Recently, I saw a tweet quoting a minister back home saying something that was supposedly incendiary. I did not get why as the words seemed innocuous when read without context. So I tweeted asking for context and I understood why some tweets later.
But I soon noticed something else.
In that Twitter thread, I appeared to be the only person asking for more context. This made me wonder: is it a bad thing to be apolitical like I am? I have not bothered to “keep up” with parliamentary debates to know who said what.
To be apolitical is to be uninterested in politics. Is that a problem?
I researched and thought about this and my conclusion is that there are pros and cons to being apolitical (surprise, surprise), but there are more pros than cons, at least from what I can tell.
One of the big benefits of being apolitical is having peace of mind. The apolitical have freed themselves of the mental chains of keeping up with who said what.
But you must wonder, at what cost does this benefit come to individuals and society?
What’s at stake?
When you do not engage in politics in a democracy, your “lack of participation can lead to ‘political ills’ such as corruption and dishonesty among politicians as they are not held accountable.” That is what the sociologist, Mosby, said in 1898 in the North American Review.
The argument sounds logical. Thus, this rhetoric about not voting from the Rewire News Group feels familiar:
Making a conscious effort to vote is important because it has very real consequences for our lives. It affects access to health care, the distribution of wealth, the social and political climate of our country, and even civil rights. Not voting means that you aren’t getting a say in the people who are governing and representing us. It is making it easier for politicians who don’t represent our points of view to make decisions for us. If we ever want equal representation for women, racial minorities, and young people, we have to elect them into office.
So, not voting has very real consequences because it enables politicians who don’t represent our points of view to make decisions for us.
Again, this sounds logical.
But we must ask ourselves with some seriousness: when was the last time that you felt like your vote helped to ensure that your political party (assuming they won) always made decisions that were best for you? Or even most of the time?
If casting a vote was as simple as flipping a coin, I would do it. And I would not need to write this article and you would not waste your time reading it.
But casting a vote is not that simple, is it? We must invest a non-trivial amount of resources to arrive at our decision of who to vote for.
We must, therefore, weigh the costs of arriving at an informed vote against the costs to society for not doing so. From there, we may then justify our apathy.
With some research and thinking, I came up with four justifications.
1. Politics is inefficient at its core
Campaigning. Scheming, arguing, and finger-pointing. Gesturing and pontificating and gerrymandering. These are but some of the things that political parties regularly engage in, regardless of which country you look at.
I view politics through this dirty, stained glass.
In general, I believe in reducing waste, to be prudent with resources, and the entire political system seems to be rather poor at it.
I think the time, money, and energy spent politicking could be diverted to building schools, hospitals and other infrastructure, expanding healthcare, and doing other practical things that benefit people directly.
Of course, we should expect a process like democracy that tries to elucidate society’s collective interest to have a cost. It takes time to communicate ideas and for people to make up their minds about them.
What I am unsure about is just how much of this overhead is necessary. I am not interested in looking at research that has tried to quantify this. Sometimes your gut just knows.
My gut tells me that politics is and always has been quite inefficient. It could be a lot more efficient if each politician tried to hold themselves to a higher standard. Be gracious, bicker less, and focus on actually solving problems. But that is unfortunately not reality.
2. You bear the costs of political engagement
From an economic perspective, participating in politics is also costly to the individual citizen.
The enterprise of collecting, sieving, and making sense of credible political information is expensive.
Richard Blaine illustrates in his Quora answer how one needs to invest real money to obtain political information from credible news sources to make an informed vote.
If we, instead of spending time and money to inform ourselves to cast our ballot, spent the money learning a new skill, we would have gained much more personally.
For example, you could use the money and time learning to code from an online course instead. It is not a stretch to think that the up-skilled version of you could contribute more to society. Imagine, for example, that your new ability to code eventually helped you land a job on the tech team in your government and that team went on to build the first COVID-19 contact-tracing app.
Or, imagine that you decided to watch some feel-good movies on Netflix instead of reading up on politics, and that helped you relax and feel good and in turn, you were kind to yourself and your neighbours that day.
In both imaginations, you affect someone in a real way. Not some distant, impossible-to-trace way.
You probably already see how being politically engaged can affect your mental health and cost you money and time.
