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Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On not being obliged to vote Democrat, part one

As we head on toward US midterm elections (a set of elections in which President Obama, the charismatic and world-historical leader will not be standing, the somewhat less attractive Democratic slate consisting of "a bunch of old white guys, most of them rather rightwing"), we head once more into that season in which anyone with a US passport and politics to the left of the Washington Post editorial page has the unpleasant experience of being informed, usually quite bluntly, that the voting franchise which the US Constitution appears to grant to them personally is actually the simple property of the Democratic Party, and that any failure to dispose of it accordingly is to be regarded as a terrible dereliction of moral duty.

Obviously, one can hardly blame the Democrats for carrying the scars of 2000, but this is a point of view with which I strongly disagree, and since the current administration doesn't seem to feel the need to be polite in demanding votes[1], nor do I. Time for a short series setting out the case for not letting yourself be pushed around by the median voter theorem. I will start with an argument that is a) unserious, b) rather technical and c) therefore ineffective, to lull you all into a false sense of security. Rest assured, future episodes will get rather more realistic and, I hope, perhaps a little more convincing, and therefore are likely to generate significantly more discomfort.

Point the first: Nobody really believes in the median voter theorem

Assume a voter faced with a choice between four alternatives - {D, R, minor party, abstain}. Suppose further that the last two are genuinely equivalent (an assumption that will be relaxed in a future episode). Stipulate further that R is always measurably worse than D. The standard first year political science result would say that no matter what the extent to which you dislike D, you still ought to vote for them.

So the question is - how bad does D have to get before you get off the bus? Racial policies of mass internment? Genocidal wars in the Third World? Bad examples, I know (and there are some souls in the grip of the model who probably would vote for a policy of exterminating X puppies over a policy of exterminating X+1), but it seems pretty clear that there is some point at which it becomes obvious that a morally and politically valid response is simply to declare that the fundamental basis of the implied democratic contract has broken down, and that it's a reasonable choice to give up on electoral politics altogether. (Simple proof: if this wasn't the case, then the government of a one-party state could sponsor a local branch of the Khmer Rouge to stand against them on a Year Zero ticket, thereby obliging the local Aung San Suu Kyi figure to campaign in their favour).

The mistake here is in treating a descriptive model (the spatial competition framework underlying the median voter theorem) as a normative one. It's a model which is meant to predict which ice cream cart you choose out of two, not one that's meant to persuade you to buy an ice cream if you don't want one.

It might (and indeed, probably will) be successfully objected here that the Democrats aren't anywhere near the level at which it becomes an actual act of evil to vote for them, although Dennis Perrin disagrees. But remember that the (abstain, third party) option has more or less been set to zero by stipulation in this model, which is the assumption that will need to be relaxed, and when we do the expected value calculation you might be surprised at the results.

[1] Actually, it appears that if you are a member of "The Left" in America, it isn't just the vote that they want. A proportion of your money and quite some few hours of your time are also apparently to be mortgaged as "campaign contributions". Recent immigrants from Africa or Sicily might be confused by this, since the relationship in American politics is all bloody quid and no bloody quo.
22 comments this item posted by the management 9/28/2010 04:26:00 AM

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