August 20, 2006

Are U.S. Voters Rational? (Revisited)

On a recent NPR show the Berkeley linguist George Lakoff (famous on the left for his work on values “framing”) derided what he called the “rationalist trap.” Lakoff believes that the assumption that voters critically analyze competing candidates’ positions and decide which one more closely aligns with their own preferences is wrong. He believes that voters choose candidates based on a set of underlying values and their general predisposition to the world.

Like most of Lakoff’s analyses there is some truth to what he says, but I believe he is largely incorrect, at least with respect to the voters who matter most in national elections.

Much of the recent discussion on the rationality or irrationality of the American electorate can be traced to the Thomas Frank book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, in which Frank makes the case that the lower-class rural voters who have switched from voting for Democrats to voting for Republicans have been duped into voting against their own self-interest. I contend that both Frank and Lakoff misread the U.S. electorate. Frank is condescending to GOP voters, while Lakoff is simply incorrect to claim that the bulk of voters (who aren’t intensely partisan) are motivated more by values than by specific policies and issues.

On the contrary, I believe that most American voters are in fact largely rational and clearly do weigh the policies of one candidate against the other when voting in national elections. The fact that the GOP has increased its power in consecutive elections is entirely consistent with this belief. Here’s why:

For the 20-30 million Christian fundamentalists who oppose reproductive freedoms, think that gays should be denied civil rights, and believe in a much greater role for Christian religion in politics, voting for the GOP is entirely rational (witness, as one small example, Bush’s recent veto of the stem-cell bill). If you’re a serious gun enthusiast who wants no restrictions on firearms, the GOP is the party that delivers. If you’re part of the business lobby that wants less regulation (or a hand in writing regulations, which may be even better), the GOP is your best choice. If you favor lower taxes there’s no doubt the GOP is the way to go. If you’re a foreign policy hawk who believes in an aggressive military posture, the GOP will likely better serve your interests. The above constituencies comprise the bulk of the GOP base, and it is clear that the party delivers on its promises.

Whether one agrees with them or not, the overwhelming majority of GOP voters are most certainly voting their interests. The problem is not whether they are rationally matching their interests to the respective candidates, but the fact that many of the values and policies they espouse are not only misguided, but to my mind reprehensible.

The issue confronting Democrats has nothing to do with making inroads among the GOP base, since their values are largely antithetical to progressive values. Democrats need to persuade the large centrist population (that is neither strongly Democratic nor Republican) that they, the Democrats, deserve to lead the country; it is the center, not the right, that has provided the GOP with its small margins of victory. Fortunately, appealing to the center doesn’t require the nonsensical and self-defeating task of trying to “out-God” the Republicans. If the Democrats can only do following, they will have no trouble persuading a majority of the electorate that they are better fit to lead America than the Republicans:

1. Clearly articulate their vision for a sensible foreign policy, state how they will expand economic opportunities for all, and stress their commitment to civil rights. The portion of the electorate that is open to progressive positions on the issues (the overwhelming majority), needs to hear in clear and simple language what it is that Democrats stand for, and why it is entirely rational to vote for them.

2. Be aggressive and fight back hard against any Republican attacks. In this dangerous world, it is entirely rational for voters not to trust our national security to people who can’t even stand up for themselves in the political arena.

3. Put forth at least relatively charismatic candidates. While “likeability” may be the least rational factor in choosing a candidate (after all, a strictly rational calculus would favor an annoying candidate whose positions you agree with over a likeable one you disagree with), the fact is that the public develops rather intimate relationships with their leaders over the years they are in office. This makes it entirely reasonable to desire a candidate who at least comes across as engaging and personable.

Those who believe that American voters are largely irrational either misinterpret voters’ preferences or cannot come to grips with the fact that large segments of the population are willing to vote for values other than their immediate economic self-interest. Fortunately for the proponents of liberal democracy and reason, the percentage of the U.S. population with values that run counter to the Constitution and Enlightenment principles, while significant, does not come close to a majority (at least nationally), and the keys to winning over the majority of American moderates are relatively straightforward.

If only the Democrats could act rationally, we might actually witness a shift back towards a government that supports the public interest and the democratic principles upon which this country was founded.

Jason Scorse

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