Now let’s talk about what I see as the biggest cost of political engagement: tribalism.
3. Politics brings out Tribalism
Tribalism is the state of being organised by, or advocating for, tribes or tribal lifestyles.
In Singapore, for example, there is the Workers’ Party (WP) tribe, the People’s Action Party (PAP) tribe, the National Solidarity Party (NSP) tribe, and many other less-known tribes.
When a person identifies with a political party and votes for them, he is co-opted into that tribe. By the very nature of a tribe, it means that he is duty-bound to think of people who are not part of their tribe as outsiders. Others. And others are not to be trusted; at least not to the same extent as one of us. Thereby, the “us versus them” social structure perpetuates.
This structure is deeply problematic because it brings out a corrosive quality in people, manifesting itself in cult-like behaviour.
How many times have you found yourself at an impasse with someone who will stand by their political party or candidate with the same zeal that some religious nut head has when defending their god as the one true god?
I have met several people like this, people who would “come up with the most insane rationalisations you could imagine and somehow pin [the blame for something] on anyone else but their candidate,” as Travis Miles wrote on Quora.
Cult-like behaviour gets worse when it is family or close friends who behave this way towards you. You find yourself unable to disagree with them because you know how strongly they identify with a certain political party or candidate.
Eventually, even when you have good reason to disagree — like, you know, facts — you learn to hold back because you suffered a broken friendship and have seen how family members stop speaking to each other over disagreements about politics.
Life is unfortunately not a university classroom where open-mindedness is a prerequisite. The murder of Professor Samuel Paty shows that nowadays even university classrooms are not university classrooms.
4. An Uninformed vote is also counted as one
Finally, it’s worth examining the electoral process itself for flaws.
Assume that I decided against my judgement and invested energy, time, and money to learn all I can about the various political parties and their track record in my country.
Suppressing the lingering apprehension that I have about something someone (from the political party I am going to vote for) said, I go to the polling station.
There, I join the queue. In front of me is a young woman in corporate attire who is tapping expertly on her phone. She snaps a few selfies in line, which I presume is for sharing on Instagram. Behind me is an elderly man in a singlet tucked into his berms. I recognise him from the nearby coffee shop where he spends all day, every day.
The woman votes. Then I do. Followed by the old man.
As I walk home from the polling station, a thought forced its way into my mind.
How can I know if they were informed voters? That they were not voting to, say, gain new followers on Instagram, or as the ultimate expression of passive aggression to spite an old friend who talks too much politics?
When I cast my informed ballot, it is counted as one vote. And when the young woman in front of me and the elderly man cast theirs, their votes were each counted as one, too.
But an informed vote costs a lot more to arrive at! Yet it can easily be neutralised by an uninformed one.
There are many reasons for people to inadvertently cast uninformed votes:
- no money or time to research
- general apathy but still voting because of pressure from family or friends
- researching using biased, non-credible news sources (e.g. Facebook rants, fake news, non-credible news sites, etc.).
Considering how big a role rage-driven media (social or traditional) play in informing people’s views these days, it is likely that your informed vote will account for very little in shaping the outcome of an election.
Would you not rather pour your time, money, and energy to help yourself or someone else directly instead?
Enter or Disengage
Let’s take stock.
Politics is a stage and the cast is comprised of characters who are each vying for your attention and ultimately, your vote. They will doll themselves up in that endeavour.
Deciphering the act so that you can come to an informed decision to vote takes time, costs money, and consumes energy on your part.
Engaging in politics often makes us miss the human for the tribe.
And in the end, someone who is uninformed or has been misinformed will cast a vote that also counts legitimately as one, quite possibly neutralising yours without good reasoning.
These are the reasons why I have chosen to be apolitical.
Plato warned us in The Republic of not running for office should one feel up to the job:
[…] the chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse if a man will not himself hold office and rule.
It is easy to mistake this as a warning about the consequences of being apolitical. But Plato was not warning us about apathy as a voter but of the price of not entering politics should one feel like she can do a good job governing.
So, perhaps it is best to think of politics this way: either run for office or disengage completely. In the middle there is lava.
Maybe the others who saw the tweet I saw remained silent because they have chosen to disengage. Perhaps they knew better.