How Should I Decide How to Vote?

In one month Americans will vote for a new president. Some people have known who will get their vote for months. Others are still on the fence. Some are on a different kind of fence, waiting to see if they need to move to Canada or not.

Elections the primary proof humanity has that playing hard to get is the quickest path to power. It’s the undecided, Ambivalents, and independents who the candidates must sway to win. The most indecisive politically are those who carry the heaviest weight of this decision.

People on all sides of the political spectrum are casting this election as do or die. They are essentially making the same argument: if you do not vote for who I tell you to, America will cease to exist. Since all sides are saying it, clearly how people define the end of America is up for interpretation.

I’ve been nerding out about politics for months, but as someone who struggles to form strong opinions about most things that aren’t Taco Bell, I haven’t thought much about who I will vote for. Probably because I’m less concerned with the who then the why. What are the factors people weigh when they are choosing between candidates? If they think both are bad, how do they decide?

In 2004, Robert Sylwester, an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, asked these questions in a piece for Brain Connection. He makes crucial distinctions between two types of decision making:

  1. Veridical decision – Sylwester defines this as knowing and reporting the correct answer to a factual problem that has a single correct answer
  2. Adaptive decisions – developing and enacting a choice among several legitimate responses to a problem

Clearly, voting is an adaptive decision, but, as Sylwester points out, journalists, writers, entertainers, advertisers, and political parties are all “seek[ing] to convince voters that it’s a veridical decision.” This is the Fire & Brimstone version of voting and ignores the real and rational compromises everyone must make when they vote.

Jon A. Krosnick, a Professor Psychology and Political Science at Ohio State University, argues there are three ways of looking at the question of who to vote for:

“Should you choose someone who shares your preferences, has expertise, or has a small track record of success in the past?”

These are good measuring sticks, but don’t offer a comprehensive look at a candidate (and the political party they represent) as a whole.

The first step in choosing who to vote for if you are Ambivalent is to decide how to decide.

Here are some of the options I’m considering when thinking through what should influence my vote:

Ideology

This is probably what most of us were taught growing up and how we envisioned democracy working: you vote in accordance with sincerely held beliefs about what’s best for the country.

Pros: voting based on ideas can remove superficial barriers such as appearance or social media prowess from unduly influencing decision making.

Cons: it’s nearly impossible for one person (or one party) to exactly embody your political philosophy so you still have to weigh what ideas are most important to you.

Party Allegiance

A lot of people have strong opinions and longstanding relationships with their political party (pro tip: you can tell someone’s political allegiance by the violence of their shudder when saying either Conservative or Liberal out loud).

Pros: groups people together so you have a better chance of actually winning. Also, (bonus!) there are literal parties to celebrate political parties.

Cons: again, it’s nearly impossible for a party to represent your individual views and parties have to make strategic decisions that may compromise ideology in order to win

Personal Allegiance

Some people love a particular person and would vote for them no matter what.

(Example: if Queen Elizabeth ever ran for anything I would vote for her because she’s undeniably fabulous and also because at this point it seems likely that she will live forever.)

Pros: individuals can be more consistent than parties because they aren’t beholden to so many members. Can also operate more efficiently.

Cons: people are fickle and can change and are often controlled by institutions.

Opposition

You might choose to vote for someone in order to vote against someone else. This is known to most as “choosing the lesser of two evils.” So maybe you don’t want pantsuits in office, but, more importantly, you really really don’t want spray tans to be legitimized. When you vote, it’s less a vote for pant suits and more of a vote against spray tans.

Pros: its realistic in that you don’t expect more than you should from the candidate you vote for.

Cons: not a comprehensive way to choose a leader and requires less critical assessment of the person you actually vote for.

Policy

Maybe you don’t like a candidate’s personality or past decisions, but support the platform they propose during their candidacy.

Pros: based on tangible proposals and takes into account a wide range of issues.

Cons: doesn’t take into account how likely a policy is to be enacted if a candidate is elected.

Now what?

There’s no perfect or unbiased approach to voting, but it’s worth thinking critically about why we vote the way we do, and how our socioeconomic backgrounds, ancestral morals, and personalities influence the way we view the world.

Every motivation is flawed, but the one that appears best to me is to vote based on an outcome.

Let me explain.

Voting for ideas is great, but ideas are just that: ideas. Not reality, not law, not policy. Voting for an outcome takes into account ideas, as well as personality and policy, and considers them from the perspective of action. As in: what will actually happen if this person is elected? What will they do? What will the outcome be?

