Vote! Then do your real civic duty

Posted 10/14/20

Election season energizes me. I inventory the issues that are most important to me and consider the candidates who will best express my values in their public work. My wife and I plan the best time …

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Vote! Then do your real civic duty

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Election season energizes me. I inventory the issues that are most important to me and consider the candidates who will best express my values in their public work. My wife and I plan the best time to vote early so our kids can join us. I put signs in the yard. This year we even attended a presidential candidate’s campaign event. Election season is a hopeful time that connects our family and challenges us to think.

But expectations temper my enthusiasm. Elections reveal sharp divisions in local and national communities that may not exist in our homes, churches, or neighborhoods. By a large margin, Americans say the electoral college is undemocratic because a minority of the popular vote can elect the president and vice president. Voter suppression extinguishes citizen voices. Candidates are identified, packaged and “sold” like commodities. Voters are targeted, pitched and “bought” in advertising campaigns. It’s enough to bring widespread apathy and disengagement.

But voting is the first important step in improving any democracy. So carefully consider the values that drive your ballot choices. Be specific. Discuss those values with others instead of rehashing campaign soundbites. Challenge yourself to refine your thinking. Then vote your highest democratic values.

According to generations of research pioneered by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, this kind of deliberate analysis improves decisions. As Kahneman describes in his popular book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” the brain’s fast-thinking system makes quick, intuitive judgments that drive our decisions and actions.

Our electoral system caters to the fast-thinking brain. One recent study shows that a candidate’s smile, chin strength, voice, skin tone and other meaningless physical traits account for 70% of candidate success. This is discouraging, to say the least.

The good news is that engaging the brain’s slow-thinking system enables better decisions. We save money on groceries by comparing prices and sizes. We are healthier when we compare nutrition facts. Saving for future needs increases financial stability. Slow thinking can improve any decision-making process, including our personal voting choices.

Of course, lasting improvements come from changing systems. Businesses, schools, the military, police departments and government agencies are already making improvements. Decades of research help them increase innovation, reduce discrimination, promote equity and improve outcomes.

The defense department, for example, has revamped promotion processes for senior leaders. New procedures intentionally minimize fast-thinking biases. They enable the department to select commanders for characteristics like creativity, innovation and professional diversity, which the department highly values to enable 21st-century success.

Perhaps similar improvements are needed in the electoral system. Maybe you prefer to improve decision making in other legal or policy areas first. Your vote matters on these issues. But your civic, patriotic duty is just beginning.

I am highlighting what psychologists describe as the difference between our expressed values (what we say) and our revealed values (what we do). Our votes express our personal preferences. Our constitutions and laws express our highest values, which define us as political communities. Our collective actions under these laws reveal society’s value preferences, which change over time for important reasons.

For example, the founding generation expressed and revealed a preference for chattel slavery and white, male-only voting. The abolition and suffrage movements, new political parties, the Civil War and countless other actions revealed very different 19th- and 20th-century values and democratic expectations.

Over time, elections and movements selected leaders whose constitutional amendments and new laws aligned with the nation’s revealed values. These leaders improved democracy itself, as the founding generation expected. Some Americans still express and reveal the old values and ways, but they are not a majority.

The alignment process is perpetual. Our generation’s efforts benefit from remarkable new knowledge in many research fields. Focusing our thinking, discussions and actions on shared democratic values helps us find commonality. Movements that promote engagement and equality extend democracy’s best ideals. Perhaps our generation can even improve democracy more rapidly and peacefully than others.

I remain excited about election season. I will vote and hope you will, too. No matter the outcome of national, state or local races, the important work of improving democracy will begin anew. Consider it the start of your real civic duty to guide those leaders well through values-based action.

David G. Delaney is a N.C. attorney, Army veteran and former acting associate general counsel of Homeland Security. He is on the faculty of the UNC-Chapel Hill Curriculum in Peace, War and Defense, and his scholarly work with psychologist Paul Slovic proposes ways to improve U.S. national security decision.


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