either way?), then it is questionable if democracy is as beneficial as everyone seems to assume. And yet democracy could still be the best system compared to the rest.

III

We all live in systems, and all systems create impressions of who we are to which others will respond. We will respond to these responses, and others will respond to our responses — on and on — and we will all change. Democratic societies spend their time responding and reacting to impressions of how people think and feel, and these impressions are based on voting between two or three candidates. Each of these candidates entail an entire platform of issues, and voters must pick between “sums” and/or “packages,” not between individual issues. Again, this makes misimpressions likely if not unavoidable, and worse yet, people often honestly believe that who a person votes for meaningfully reflects what a person thinks and believes. Politics is not a clear window into a person’s soul, and yet the impression is that they are. This greatly contributes to divisiveness and a general feeling of be misunderstood.

Yes, the fact a person is Pro-Life says something about that person, as does the fact a person votes Republican, but what being Pro-Life says about a person is much easier to identify than what being Republican means. And yet people don’t get to vote for “being Pro-Life,” only “being Republican” (and “being Pro-Life” through “being Republican”), and yet a person could easily be Democrat on every other issue yet view stopping the murder of babies as being so important that it outweighs the rest of the whole Democratic platform combined. But this hypothetical voter must necessarily create the impression that he or she supports the entire Republican platform. This can be a psychologically and existentially difficult reality to face: it would be natural for rationalization of Republicanism in general to follow.

Political choices are not free choices, for I am not free to vote for a Pro-Life position without also voting for others positions I might disagree with or at least not support as strongly (and that I will create the impression I fully support). This isn’t to say political choices say nothing about us at all, but it is to say that the meaning of political choices is much less clear than the meaning of free choices, and yet political choices are all we have to gage and guess the beliefs of people who vote around us (of which the political system forces us to care about, because how people vote does impact their lives in real and tangible ways). We must assess through a glass darkly, and furthermore know when we vote that how people view us will also be through a glass darkly. Everyone loses, but everyone is forced to play — or forfeit the right to influence the systems that shape them.

It is possible that a person could support everything the Republican party supported, and thus for a person’s political choice(s) to be practically the same as a person’s free choice(s). However, where political choice and free choice are practically indivisible, we can’t know “meaningfully” when a person’s political choice and free choice align or divide: they blur like milk and dye. If a person individually voted for every issue Republicans supported, then we could meaningfully say “the person supports everything the Republican party supports,” but where free choice and political (“package”) choices blur, we can only say “the person may support everything the Republican party supports.” Problematically, we can equally say this about someone who supports everything Republicans support and someone who votes Republican but mostly dislikes the Republican platform. The two blur, and this can be existentially destabilizing and problematic (a condition rationalization will naturally rush in to stabilize).

Considering how impressions shape reality into itself (and our “towardness”), it is likely rationalization will set in after a political choice so that a voter can feel more like the political choice is his or her own choice, that he or she wasn’t taken advantage of, forced into alienation, etc. We can want to believe our political choices reflect our free choices, for otherwise we have to accept that we aren’t free. And that is existentially and psychologically difficult.3, 4

Political choices are not free choices, but they could be identical, and thus there is reason to take our impressions of one another seriously: we cannot outright discount them. If we could — if we could be sure that political choices said nothing about the people around us — political choices would be much easier to deal with existentially. But alas, the political and the free might align, and since politics does have consequences (especially if the State is large), we must concern ourselves with them, and thus be at risk of trouble.

Politics can leave us feeling incomplete, misrepresented by our representatives, and treated like a flat character in the story of our country versus a dynamic character. Politics alienates, but to feel less alienated, we can convince ourselves that our political choices are “aligned enough” with our free choices. Thus, the causes of alienation are gradually absorbed and transformed into sources of self: we become our impressions. This is perhaps the ultimate tyranny of politics: it creates the impression that we are flat characters, and then we flatten ourselves to live with this impression we cannot stop the power structures from creating. We become complicit in the tyranny against us to live with it.

