image of hand placing checked ballot in ballot box

This piece concludes an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Democracy’s Demands.

Since the rise of democracies centuries ago, the concern over the rationality of the voting population has been a central one. Winston Churchill famously quipped, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” And recently, ethicists and political theorists have studied and analyzed the motivations behind voters who vote in ways that don’t align with what appears to be their best interests. (In the 2016 presidential election, the examples seemed particularly stark.) Jason and Cecilia Rochester, for example, are not alone in voting for Trump and then having their family feel the tragic effects of Trump’s trade policies. Yet still they voted for Trump, who was clear and adamant about his views on immigration and open about his xenophobia towards Mexicans. Farmers who voted for Trump ended up being harmed by his trade policies. In fact, they were the biggest business to suffer from his China trade deals.

But there are a handful of complications surrounding the common criticism that people often fail to vote in support of their best interests.

First, in attending to the resulting government that democracy produces, we can blur the differences between the various forms of government. In other words, if the principal value government is to produce a political system that reflects the “people’s best interests” (whatever we decide that is), then it isn’t clear that democracy would do a better job at this than the other structures. Democracy is often lauded as being more stable than governments that aren’t formed with the consent of the people; it is a platitude that power corrupts, after all. As 1991 Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi said of democracy, “Democracy is when the people keep a government in check.” But there are other mechanisms that might keep a government in check, and it’s possible that these alternative structures could have substantive standards for leaders resulting in a government that represents the interests of the people better than representative democracies at least for stretches of time, and at least better than some assessments of the US.

Second, in explaining why people vote against their best interests, it is difficult to assess others’ preference orderings. For example, if someone were to vote for a representative because they ran on trade principles that seemed right and just, but would have predictable negative effects on the voter’s family, community, and state, how would we characterize this vote? It aligns with their preferences, but perhaps not in their “best interests” if we conceive of these as their immediate economic considerations. To have a “right” outcome in mind when evaluating others’ voting choices inevitably reveals bias in how we think voters should make their decisions. Put more plainly, choosing against some conception of your best interests shouldn’t undermine the validity of your choice. And because the legitimacy of democratic authority rests in the consent of the governed and not in the outcome being a particular right answer, features of decision-making that undermine consent may be more concerning.

Say I’m deciding whether or not to go spelunking. There is a spelunking company that will take and train amateurs that I’m considering signing up with. There are the standard pros and cons of spelunking, including risk, cost, joy of discovery, endorphins resulting from exertion, becoming a member of the spelunking community, etc. These factors could not match up very well with my preferences and values in a variety of ways. It could shake out that spelunking would not be a great option for me, given my lack of focus and, to be honest, a bit of claustrophobia. This could sharply contrast with how my friend’s temperament relates to the pros and cons of spelunking, given that she is an adrenaline junky and enjoys exercise of any kind.

However, I decide to go spelunking anyways. It could be foolhardy of me, or perhaps even worthy of disdain, given the fact that I’m likely signing up for a rather bad time of it. But these aren’t criticisms that seem to target whether I’m consenting to take up the enterprise. What features of the case relate to that?

In most cases when a company takes an amateur into a risky situation, like spelunking, base-jumping, rock climbing etc., there is some sort of contract for one thing. In addition, there is usually some sort of required orientation, perhaps simply in order to sufficiently understand the contract. Underlying these features is the standard that you know what you’re getting into.

Many things could play a role in my decision to spelunk without knowing the pros and cons. I could simply not have done sufficient research to know how they line up with my preferences, or I could have been misled by the information misrepresented to me. But it would undermine the consent I am giving to go spelunking if I didn’t know what the basic pros and cons of spelunking were.

But the view that, if we were to deliberate, we would only do what is in our best interests is an overly idealized one. I could decide to spelunk with all the information, and people do things that are irrational, silly, and self-destructive with all the information. However, when we don’t understand the nature of our choices, the connection between our deliberation and the choice we make is undermined. The above example highlights how ignorance is one of the features that can undermine consent.

Because democracies ground their authority not in the result, but in the procedures of their functioning, the connection between the voters and the system is what is important. The danger in a democracy is not instances of people voting against their best interests, but whether they understood the stakes and what they were getting themselves into at the time. This locates concern for democratic legitimacy in misinformation and ignorance of voters.

There is good reason to attend to this concern, as evidence suggests ignorance is promoted by representative democracies and that misinformation has been on the rise in the past decades due to social media and digital communication. In particular, the degree of ignorance and misinformation in this election has created something like multiple realities that make decision-making difficult. For instance, consider the perspectives on the state of our economy.

There are many different views on the state of our economy, the role the president has had on the state of the economy, and the candidates plans for the future of the economy. Now, as in 2016, these perspectives play important roles in determining many voter’s decisions. In 2020, we add the economic fallout of the pandemic where we have experienced the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression, the prediction that 1 in 5 small businesses will close if economic conditions don’t improve in the next six months, and over half of business that have shut down on Yelp say they will not be able to reopen.

It is worrying that such an important aspect of the functioning of our country, and a divisive feature of the candidates’ plans for our nation, can’t begin to be discussed with anything approaching common ground due to different characterizations of the state of our economy.

Ignorance about the reality of our economy is not something new. In 2011, a Harvard business professor and a behavioral economist surveyed Americans about their perspectives on wealth distribution in the US. It highlights the difference between the perception of people in the US from the reality of wealth distribution:

Thus, not only are we currently engaging in public discourse where different groups of people have streams of information that characterize the health of our economy differently, from a non-partisan perspective, we are starting from a skewed understanding of the distribution of wealth. This is reflected in the controversial characterization of socioeconomic class in a recent New York Times article categorizing a family of four making $400,000 as “middle class,” and Vice Presidential candidates engaging in a he-said, she-said about specific economic policies.

Starting from misinformed, misled, or otherwise ignorant positions is a significant threat to the procedures that are meant to grant government authority in democracies. The legitimacy of their power comes from the connection with the deliberation and voting choices of the people. While our votes often appear to conflict with our interests, their weight becomes meaningless if we don’t know what it is we’re endorsing.

Meredith is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. She earned her PhD at the University of California, Riverside, with a research focus in Philosophy of Action and Practical Reasoning and continues to explore the relationship between reason and value. Her current research consists of investigating modes of agential endorsement: how an agent's understanding of what is good, what is reasonable, what she desires, and who she is, informs what she does. Meredith is also committed to public philosophy and applied ethics; in particular, she is invested in illuminating debates in biomedical ethics, ethics of technology, and philosophy of law. Her website can be found at: https://mermcfadden.wixsite.com/philosopher.