When my son was about 2 years old, my wife and I began to potty train him. We encouraged him with stickers. Before long he had a poster full of stickers, an ego full of age-appropriate pride in himself, and learned a habit that no longer required stickers to continue. This process is known in psychology as creating a token economy.
This morning I awoke to a social media feed full of pictures of “I Voted” stickers and was immediately reminded of the glee my then-toddler son showed every time he received an Elmo sticker for using the potty. Whenever I got those “I Voted!” stickers, I just assumed they were for passing on to your kid. Apparently I was wrong.
What began as a gimmick in the 1980s by realtors and businesses to gain name recognition among customers has transformed into a socio-political status symbol in a token economy that seeks to promote civic duty via baubles, but has had no actual meaning beyond the mere advertisement of the rote action. There is no meaningful effect of this exercise in “voting virtue signaling” other than the devaluing of the civic processes which culminate in voting into merely a cool-kids accessory competition.
Voter turnout for non presidential elections remains pitifully low with turnout for local elections being lower still. All the while, voter illiteracy regarding basic civics, not to mention the widespread and commonplace ignorance of local issues, has continued to increase as a failed education system colludes with social media echo chambers to create non overlapping political narratives and epistemologies which broach no incursion of knowledge.
Many of those who do show up to vote, actually are voting in order to get a sticker. They are like kids waiting to be praised for doing the right thing and then eager to show off their accomplishments on Social Media. New York Magazine noted:
…there’s another common, less-discussed, not-quite-so-noble reason for voting: because we’re afraid of being judged. They’re [the stickers] part boast, part public-shaming tool, a way of aligning yourself with those who did their part and identifying those who didn’t. Or, as Campbell-Dollaghan put it, ‘It all boils down to this: Many of us vote so that we can tell everyone else we voted. And we don’t want to have to lie about it if we didn’t.’
The New York Magazine article, correctly, points out that the end result of this kind of motivation is voting but not the kind that is borne of civic duty, knowledge of any sort, or even of a desire for change. Instead, it is voting to “feel like we belong.”
Thus, to a generation raised on them, the voting sticker has become the civics equivalent of a participation trophy with the elements of shame and virtue signalling thrown in. It defines a virtuous in-group and, by extension, shames those without it. The participation trophy generation has essentially produced a Foursquare civics: bereft of meaning and work but full of badges and noise masquerading as accomplishments. You get points for just showing up.
And herein lies the problem. Voting has important real world consequences. Encouraging the act as an end in itself, rather than the culmination of a process of civic involvement and education, is reckless and, ultimately, dangerous. It creates an atmosphere where the consequences of voting and the responsibility inherent in that duty are overlooked in favor of the mere act. James Madison in 1822 warned, “A popular Government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
If you’re voting for a sticker; if you’re voting to show off the sticker; if you’re voting merely to belong; please don’t vote. You can buy these stickers and many more online. I’m sure some entrepreneur will eventually make an app to superimpose “I voted” stickers onto your selfies.
Your vote is important, but an ignorant vote isn’t just a wasted vote; it’s dangerous and has real-world consequences for you and your neighbors. There is no shame is actively sitting out any election if you’re not up on the issues or you’re truly undecided. Nevertheless, I still believe that being aware of local, state, and national political issues is every citizen’s duty. The act of voting is the culmination of that civic process, not the only part.
The preoccupation with the signifier instead of the signified—with the token over the tasks of government—is disturbing. It speaks to a culture absorbed with symbols and signals over substance. Thucydides had Pericles note of Athenian democracy: “We…consider a citizen who does not partake in politics not only one who minds his own business, but useless. ”
How far we’ve come from that once passionate love of democracy and civic involvement, that we now have a populace in need of bribes, like children, of cheap baubles to engage recklessly in such an important civic duty. It devalues the process, it devalues democracy, and it devalues us.