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Strategic Voting and the Magical Worldview

I was going to post something completely different today about Vancouver municipal politics but I have been involved in a debate that has driven me to do another reprint post. Here is my pre-2011 Canadian election piece on the ways that magical thinking is producing millions of wasted votes in Canada.

One of the reasons that the four proportional representation referendum campaigns on which I have worked have failed has been the geekery of the electoral reform movement in Canada. We have consistently been so excited about explaining the cool, better system with which we will replace our current first-past-the-post that we have never really put FPTP on trial. As a result, most Canadians have only the vaguest idea of how their votes translate into political outcomes on and after election day. And while Canadians look down our noses at Americans when it comes to our superior knowledge of global institutions and phenomena, the abject negligence of our school curricula in explaining how our system of government functions should be anything but a source of national pride.

In place of any real understanding of how our votes produce political outcomes, Canadians have developed what, as a scholar of religion, I am tempted to term a magical understanding of how we make our political reality. I use the term “magical” in place of the somewhat less offensive “mythological,” advisedly. It is not just that Canadians believe a series of myths about their democracy; their views of how their votes work, in various ways, mirror what we might label magical understandings of the very operations of cause and effect. The magical nature of Canadian political thinking is often obscured through apparently neutral or unprovocative terminology and also by the ubiquity of certain habits of political speech rendering their unreason peculiarly normal. So, in the hopes of challenging some of these understandings, I’m going to make use of my expensive vocabulary of religious terms and analogies to highlight some of magical modes of thought I witness every day.

1.      Eschatological/Apocalyptic Voting: “Did you know nearly half of registered voters didn’t vote last time?” “People all over the country are waking up to what is really going on.” “It’s an election. Anything can happen! Remember Reform in 1993?” “With the Greens finally included in/arbitrarily barred from the debate, people are really going to sit up and take notice.”

These kinds of innocent phrases tend to precede what I characterize as eschatological voting.  Although things have been bleak up until now, the reasoning goes, we are on the verge of a sudden paradigm shift, after which time everybody is going to behave differently. Such thinking is common amongst new converts to small political parties or political movements that make claims of impending disaster if there is not a radical change in the course of things political. Often such thinking is accompanied by very real examples of rapid shifts in political opinion in the past, such as the Reform Party’s 1993 breakthrough.

But beneath the superficially plausible invocations of past events is a mode of thinking more commonly associated with doomsday cults like the Millerites of the nineteenth century who stood, by the thousands, clad in white robes, on roofs all over the American Midwest on the appointed day of Christ’s return. Many of the followers of the Baptist preacher, William Miller, were recent converts whose own sudden experiences of conversion they assumed were about to be shared by millions of their fellow Americans as judgment day drew nigh. Indeed, operating in a volatile, missionary environment, this experience was often affirmed by direct personal experiences of converting others.

Of course, any quantitative look at support for Millerism would have alerted Miller’s followers to the fact that their movement had some retention problems, much like contemporary Green parties. Of course, this was not a huge concern to the Millerites as these sudden conversions were but a minor sign of the impending eschaton, when Christ would return and all would be rectified in his millennial rule. Most signs were “wars and rumours of wars,” “disturbance of the elements” and other bad things that are almost always going on but can be easily narrated as massively escalating by people who have suddenly turned their attention to these things, as, subjectively, they have for these new converts.

Like the Millerites, eschatological voters expect a massive, apocalyptic reordering of society primarily based not on signs that things they like are happening but instead on signs that things that worry them are happening. The very fact that voter turnout has fallen to barely more than 50%, that the tar sands are generating massive pollution, that the Prime Minister brazenly endorses the forging of documents and the withholding of financial information from parliament, etc. are taken not as signs that people concerned about social justice, parliamentary ethics and environmental responsibility are on the defensive but instead that the rectifying political eschaton is imminent, that the millennium is just around the corner when millions of apathetic youth will show up at the polls and elect 200 Green, NDP or Canadian Action Party MPs. In religious discourse, this is called “pre-millennialism,” a theory of history in which our optimistic expectation of Christ’s return and the vanquishing of Babylon by the elect correlates not to positive, measurable signs but to an invisible reaction to ever-worsening signs.

This is very different from the rise of parties like Reform or the Bloc; signs that their popularity was rising was measurable in huge rallies and daily polling showing their popularity waxing every day of the campaign. Although they mobilized many eschatological voters around the impending break-up of Canada and the belief that the elections of the 1990s were make-or-break for the federation, their rise was confirmed by signs of their growing popularity and mobilization and not, as in the case of today’s non-parliamentary parties, increasing disorganization, demobilization and falling poll numbers.

