Thursday, October 9, 2008

In Defense of Undecided Voters

As the presidential election nears, more and more attention is being given to "undecided voters": people who intend to vote, but who have not decided who they are going to vote for (or, at least, who describe themselves as such to pollsters).

Along with this attention has come criticism from those who see no good reason for anyone to be undecided. The choice between Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), it is argued, is so clear and the candidates are so different that it is hard to see how anyone could reasonably be undecided.

Talk show host Tavis Smiley made this point recently, expressing amazement at the indecision among voters:
I am always troubled at this point in the campaign when the choices are this stark, for me, at least. I'm always troubled by how anybody can truly be undecided at this point in the game. I can never for the life of me understand how people are undecided at this point in the game. So two questions to you, because you're much brighter than I am. Tell me, number one, how anybody is undecided at this point, number one, and what are they looking for to help them vote for or against the other guy?

-- Tavis Smiley, October 7, 2008.
John Oliver on The Daily Show on October 7, 2008, used comedy to make a similar point, deriding undecided voters as "racist Democrats" or "stupid".

And talk radio host Rush Limbaugh gave his disparaging assessment of undecided voters earlier this year:
The theory is you got 80% Republican going to vote their guy or their girl, and the same number on the Democrat side, and in any given election you have 10, 15, 20% undecided. The Drive-Bys say, "Candidates need to focus on the undecided," which really makes us mad. Focus on us, swell our numbers, and wipe out both the Democrats and the undecideds, because who [are] the undecideds? A bunch of moderates who [don't] have the guts to make up their mind about anything until the majority is formed a couple days before the election! I don't like indecisive people on anything, do you? People that can't make a decision about something? "Yeah, let me get back to you on that," and then they forget to get back to you, and they put you in a bind because you've told whoever (sigh) And yet the undecideds think that they're smarter than everybody else in the room, that they're not "closed-minded" and "ideological." They are "open-minded" and they're "studying the issues," and again it's all a bunch of folderol and flummery.

-- The Rush Limbaugh Show, February 15, 2008.
Undecided voters do not deserve this criticism, however, as there are several good reasons for people to be uncertain about who to vote for:

First, there is uncertainty about whose policies will work best. In part, this is because candidates don't always flesh out their policies much.

But, the real problem is that politicians and pundits tend to make it sound as if it's very easy to figure out what policies will work best. For instance, on government taxation and spending, those who favor Democrats make it sound like it's obvious that Democratic policies are best for the economy, and those who favor Republicans make it sound like it's obvious that Republican policies are best for the economy.

But it's not obvious. In fact, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the empirical world in general, on everything from economics and the military to energy and the environment. Coming up with effective policies on any of these fronts involves a great deal of empirical observation and study. In particular, having good policies in these and other areas depends on making accurate predictions about how people will behave. And that is far from being a straightforward or easy thing to do.

If politicians and pundits want to deny that there is this level of uncertainty, fine. But they can't simply wish it away, they have to banish it with detailed, well-reasoned arguments backing up the policies that they advocate with such certainty. Needless to say, this is something that they seldom do.

And, as often as they claim that their opponent's policies have failed, but they don't give this assertion adequate support, either.

Most of the attempts politicians and pundits make at advocating their own policies -- and excoriating the policies of their opponent -- are based on superficial correlations. They say that, because things went well for the country while our side was in power, they went well because our side was in power. And they say that, because things went badly for the country while our opponents were in power, they went poorly because our opponents were in power.

Of course, their judgments about what constitutes the country "doing well" or "doing poorly" are also inadequately detailed and defended. But, this aside, correlation does not imply causation. Rather than going into detail and demonstrating a robust causal connection, they mostly just note a correlation.

So, empirical uncertainty is one basis on which it is understandable that someone could be undecided. And the candidates seldom offer precise, well-reasoned defenses of their policies that will erase that uncertainty.

Second, there is uncertainty about what goals should take priority. It is often the case that people agree with a candidate on some issues but disagree with them on others.

For instance, suppose you are a voter who agrees with one of the two main candidates -- Obama or McCain -- on the Iraq war, but you disagree with them on taxes and fiscal policy. That is, you believe that one candidate's Iraq policy is better, but you believe that the other candidate's taxation, spending and fiscal policy is better. Who, then, should you vote for?

It's far from obvious what the answer is. And that's because arriving at an answer will involve making even further judgments about empirical matters -- that is, which issues, Iraq or the budget, will have a bigger effect on the country's future -- as well as making judgments about what moral considerations should take priority over what other moral considerations. And setting moral priorities -- for example, should merit outweigh need, or vice versa? -- is no easy thing to do.

Considering that there is no shortage of issues that voters consider to be important -- abortion, illegal immigration, global warming and climate change, energy policy, etc. -- it is hardly surprising that people should be undecided when they prefer one candidate's stance on one of these issues but another candidate's stance on a different issue.

Third, there are uncertainties about the character and temperament of the candidates. Partly this is a matter of deciding how important character is in politics. This topic, on its own, has plenty of room for reasonable disagreement.

But it is also a matter of knowing whether a candidate will do what they say they will do, and how they will react under pressure to unexpected events, and whether they can adapt to unforeseen challenges. And these kinds of judgments are difficult to make.

In fact, these sorts of judgments are akin to the decision businesses must make whenever they hire a new employee, or that people must make when they decide whether or not to marry someone. Why wouldn't the same kind of indecision arise when choosing a president?

Lastly, there are uncertainties about whether we should limit our choice down to two people. Does it really make sense to confine the question to, "Should you vote for Obama or McCain? The Democrat or the Republican?"? After all, they aren't the only ones running, there are third parties. And there is always the option of not voting (that is, not voting at all, or voting for members of Congress but not for a presidential candidate).

Voting for a third party is often dismissed and derided -- particularly by supporters of the two main parties, Republicans and Democrats -- but why? If you're not satisfied with either of the two main candidates, why should you vote for one on the basis of which of them is the "lesser of two evils"?

For one thing, it's not necessarily going to be obvious which of the two is the lesser of two evils. You might reasonably judge them to be equally bad.

Beyond this, though, what is wrong with voting for a candidate or a political party that best represents the views and policies you agree with, even if that candidate or party is likely to lose?

If you vote for one of the two main candidates, you might wind up helping the one you least dislike to win, fine. But they aren't going to interpret your support as being half-hearted or coming with reservations: they're going to do what most politicians do, which is to assume that everyone who voted for them supported them on every last policy position that they have. They won't change their positions to suit you, because they have no incentive to find out what you dislike about their positions, because they've already gotten your vote.

If you vote for the third party candidate who best represents your views, however, it will be clear to the two parties in power why they lost your vote. It will be clear to them what policies you supported, and therefore why you didn't see fit to vote for their candidates. And that may prompt them to adjust their policies to suit you.

Or, you could not vote for any presidential candidate, which would also send the message to the two main parties that they failed to convince you to support them.

It's not obvious that this is the best course to take, but it's not obvious that it isn't, either. Again, it's reasonable to be uncertain about this, so it's reasonable for people to be undecided.

In conclusion, though it's popular to deride undecided voters, there appears to be some very good reasons to be undecided.

In fact, when you consider all the uncertainty, all the issues that require well-thought-out, well-reasoned treatment in order to arrive at a defensible opinion, it's arguable that the burden or proof should be on people like Limbaugh, Smiley, Oliver and all the other "decided" voters: Have they justifiably and exhaustively ruled out all the uncertainties?

Have they really put forward the mental and logical effort necessary to be so sure of their decisions on who to vote for?

No comments: