A brief digression

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Responding to the steady stream of election-related events often prevents me from addressing some other issues about which I have promised to write.  So let me deal quickly with one housekeeping matter in this post before writing more extensively in a separate post about the problems of forecasting presidential elections. Several of you expressed curiosity – and skepticism – about my recent comment that I do not vote in presidential elections.  As one of you wrote, “I was raised at a time and come from a generation where voting is viewed as a civic duty and the price of democracy.  I am befuddled by your declaration.” Another suggested that, “it is possible to make these posts fairly non-partisan even when you do have a strong opinion and do choose to vote.” Given these reactions, which I am certain reflect the sentiment of many of you, my statement that I don’t vote in presidential elections deserves brief elaboration.  First, let me make clear that I do vote in all local elections in which my wife is running for office. (That’s actually quite a few since she serves multiple positions in our local government!)  Even in these elections, however, I refuse to admit for whom I vote.  Second, as I succinctly stated in that previous post, I urge everyone else to vote in the upcoming election.  I trust I need not spell out why voting is important to the health of a democracy.

So why don’t I vote?  I certainly don’t claim to be without bias when it comes to presidential politics – I have certain preferences and values, just like everyone else.  And I agree that it is possible to analyze elections in an objective, non-partisan fashion, and still exercise one’s right to vote.  But I believe it is harder to do so when one is openly (or even secretly) committed to a candidate.  Voting requires one to invest time to learn about the candidates’ personalities and issue stances.  Once one decides for whom to vote, that commitment becomes an emotional investment – a sunk cost – in the outcome of the race. You want your candidate to win because she’s the better person for the office. That’s why people vote, after all – to pick the best person for the office.  My experience is that this emotional investment alters how people view presidential elections – my candidate is wise and virtuous, my candidate’s opponent is sleazy and underhanded.  This is an exaggeration, of course, but I hope you see my point.  In this election cycle, I have found that supporters of all the candidates often reveal this emotional investment when discussing election particulars, although it seems particularly strong among Obama supporters.  (This may reflect the fact that Obama has strong support in my immediate community particularly among professors and students, so inevitably I see more reaction from Obama supporters than from other candidates’ backers.  It may also reflect the fact that he has aroused such passion among his backers.)  This passion is a good thing for prospective voters, but not, in my judgment, for analysts (or the media, for that matter – but that’s another topic.)  Were I to decide to support a particular candidate, I think I would be susceptible to the same tendency.  By detaching myself from the process, then, I hope to avoid letting any emotional investment color my analysis.  Am I completely objective?  Hardly. But I think I am more so for choosing from the outset not to acquire any rooting interest in the outcome.

There is a second, related reason I do not vote – I have a public (admittedly very minor) presence.  In addition to teaching courses on presidential (and American) politics, I give many public presentations on the election, as well as writing this blog.  I have had more than one student come to me complaining about what they see as a failure of professors to present material in an evenhanded way because their political bias colors their teaching.  I take my teaching and presentations seriously (as do my colleagues).  It is important that I not signal to my audience in any way that I have a personal stake in the issues about which I speak.  By not voting, this is literally true. Some of my colleagues take a different but certainly equally defensible approach – they admit up front what their political views are, but also make a determined effort not to let their personal views influence their teaching.   I certainly respect that approach, but I lack their inner strength of character.

For these reasons, I have adopted the Walter Cronkite strategy and simply do not vote.  I don’t expect that everyone will agree that this is a wise decision. Nor do I expect my explanation to quell your criticisms. But now at least you understand my rationale.

Now on to the election forecast. I will begin my next post with a cautionary tale….

One Response to A brief digression

  1. Ed Shanbacker (P2007) says:

    Matt,
    As one of those quoted above in your post, I appreciate your explanation and the detail you gave, however (you just knew this was coming), to suggest (as you do), “…that I not signal to my audience in any way that I have a personal stake in the issues about which I speak. ” It seems to this writer that all of us have a huge stake in these issues – regardless of whether we write about them or not. In any event, your analyses of the events of the next 53 days will most assuredly be provocative- and for that, I thank you. Ed

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