Get out the books, not the vote

I am very serious in the view that we should not be trying to increase voter turnout, in this or any election. Let me explain why.

Most of us have the idea that voter turnout rates are a measure of the success of our democracy. If people are “participating,” by voting, then the will of the people will really be reflected in the outcome of the election. That is an idea shared by most Americans who care about democracy, with the result that it’s accepted as a given that more voting is good and that it is important to “get out the vote.” But the idea needs to be examined in light of the basic civic responsibility of self-education and critical thinking.

For democracy to function (as we all acknowledge before moving on) the public needs to have critical thinking skills and needs to have an understanding of the issues that is not completely shallow. Yet, when is the last time you have seen a public campaign for self-education or critical thinking skills? When do you see it acknowledged that Americans tend to be relatively ignorant about the issues that affect them, and that they sometimes get fired up about? Rather than promoting self-education and critical thinking skills to a high standard, it seems that most civic-minded people would prefer to use propaganda to get people to vote a certain way, lacking an understanding of what they are doing. I find that unethical (or at least anti-democratic), regardless of the intended outcome.

Think about the voting public for a moment. Studies have arrived at the following disturbing findings about them. One fifth of them believe that Obama is a Muslim, and only 34% of them know that he is a Christian (PEW Center poll). Half of Americans aged 18 to 24 can’t find New York on a map (2006 National Geographic study). 42% of Americans don’t accept the theory of evolution (PEW Center poll). 26% of Americans don’t know what country the United States declared its independence from (Marist poll). 75% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin (Barna Group). We’ve all heard these kinds of scary poll results showing the ignorance of Americans, and yet we persist in blindly encouraging people to vote without any concern for their level of knowledge or ability to think rationally about the candidates and issues they’re voting on.

I value the right of every American to vote and oppose things like a literacy requirement or other gatekeeping methods. But I oppose the practice of encouraging everyone to vote or talking about voting as though it is a civic duty. The basic civic duty is not to vote. The basic civic duties are learning and critical thinking. Regarding voting, we should impress upon people that if they do choose to vote they are assuming a grave responsibility that requires careful study and patient, self-questioning thought.

The culture we have around democratic participation currently is not working.

22 comments on “Get out the books, not the vote

  1. I think this is an important point, although I’m not sure exactly what disbelief in the virgin birth gets you in terms of making Americans less ignorant or preparing them to vote in a critical manner. The other statistics you provide (including religiously charged ones like disbelief in evolution or knowledge of Obama’s affiliation) have some obvious implications for participatory governance, but could you elaborate on what makes belief in the virgin birth a demonstration of ignorance? Ignorance of what, exactly? And how exactly does disbelief in this event further responsible citizenship? Are there any policy positions that this really touches on?

    Your inclusion of that particular statistic seems to come a bit out of nowhere, unless fundamental tenets of prominent faith traditions are politically troublesome to you in themselves (which strikes me as its own bit of ignorance to be educated away before voting).

  2. Faith, as I see it, concerns matters of spirit and meaning, matters of hope. An article of faith that runs counter to what we know about the world scientifically isn’t in that category, and is a mark of ignorance and superstition in attitude. Belief in the virgin birth doesn’t touch on a specific policy issue, no, but it indicates an attitude that is at variance with rational thought, and rational thought is what is needed, above all, in deliberating policy issues.

  3. This has always been of concern to me– ignorant people voting. And I have no problem calling them ignorant since it is irresponsible to go vote without having an idea what you are voting on. Those who encourage this ignorance with propaganda, misinformation, and just outright lies at times are criminals pure and simple, people who clearly have only their self interest in mind. Honestly, there is a long, long way to go in getting people to actually learn how to critically think and be informed. Then again, given recent studies that say people, even with good evidence, will not listen to it if it goes against their biases (ill informed as those often are), I am not holding much hope.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  4. Perhaps I’m still misunderstanding your point here, so let me restate one of the questions I offered… Ignorance of what, exactly?

    Of our scientific knowledge about sexual reproduction? Do you think that believers in the virgin birth aren’t aware of normal biological function simply because we affirm a radical departure from it at a particular historical instance? It’s not as if we think just any Tom, Dick, or Harry is conceived in this way. I’m not sure why you think claims of a particular empirical instance of virgin birth constitutes some sort of ignorance about more general scientific knowledge. What exactly would be the significance of the virgin birth for believers if it wasn’t accompanied by a recognition that things don’t normally go that way? I don’t see how one’s reasonableness with regard to scientific matters is threatened by recognition of an exception on the basis of faith, especially when this exception is acknowledged as quite fantastic and not scientifically justifiable. Shouldn’t this assuage your fears of an ignorant believing public rather than reinforce them?

