Democracy vs. Oligarchy Part 4: Money of the Few Can Be Balanced By the Will of the Many

I am back here with the title that started this series (March 15); this time, I’ll attempt to emphasize the second part of the phrase: how to reverse direction from the constant march toward oligarchy back to a constitutional democracy that we can all be proud of. The US Supreme Court has made its position clear: money is a form of a constitutional free speech and since most of it is held by an elite few they are able to spend it as they wish to influence public policy around them. The counteraction that is embedded in most democratic systems is to empower the much larger group with fewer resources to balance the smaller group’s influence through participation in the voting process. In practice, this has generally failed in the US, given that the less affluent tend not to vote as much as their richer peers. Taking the 2012 presidential election as an example, 57 million eligible voters earning below the median household income failed to vote. In comparison, the corresponding number among those with household incomes above the median was a mere 25 million eligible voters that did not participate.

It is true that the Citizens United decision could be overturned with changes in the composition of the Supreme Court, but, as we can see, the appointment of the next justice is a fraught political decision that will strongly depend on the election results, meaning that our votes are even more essential.

I strongly believe, however, that the influence of money on the election process will slowly start to decline regardless of the future fate of Citizens United or the makeup of the Supreme Court. The main reason is the recent advances in the distribution of communication technologies through social media. About 80% of the US population uses social media in one form or another – the number of users exceeds the number of eligible voters. Money, at least up to now, and as described in the Supreme Court resolutions that preceded Citizens United, is key to spreading the message. The most expensive part of doing so has traditionally been purchasing television advertisement. Now with the much lower-cost, and likely more effective outlet of social media, the central role that money has played in the process is bound to decrease.

That leaves us with the other aspect in our U-turn back to democracy – the necessary increase in voter participation. How can we convince eligible voters to participate in the election process? I thought I’d use some basic psychology. If we can perceive the reasons for the low turnout, maybe we can look at how to counter them. After all, it is an individual’s decision whether or not to vote, and psychology tells us a lot about how we make (or influence) such decisions.

My wife is a professor of psychology in the same school where I teach. I am not trying to find her a job. She has her hands full with the current tenured position that she holds. But the first question that I asked her was if Psychology has a sub-discipline of Political Psychology. Not surprisingly, her answer was yes, although it is not one of the 54 subdivisions of the APA (American Psychological Society). On continuing the conversation about the role of psychology in voting participation she warned me that it is an old issue and that a considerable amount of research has already been done. I interpreted that as a caution that the role of psychology in voting participation will take more than half a blog to cover. So this blog is dedicated to a description of the issues and next week’s blog will be focused on how I see the role of psychology in facilitating the U-turn.

Here is how Wikipedia describes the reasons for the low voter turnout:

Reasons for voting

In any large families of twenty the chance of any one vote determining the outcome is low. Some studies show that a single vote in a voting scheme such as the Electoral College in the United States has an even lower chance of determining the outcome.[2] Other studies claim that the Electoral College actually increases voting power.[3] Studies using game theory, which takes into account the ability of voters to interact, have also found that the expected turnout for any large election should be zero.[4]

The basic formula for determining whether someone will vote, on the questionable assumption that people act completely rationally, is[5]


  • P is the probability that an individual’s vote will affect the outcome of an election,
  • B is the perceived benefit that would be received if that person’s favored political party or candidate were elected,
  • D originally stood for democracy or civic duty, but today represents any social or personal gratification an individual gets from voting, and
  • C is the time, effort, and financial cost involved in voting.

