“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
― Winston S. Churchill
Why do poor voters side with politicians who pledge to cut welfare? Why do middle class voters support those who promise to cut taxes on the rich? Why do many wealthy voters choose candidates that promise to raise their taxes? Is voting even a rational choice?
These are not new questions, but I have been pondering them afresh, in light of the current healthcare debate in which those that voted for Republican candidates have enabled those in power to take away Medicare and other funds in order to cut taxes for the rich. While some of these voters are showing buyer’s remorse, many still support legislation that will directly hurt their interests.
Certainly there are many issues to prioritize in selecting a candidate, and no single representative can align fully with any one voter, much less all those who select him or her. Some voters go so far as to ignore a candidate’s extreme position on an issue, believing that the government would never actually go through with something so radical. In a polarized electorate like ours today, that becomes a dangerous gamble, as we can now see.
Some who have studied this paradox suggest that emotions sway many voters, rather than reason. Anger is often cited as one factor. Many feel left behind by government, the economy and society as a whole. As a result, they lash out against the system and side with candidates that present the same rhetoric. They are much like those that game theory describes who prefer that no one get anything, rather than have to share. In a world in which a voter’s economic well-being has been declining for decades, this attitude may not be as irrational as it seems.
Fear is a related explanation. Regulations and taxes that affect employers prompt fear that jobs will disappear, and so voters judgment is tainted by a simplified view of self-interest.
In a complex world, simple stories often sway voters, even if the stories are patently untrue. The unfortunately perfect example of the regularly repeated “nasty woman” description of Hillary Clinton is as good, or bad, an example as one could find.
Values seem often to sway voters more than self-interest. Many times, extreme values take on undue weight. Guns, abortion, immigration, and bathrooms come immediately to mind. The unique American value of self-determination prompts many to reject candidates that offer government lifelines for those in need.
One interesting observation I have read is that people select candidates based on their self-image, and not their true interests. They see themselves as the members of a common group or “tribe,” and vote accordingly. Few are willing to identify themselves as middle class, much less poor. They would rather believe they are part of a group that reflects their goals or ideals, even if the group fails to help them get there.
I happen to be a (somewhat) old, white man, whose demographic would put me firmly among traditional Republicans and within the disaffected group who found Trump’s rhetoric appealing. The first category doesn’t really describe my politics, and the latter could not be further from my views. You could say that I too do not vote in favor of my personal interests. The truth, in my case and perhaps for a great many, is that we are all too complex to put in boxes. When all is said, we can’t say enough to predict other’s views.