The Learned Helplessness of the Rational Voter

Anthony Kammer 

By applying rational choice theory to voting, one unavoidably concludes that voting to affect electoral outcomes is almost never worth the time and effort. As Steven Levitt of Freakonomics observed,

“Nobody in their right mind votes because they think they’re going to affect the outcome of an election. If you look over the last hundred years of, say, elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, I think there’s been maybe one [very close] election that’s been decided by votes. And in the modern era, elections that are close are always decided by the courts. There’s always litigation – look at what happened with Bush against Gore. So in no meaningful way can you say that your vote will ever decide an election. The reasons for voting have to be something very different: it’s fun, your wife will love you more if you do it, it makes you feel like a proud American – but never should anyone delude themselves into thinking that the vote they cast will ever decide an election. . . . Just about anything you do with your time would be more productive [than voting].”

In other words, “If everyone thought about voting the way economists do, we might have no elections at all.”

To their credit, proponents of rational voter models have responded in recent years to accommodate an expanded view of ‘rational,’ self-interested behavior in order to better explain voter turnout and voter apathy. Nonetheless, there are inherent limits to an individualized approach that emphasizes private incentives:

  • Perhaps the most common critique takes the same form as behavioral economists’ objections to the rational actor model in economics: People are not ‘rational,’ self-interest optimizers in the narrow ways social scientists define. People are often bad at identifying their actual interests, their preferences aren’t stable, and perfect information is rarely available. These objections have been made for decades and nowhere more compellingly than in Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter. A number of political scientists have responded by incorporating pridecivic dutyempathycommitment, and the sheer pleasure of casting a ballot into their models. This psychological critique can give rise to endless debate about which motivations to include as ‘rational’ or which behaviors to consider as ‘political participation.’
  • Another critique is that the rational voter model is simply the wrong model for understanding elections. It’s a theory of individual motivation being incorrectly applied to a collective action problem, and it has no way of explaining correlated or coordinated behaviors. A model that cannot address aggregation or solve a tragedy of the commons is the wrong paradigm for an institution, such as voting, that exists for precisely those purposes. As Lewis Menand wrote in his blurb for Caplan’s book, “Democracy is a commons, not a market.” Like the behavioral objections, it’s possible to bolster the theory, but eventually the assumption of the preference-maximizing individual has to give way in light of the social and group dynamics affecting turnout.
  • The normative objection to the rational choice theory of voting is not just that it’s descriptively limiting. It’s that the model has proven self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing among voters. It displaces other ways of thinking. The rational voter model is unfortunate for many of the same reasons that the rational actor model fails as an economic model: it makes collective action problems appear insurmountable and the individual feel powerless; it teaches that the atomized individual is primary and that voting is about private gratification, not collective action. When people think of voting as a payoff like shopping, discourse is limited and civic involvement suffers. This point may not lend itself to easy study, but it makes intuitive sense: when people see themselves primarily as isolated individuals, they will systematically undervalue institutions that require coordinated activity across communities. People do not have to be explicitly aware of the rational voter model for this ‘voting alone’ phenomenon to be true. This way of thinking operates at a deeper, more ideological level and is remarkably widespread. If Americans identify predominantly as atomized consumers, it would be only natural for them view the decision to vote through this rubric.

I am by no means suggesting that individuals are unresponsive to changing incentives or that the rational voter model can’t explain a good deal. But democratic institutions like voting involve complicated group dynamics and coordination problems. And we need to be mindful of the ways that impoverished models can reify their way into impoverished institutions. Markets are an extremely powerful metaphor, but that metaphor can actually do damage when applied to institutions like voting in the wrong way.

Individual incentives clearly do matter, but there is also good evidence that group identitymedia habitssocioeconomic backgroundsocial networks, and institutional setting play an enormous role in driving turnout. In many ways, the tension between the rational voter model and more group-based models parallels the enduring individual selection vs. group selection debate in evolutionary biology. A more realistic solution to would be something approaching multi-level selection theory, which recognizes that individual entities can have shared interests and that dynamics of competition play out both at the level of individuals but also among groups and subgroups with constantly shifting alignments. Politicians and community organizers understand, at least at an intuitive level, that all of these levels matter. If more political scientists and policymakers (not to mention voters) would recognize the shortcomings of the existing models, we might finally move beyond an incentives language that teaches citizens that voting is a waste of time.


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