“Irrational” voting?

Wednesday, 29th August 2018

NYT coverage of the primary elections in Florida and Arizona. It’s been noted before, but there’s a subtle (sometimes not so subtle) slant to their political reporting. Exhibit A:

“Mr. Gillum edged out Ms. Graham, a former North Florida congresswoman who finished second, and Mr. Levine, the former Miami Beach mayor who finished third, after dropping nearly $30 million of his personal fortune into the campaign. Ms. Graham, a moderate, had been considered the favorite in a midterm year in which many Democratic women have fared well.

But her centrism and the implicit case for electability proved to be of little asset in a year when emotions have gripped both parties.”

It’s the last sentence here that made me double-take. Voting for Gillum is evidence that emotions have gripped both parties? Voting for the black guy who wants universal health care, thinks marijuana isn’t the big threat it’s made out to be, and wants fewer black people shot – that’s the position that someone who’s driven by emotion rather than reason would want?

The real issue is this, and it’s a very old one. Do you vote for the positions you want, or do you vote strategically? To someone who is voting based on how they think others will vote, that is, voting on who they think can be elected, then voting for the person who the media has decided is the most “extreme” looks like an irrational vote.

There are several problems here, though. First, who decided on who is most extreme and who isn’t? It’s like there is a single-line continuum in American politics, and everyone can be placed on it. Isn’t it possible, though, for someone to be “extreme” in one way and not in others? Is there an algorithm, in which you put a candidate’s positions and it gives you their point on the line? Second, why is it the most rational thing to do, to project yourself into the future and into the public sphere to determine who is “electable”? It assumes that we can occupy two positions – our own position in which we vote for what we want, and the position over and above the whole process, in which we can somehow figure out how this complex system is going to work when everyone else does what they’re going to do. It’s like trying to predict the stock market – would be great if you could, but the fact is, no one can, and anyone who says they can or thinks they can is full of it.

I voted for Gillum. Was that based on emotion? Well, I didn’t vote for him because I hate the president and all that he stands for. That didn’t come into my calculation. This was a primary – 5 Democratic candidates against each other, to decide who goes against the Republican in the November election. I did vote based on the platform, which I think is, in fact, the most rational platform, given all the evidence we have of what succeeds, what is most efficient and cost-effective, and what is most humane to the largest number of people, both in this country and in others. None of this is about emotion.

I voted for him because he’s a mayor (there were two mayors in this race). I’d be happy for most of the country to be run by former mayors. They’re the ones who see the problems on the ground. They’re the ones who have to face the poor people on their doorstep. These problems are not abstractions to them. They’re the ones who, if they’re any good, still have to have a heart. It’s not all lofty rhetoric and empty promises. There are risks for mayors too – they’re probably more susceptible to small-time influence, to people coming with quick fixes and flashy opportunities. The good ones have to tell the difference between long-term development and short-term headlines for their cities.

I voted for him also because he’s black. Why is that a qualification? In itself, it isn’t, but it tells me about some of the communities he’s seen growing up. I don’t actually know whether he grew up rich or poor, but it’s virtually certain that he grew up seeing systemic injustice in the country. There’s a high degree of likelihood that he understands the difference between personal virtue (and I hope he has that too) and systemic problems. I don’t know his past or his family at all, but I think there’s hardly a black person in this country who wouldn’t understand that difference. So, that’s not so much a qualification as a much-needed perspective. I had little faith that the more “rational” candidates – political insiders, land developers, rich people – really understood that.

So, was I swept up by emotion in voting for Gillum? I don’t think so. I wasn’t triangulating as to who could beat his opponent in November, the Trump-approved Ron DeSantis. I wasn’t thinking that a more moderate person would somehow sway swing voters. I was thinking, who would be best for this state? That seems rational to me.

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