Since P is virtually zero in most elections, PB is also near zero, and D is thus the most important element in motivating people to vote. For a person to vote, these factors must outweigh C. Experimental political science has found that even when P is likely greater than zero, this term has no effect on voter turnout. Enos and Fowler (2014) conducted a field experiment that exploits the rare opportunity of a tied election for major political office. Informing citizens that the special election to break the tie will be close (meaning a high P term) has little mobilizing effect on voter turnout.[6]

Riker and Ordeshook developed the modern understanding of D. They listed five major forms of gratification that people receive for voting: complying with the social obligation to vote; affirming one’s allegiance to the political system; affirming a partisan preference (also known as expressive voting, or voting for a candidate to express support, not to achieve any outcome); affirming one’s importance to the political system; and, for those who find politics interesting and entertaining, researching and making a decision.[7] Other political scientists have since added other motivators and questioned some of Riker and Ordeshook’s assumptions.[citation needed] All of these concepts are inherently imprecise, making it difficult to discover exactly why people choose to vote.

Recently, several scholars have considered the possibility that B includes not only a personal interest in the outcome, but also a concern for the welfare of others in the society (or at least other members of one’s favorite group or party).[8][9] In particular, experiments in which subject altruism was measured using a dictator game showed that concern for the well-being of others is a major factor in predicting turnout[10] and political participation.[11][12] Note that this motivation is distinct from D, because voters must think others benefit from the outcome of the election, not their act of voting in and of itself.

The original references can be found on the site.

Not surprisingly, it’s complicated, but the essence of it, as I understand it, boils down to a personal impact analysis. It’s a competition between the three terms in the inequality above: the perceived balance between the individual vote’s impact (P), the social obligation to vote (D), and the effort it takes to do so (C). Since P is by its nature negligibly small, the competition is focused between the abstract D term and the very concrete C term.

There are countries and regions that enforce voting (compulsory voting) and there are others that encourage voting through other means such as declaration of a national holiday for Election Day. The United States does neither and furthermore requires voters to register – an extra burden that adds to the C term in the inequality.

Of course, this inequality can be applied to other areas in life, where we must choose whether doing something is “worth it.” The ultimate “conflict” between the three terms comes in an army service where often you are being ask to give your life for your country. I will mention two historic examples – one from Israel and one from the US.

I grew up in Israel, so I naturally studied the early history of the Jewish settlement in what used to be Palestine. One of the great heroes of that period was Joseph Trumpeldor. Mortally wounded defending a Jewish settlement (Tel – Hai) he was heard to say, “It is good to die for our country.” As usual, the exact circumstances of his death and the famous final words are in dispute. Nevertheless, while at that time there was no “our country” (it was part of the Turkish Empire), the sentiment was there. There was no compulsory army service but people were willing to give their life. The defense of Tel-Hai, by today’s standards, was a small skirmish (small P term – not that important in the scheme of things).

I live happily now in the US and my wife was born in Connecticut. Visiting my wife’s birthplace, one cannot escape the name of Nathan Hale. He was an American soldier and spy for the Continental Army that was captured by the British and executed. His last words are known to be, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” I doubt that Trumpeldor ever heard of Hale but the spirit of their last words conveys the same message (overwhelmingly dominant D term). Both viewed it to be an honor to die for their country, even though neither country was yet a sovereign nation.

Any soldier, no matter where he is or whether his service is volunteered or compulsory, is fully aware of the prospect of getting killed in case of a military conflict. By the time a soldier is enlisted, however (whether voluntarily or not), the balance between the collective good and personal sacrifice has already been decided, meaning that the issue is (or should be) moot during individual skirmishes.

I went through a much less extreme but more relevant choice between P, D and C in my application for my American citizenship. Both myself and my wife at that time worked as professionals in the research departments of two American corporations. We lived in a suburb of NYC, both as legal immigrants with green-cards. Our son was in his early school years. In the particular suburb where we lived, there was one large retirement home with a few hundred retirees. Almost any school budget that came up for a vote got turned down –mainly due to the votes of the retirees that didn’t have any children in the school district. We obviously had the option to change residence but we decided that the more productive step would be to apply for citizenship, allowing us to add our own votes to the tally – Democracy at its best. We knew full well that our two votes would not counter the much larger number from the retirement home but felt it was the right thing to do and would put us in a better position to influence our neighbors to vote as well.

All told, it is not an easy job to make D overcome C and “justify” one’s actions.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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