The Know Nothing Voter

Figuring out why people vote the way they do has been one of the great obsessions of political science. And, after more than fifty years of sustained scholarly effort dedicated to cracking the code of electoral choice, we’re pretty sure that Democrats vote for Democrats and Republicans vote for Republicans. Outside of that, lots of people seem to vote for lots of candidates and causes for lots of reasons. Why? Damned if we know.

This has not been quite the colossal exercise in academic futility the last paragraph implies. True, we’re still mostly at the head scratching stage of a general explanation of how decision making really goes down in the ballot booth. Along the way, though, we’ve managed to expose the most obvious and common rationales for why people vote the way they do as so much bunk. While no one was looking, political scientists have repeatedly and convincingly demonstrated that democracy–or at least democratic elections–do not work as pretty much everyone assumes they do.

Classic democratic theory presumes voters will take their civic duties seriously and cast their ballots on the basis of reasonable due diligence. In other words, there’ll be a good deal of gathering information on candidates and issues, weighing pros and cons, and cogitating on the consequences to the commonweal of backing Joe Blow or Jane Doe. While allowances are granted for slippage between theory and practice, there’s a general assumption that voters more or less know what they are doing when they show up to the polls to pin the tail on the democratic donkey.

It’s a nice story, sovereignty of the people, wisdom of the crowd and all that. Politicians and civics teachers still enthusiastically repeat the tale. And nothing wrong with the story. I like it too. The problem is it’s mostly fiction. Back in the 1950s Angus Campbell, Philip Converse and Warren Miller crushed the idea that the foundation of our democracy was an informed, judicious civitas. They did this using a lot of survey data and an early form of computer (i.e. a bunch of grad students with adding machines). Their classic study, The American Voter, reported that most citizens know diddly about the substance of who or what they are voting for. Instead, they treat politics like beer. They are loyal to a party brand even though in a blind policy-taste test they couldn’t pick a Clinton Pale Fail from a Trump Lout Stout.

Though The American Voter is now nearly 60 years old, its essential conclusion has held up. Umpteen other studies have data-dived the question to death and arrived at the same basic inference: most people are pig-ignorant about policy and politics. Once they decide–often without much in the way of conscious and reasoned deliberation–that they are a Republican or Democrat, or at least lean one way more than the other, that’s pretty much it. People will often pay attention to politics enough to justify their vote, but more in the sense of rationalizing it than coming up with an actual rationale. In general citizens are remarkably innocent of even the most basic facts and knowledge about politics and the political system, and what they do “know” is often just a mish-mash of dodgy first principles, ersatz ideological whinging, logical fallacy, and political fairy tales. It’s all held together with little more than bumper sticker clichés and social media outrage. To a large extent, that’s what our democracy stands on. Scary, huh?

As you might imagine, broadcasting news of general political illiteracy from the ivory tower is not exactly an exercise calculated to endear political science to the masses. How dare the pointy-headed professoriate cast their elitist aspersions upon the wisdom of masses? And what the heck do we know anyway? People don’t really base their voting decisions on little more than an emotional attachment to the letters “R” or “D” printed on their ballots, do they? Surely issues matter? Isn’t that what all the gum flapping in election campaigns is about? And there’s no way the good burghers of this great nation are shallowly treating elections like some sort of intramural sporting event where Ws and Ls matter more than the fate of the Republic? Sorry to send the broken record of my discipline spinning through one more revolution, but the answers to these questions are: Yes. Mostly no. Mostly not. And, sure as shootin’.

There’s little question that in terms of political IQ the vast mass of the electorate is in Forest Gump territory. Political life is like a box of chocolates with this crew, endless consumption of sweet, sticky carbohydrates that leave you feeling sick. Three-quarters of Americans cannot accurately identify the three branches of government in their own political system. One in three freshman in my introduction to American politics class cannot pass a basic citizenship test (the students who tend do the best on this test tend to be, of all things, Eastern Europeans. Go figure). Shoot, one in five Americans believes the sun revolves around the earth. These Einsteins have either studied the matter in-depth and have a logical rationale and sufficient evidence to reject heliocentrism, or science since the Enlightenment just ain’t their thing.

I’m guessing the latter. Alarming numbers of voters on the right deny evolution and poo-pooh climate change, and just-as-alarming numbers on the left believe vaccinations cause autism and genetically modified plants are bad because, I dunno, Franken-corn or something. Anyway, there’s little doubt that given the choice between the conclusions of the best available science and the spewing of the worst of the confirmation bias commentariat there’s no contest. Huge numbers of Americans choose the latter.

So, the bottom line is we haven’t really figured out why people vote the way they do, but we remain pretty gobsmacked about what voters get up to and the far-out (il)logic deployed to justify it. Along the way, what we have figured out is why government is often so screwed up, from left to right and top to bottom. That government is, fair and square, founded on the choices of voters. Given what we do know about how those choices are made, government dysfunction is not surprising. It’s practically guaranteed.