On Voting Lib Dem, and Rage

I don’t hate Nick Clegg.

As I said yesterday, I feel a certain amount of personal hostility towards Cameron, but not towards Brown. Nor do I have any notable antipathy towards Clegg. But right now I think a lot of my ilk do (and want to tell facebook). Phil Edwards at Gaping Silence has felt moved to write an official public apology.

The reason I don’t hate Nick Clegg isn’t so much what he has or hasn’t done, but what he has or hasn’t proven. If I had voted Libdem, I would probably now be very angry, and directing much of that anger at him, due to the outstandingly unpleasant feeling of being wrong – worse, of being made the agent of something one dislikes. But since I didn’t, I feel, if anything, mildly vindicated.

I would have done, when I was younger. Indeed, in my naive, idealistic student days I was actually a member of the party, and participated in its leadership election (new slogan: “Don’t blame me, I voted for Huhne”?). I’d have voted Libdem, for more or less all the reasons that Splintered Sunrise lists in paragraph 2 of this post. But I drifted away from them before I was old enough to vote.

But it’s not really as though this indicates any great sagacity on my part. Before the election, I saw a post by Laurie at PennyRed telling me to vote, ‘for fuck’s sake’, for anyone who wasn’t the Tories – saying, moreover, that if I didn’t, and the Tories got a majority, she would personally blame me. And if they had, I probably would have blamed myself a bit too.

They didn’t, of course, but I didn’t know that in advance (I flatter myself I’m passable at political philosophy, but real-world political judgement is beyond me). So in a sense, it’s just luck that other people are feeling betrayed and I’m not.

But to my mind this perfectly illustrates the nature of the representative system. Trying to do something with one’s vote is like trying to order food from people who don’t speak your language. Messages as simple as “black coffee please” and “keep the Tories out” can be hard to convey, or even end up producing the opposite of what was desired. You thought you were asking for a beer, but instead you challenged the manager to a horserace.

Is this mangling avoidable? It seems to me that it’s inherent to the structure of a representative system. The message we want to convey covers the multiple decisions that a government may make in 4 or 5 years, on multiple issues, each with multiple options – like the thousands of words of our native language. What we’re given to convey it with is one choice, between a handful of options – the equivalent of knowing only ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. And each additional word – a referendum, an extra election, etc. – is enormously costly and time-consuming.

There’s another point to make though. If I had voted Libdem and then seen then enter coalition with the Tories, I’d feel very upset, with myself and with them. But this anger is the result of taking myself to be making a difference in something I’m actually powerless to control – investing myself in, identifying with, ‘participating in’, something beyond my influence.

That is, it comes from thinking and feeling as though I have power when I don’t. And politicians (not to mention businesses, the media, etc.) are very keen to encourage this feeling of ’empowerment’. If this leads, ultimately, to anger and frustration, does this suggest that, as long as real power belongs to a minority, political engagement, far from being a sign of civic virtue and responsibility, is bad for our emotional health?

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2 Responses to On Voting Lib Dem, and Rage

  1. jordan says:

    for a few weeks every few years, we all wish we had more influence. we wonder why we’re given so few meaningful opportunities to vote when our government makes so many significant policy decisions. but the vast majority of the time, the vast majority of us are happy that the government ‘works’ and that, most days, we don’t have to spare it a moment’s thought. we’re happy to elect other people to make these decisions for us as we get on with our lives. and that’s why we have so little influence – because most days, that’s exactly what nearly all of us want.

  2. lukeroelofs says:

    “the vast majority of the time, the vast majority of us are happy that the government ‘works’ and that, most days, we don’t have to spare it a moment’s thought”

    Suppose this is true (it would be convenient). Some substantial number of people, though, are not so happy with it – if they weren’t, law enforcement wouldn’t be necessary. Moreover, most of us at some times are unhappy with how things work.

    Now, even if this is only some people, and some of the time, if on those occasions capitalist government involves unjustifiable violence, then that’s a big issue. If, moreover, its violence on those occasions keeps the rest of us in line, and those lines involve, say, significantly premature mortality for millions, that’s also a big issue.

    Secondly, of course, such preferences are very conditioned by present social conditions (adaptive preferences, for a start), and so can’t easily be generalised to a case where those conditions are different.

    Thirdly, I’m not sure how true it is that you’re right about the vast majority (of a given country? or the world? etc.)

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