How Extreme are Nonvoters?

Jan-Willem van Prooijen recently published on Psychological Features of Extreme Political Ideologies. Prior research has been mixed. One thesis indicates that self-identified progressives are in fact not tolerant, but another thesis which is particularly popular in academia is the idea that particularly the political right experiences fear and derogates outgroups. A third thesis is that extremism per se, on either side of the political spectrum, predicts intolerance.

A fourth thesis, which none of the academics seem to be studying, is the logical possibility that extremists are more tolerant. I buy that most extremists would be intolerant, but I think some extremists would be most tolerant. Namely, the group of extremists who are extremely tolerant! I feel like I identify with this group, but I don’t vote. I identify as an ideologically pure conservative, in admitted contrast to the actually voting self-identified conservatives. I don’t suppose the latter group would know Edmund Burke from Adam. I also identify as a Friedmanian anarcho-capitalist, which exists in proximity to libertarian political ideology.

This is where criticism of Prooijen’s work begins. Let me clearly make three points on this:

  1. Prooijen claims to discuss extreme political ideologies, but he examines actual voters. This is a problem because there are reasons to believe that actual voters are less politically extreme than nonvoters.
  2. Prooijen’s work, and the work he builds on, presumes a simplistic left-right spectrum of political ideology, rather than the more complex 2-dimensional approach which allows for the description of groups like libertarians and some anarchists.
  3. I actually agree with Prooijen’s conclusion, just not his explanation, and I add importantly to his conclusion. His conclusion is that extremists are less tolerant than moderates.
    1. I agree, but I add importantly that this finding is true on average, and I suspect that extremely tolerant extremists are actually more tolerant than moderates.
    2. Prooijen’s explanation for this conclusions is that extremists are mentally simplistic, and “because of such mental simplicity, political extremists are overconfident in their judgments.” In the first place I disagree that extremists are politically simplistic in general. I don’t believe Friedmanian anarcho-capitalism is a simplistic view, and frankly I don’t believe ideologically pure conservatism is a simplistic view. However, because Prooijen examines actual voters, his thesis is more plausible in that subset of the population, but in that case he is not actually discusses extreme political ideology, but only ideology among voters. When I think extreme political ideology, I’m thinking like the Taliban and other dangerous or terrorist organizations. These people are not interesting because of the way they vote, but precisely because of all the other activities they engage in.

There is a problem for Prooijen because he discusses extreme political ideology among actual voters, and actual voters may be less extreme than nonvoters. Vote suppression tends to move with minority status, and ideological extremes tend to be in the minority. People tend to turnout and become likely voters when they believe a candidate they support can win, but people tend to be suppressed from voting when no one they support is running.

There is good evidence for what I’ve said above, but it’s interesting that it flies in the face of common wisdom. The common view is that actual voters are more politically active than nonvoters, and therefore they are expected to be more ideologically extreme than nonvoters. We use the phrase “The Silent Majority” to refer to a group of people who have their own stereotype as a group of homogeneous moderates.

Image may contain: text

I propose that the silent majority of nonvoters are not a homogeneous group of moderates, but a heterogeneous group of moderates and extremists.

The interesting question arises: How extreme are nonvoters? To start with we need to define what a nonvoter is. There are at least three cases:

  1. Accidental nonvoters. They may have wanted to vote, and they may fit the profile of a likely voter, but they accidentally didn’t end up voting.
  2. Unlikely voters. Pew Research defines a nonvoters as someone who is not a likely voter, but this group is really just the group of unlikely voters. This group is well described in research.
  3. Intentional nonvoters. This group may:
    1. Be apathetic or see little value in political activity.
    2. Ideologically oppose politics, voting, or the state.
    3. Strategically not vote as a protest against the particular vote, but perhaps not generally against voting. For example, an individual might be politically active, but joined in both in the Never Hillary camp and also in the Never Trump camp. That voter might be generally interested in political activism, but that person wouldn’t have voted in 2018 general presidential election.

As we can see, only the first subgroup of intentional nonvoters appears to be moderate in the single-dimensional spectrum. Notice also that many libertarians and conservatives fall into that same first group, so that this kind of nonvoting moderate really doesn’t fit the profile of a voting moderate. There are Suffolk University polls of nonvoters from 2018 and 2018 that seem to reflect this information, but it still looks understudied to me. Here is a small bite of a press release from Suffolk:

As for their rationale, 68 percent of unregistered voters and registered-but-unlikely voters agreed with the statement: “I don’t pay much attention to politics because it is so corrupt.” That number is up sharply from a Suffolk University/USA TODAY survey of unregistered and unlikely voters taken in August 2012, when 54 percent agreed with that same statement about politics being “corrupt.”

Nearly 63 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I don’t pay much attention to politics because nothing ever gets done – it’s a bunch of empty promises,” compared to 59 percent who said the same nearly six years ago.


Leave a Comment