Some time ago, I read an article in Slate setting the odds of a single vote influencing an election at 100,000,000 to one; however, if you live in a populous state and you’re voting in a sizable election—like the presidential race—your odds are probably much worse.
Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, the authors of Freakonomics, report few economists vote because it’s embarrassing to be seen doing so. They know the cost of casting a vote—the trouble it takes—doesn’t come close to its utility.
And you don’t need economists or odds-makers to question voting. Thoreau described voting as “gaming” and said, “Voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.” He believed voting worked only for the people on the popular side. Elections silence dissent, he pointed out… even when 49.5 % of the people dissent.
Yet—though Thoreau’s perspective looks like common sense, scientific even—I vote.
One in one hundred million is greater than zero and, psychologically, I have to have my say. More than that, I want to suspend disbelief and act according to my convictions. We’re certainly lost as a society if we stop believing we can do anything together.
For much of our history, we put faith in collective action—striking or boycotting or buying or not buying. We believed that banding together gave us more power, a choral voice. We were naïve then. Not all of us are so cynical, but many people now believe nothing other than a law can control behavior—and laws are only as good as their enforcement. For some, social movements are silly, as pointless as voting, economically absurd. We seem to have lost trust in like-minds and the principle that good sense is persuasive. These days, we do or don’t do according to our own devices.
Maybe voting is better suited to tiny and ancient Greek city-states. But in the modern world, voting still has powerful symbolic meaning. It represents collective identity, the last proof we live in one country together.
A friend once pointed out that a corporation, in a single day, can undo a lifetime of recycling, taking the train, and walking. I know he’s right. In a consumer culture individual actions mean very little unless some number of people—a big number—act responsibly. As long as we buy SUVs, manufacturers will continue to produce them. As long as we prefer or accept excessive packaging, molded plastic and styrofoam-encased boxes in boxes covered by layers of paper and more plastic will be the rule.
Asking corporations to change doesn’t work, unless we ask by withholding our dollars.
Our times call for a new sort of social revolution. Before we believed in strikes, boycotts, and consumer movements, and now we must behave quixotically, ignoring how statistically paltry our individual actions are. We must behave responsibly even when any half-brained person could see what any one of us does matters little or not at all. The new world requires not banding together, but adhering to personal resolutions that only make sense from a collective perspective, as if everything each of us did was multiplied by three-hundred million instead of divided by it.
We will either succeed at fooling ourselves into believing our individual actions are critical or fail collectively. If everyone believes actions don’t matter, they will be right.
One definition of faith is belief despite reason. Perhaps voting is an act of faith, willingly investing in a fiction because the alternative is so much worse. Picking up an empty water bottle and carrying it home to put it in the recycling is also an act of faith, pointless but symbolic.
I’m not naïve. I know in November I won’t really decide the leader for the next four years—as in all things public, an aggregate will decide that—but I’m voting for voting. I’m expressing an illogical but vital faith in social change, a hope we can escape our selfish desires and believe—despite our differences—we are one people.