Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Fallacy of Faith in the Rational Voter

Among several others, one of the topics that tends to pervade my writing on this site is cynicism regarding the intellectual and rational capacity of the average voter. One need only look at the style and substance of the typical campaign ads in an election year to see clearly that their appeals are being made to emotions and prejudice rather than the human capacity for reason. Michael Dukakis looks funny in a helmet, John Kerry looks effete while windsurfing, and too many other examples to name, all exemplify the emotional appeals that, more than simply influencing American politics, form nearly the entirety of the system.

Though the absence of rationalism in American politics appears rather obvious on the surface, it remains taboo to suggest that something is amiss. Politicians certainly will not broach the subject, especially those that wish to continue on for more than a single election. Journalists, too, (save for Mencken, of course) are adverse to insinuating the average voter is ill-informed or irrational, probably stemming from a combination of feelings of fraternity and the necessity of ad revenue. Thus, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the myth of a vast conglomeration of rational voters is perpetuated ad infinitum (and ad nauseum), and the accumulation of proof otherwise seems destined never to be addressed.

Writing for Newsweek, Alan Ehrenhalt, has given it a try, though his conclusions indicate that even as he calls out the electorate he is hesitant to speak in absolutes and still clings to the common conception of the rational voter as one would a faith learned since birth. In the end, Ehrenhalt agrees with the conclusion reached by Rick Shenkman, author of Just How Stupid Are We?, in claiming rather anti-climactically "We can have a smart electorate."

In proposing such a fantasy, Ehrenhalt assumes that there exists a single ingredient missing from the less-informed voters and a simple vitamin or even a vague allusion to eugenics ["how we might go about making more of them"] can save us from their torment. What Ehrenhalt and Shenkman both fail to see is that more than simply a lack of good voters, our political apparatus suffers because at its core it is founded upon these voters, and over the years has only grown as ivy over lattice to incorporate anti-rational voters into itself. The system does not suffer for lack of sufficient input, it requires the very input that it receives and as such would be incapable of functioning should the situation be otherwise.

The political advertisers and marketers have built their operations around the voter as he is found in nature, not the mythical voter as found in popular rhetoric. These con artists do not simply incorporate the ill-informed voter into their work, but establish their entire social function around him, so that without the current crop of voters the system would wither and die. Surely a new system would crop up, but the political marketing apparatus as it is currently constituted would cease to exist.

The supposition that we are but one step away from a league of well-informed, rational voters also belies the very nature of advertising, which at its core depends on irrational, emotional appeals even more than it feeds them. Differences between commercials from automakers and political campaigns scarcely exist, both seeking to paint a fantasy in the minds of the audience rather than appealing to some superstitious belief in the mental superiority of the common consumer. Whether the good in question is a vehicle or a politician, the sales pitch is the same.

These advertising schemes do not tolerate inanity, but thrive on it. The ill-informed public is a necessity, making the jobs of marketers (commercial and political) both essential and perpetual. Ehrenhalt's analysis of a man who believes in the rationality of voters, Samuel Popkin, is even more implausible than his faith-based acceptance of Shenkman's premise:

In a similar way, Popkin doesn't base his theory of the "reasoning voter" on claims that we go to the polls primed with information about the choices on the ballot. He says we practice "low-information rationality," piecing together scraps of knowledge gleaned from personal experience, historical events, media coverage and other sources to pull the lever based on what amounts to gut reasoning. But he believes that it works most of the time.

An electorate, in other words, is something like a jury. It's a panel of ordinary people, limited in their knowledge and training, who combine to produce a judgment of greater wisdom than any of them could make alone. The crowd, in some mysterious way, is wiser than the individual. The average voter may be no genius, but the electorate as a group is no fool. So the theory goes. It is a theory that allows candidates, scholars and journalists to get through the day without having to question the fundamental tenets of American government.

I don't contend that the theory is groundless. There is something in the wisdom of crowds.

At the root, Popkin is claiming that a well-informed voter is not even a necessary aim, as when enough faulty parts are conjoined, they form a functional whole. This is, of course, preposterous. You can't build a running car out of non-working parts any more than you can construct a functional democracy from an irrational populace. The belief in the "wisdom of crowds" doesn't even merit a retort.

That the voter is physiologically capable of becoming informed or utilizing the gift of rational thought passes without question, to be sure. But to suspect that we are but one or two steps away from such an occurrence is pure fantasy. Our entire political system is built on the ill-informed. Campaigns are constructed so as to best utilize emotional, anti-rational appeals, and little attention is paid to questions of policy. When policy is accidentally brought up, it is too often a cavalcade of half-truths and outright lies so that even these discussions devolve into evidence of baseless zeal.

In the arena of foreign policy, most Americans can't find Canada on a map, and care even less about the intricacies of policy half a world a way. All those that are not Americans are by definition "the others." Differences between Shia and Sunni, Punjab and Pashtun, have no bearing on the American mind, and thus never interfere with swift-boat politics. Nuanced, historically-literate discussion doesn't move product, tales of heroism and romanticized narratives do.

Political campaigns are simply a series of fantastical mirages of one candidate and farcical suggestions about the other, and the favor is always returned, so that we are left with nothing but a endless supply of supposed gaffes, faux controversy, and feigned outrage. Whether people vote against their own economic interests is off the table, and discussion must center on a single word ("cling"). Discussion of the efficacy of comparisons between the Iraq occupation and World War II are immaterial, and all roads lead to a intentional misinterpretation of statements on the subject (100 years).

Every so often, this farce is pointed out by an isolated opinion writer, myself included, but it remains true that the majority of American voters do not recognize their own failures, and remain even further from lending hope to a reversal. The problem here remains the weakest component of democracy, for a system that rewards every citizen with a vote must inevitably allow those that should not vote to do so.

As we cannot take away the vote, and should not desire to for fear of the alternatives, we must instead change the system. To do so requires more than simple wishful thinking and an interest in education. The entire system must be torn down from the base. Only after there ceases to be a market for the current state of political framing will politicians and political operatives be forced to use a different tact.

Previous appeals for a betterment of the system have centered on a wish for ad campaigns to appeal to intellect rather than emotion, but these have the sequence of events backward. If detailed specs of cars sold the product, the ads for them would illustrate that reality. If intellectual appeals sold politicians, we would not see ads claiming that a vote for a particular politician is equal to rape, homicide, or pedophilia. No, the system will not change for the voter. The voting base must change the system. We must eliminate the market for crap and in its place create one for genuine discussion and debate, and the prospects are not nearly as good as Ehrenhalt would have us believe.

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