The Voting Paradox and Entertainment

My friend EMPIRICUS writes:

Most people don’t vote.  Those who did vote elected an entertainer.  These two facts are connected, and to see the connection, we need to strip away some automatic moralizing.

On the voting: the moralizing view states that  people are lazy and apathetic who don’t vote, or the society we live in has beaten people down and is evil for making them not vote.  On the entertainer-president: politics should not be for entertainers, politics should be for serious, reliable people who know what they’re doing.

But if you think about it you realize that these moralistic positions are false.  The odds are statistically minuscule that anybody’s vote will count.  So it is a rational decision not to vote.  This is the so-called voter’s paradox, no paradox when you realize that people don’t vote to accomplish anything  We vote, if we do, because we enjoy it.  It is a form of entertainment.  It lets us express who we are and participate in a show, like watching reality t.v.  And since voting is a form of entertainment it makes sense that people would vote for someone they find entertaining.

What about the idea that voting is an act of deep civic responsibility whereby we as adults shape the fate of our world?  It is a species of cant.

Almost everybody reading this and I writing this will have practically no effect on the great political issues of our time.  If others wreck the economy that impoverishes us or have a war that kills us, there is nothing we will be able to do about it.   However what we can do is choose what sort of entertainment to consume and to produce.

We might like religious entertainment which explains how our lives and deaths are part of a beautiful picture.  We might like purely relaxing entertainment which helps divert us from the hard task of living. We might like entertainment that provides us with an identity so we can show who we are to other people and not just show, but show-off; signaling to potential mates or friends that we are a little more fun and interesting than the run-of-the-mill (or indeed reassuring our current mates and friends that they have made a good choice.

Is the effect of this desire for entertainment on national life and planetary life a bad thing? In many instances: of course.  People who view life as a revenge-driven action movie will embrace racism and populism.  People who like their entertainment easy will avoid depressing, complicated issues like global warming.   We may in Neil Postman’s phrase be “amusing ourselves to death”.

Bad or good, it is not optional.

If masses of people are going to participate in the political process at all, each individual person’s decision will not have an immediate impact, as his decision of who to marry or where to live or what to eat has an immediate impact. Therefore our political lives will remain an aspect of our entertainment lives.

We are free however to seek and make entertainment that makes us broader and deeper and more sensitive and loving and beautiful rather than the reverse.

I’m not sure if I agree with his views, but I find his commitment to avoid hypocrisy and follow logic where it leads him admirable — if disconcerting.




8 thoughts on “The Voting Paradox and Entertainment

  1. Your friend Empiricus conflates two ideas about voting, the paradox of voting (also called Downs’ Paradox) and the voter’s paradox (aka Condorcet’s Paradox). The first is the idea that our votes get diluted beyond rational benefit as our voting community grows to an unwieldy size; the second has to do with discrepancies between individual and collective preferences under various balloting systems.

    The benefits of voting are various, and it is a bit of a stretch to lump them all together under the banner of entertainment. When you broaden the boundaries of entertainment to include education, collective civic action, and social engagement of all forms it becomes relatively useless as a category.

    • I guess the question of “use” as in your phrase “relatively useless” is really what’s at issue. If something provides no benefit — e.g. civic engagement — how is it different from entertainment?
      Thanks for the clarification about the different voting paradoxes!

  2. Does he think donating a few dollars to a charity is a paradox? Because that’s what a vote is – a donation.

    I think he fails to identify that voting being optional can make the populations engagement of it a matter of whether they feel entertained by it or not. I think that’d be fair to say. Coming from a country where voting is compulsory, I’m kind of horrified that a nuclear super power like America doesn’t have compulsory voting – it’s like just leaving it up to whimsy as to whether you are a democracy or a monarchy.

  3. Almost everybody reading this and I writing this will have practically no effect on the great political issues of our time. If others wreck the economy that impoverishes us or have a war that kills us, there is nothing we will be able to do about it. Susie says: “I believe this to be true and accurate although I vote from duty” – However what we can do is choose what sort of entertainment to consume and to produce. Susie: ” I don’t do this” – – – – – – – – – The odds of winning a better life from the lottery or gambling is miniscule, but millions go out in the rain snow and heat daily to do just that. Contrary to what most believe, it’s not for entertainment, and has nothing to do with winning. It’s for losing and for orgasm.

  4. Okay, that’s upsetting. It puts the fate of the Republic in the hands of TV writers! Dear Lord…
    But I get Emp’s point. I have a friend who is an Emmy-winning kids’ show writer. I mentioned that it would be great to try to spread the idea (especially among the young) that voting is a must – every election, even those that don’t seem like they affect you directly, and even hard ones to research (non-partisan judicial, for example). He basically snorted in my face, like the idea that voting could be anything but dorky is ridiculous.
    Made me sad…

    • the league of women voters had a slogan — people who don’t vote deserve what they get! If we are all seven of us out for a drive and we want to get dinner and two people say “whatever” then the other five get to decide. Three pick Arbys two pick Chinese. Then we all can go to Arby’s. If the other two really dont care, fine I guess. But it seems like it will be less fun with those two passive aggressive grumps sullenly chowing down on those roast beef sandwiches and then two other people blue cause they’re not eating Chinese. On the other hand there are other voting models. We could take turns picking the place. Or we could each get 3 votes and choose whether to put them all on one place — a super vote — or spread them among 3 places that we find acceptable. Or we could each rank them. Or everybody could get a vote and a blackball — a negative vote. and so on. But let’s all participate I think — it will be a more zesty group gathering.

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