    If not that, then, of what are these people ignorant? You simply speak of “ignorance and superstition in attitude”, but what does that mean? How is that anything but a platitude and an avoidance of the point?

  5. In any case, this isn’t about virgins conceiving as a scientifically ignorant idea. We’ve got technology to allow for virginal conception at this point. The crux of the matter is qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, and the metaphysical commitments that such participation of spirit entails.

    And again, for the life of me, I don’t understand why such commitments are inherently irrational, unscientific, or dangerous for democracy. The best of democratic situations to this point in history haven’t seemed to falter over these sorts of beliefs. I’m still not clear on what this vague worry of yours is about.

  6. Someone who would believe in something that is a question of fact (verifiable or not at this point in history) on the basis of faith rather than reason is not someone who I think should be voting or participating in the democratic process. Have faith in the ultimate goodness of humanity or in the idea that truth and justice will ultimately prevail – these are not empirical questions. But, if you’re not willing to let empirical questions be treated in an empirical way but insist on treating them as questions of faith, then you are dangerous if you participate in decisions that affect the larger group. Policy questions belong to this world. Your religious faith belongs to the next.

  7. I’d also say that, while I’m sure my responses come across as a tangent from a religious apologist, the issue really is a central point for the discussion. If one can’t cobble together a reasonable coalition of critical discourse without outlawing religious beliefs of this sort, is the situation you’re calling for really at all worth recommending? What kind of a democracy is this? What sort of rational exchange remains when standards of thinking disallow various modes of accommodation and explanation (which have always been with us and with any luck always will be) of extraordinary phenomena within theory?

    That’s the point. Not an attempt to preserve the respectability of belief in the virgin birth or any other fantastic occurrence, but rather an attempt to preserve the reasonableness of democratic participation against superfluous rules of discourse that don’t seem to make much contribution to public reasoning in the first place.

  8. I guess I just don’t see why you seem to think that the empiricist tradition needs to stop at Hume in order for democracy to survive. If you’re making any argument beyond or apart from that, I sure can’t make heads or tails of it.

  9. From reason to reasonableness?

    You don’t have a rational basis for believing in the virgin birth, and you seem proud of that fact. Your willingness to believe something that is a question of fact on the basis of faith tells me that you are an irrational person. I’m not proposing that we pass laws that would ban you from voting. I’m just stating my personal opinion that your viewpoint is irrational and that what we need as a democracy is rationality. Your attempt to justify irrational thinking as a valid part of public discourse makes no sense to me. “Faith” is what lets people retain a commitment to a view when the evidence and the rational arguments run counter to it. There is no answer to faith within the context of rational discourse. When rational discourse is not the foundation of democracy, then we are lost in the darkness, as a democracy at least. I am more comfortable with the idea of a rational policy elite controlling things than I am with people having a strong influence whose religious beliefs guide their policy arguments.

  10. When rational discourse is not the foundation of democracy, then we are lost in the darkness, as a democracy at least.

    I’m fine with affirming something like this, but what on earth does this have to do with belief in the virgin birth or similar affirmations? Are you detecting some latent pseudo-democratic theory amidst these sorts of beliefs that I’m not?

  11. The reality is, alas, even more, and more intractably, disturbing than the studies cited in this post:

    >> In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger. << (Source)

  12. Right on. Nice to see someone finally admit that there are people out there that are simply not qualified to vote because they don’t think, but simply react.

  13. Rory, your argument makes me deeply uneasy. I know you’re aware of the long, bloody history or voting rights in this country. It hasn’t been that long since African-Americans have been able to vote in peace and have had formal citizenship rights. You explicitly mention that you aren’t making *that* kind of argument, but it does sound like an argument Strom Thurmond would have made in the 1950’s, only you are talking about mostly ignorant whites, rather than African-Americans. And I think that this is a problem, you can vote but only if it is an informed choice, and vote the way *we* want you to. I’m with you philosophically, we need more critical thinkers but linking it to voting rights is deeply misguided. You should post this as a note on your FB page, it is well written and thought provoking (your post of course, not mine).

