Finger Lickin’ Voting: Apathy, Nando’s and Clegg

Here’s something my students are probably sick of hearing me say: a metaphor isn’t an argument. Even the most evocative, appropriate-seeming and intuitively persuasive metaphor or analogy might not, in the end, make very much sense at all. Political communication is rife with arguments-from-metaphors (and there’s quite a lot of it in political academia as well). It’s a dependable fall-back position in politics because it relies upon an ancient form of reasoning, and one that requires no expertise or careful thought on the part of your audience in order to seem wise.

I'll flame grill your chicken

Example: Nick Clegg, making a generally pretty charismatic appearance on a comedy TV show, being asked to make the case for voting – this, obviously, in the aftermath of Russell Brand’s well-publicised argument that voting is basically a big waste of time – made an interesting comparison:

[I]f you go to Nando’s and get someone else to go up to the counter and order for you, you can’t complain if they come back with a meal you don’t want.

Does this really strike us as being similar to voting in some important way? It certainly seems to have done the trick for the show’s presenters, one of whom took to the New Statesman to write up Clegg’s performance in glowing terms:

It was the single best description of the value of voting I’ve ever heard. And according to the electronic wall of scribble known as Twitter, it was a very convincing one. And all because there was no bullshit.

Casting a vote, however, is not very much like placing an order in a restaurant. To receive a meal different to the one you ordered is an error; to end up with a government controlled for a party that you didn’t vote for is a by-product of the procedural norms of democracy. There is no agentic similarity between these two situations: my vote, unlike my food order, is neither the necessary nor the sufficient condition for the arrival of my desired outcome. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases, our votes carry far less objective value than the opportunity costs we incur by taking the time to cast them, which is why political scientists have spent decades puzzling over the paradox of voting. Given that in the UK’s particular electoral system the narrow chance of having an ‘influential’ vote is literally ruled out for many by the accident of their geographic location only deepens the quandary – quite a lot of us are voting, but none of us are right to be doing it on the grounds that we think it will change any outcomes.

Even if we grudgingly agree, for the sake of argument, that Clegg’s statement is basically sound, it doesn’t come across as a strong justification of voting. Voting, by this account, is a practice that we should value on the grounds that it licenses us to complain about political outcomes. Our political objections become meaningful, then, because we participated in the system that brought about the outcome to which we object.

But this idea contradicts what would seem to be the most persuasive reason to value voting: that it generates not the grounds for agreement with final outcomes (since the eventual outcomes will be undetermined by my vote), nor the grounds for legitimating my disagreement if the outcome is not to my liking, but rather because it signals personal consent to the procedural norms of the democratic system itself. If democracy produces an outcome that I do not like, I will be more inclined to tolerate it if I feel that the system that produced such an outcome was fair in some basic way. Voting would therefore not give me a reasonable basis from which to complain, but rather create a reasonable basis for my political obligations to a government that I did not choose.

In any case, Clegg is again demonstrating a talent for political communication, and he can hardly be blamed for not articulating a strong case for voting, since for most of the political class voting appears to be a self-evidently virtuous activity.

But I might recommend a better, more appropriate analogy between Nando’s and UK politics: after all, no matter what you order, you’re very likely to end up eating chicken again.