Eschatological voting inverts conventional understandings of cause and effect: fringe personal experiences that cause one to join small groups are irrationally generalized to people not joining these groups; signs of defeat and loss are taken as signs of impending victory; the absence of evidence of a phenomenon is taken as indicative of its magnitude.

For the eschatological voter, casting a ballot is not about trying to figure out how to elect the best possible MP in their riding. Such considerations are not part of the calculation because literally ANYTHING could happen this time, given how fed-up people are. Voting is more like donning a white robe and reporting early to the roof to join in the rectifying eschaton that will inaugurate the millennial kingdom when the powerless shall be uplifted and comforted and wield power over their former oppressors.

2.      Homeric/Sympathetic Voting: “The more people who vote Green, the better environmental policies will be.” “The more people who vote for parties that elect no MPs, the more pressure there will be to bring in proportional representation.” “Every vote for this cause will make a difference.” These are some of the apparently benign catchphrases that underpin Homeric or sympathetic voting.

Karl Popper first identified this kind of thinking in his seminal essay on conspiracy thinking in which he observed that conspiracy theories are often premised on the idea that conspirators’ intentions are translated directly into real world outcomes, unmediated by any theory of causation. If the Rothschilds and other important families, for instance, are rich and powerful, one can reasonably conclude that most political and financial events must be what they intend to happen without ever having to consider the specific mechanisms by which these events might be brought about. In this way, vast global conspiracies can be understood by looking at major events, assuming them to be intentional and then assigning the intent to cause them to whatever powerful, semi-secret clique on which the conspiracy theory is based.

Popper was clever in tracing this kind of reasoning to the epics of Homer in which events in the world are understood to reflect the conflicts between the gods in the world above. Real world outcomes proceed directly from the resolution of competing divine intentions with minimal operational explanation. This is because such a worldview doesn’t really understand causation in a conventional way. Things don’t happen because they are caused by other things but because they correspond to a higher reality. Imagine reading Midsummer Night’s Dream minus the character of Puck. This might trouble many of us in that the causal link between the faerie kingdom and the duchy would vanish; without Puck, there would be no explanation of how events in the faerie realm caused events in the mortal world. A Homeric worldview is unconcerned with such links; it is simply self-evident that as the familial, social and political order of the faerie world is restored, an identical process will unfold in the mortal realm.

Many Canadians believe in Homeric democracy, that if twice as many people vote Green, the country will become twice as Green, irrespective of where the votes are cast or whether they result in the election of candidates. For them, national popular vote shares reflect a superior reality and the day-to-day events in parliament, business and society will naturally correspond with that higher reality through some kind of unseen sympathetic magic. The lessons of the post-Nader US wherein progressive politics have yet to recover from the disaster of the 2000 election have little effect because, fundamentally, the Homeric worldview arises from the inability to ask a crucial question: how do these particular votes cause a particular outcome?

3.      Microcosmic/Macrocosmic Voting: One of the biggest challenges I faced when campaigning for proportional representation was the widespread belief that it was already in force in Canada. The assumption on many voters’ parts was that the share of the seats in parliament did, in fact, correspond to the share of the vote a party received. If this didn’t happen, it was because not all electoral districts had the same population or too few young people came out to vote. Worse yet, this discrepancy was understood to be caused by strategic voting – if everybody who really planned to vote for a party actually did, the party’s share of the seats really would match their vote share because that’s the kind of outcome the voting system was designed to produce provided everyone showed up, was properly educated and voted based on their true intentions.

Although, as per the basic Homeric assumptions of many voters, the means by which a set of geographically-drawn electoral districts with variegated populations could produce such outcomes was never really an issue, I came to realize that this wasn’t simple Homeric reasoning. This kind of thinking was based on the idea that everybody’s votes were being dumped into a single pool and MPs were being doled-out to ridings based on their party’s national vote share. In essence, proportional representation was already in effect – our would be, if only districting panels and voters behaved properly.  Similar to Homeric voting, there was an appealing sense that in some way never explained, the correct voting behaviour in every riding was the same as in any other riding because, effectively, there are no ridings in this reality; just a big national pot into which all the votes go and out of which comes fairness and correct representation. For many magical thinkers in Canadian politics, there is an assumption that one’s local electoral district is a perfect microcosm of the nation’s politics and whatever would be the right move in a 308-member at-large district electing MPs by proportional representation is the right thing to do in one’s own single-member district.

Of course, the most pernicious magical thinking in this area goes one step further and is practiced most frequently by shills for the Liberal Party of Canada and comes from a rich tradition of microcosm-macrocosm reasoning from classical Aristotle to the Social Darwinists of the Gilded Age. Instead of conceiving of a 308-member at-large district centred in Ottawa, true microcosmic magic derives from the belief that every riding is a perfect microcosm of the nation’s politics. If the Liberals are in second place nationally behind the Conservatives, it only makes sense to vote Liberal if one is anti-Conservative because the politics of the nation are recapitulated in 308 identical microcosms from Labrador City to Prince Rupert.

