A friend and I were discussing our own political histories and voting behaviors. She has a very spotty record of voting, this despite knowing a great deal about what's going on politically and having strong opinions and concerns about issues of the day. She's quite displeased with her failure to vote, but come each Election Day, she just doesn't get to the polls, which is why we were having this discussion.
She's also a psychologist. Our friendship stretches back to our first week of graduate school, which was a long time ago. Our studies were almost entirely in the clinical branch of psychology, but as an undergrad my own psychology education was focused on social psych and non-clinical cognitive (learning-perception-memory-information processing).
Part of my social psych study was in the area of political psychology, and I was an undergraduate research assistant for a political researcher. I truly enjoyed what I was learning and I developed an enormous respect and admiration for what this social psychologist and his grad students were doing. Aside from their curiosity and intelligence, I appreciated the rigor they brought to their work. I never saw even a shred of evidence that personal political opinions got in the way of their pursuit of understanding the mechanisms of political behavior we were investigating.
It was all very interesting, but the social approach focuses mostly on commonalities and the influence of situations. That's certainly relevant to voter motivation and turnout patterns, but as clinicians we will often attend to individual differences that defy trends. So in our private commiseration about our own voting behavior, my friend and I bounced between situational factors and a discussion of why a classic likely voter--well-informed, late middle-aged, white, highly educated, professional and prosperous--can't seem to mobilize her resources to vote even when she cares about the election outcome.
I do vote regularly in the general elections, but I've been known to miss more than a few off-years. I must admit that despite the fact that I care about the issues, I still must force myself to vote even in the presidential elections. I could easily lapse into not voting if I allowed myself.
Both my friend and I grew up with parents who voted religiously, never questioning whether they would get to the polls. My family was heavily involved in New York politics, so I grew up knowing people who held elected and appointed office. As a young child, I was a stamp sponger and affixer; I listened to get-out-the-vote phone calls and spied on the adults meeting in our home to discuss campaigns. I didn't understand much, but I liked the activities for some reason.
After our family left New York, there was no more political involvement other than voting. My parents would sometimes vote for different candidates without a hint of distress or acrimony between them. They were definitely Republicans, but not like Republicans today.
In my young adulthood, I was politically active far beyond being a voter. Since my graduate school days, getting to the polls has increasingly felt like a chore. I do it, but my zest for voting isn't there anymore. Heck, our polling place is about two minutes away from home on foot. I can work my schedule so that I can get there when lines are short. It's not that difficult.
So what's up with me and what about my friend? Rather than actually vote, both of us would rather have long discussions about why people do and don't vote. Or we might like to discuss why people adopt ideologies, beliefs, worldviews and identities that may incidentally translate into certain voting behaviors. There are robust situational dimensions to motivation and action, but they don't explain every difference from one individual to the next.
I'm going to write another post about our speculation, but I want to think this over more before I do so. Thoughts are welcome. Personal experience and insights would be helpful if anyone would care to share.