Sunday, November 11, 2012

What Is Voter Apathy?

Concepts are dangerous things. Our conceptual vocabulary doesn't exactly determine how we think, but it does influence us in very subtle ways. For example, take the concept of "employee loyalty". It encompasses a lot of possible behavior by employees. To be a loyal employee, for example, you should always give advanced notice when quitting your job. But interestingly, there's no such concept of "employer loyalty". Even the phrase sounds oddly wrong and out of place. Perhaps not coincidentally, there is no expectation that employers give advanced notice when they are about to fire an employee. The asymmetry between "employee" and "employer" loyalty corresponds to asymmetries in the power relationship between the employees and employers.

I'm certainly not saying that the way we speak determines how we act, or how we think. Nothing is that simple. But we should think a little bit about the assumptions that go along with our words. They may be clues to how we may be misunderstanding important issues.

"Voter apathy" is a good one to stop and consider. Apathy is generally a bad thing -- it connotes not only not caring about something, but not caring about something important. When we call someone "apathetic", we accuse them of shirking their responsibilities. Or at the very least, we accuse them of being out of touch with important issues. A person who is apathetic is culpably ignorant or guilty of an immoral act of omission. In particular, when we refer to "voter apathy", we're talking about people who are entitled to vote, but don't. They are either uninformed about important issues, or they just don't care enough to vote. We know that they're apathetic precisely because they don't vote.

It's an interesting set of assumptions that go along with "voter apathy". For the concept to make sense at all, we have to believe a few things:

  1. It is important -- and perhaps even morally obligatory -- for individuals to vote.
  2. People who don't vote are apathetic.
  3. People who do vote aren't apathetic.

If we don't believe these things, then "voter apathy" either doesn't make sense at all, or it means something totally different from what we ordinarily mean.

Unfortunately, I think that when you spell out what you need to take on board in order to talk about "voter apathy", it turns out that all of these assumptions are false. I've already written about the lack of any obligation to vote. Basically, we don't have an obligation to vote because (1) one vote makes no difference, even in a very close election and (2) if voting did make a difference, it would tend to legitimize a totally corrupt election system.

I'm interested now in the last two assumptions. Is it really true that people who don't vote are apathetic? Certainly, some of them must be. But you certainly can't infer from a person's failing to vote that they are apathetic in any meaningful sense. Perhaps the non-voter cares very much about democracy, but believes that the current system is a facade. I'm rather confident that a significant percentage of non-voters fail to vote because they think the elections are illegitimate. There's at least some pretty good reasons to share this opinion, especially when you consider the multi-billion dollar price tag on the 2012 United States presidential election, the obvious lies perpetrated by the candidates and their proxies, and the demonstrable influence that money has on policy. In short, a person might fail to vote because they are outraged, which is the opposite of being apathetic.

Furthermore, it seems to me that a lot of voters are apathetic. For example, a case can certainly be made that people who are totally uninformed about the candidates' policy proposals are apathetic -- especially given how incredibly easy it is to do some simple research online. People who vote only because they are expected to vote may also be apathetic. And of course, we have the phenomenon of the five percent or so "undecided" voters who make up their mind only when they are in the voting booth. I'm astounded that a person can go through an entire election cycle (which is almost two years in a presidential election), decide to vote, but have no preference until the very last moment. If these undecided voters have the ability to function in daily life, then their indecision with respect to politics may be because they simply don't care enough to make a decision. At any rate, many undecided voters are obviously voting on a whim, which is the height of apathy.

At any rate, I have no hard data to back up my suspicion. But I do suspect that "voter apathy" is more often referring to what it literally suggests: the apathy of voters. "Non-voter apathy" may be a lot less common than we think.