Conscientious Voting

Kevin Nguyen debates whether voters should elect candidates based on their personal demands on the needs of the greater society.

Voting is a fickle thing. In theory, a representative democracy reflects the demands of the majority. This encourages everyone to vote based on what they want rather than considering the country as a whole. A pocketbook voter elects candidates based on how much he or she benefits personally, whereas a sociotropic voter makes their choice based on how they think the candidate will help the greater society.

Given our representative democracy, I’m under the impression that the vast majority of Americans are pocketbook voters, which is understandable. Clearly, we need to vote with people other than ourselves in mind.

But it’s not that simple. How do we vote altruistically? Sociotropic voting might be even hazier than that, since it depends where you put the boundaries on your definition of society. Do I vote for the greater good of my community, city, state, or country? Even at the highest level, do I vote based on what I think will benefit the world most?

As a self-righteous liberal arts college student, I’d like to think that I am a more conscientious voter than that, but when it comes down to it, I’m not sure that’s entirely true.

Personally, I believe that the U.S. should have a less stringent immigration policy. (I think the best way to reduce the number of illegal immigrants requires raising the number of legal immigrants we allow.) Does my stance on immigration make me a pocketbook voter? Perhaps it’s just the influence of my family background–my parents were refugees of the Vietnam War–rather than a selfless concern for the greater good of the country.

Naturally, immigration policy isn’t much of a priority for the Democratic candidates. Given their nearly identical platforms, it seems that the central issue in the Obama vs. Clinton debate is now the matter of electability. Early polls have shown that Obama is more likely to defeat McCain in the general election.

Despite the fact that this election, at least on the Democratic side, may come down to who is the more “electable” candidate, perhaps our representative system of government will illustrate not the needs of voters, but their concerns.

In fact, I think it’s idealistic to think of oneself as an entirely sociotropic voter. Maybe we don’t all vote based merely on what benefits us, but you’ll certainly vote for the candidate who tackles the issues that matter most to you. In the end, a representative democracy with socially conscientious voters may, instead of appealing to the wants of the majority, confront the problems on everyone’s mind.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.