Imagine that your plane crashes in a remote jungle. The survivors huddle outside of the wreckage. As dawn breaks, you realize that you have two choices. You can wait for help which might never come, or you can set out on foot for civilization. The decision will decide life or death for the group. How will the group choose? How would you choose? The answer to that question depends on…
Your nationality. In some countries, the survivors would defer to the eldest male; in others, the eldest female. Some political cultures obey the strongest or the most spiritual. Some accept the decision of the person with the most prestigious family name or title. Some peoples look to the most educated or the most eloquent. Americans vote.
How many times a week do you vote on something without even thinking about it – where will you and your co-workers go for lunch, who will drive the company car to the worksite, where will the company picnic happen? How many times a month do you hear the phrase: “You were outvoted”? Voting permeates our everyday lives so much that we do not even realize it. Americans have a gift – the sanctity of the vote is instilled in them from the earliest age. This is not how most of the world works. Many political systems do not encourage or even allow voting.
But in America, voting is everywhere. Elementary schools have class elections. Clubs and teams have elections and officers. Every group decides its course and elects its leaders with a vote. Even many families settle disputes with a vote – whether to get a cat or a dog might be put to a family vote. From school, family, social clubs into the workplace, Americans learn to vote. But why?
Many see voting as a means of reaching a compromise, but it is much more. Voting lets everybody’s voice be heard. When someone is outvoted, their opinion has not been dismissed, only set aside for the time being. That leaves them their dignity and allows them to join peaceably in the collective decision.
Also, like a jury trial, a vote is social procedure for bringing out the best decision from a group where each member has imperfect information. I think of this every year on my annual canoe trip. It consists of a group of friends that I have known for years. We canoe into a wilderness, usually in Canada. One of us is good with navigation. One of us has medical training. I am basically there for comic relief. Probably none of us has the skill to do the trip alone. Together, with the best input from each of us, we can do it easily. When we are not sure what action to take, we decide collectively – with each of us putting up an idea and then accepting the decision of the group. That way, the good ideas override the bad, but still everyone is heard.
In authoritarian systems, the government forces the citizens to accept the premise that the leader’s ideas are perfect. In democracy, each citizen is expected to understand that that no individual has perfect ideas. Rather, each of us has some good ideas, and some that might not work. Having the humility to accept that fact is considered good citizenship. Voting, at its best, is the only system which simultaneously brings everyone’s best ideas to the table, thereby insuring that citizens have an investment in the ultimate decision, and at the same time protects the outvoted by demonstrating that they had input into the procedure. As long as this deeply ingrained reverence for the vote persists, American democracy will thrive.