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Issues & Insights

Does Expressive Voting Trump The Rest?

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We are more than three-quarters of the way through President Donald Trump’s first term, and many people still say they can’t understand his persistent support, despite his many “non-presidential” words and actions.

The confusion may be that commentators are channeling the traditional view that voting is instrumental — an effort to achieve policies whose effects will best advance one’s interests. But that view fails to confront the fact that, unlike in markets, where one’s choices determine results, one’s vote in any large-numbers election is extremely unlikely to affect the results.

Say there was a (wildly optimistic) one-in-a-million chance that your vote would swing an electoral outcome to a result benefitting you by $10,000. Viewed instrumentally — solely as a means to an improved end — the expected value of that vote is one cent ($10,000 divided by 1 million). Such a small payoff cannot explain choosing to vote, much less adamant support for a particular candidate.

However, people often also care about the expressive value of voting — what a vote says about the voter. Perhaps best expressed by Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky’s classic “Democracy & Decision,” it reflects the fact that, beyond voters’ instrumental incentives, they might also want to vote for something because it makes them feel better by, say, embellishing a noble self-characterization. For instance, a vote could validate one’s sense of self-worth by illustrating that “I care,” “I am patriotic,” “I am not a racist,” etc.

Candidates typically try to align instrumental reasons to vote for them with expressive reasons — claiming that their policies will be good for voters as well as demonstrate their character. For instance, protectionism is sold as good for voters (even though it can, in fact, only be good for some at even greater costs to others) and a demonstration that voters are patriotic (even though patriotism provides no warrant to benefit “our” producers at the expense of “our” consumers). But the self-interest and self-image effects can conflict, and if the expressive value of the vote exceeds the instrumental value, that may cause the paradoxical result of self-interested voting against one’s seeming self-interest.

Consider the family of one of the “1%,” faced with a vote on whether to raise taxes on “the rich.” Beyond the fact that the already rich are not the same as those who would be more heavily taxed because they earn high incomes in subsequent years and that they are frequently tax-sheltered against such burdens, it can be in their interest to vote for those higher taxes. Say, as above, there is a one-in-a-million chance of changing the electoral outcome. The expected cost of voting to raise their own taxes by $10,000 is one cent. Therefore, if the value of demonstrating their generosity to themselves and/or others by voting for the proposition exceeded one cent, such voters would benefit by voting against their instrumental self-interest.

A further implication is that when the expressive value of someone’s vote dominates its instrumental value, changes in the instrumental value (i.e., policy effects) will have virtually no effect on their vote, so long as a candidate can maintain the expressive value of their support.

Consequently, for votes with sizable “send-a-message” implications for themselves, voters may frequently vote for policies and candidates whose endorsed effects on policy would harm their interests, because voting makes such choices artificially cheap. Further, it provides a major reason why people are far less informed about public policies (which their vote won’t affect with any likelihood) than about their market choices, which public choice scholars call the “rational ignorance” effect. It can also explain why candidates that have large expressive values put more effort into burnishing the appropriate image than to adopting better policies.

Contrast voting for a candidate or proposition with the case where your vote is decisive — to market choices. Many people who would be willing to bear a one cent cost to demonstrate their $10,000 imaginary generosity via the electoral process would not be willing to actually donate $10,000 of their own money for the same end.

In voting, I must give up only an infinitesimal chance of altering a political outcome in order to achieve the full value of expressive voting, making the cost to me virtually zero, when I would have to actually bear the full cost for such an expressive value if I made the same choice with my own resources through voluntary arrangements. 

While the most common expressive voting motif is one where people burnish their haloes by demonstrating their goodness, that is not the only possibility. Trump may have embodied another, and may again in 2020.

A key to understanding this is a description I heard that Trump supporters were primarily flipping a giant middle finger to party elites. People who feel they have been lied to and let down by leaders who promised the moon and didn’t even deliver a moon rock could easily be angry enough that echoing Howard Beale’s “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” rant from “Network” makes them feel better about “standing up for themselves.”

Such an angry expressive value embodied by Trump in 2016 (though with the rhetorical cover that you are really voting to “Make America Great Again,” not just venting your spleen) could often have exceeded any foregone instrumental value from a different vote for many. That could explain much of Trump’s support and why what a large number of others consider his far-from-presidential demeanor and substantial stream of “sins” might make little dent in it. The low probability of one vote affecting the outcome means that for a venting voter, supporting Trump was virtually costless to them. And when one’s revenge may even “blow up the party,” or “drain the swamp,” what would be a huge negative to others becomes another positive aspect of “I’ll show them” expressive voting. 

However, giving the finger with one’s vote normally involves “kicking the bum out.” So that would not normally apply to Trump as the incumbent, putting that expressive motive at risk in 2020. Here, though, three-plus years of obvious and well-publicized Democrat and “deep state” assaults, including “dirty tricks” that would leave Richard Nixon’s Committee to Reelect the President in awe, topped by the impeachment circus, may rescue him from that, by maintaining his status as the widely and unfairly attacked underdog.

Expressive voting can go a long way to solve the riddle of Trump’s persistent support. But it presents another riddle — why should people trust important decisions to government because democracy supposedly “represents what we want?” Not only does it move choices to people who know individuals and their circumstances less well and care less about them than they do themselves, those individuals as voters can easily support what is against their interests because they don’t know enough to evaluate them and the electoral distortion makes expressive voting artificially cheap. It would seem that the less we relied on such fun-house mirror reflections of our interests, and the more we make our own choices with our own resources, the better off we would be.


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2 comments

  • We have read more insightful and more inciteful articles. What we know is that every attack on Donald Trump strengthened his position. Impeachment put him over the top to be reelected.

  • I guess I’m one of those atypical voters who actually considers the likely effect of my candidate on policies I care about. I don’t vote to burnish my self-image. I’ll vote for Trump in 2020 even more cheerfully than I did in 2016, because now he’s less of an unknown, and I have more confidence in what he’s likely to do.

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Issues & Insights is a new site formed by the seasoned journalists behind the legendary IBD Editorials page. Our goal is to bring our decades of combined journalism experience to help readers understand the top issues of the day. We’re doing this on a voluntary basis, because we believe the nation needs the kind of cogent, rational, data-driven, fact-based commentary that we can provide. 

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