Sometimes this might be counterintuitive. Say for instance I supported free higher education. This would not be an automatic reason to vote for Bernie Sanders. A better factor to consider than his vocal support of free higher education is the likelihood that his proposals would ever happen.

Or take another example. If you consider yourself “pro-life” (I’ve written before about how fraught the terminology in the abortion debate is) it’s worth considering if voting for a pro-life candidate will actually do anything about abortion. There’s some evidence indicating that abortion rates go down under pro-choice politicians. Even if you disagree with their rhetorical stance, you could support the outcome they will achieve.

I’m going to vote based on outcomes because I think enacted policy is more important than proposed policy and reality is more substantial than ideas. Because idealism is a luxury and it’s comfortable to frame a decision as the lesser of two evils instead of taking responsibility for the political outcomes we promote. Now I just have to figure out what outcomes are worth voting for.

Got ideas about why I’m wrong or a voting motivation I missed? Let me know in the comments!

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What Does It Mean to Be Conservative?

For better or worse (mainly worse) when it comes to working American theories of government there are two lines of thought that have dominated the political arena.*

One of these belief systems is tied to the Republican Party, but as this election has demonstrated in painful detail, people are at odds over what being a conservative Republican actually means.

I’ve written before that political loyalty is more determined by personality than chosen intellectual beliefs. With this in mind, I’ve broken down what we typically mean when we describe someone as conservative using the umbrellas of culture, practice, and ideals.

What being conservative means culturally:

  • Christian (or religious)
  • Morally traditional
  • Higher income bracket
  • Typically reside in less urban areas

What being conservative means practically:

  • Supporting gun rights
  • Support of a large military
  • Oppose gay marriage and abortion
  • Skeptical of political feminism
  • Oppose illegal immigration

What being conservative means ideally:

  • believing the government should leave people alone with their bad selves

Here’s the official definition of conservatism  according to Merriam Webster’s:

  • belief in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society
  • dislike of change or new ideas in a particular area

Paul Shlichta,  writing for American Thinker, puts it this way:

  • Conservatism – all men are equal but not necessarily good
  • Liberalism – all men are good but not necessarily equal

I asked the Twittersphere what they thought being conservative meant. Here are a few responses:

Nowhere is this desire for a return to the way things were more evident than the Republican Presidential candidate’s slogan. His entire campaign is based on the belief that America needs to return to a lost state of greatness.

This nostalgic desire for a distant past is practically inseparable from the modern Christian perception of original sin.* The conservative struggle to return America to a former state of greatness mirrors the current Christian understanding of fallen, sinful humans trying to get back to a perfect God.

This election has helpfully boiled down this narrative and clarified what conservatives truly value by highlighting what they are willing to compromise. Morals have become less important than strong, vocal opposition to liberal opponents. It appears that conservatives are willing to compromise on abortion, gay marriage, and international trade policies as long as they maintain the right to free speech and can prevent immigrants from entering the country.

The contradictions between what conservatives claim to believe in and the realities they vote for makes it difficult for someone like me—young, trying to make informed political decisions—to align herself with them. As a group, conservatives currently stand for nothing but dissatisfaction with the current form of government. This stance does little to differentiate them from liberals who are also extremely unsatisfied with the government.

As an ideal, conservatism rests on a hesitation to place too much trust in the government. It’s an ideal that makes a lot of sense to me, but I’m hesitant to prioritize voting for an ideal rather than a reality. American conservatism in practice is a hot mess I want little to do with. I’m wary of the contradictions and mindless outrage it encourages.

What I find most depressing about all of this is our apparent inability to change. A tenet of both conservative and liberal theories is ensuring freedom—of course, the details of this are drastically different on both sides, but most would agree that a crucial part of this freedom is choosing a political belief system in the first place.

But if our political associations are indeed motivated primarily by innate personality traits, then this foundational choice is nothing but a mirage. I have a natural tendency to trust my own conscience and question authority. It’s a personality trait that also leads me to distrust government institutions. Accepting this natural tendency as the foundation for my political beliefs means I don’t have to assess these sociologies honestly. It also means there’s little reason to worry about changing people’s minds because the political party that can attract the most common personality traits will win regardless of the strength of their political platform. I find this unacceptable, but just because it’s unacceptable doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

In my next post I’ll be looking at what it means to be liberal. Got thoughts? Comment below or send them to thinkcuriouser@gmail.com.

*There’s many more complex and nuanced political theories that get less attention for a lot of reasons, one of the most interesting being that the most partisan are also the most outspoken

*It’s important to acknowledge that this is the current Christian perspective, but is certainly not the only historical view Christians have taken