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Political Apathy Is Rational, but Don’t Fall For It

The chance of a single voter changing the outcome of a democratic election is vanishingly small. Strictly speaking, it would be rational not to bother. But only from an individual perspective. Unless voters unite to demand good government, a system built on apathy and despair will continue.
green waste bin

Plymouth UK. 2/5/19: A Vote Here sign perched on a green waste bin. © HiStockPhoto /

September 25, 2023 23:09 EDT

It feels completely hopeless. The entrenched power structure is so impassive in the face of any one person’s discontent. The powers stacked against your dissatisfaction or mine seem completely overwhelming. It is like the journalist William Greider says in his book, Who Will Tell the People?

Above all, the formidable, ubiquitous presence of corporate political organizations persuades many citizens to retreat from the contest. That may be the gravest damage of all. Faced with this assembled power, many people accept their own impotence and defer. They assume that the hard work of democracy — debating public issues, contesting elections, helping organize their own lives — is work that belongs to others.

The way I see it, there are two ways one can react to feelings of political powerlessness. The first is emotional, the second is rational.

What is the emotional response? Cynicism.

Cynicism is what happens when a person sees a rigged system and concludes that nothing can ever be done about it. It is a normal human response to feelings of helplessness. When people believe that no one is paying attention to them, it is natural for them to feel they should respond in kind. “Fine!” you might think. “If you’re going to ignore me, then I’ll ignore you.” What follows is a smug feeling of superiority over others. “Hmph, please.” Being cynical is a defense mechanism, a defense against our overwhelming sense of impotence. Cynicism is a protective psychological coating that stops us from getting our hopes up — and the disappointment that follows. It is also completely self-defeating.

The second reaction is the logical response: Apathy.

It actually makes sense for a rational person to feel apathetic about politics, as political scientist Anthony Downs famously concluded in his 1957 article, “An Economic Theory of Democracy.” It works like this: In a large electorate, like what we have in the United States, a single vote is basically insignificant. Since the cost of voting is low (in terms of time and effort) millions of citizens can afford to vote — so they do. Since so many people vote the chance that your single ballot will affect the final outcome is vanishingly small. Because of this, it doesn’t really matter, rationally, if you bother to pay attention to who you’re voting for or why. Therefore, apathy about politics is a rational response in a large democracy. Downs notes, “Since the odds are that no election will be close enough to render decisive the vote of any one person, or the votes of all he can persuade to agree with him, the rational course of action for most citizens is to remain politically uninformed.”

But what makes rational sense for one individual completely erodes our democracy when applied on a mass scale. When lots of people check out, it is fair to expect that the government to do a much worse job representing us. Downs goes on to say, “Government does not serve the interests of the majority as well as it would if they were well informed.” Although it would be “collectively rational” for voters to inform themselves, it is “individually irrational for them to do so.” Since there is no way to ensure that we work together to achieve what’s in our collective interest, we each behave rationally and therefore sabotage ourselves collectively. In this case, behaving rationally hurts us.

It is not an unreasonable response for people to tune out of our political system and stop voting. But it is honestly the worst response we can possibly have. On top of that — checking out only increases the power of those who are already in charge.

The American electoral system feeds off our despair. The less confidence we have that voting matters, the less we vote. The less we vote, the less politicians need to care about what we think. As our political class addresses fewer of our needs, we feel even less inclined to vote. It’s a depressing downward spiral, and it’s killing what remains of this country’s democracy.

Don’t give in to these feelings. Normal people like you and me possess a lot more power than we realize. Together we can shake the foundations of our political system. But the first step is believing that change is possible. Once you realize that your voice has power, it’s only a matter of putting it to work to start making that change happen.

[Let’s Make Them Pay first published this piece.]

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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