For those who voted for Mitt Romney, the Presidential Inauguration on January 21st could be a difficult day. Presidential elections have always been simultaneously exciting and frustrating. Today, alarmists on the left and the right place television advertisements, preach sermons, design billboards, and the like, proclaiming the apocalyptic consequences of the wrong person assuming the office of President of the United States. In the last election, Republicans and Democrats spent over $1 billion each courting support and votes from us, the people. But were all the negative ads, nasty rhetoric, baby kissing, money, and black-tie dinners really necessary given the fact that neither my vote nor yours actually determined the outcome of this presidential election? In all of U.S. history no single vote has been the deciding vote for president.
We are all aware that with respect to the presidency, voters last November were essentially voting in state elections in order to pass along to their representatives in the Electoral College which presidential candidate they prefer. Therefore, the actual weight of our votes varied by state since every state gets a number of electors that is the total of all of its representatives in each house of Congress. The fairness of this system has been debated for decades, and I offer it to remind us that we do not rely on direct democracy to select our president. America’s Founders understood this as a formula for future tyranny.
Given the campaign rhetoric, the millions of dollars spent soliciting voters, the way some religious leaders bound the consciences of their followers, and so on, I wonder if these activities gave voters the false impression that their individual presidential vote will make a difference and that politics is the only means of social change in America. In the 1968 article, “A Theory of the Calculus of Voting,” published in the American Political Science Review, William H. Riker and Peter Ordeshook made the point that, given the way our system works, an individual voter has virtually no chance of influencing the outcome of the election. Moreover, according to recent work of Columbia University professor Andrew Gelman, an individual voter has possibly less than 1 in 100 million chance of determining the outcome of the current race to the White House. In fact, it may be better to think of November 6th as the day when tennis fans show up to cheer their favorite player but do not have a direct impact in the outcome of the match.
Political scientists admit the vote we cast for the presidency is more cathartic and emotional than anything else. Nevertheless, our presidential voting still matters because it provides feelings of civic participation. We feel like we are making a difference and that is important for the common good. Where our votes really carry weighty, however, are the state and local ballot items because there a single vote can make a huge difference.
What are people to do, then, if their candidate is not on the podium on the day of the inauguration? Do they despair about America? Do they give up? No. They are to be reminded that a virtuous society has a larger network of mediating institutions that shape the mores and norms of human flourishing. This is the good news. Though politics will fail from time to time, Abraham Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty reminds us that there are other mediating institutions bring social change like the family, the arts, education, business, the church, and so on. Although voting may not have leveraged the influence some wanted, everyone can influence this country by being champions of liberty and virtue wherever they find themselves locally. Since a free and virtuous society does not emerge from politics alone there is no reason to have the blues on inauguration day. It’s a call to get to work.