At Large : Making it make sense
Watching the debate Tuesday evening between senators Barack Obama and John McCain - or, at least watching until restless twitches of boredom made it impossible to continue - it occurred to me that making the choice we'll have to make on Nov. 4 will not be easy for many voters. Some advice may be welcome.
First, let's not chart a course to a decision through irrational neighborhoods. For example, let's not decide because we're lifelong Democrats or Republicans, or because our parents were. And, let's not decide because Republicans have been in charge long enough. Let's not decide either because it looks as if the Democrats are going to come away from the election with working majorities in the Senate and the House, so giving them the White House too would be risky - better to have the Congress in the control of one party, the Oval Office in the control of the other. Let's not decide because one is young, the other old, because one is smooth, the other cranky, one a favorite of unions, the other a favorite, really, of no one. And, let's not hang the choice on the notion that one is a patriot, the other not, one is a transformational leader, the other just more of the same, or, god forbid, because one's black and the other's white.
There ought to be a rational way to make a choice like this. Not only rational but unselfish, not because, say, you want the capital gains tax lower because you plan to sell some stock, and not because you want the winners to enact laws favorable to your local union. Lo and behold, research suggests there is.
In their paper, entitled "Voting as a Rational Choice: Why and How People Vote to Improve the Well-Being of Others," Aaron S. Edlin, Andrew Gelman, Noah Kaplan conclude that "even a mostly selfish person who votes should as a descriptive matter vote for what he or she perceives to be the common good, or at least the good of a large affinity group, but not for direct individual gain. Thus, our model explains not just why but also how rational people vote. This voting theory suggests that models of the vote choices of rational individuals should work with social rather than selfish utility functions. Survey findings on voters' motivations are, in fact, broadly consistent with rational models of voting ... The predictions regarding how people vote may at times be similar for selfish and sociotropic models, of course, to the extent that individuals bias their views of what will help others by what will help themselves."
But, "It is well known that voting in large elections cannot be explained in terms of the selfish benefits of voting to the individual: the probability that a vote is decisive is too low for voting to be 'worth it' in an expected utility sense." It's not how your candidate might help you, but how your candidate might help us all.
Of course, don't preen excessively at this endorsement of our collective good sense, although there is real science, and even mathematic formulas and computer models, behind the Edlin/Gelman/Kaplan thinking. Elsewhere in their research, these scientists point out that each voter generally thinks that what is good for him or her is good for the nation as a whole. So, his voting decision is not exactly selfish, as one considers how to choose between the McCain health care illusion and Obama health care illusion, but it's not exactly selfless either. In general though, it's encouraging to think that most of those who vote will do so because they have become convinced that their choice is good for the country.
The presumption is that they begin by thinking of themselves as part of the largely undifferentiated whole of us. In other words, the voter's better nature is at work when he or she makes the decision, not on the basis of what he thinks is good for New England, for instance, or the ranchers of the plains, or the oil companies of which he may be a stockholder, or the African American or Hispanic segment of the population, or a pro-choicer, or a pro-lifer. Each of these subsets is powerful, and many voters happily count themselves as adherents or members of one or many of such groups, but Edlin, Gelman, Kaplan argue that the voter plumbs her better nature when she pulls the lever for the candidate she thinks is best for all of us, rich and poor, black or white, East and West Coast, and the middle thrown into the bargain.
The question is, will we, on Nov. 4, live up to the model. Scientists, medical researchers, meteorologists, and climatologists are always disappointed when their theories are discredited by results, though, I must say, they never seem so discouraged as to fail to fluff up their working theories and barge ahead. Still, in the matter of how we vote, it would be rewarding for Messrs. Edlin/Gelman/Kaplan to be right next month, and rewarding for the nation too, by the way.