2012-11-07

The Secret Ballot

Today's post is a difficult one for me to write because I myself am guilty of what I am about to condemn. Faithful readers will understand, though, that Stationary Waves is nothing if it is not a dedication to exposing our most deeply held lies and myths, in hopes of promoting a world in which logic, reason, and ethics prevail.

On with it.

How My Facebook Friends Helped Undermine Civil Discourse
It is the day after Election Day. Log onto Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and so on, and observe what you see. Understandably, most of what you see consists of reactions to the outcome of the US presidential election. Within that sizable majority of commentary, in a good proportion of it - on my Facebook feed, anyway - people are revealing how they voted, expressing satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the outcome of the election, making their own personal presidential choice known to the world.

If you want to know why civil discourse has disintegrated these days, you're looking at it.

There are two reasons why ballots are kept secret. The first seems unnecessary to contemporary Americans because we are not currently in a political situation in which it is relevant. The reason is that if Party X knows who is voting for Party Y, then there is an opportunity for Party X to threaten and intimidate - if not physically attack - supporters of Party Y in an effort to sway the results of the election. Thankfully, America is in no such situation. Nevertheless, we cannot be so blind as to pretend it is not currently happening elsewhere in the world, most recently and notably, in the Middle East.

The second reason why ballots are kept secret is what I actually want to discuss today. When you go public with your support for a political party, you undermine civil discourse, you destroy your credibility, and you make it impossible for anyone to discuss anything with you. Some of you will be surprised by this claim, so let's flesh it out a bit.

How "Going Public" Destroys Our Dialogue
When two strangers sit down to discuss any issue, they will hash out the comparative merits of Choice A versus Choice B, on the strength of each aspect of the issue. The various benefits of Choice A are weighed against those of Choice B, and the same with the drawbacks. Once the benefits and drawbacks are revealed, the strangers will undertake to assign value and likelihood to each benefit and drawback, until they reach a point where a decision can be made. If the two strangers happen to disagree, the disagreement boils down to one of the following: (a) They disagree as to whether a benefit or drawback actually pertains to the respective choice; (b) They disagree as to how important a given benefit or drawback is; (c) They disagree as to how likely it is that a given benefit or drawback will occur.

In civil discourse, in Good-Faith Discussion, these issues can be hammered-out and compromises can be reached. The issues are relatively simple to state and discuss, even if the ultimate decision is a difficult one.

Now suppose that the two strangers know that one is a Republican and the other is a Democrat. How will that impact the ensuing discussion?

Simply stated, it destroys the credibility each one has. Now, rather than considering a benefit or drawback brought to light by Peter, Paul has a built-in incentive to view it as a claim of pure partisanship. Peter, meanwhile, has ever reason to believe that his arguments are not being given proper consideration because he feels that Paul is dismissing his ideology, rather than his point.

Suppose, for example, that Peter and Paul are considering the matter of whether to divert funds from the local public school to the repair of a local bridge. As non-partisan strangers, a real and useful discussion can occur. But if Paul believes that Peter is ideologically driven to "de-fund public education," or if Peter believes that Paul is ideologically opposed to "using public funds for the benefit of corporations on the other side of the bridge," then there is no longer any point to their having a discussion.

Consider what happens when we open the discussion up to the public at large. If party affiliation comes to the fore, the public will soon descend into repeating party mantras. That's bad, but it is especially bad if the public debate becomes a public vote. In that case, members of the public are no longer merely casting a vote for their preferred funding allocation. Rather, they are casting a vote for party affiliation. Others present will see how they vote and will know where they stand with respect to the party, and what to expect from that person when future issues are discussed.

Maintaining a secret ballot, on the other hand, allows people to disagree with their chosen party - or with any party at all - with respect to one particular issue, i.e. the matter being debated. When ballots are secret, people are free to vote their conscience (or their mere preference) without being seen publicly as a party affiliate. People casting their votes in secret have the luxury of having any preference they choose, without that one preference impacting the way their opinions are perceived by the group at large.

Secret ballots don't just protect people from intimidation and threats, they protect the usefulness of the dialogue. They help us dissociate issue from ideology. Making your every vote public has the effect of making you look like nothing more than a partisan zombie. Know well that others will surely see you that way, too.

Conclusion
We hear all the time about the sad state of civil discourse and partisanship in this country. Sadly and predictably, this too descends into partisan squabbling. ("It's the obstructionist Rs who are at fault!" "No, it's the uncooperative Ds who are at fault!")

It's certainly easier to blame everyone else for the sad state of communication among us today. If we're grown-ups, though, we have to be able to take responsibility for our own contributions to this sorry state of affairs.

One way you, personally, have contributed to this ugly horror is by making your political affiliation public. Don't get huffy - I did it, too. I can freely admit it, and I'm ready to take responsibility for it.

Are you?