Do note that if we ever shape ourselves into our impressions, it will seem as if we were “always” our impressions, and that thus people were justified to assume our impressions were accurate representations (that they were “always” right). This may then inspire them to be bolder and more assumptive in the future, creating worse disunity and conflict. Additionally, the more vehemently people treat us like our impressions, the more we may own our impressions in hopes that, feeling right, people will leave us alone, or maybe we’ll embrace our impressions out of bitterness, feeling there is no point in being nuanced if we will be treated terribly all the same. Either way, problems will emerge.

IV

We cannot say what or who a person “is” based on how they vote; we can only say what policies may follow from the vote. We cannot say for sure what positions a voter is in favor of, only that there are positions that a person at least felt “alright enough” to have their vote behind in light of the entire “package” for which they had to vote. If I don’t go to the gym today, it would be dangerous to conclude that I therefore don’t care about my health (perhaps my kids are sick; perhaps I hurt my ankle; etc.); all that can be said is that I didn’t go to the gym today. The same holds with voting: nothing can be said for certain about my person based on how I vote, because voting is not a free choice.5 No doubt though, a reason many of us make assumptions or generalities about who people are based on how they vote or what they do is precisely because we want to stop injustice, protect freedom, or other “ultimate concerns” (as Paul Tillich put it). We feel like we need to rightly identify that the country is racist or Communist if it actually is, for otherwise we will fail to save it. But justice tempts us to be reductionist, as do all “ultimate concerns,” and it is precisely our effort to save the country that can contribute to us being part of the problem. If we try to see di-visions in order to try to heal them, we may very well create them.

Voting in America creates misimpressions we are forced to respond to, impressions which alienate us, and afterwards we are pressured to own that alienation to restore existential stability. This situation is made all the worse because we often find ourselves having to choose between a risk of tyranny and a social issue we believe morality compels us to support or stand against. Arguably, the involvement of social issues in politics makes us especially prone to be exploited by totalitarian forces. Roe v. Wade, in this way, perhaps contributes to tyranny: it changed the cost-benefit analysis for Pro-Lifers who, if abortion wasn’t a federal issue, would find it much easier to vote against a Pro-Life tyrant. Additionally, Pro-Lifers would not feel a psychological need to rationalize support for the tyrant, nor contribute to an impression that they supported tyrant’s entire platform (rightly or wrongly). There would then be no impression Democrats would need to respond to, and keep in mind if Democrats get the impression that Republicans are extreme, Democrats will feel justified to engage in extreme measures themselves. Impressions thus contribute to reactions that create new impressions that need to new reactions — ever-worsening.

Considering this, the nature of voting itself in modern America may contribute to totalitarianism, extremism, and tribalism. Harold Bloom noted on the Shakespeare-inspired Anton Chekhov that ‘none of his characters bother[ed] to listen to one another, particularly if they [were] lovers.’6 Likewise, bound to the same country, like lovers bound to the same home, Americans constantly misunderstand one another, bound by impressions, and when they don’t misunderstand, they can’t “meaningfully” know they don’t. We are stuck in uncertainty, and in the resulting anxiety, totalitarianism can become appealing, and rationalization likely. And as a married couple over years of hurt and misunderstanding can come to hate each other so passionately that they are willing to get a divorce with the person who they once would have done anything to be with, so voters with different views can feel the hatred of a couple on the verge of divorce. Yes, coolheaded divorces are possible, but they are improbable. Self-destruction is more likely.

