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On the Economic Defense of the Voter-As-Consumer Model

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Whenever someone criticizes arguments in favor of not voting or casting a admittedly quixotic third-party vote because voters should be able to support candidates that meet all of their specifications precisely, like Etsy shoppers, inevitably someone will pop up to argue that the chances that any individual vote will affect an election is infinitesimal, so it doesn’t matter anyway. Even if you haven’t read Downs, this presumably isn’t news. It’s also, in this context, a really lousy argument. A few points:

  • This defense is obviously not available to people proudly announcing their voting preferences in national publications. Obviously, who any writer personally votes for is of little consequence or interest. But when you mount a public defense of your voting preferences, presumably with the intent of persuading others, you can’t then retreat to Econ 101 arguments about how your vote doesn’t actually matter anyway. Either you’re engaging in political discourse or you aren’t.
  • Such arguments are almost always implicitly or explicitly married to other terrible arguments, most obviously “American governance is fundamentally similar whether Democrats or Republicans in control.” The retreat to THINKING LIKE A FREAK tends to happen when one doesn’t want to have to defend such arguments.
  • The Econ 101 defense of non- or irrational-voting dovetails nicely with the “voter as consumer” argument. That is, both are inherently reactionary and subversive of collective political action. It’s worth noting that free-rider arguments apply with equal force to the grassroots organizing “voting doesn’t matter” types tend to valorize as an alternative to voting. The most obvious problem with this, as I said, is that it falsely poses complementary activities as being in zero-sum opposition. But, in addition, if voting doesn’t matter because the proper unit of measurement is the atomistic individual, then no political action of any kind by a ordinary person matters. Whatever one might say about this line of thought, it’s certainly not a progressive one.
  • On a minor point, this is why I don’t find the “I will only vote for the best major party candidate in a swing state” argument very attractive (although it’s obviously much less harmful and objectionable than third-party voting with either indifference to or active support for throwing the election to the worst candidate.) It’s nice that this standard recognizes the material consequences of elections. On the other hand, I still don’t find any appeal to voting-as-consumerism or proudly announcing that you’re personally too good to be part of a political coalition even if you accept them as necessary.
  • For this reason, I don’t find it the question of whether the electoral system compels the ex ante or post facto formations of political coalitions very important. But if for whatever reason it’s very important to you to cast a vote for a candidate closer to your preferences even if they don’t constitute the basis for a plausible majority coalition, then your focus should be on electoral reform. Over to you, Gregor…
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