Appearances are deceiving. Sure, your riding might have an NDP MP, no French-speakers, five Indian Reserves and no public transit but it if it is established fact, by virtue of the latest Nanos poll, that the Liberals are in second place; so you must switch your vote from NDP to Liberal, even if the Liberal candidate came third last time. To do otherwise, will allow Stephen Harper to win.

What makes this kind of thinking magical as opposed to merely wrong is that none of its practitioners imagine that local ridings don’t exist or really are identical. Instead, they appear unable to entertain the idea that the local manifestation of a phenomenon can be anything other than a perfect and identical microcosm of the whole phenomenon. Neolithic peoples worshipping idols at temples did not construct the whole presence and attention of the same divinity at some other temple as a problem any more than young children construct the presence of Santa Claus at all the other malls as an issue or medieval people objected to the presence of the same saint’s relics at multiple churches. The idol/church/Christmas display they were at functioned as a perfect microcosm in that it was identical with the macrocosmic reality, not a representative or conduit but the reality itself. Eaton Centre Santa isn’t a piece of a bigger Santa; he’s not one of many equally valid Santas; he certainly isn’t a distinctive unique Santa with his own personality. He is the one and only true and omnipresent Santa.

4.      Incarnational Voting: I am indebted to Mormon theologian James Faulconer for this final category of magical thinking about voting. In trying to perform the Herculean task of explaining how the narrative in the Book of Mormon is true, Faulconer compared the act of reading Mormon scripture to medieval Roman Catholic understandings of the Eucharist. The reasoning goes like this: the truth lies in the act itself not in things to which the act refers. In other words, the host doesn’t represent the body of Christ; it doesn’t refer to the Last Supper as an historical event; it IS the body of Christ during mass. In this model, the mass doesn’t represent Christ’s atoning sacrifice; it IS Christ’s atoning sacrifice while it is going on. In the same way, Faulconer argues, the Book of Mormon narrative need not represent events external to itself; it need not refer to anything; the story simply IS true while it is being read/told/enacted. Anthropologists have made similar cases to oral storytelling cultures in indigenous communities; legends are not really referring to what their listeners comprehend as past or future events; they simply ARE true during their enactment.

For many voters in Monday’s election, their vote will be an incarnational experience. Their placing an “X” next to the name of a candidate will not really refer to the candidate or comment on her. Furthermore, thanks to our dysfunctional voting system, the vote will probably not contribute to the election of that candidate. But for the Liberal voter in the Saguenay or Vancouver Island, for an NDP voter in Brampton, Mississauga or Calgary or for a Green voter pretty much anywhere, their vote will be vested with magical importance because, in the privacy of the polling booth, for a few brief moments as they perform the ritual of marking their “X,” they will be like a Catholic priest ritually incarnating a Green, NDP or Liberal government. Their vote need not refer to their local candidate or result in their candidate’s election because the vote’s significance will inhere in the ritual action itself, because during that ritual, the outcome described on the ballot will be fleetingly true.

Of all forms of magical voting, this is the most pernicious. Instead of being premised on false ideas about how a real world electoral outcome will result from the vote, the vote is, in and of itself, a sufficient, true and real electoral outcome. When per-vote financing was first introduced, Green Party candidates would attempt to claim that the transfer of $1.75 per year was an external electoral outcome that was precipitated by such an act. But that particular piece of rhetoric was ultimately abandoned because it cheapened the powerful experience of incarnating the government one truly desires through a ritualized performance.

Ultimately, the self-sufficient and transcendent character of thinking about one’s vote in this way actually points to a profound cynicism and pessimism. Just as the incarnational reading of and interaction with the Book of Mormon is designed to obscure the disenchantment of a constituency of believers who have stopped believing that it tells the story of ancient America, just as Eucharistic practice became the centre of Christianity only when hopes of Jesus’ imminent return were dashed, incarnational voting really just covers up despair. People have given up hope that we can really use our votes to make governments that can build the kind of society in which we want to live and so we console ourselves by making the ritualized act of voting the centre of our political culture instead of focusing on the outcomes our votes might produce.

One thought on “Strategic Voting and the Magical Worldview

  1. Michael Geoghegan says:

    Well written analysis. I forgot how different history might have been if Nader had not run for President. Meanwhile the GoP is going to court as they are very concerned that on Nevada none of the above is an option on the ballot. That ties into my point that some people vote for lost cause candidates as the likely or likeliest candidates hold little or no appeal to them. Thus it becomes a modified form of none of the above.

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