Contributor, The Volokh Conspiracy
Barack Obama campaign slogan from 2008.
Barack Obama campaign slogan from 2008.

Back in August, Donald Trump famously asked African-American voters to support him because the status quo for them is so awful that they have every reason to support change: “what the hell do you have to lose?” Trump’s ridiculously hyperbolic claim that blacks should support him because “African-American communities are absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before” is just an extreme version of a common political trope: if the status quo is bad, you should vote for candidates who will bring change. In 2008, for example, one of the main slogans of the Obama campaign was the promise of “change we can believe in.” Trump supporters, similarly, often claim that voters should back him because he is a “change agent.”

I. Why Voting for Change Can be Dangerous.

Voting for “change” when the status quo is bad is a common strategy for voters. In most elections, the biggest determinants of the outcome are short-term economic trends. If the economy is stagnant or getting worse, voters throw out the incumbents and expect “change” to improve the situation.

Unfortunately, there is a serious problem with such reasoning: even if the status quo is flawed, it does not follow that change will improve the situation. Before opting for a “change” candidate, it is important to consider whether the changes he proposes really will be changes for the better rather than changes for the worse. Even if the status quo is bad, there are many ways to make things still worse.

Admittedly, the danger of making things worse is less important in cases where people really do have “nothing to lose.” For North Koreans, for example, almost anything would be preferable to the Orwellian nightmare they are currently enduring. If North Korea had competitive elections, it would be entirely reasonable for the horribly oppressed people of that land to support almost anything that changes the status quo.

That is emphatically not the case for Americans, however. For all of its significant problems, the US is still one of the wealthiest and freest nations in the world. The economy is growing (even if too slowly), unemployment is low, and the US is still by far the most powerful nation in the world.

There is much room for improvement in our situation. But there is even more room for things to get a lot worse. Americans of all races have a great deal to lose from the wrong kind of change. There are many historical examples of voters opting for a “change agent” out of dissatisfaction with the status quo, only to get change for the worse. In the early 1930s, many German voters dissatisfied with the badly flawed Weimar Republic supported the Nazis and communists because they promised major changes. The voters weren’t wrong to think that the status quo was bad. But the change agent they backed turned out to be much, much worse.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama, especially the latter, were also elected on the promise of changing a flawed status quo. Obama, like Trump, even made change a central theme of his campaign. The results of Bush and Obama’s changes are, at the very least, far from clearly beneficial. Many Trump supporters probably believe (with some justification) that Obama’s changes caused more harm than good – despite the fact that he inherited a situation that could have used a good deal of improvement. Although the status quo in 2008 had serious flaws, it could still be changed for the worse. The same is true of today’s status quo, as well.

A flawed status quo does not even necessarily prove that the party in power has committed some serious error. Too often, voters reward and punish incumbents for events they did not cause, such as short-term economic trends, droughts, shark attacks, and even local sports team victories.

Supporting “change” just because the status quo is bad turns out to be a very dubious guide to voting decisions. It is one of a number of badly flawed information shortcuts that voters often use as substitutes for deeper knowledge, only to be misled rather than enlightened.

II. How Voters Should Assess “Change Agents.”

Before you support a candidate who promises to shake up the system with his brand of change, it is important to ask whether it will be change for the better. That requires a serious evaluation of his policies and their potential effects. The key question to ask about Trump is not whether he is a “change agent,” but whether his agenda of European-style big-government nationalism, deportations, trade wars, speech restrictions, and slaughtering civilians will be a change for the better or the worse. It’s also important to ask whether he has the temperament and knowledge needed to implement even good policies effectively. And, to the extent that Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, and other candidates might change the status quo if they win, voters should ask the same kinds of questions about their agendas as well.

In assessing presidential candidates’ proposals for change, we should put extra weight on those a president could implement on his own, without the need for new legislation. Significantly, many of Trump’s most dubious ideas fall into that category.

Seriously considering candidates’ policies is much harder than just voting for a change agent because you are angry about the status quo. It may be particularly difficult for the large number of voters who often don’t know even very basic facts about government and public policy. The combination of ignorance and voting based on simplistic reasoning is even rational behavior for most people, given the very low odds that a single vote will affect an electoral outcome. Political ignorance should not be equated with irrationality or stupidity.

But rational behavior is not the same thing as good behavior. If you want to be an ethically responsible voter, as opposed to merely a rational one, you should only support change after carefully considering the evidence on whether it is likely to be change for the better. If you don’t have the knowledge to do so and are unwilling or unable to learn, you also have the honorable option of abstaining from ignorant voting. It is not wrong to be ignorant about the potential consequences of proposals for change. But it is often wrong to inflict that ignorance on your fellow citizens. As John Stuart Mill put it, voting is not just an individual choice, but the exercise of “power over others.” That power should be exercised responsibly.

By all means, vote for change you can believe in. But don’t believe in it unless you have good reason to think it will be change for the better.