  14. As a child of the enlightenment, I agree that corporate agitprop targeted toward the lumpenproletariat is a problem, but believe that a more logical answer more in keeping with the Enlightenment vision of our founders would involve (A) returning civics education to the public schools, (B) restoring the fairness doctrine to force honest public-service programming and (C) considering structural changes that make voting physically easier.

    The “culture around democratic participation” that does not work is largely one created by Grover Norquist and think tanks who understand that lower participation favors religious zealots and easily-influenced “low information voters,” particularly when a few private firms use proprietary and unauditable technology to count those “votes.”

    General disillusionment with government and abandonment of democratic participation is total acquiescence to corporate interests, insiders and an increasingly incestuous status quo.

  15. The higher the overall voter turnout, the better it is for Democrats. This is empirical fact, election after election.

    Republicans know that, and deliberately act to suppress (or possibly steal) the vote. Paul Weyrich spoke to his fellow Republicans in the GOP to just get over their sentimental “goo-go” (his derisive shorthand slang for “good government”) attachments. He stated (correctly) that when there is high voter turnout, Republicans lose and Democrats win, and that Republicans should NOT be speaking of voting as a civic duty or encouraging it universally, etc.

    I’m afraid, Rory, that you come off sounding like a Left-wing H.L. Mencken here at best.

    Good citizenship is indeed about being well informed but it is also about participatory democracy, but understanding democracy begins at the ballot box, it doesn’t end there.

    Like E.S.E., I find this post of yours troubling.

    Evan, you’re being asinine. Fervent religious belief leads some, for example, to outright deny AGW because “mere humans can’t damage God’s creation”, leads others to discriminate (or do violence to) homosexuals, leads others to deny women control over their bodies and sexuality…the list goes on and on. I follow Sam Harris, and agree with him that religion is a dangerous anachronism in a nuclear and cybernetic age such as ours. I want faith to be ridiculed out of existence. It should get the same level of respect in polite society as my crazy racist ex-father-in-law who probably wore white sheets in his younger years. It matters that the Bush Justice Department gave preference to substandard lawyers graduating from explicitly religiously affiliated schools, instead of hiring the best and the brightest.

    Faith (or lack thereof), in any case, is a private matter that has no business in government, which ought to remain neutral with respect to religion; A secular government protects EVERYONE, believer and nonbeliever alike. It protects nonbelievers from believers, and protects different groups of believers from each other. It bothers me that thanks to Mr. Obama there are now 6 Roman Catholics sitting on the Supreme Court…and while Sotomayor and Kennedy are the most reasonable of the 6, it still gives me pause when it comes to the future of Roe v. Wade, for example, or some church-state separation protections.

    On some level, the Founding Fathers would be horrified by the 21st century Tea Party movement…(though the old Federalists might regard them as useful idiots). On the other hand, they were a bunch of rich, land-owning white men who didn’t believe in voting rights for women or people of color and made the federal government so turgid and ponderous because they sought to protect the haves from the have nots. Michael Parenti has given some pretty devastating critiques in some of his public lectures on the Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution that I would encourage all Americans to listen to.

    The weight of empirical evidence shows that when the voter turnout is highest generally, then the more left/populist the government that is elected will be.
    Improving public education is also likely to lead to higher rates of voter participation and feed back into this.

  16. Fervent religious belief leads some, for example, to outright deny AGW because “mere humans can’t damage God’s creation”, leads others to discriminate (or do violence to) homosexuals, leads others to deny women control over their bodies and sexuality…the list goes on and on.

    Well, sure. But one hardly needs religion to accomplish any of this. And one could hardly say that such possibilities constitute an argument against fervent religious belief in itself. In any case, I’m having difficulties understanding what anti-environmentalism, homophobia, and misogyny have to do with belief in the Virgin Birth. If you have an argument in mind that’s sitting between the lines there, you’ll need to make it explicit. As it stands, you seem to merely be venting some anger over your ex-in-laws.

  17. I have heard it said that Republicans tend to vote in higher percentages than Democrats, maybe because they on the whole represent a higher socioeconomic strata. But people who are poor and not well educated, or not particularly knowledgeable or concerned about politics, still need to have their interests represented when elected officials are chosen and propositions voted upon.

  18. Senator Imhofe’s fervent belief that God will protect our earth from any damaging man-made climate event (just because, well, God) is not simply a matter of Faith. It shapes real, asinine, destructive public policy.
    Thanks Rory

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