Personally, I believe a larger State contributes to all of the problems outlined in this paper, because the larger the State, the larger the platform people must vote for when voting for a candidate.7 The more the State does, the more I can’t vote for one issue without voting for a hundred others. When the State is small, perhaps one vote is packaged with ten votes, but this mitigates social and psychological tension, but as the State grows, suddenly one vote is packaged with hundreds of positions. Increasingly, it seems I cannot vote to stop abortion without also voting to destroy the environment or ignore issues of race; it seems I cannot vote to expand Medicare without also reducing the size of the military. And thus I cannot vote for one issue without taking a position on other issues that other people may care about, thus setting myself up as a threat to their concerns. Increasingly, I cannot vote for what I believe in without voting against my fellow American. Additionally, I cannot vote for what I believe in without voting against something else I believe in, which sets me up to either live with myself as a contradiction, change my view through rationalization, or stop voting all together. The larger the State becomes, the more each of us will feel like a god trying to create a rock we cannot lift. Something must give.

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Notes

1To some degree, even if I could customize a candidate to my own personal liking, this is unavoidable, for some people will believe opposing abortion is indivisible from victimizing women, but at least a more customizable political choice would better reflect my true position.

2Thomas Sowell asks in The Conflict of Visions why is it that people who are Pro-Life also tend to be in favor of military spending, and why is it Pro-Choice people tend to prefer the opposite? In other words, why do people who share a certain view about x also tend to hold the same view about y, w, and z, seeing as all these issues are radically different? Sowell explains this strange occurrence in terms of different “visions” of the world, and although I think this true, I think the fact that “we make our votes and then our votes make us” can also help us explain the phenomena. If I vote Democratic because I care about racism but disagree with socialism, I will gradually begin rationalizing socialism to feel better about my vote. Gradually, slowly then, rationalize contributes to all Democratic votes sharing in the Democratic platform, and the same goes with Republicans. I don’ disagree with Sowell, but I think it’s possible for an “appearance of visions” to arise due to forming ourselves in light of impressions, versus there ever be a coherent ideological framework that emerges from certain axioms (which a genius like Sowell probably recognizes as well).

3Would a pure democracy be any better? Not simply a representative whose election is determined without an electoral college, but a society in which everyone votes on every issue, one at a time? Perhaps, but then we run into the existential and psychological difficulty of having to make that many decisions about that many topics, and who has the time? Most choice would likely feel to people like they were not well thought-out, and then there is the research of Barry Schwartz that suggests increasing choice can increase unhappiness. Perhaps what’s best is a limited government of representative democracy? But that seems impossible to return to now. Perhaps a pure democracy would be better, but the State would certainly need to be small. Whatever the solution, reducing the size of the State seems paramount.

4Perhaps some of us can work down to the root of all our beliefs and erect upon axioms a consistent worldview that results in us freely ascribing to the entire Republic platform, and arguably this is possible, for certainly the platforms of Conservatives and Liberals reflect (perhaps imperfectly) different “first premises” and systems based on those premises (again, consider A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell). But will the majority? And who’s to say that this “philosophical journey” won’t make people feel more existentially anxious, realizing that neither political party is actually ideologically consistent with any first premises? And is it even possible for a person to have “first impressions” that make it consistent to hold a position against abortion while also supporting Black Lives Matter? To say it is impossible would be to limit the possible dynamics of humanity (perhaps rightly, though that would take work to say with any confidence) — but there is no guarantee that all views can coexist, let alone if they should.

5Can it be said that the person who votes Republican is someone for whom “racism was not a dealbreaker?” Can it be said that “murdering babies isn’t a dealbreaker” for Democrats? Only if everyone agrees on the meaning of the terms like “racism” and “life.” If there is disagreement about the definitions, again, no definite conclusions can be drawn.

6Bloom, Harold. Genius. New York, NY: Warner Books, Inc., 2002: 240.

7The larger the State, the more impressions there are and the more consequential those impressions feel. At the same time, due to rising complexity, the more difficult it is to identify right from wrong moral action and/or action carried out for an ethical end that unintentionally makes situations worse. But precisely because the impression is that the situation is far more consequential, people will be motivated to act toward what they believe is ethical in an environment — due to “packages” — where the ethical is more difficult to determine. Over the long run, the negative consequences will likely be greater than the positives.

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