Some pundits say that this election has turned everything we thought we knew about U.S. politics on its head. I tend to agree more with those who note that divisiveness and bombastic attacks have always been a part of presidential races. Consider the election of 1800, when the campaigns of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson traded accusations that one had a “hideous hermaphroditical character” and the other was “the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” What does feel different this election cycle is the level of emotion stirred up among voters. Violence at rallies; protests galore; families at one another's throats on Facebook. (Or is that just my family?) Strong emotion doesn't always make for good decisions. It's time to take a deep breath, clear our heads and learn how to cast our votes well.
#1 Don't just go with your gut. Voting well means making your choice from a standpoint of informed consideration and with an eye toward the common good, says Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Georgetown University and author of The Ethics of Voting. “Suppose you go to a doctor and ask for advice about an illness—you'd expect the doctor to have your interests at heart and to think rationally about your symptoms,” he says. “Voters owe the same thing to each other and the electorate. Vote for everyone's best interest, and when you're forming your political beliefs, form them based on information and learning, not on the basis of quick thinking, anger or bias.” That can be tough to do, however, because a good politician knows exactly how to push our emotional buttons, says Leslie Shore, a communications expert who teaches effective listening at St. Mary's University of Minnesota: “Word choice can be very specifically used to induce a response in the listener.” Strong emotion, however, can interfere with our ability to think critically.
#2 Don't get all your news from social media. Most of us have unfollowed, unfriended or muted contacts on Facebook, Twitter and other networks because their political views make us mad. Doing so can give rise to narrowed political views and groupthink, Shore warns. “Most of our social media networks are full of people who agree with us, so they create an automatic validation of everything that you're already thinking,” she says. “If no one challenges you, there's no opportunity to rethink or ask important questions.” Try broadening your news sources by tuning to channels or sites, papers or magazines that have a different slant than you do. “If you have a news app on your smartphone or tablet, specifically add a publication to your feed that you know tends to lean the opposite way, and then do yourself a favor and actually read what they're saying,” Shore says.
#3 Watch the next debate with your eyes closed. A recent study by Joan Y. Chiao, then at Northwestern University, a founder of the new field of cultural neuroscience, found that voters perceive male candidates as more competent and dominant than female ones, based on facial features alone. What's more, voters of both genders tend to prefer physically attractive female candidates, whereas attractiveness doesn't matter for male ones. Most of us like to think that we won't let outdated gender stereotypes affect our vote, but it's worth a self-check anyhow.
#4 Know when to abstain. I have a confession to make: I didn't vote in the presidential primaries. I'm not used to the mail-in ballots in my adopted home state of Oregon, and I sent mine in too late to be counted. Looking back, I think perhaps it was for the best: I'd been waffling for months about which candidate to choose and hadn't taken the time to firmly ground my choice in facts and information. “We've found that having more information changes people's policy preferences,” Brennan says. “We can specifically predict what the American public likely would choose if it were better informed.” But political science studies have found that a majority of Americans are ignorant of some pretty basic political knowledge such as actual trends in crime or unemployment or whether the economy is doing well or not. You can think of casting a “bad” vote as being a bit like air pollution, he says. “If you drive an inefficient car and pollute a lot, your individual contribution isn't that big of a deal. But if we all do that, it is. ” Not everyone may agree with the idea that a good citizen should abstain from voting if he or she can't cast a “good” vote, but it resonates with me. Here's hoping we take our responsibility to heart and endeavor to do our civic duty well.