Why We Vote Against Our Interests

Today’s even longer than usual post has been published in full in The Mark News.
Quite a bit of work has been undertaken recently on why people often vote against their own interests. This kind of research and analysis will of course often betray some political bias, some assumptions about what is “really” in the interests of the poor, say, as opposed to what the poor themselves think. In fact, some of the work was driven by frustrated Democrats trying to understand why those whom they were trying to help were not voting for them. In any case, this now growing body of thought seeks to explain why those who should most want change often vote for ideological parties that defend the status quo or more accurately, in English speaking democracies, parties that trust to the markets and tradition, even if neither has been very kind to many of us. No wonder progressives and pragmatists of the “radical centre” are frustrated.

Indeed, so powerful have been the right-wing messages that we now see centrists and so-called progressives competing to demonstrate who are the true fiscal conservatives, the real cutters of government and taxes, the most aggressive on security. And even that doesn’t seem to be working. The issue is not simply the growing distrust of government, though that’s important, or even small government versus big government (witness, for instance, the abysmal fiscal performance of most conservative governments).

So what can the research and analysis tell us? Part of the answer lies in the techniques adopted by ideological parties to fuel and pander to our worst fears and to close off the sources of evidence and knowledge that challenge their ideology. Part of the answer lies in the failure of reformers to find a narrative that fits the time. Part of the answer lies in changes in political culture. Here are a few of the lessons I take from the research.

1) We are all of us vulnerable to fear in changing times

Parties that see government’s overriding or only role as security increasingly pander to our fears and our anxieties about change at home and in the world, and portray themselves as our protectors, the firm hand, the strict parent. And it works: fear trumps many other emotions and can blot out evidence and appeals for moderation. Appealing to fear is a faux populism that seeks advantage in our frailties and turns them against us. But ignoring our fears is not an answer. Little wonder that progressives are reluctant to take this on – who wants to be seen as soft or weak or naive about the threats. But before they can do anything, before they can be heard, they have to counter the culture of fear rather than pander to it. If progressives join in the pandering, they are lost. Of course, this is far from easy. On some days it’s near impossible because sometimes bad things happen. This week some suspected terrorists were arrested right here in Canada, again. No one can guarantee absolute security – no one. And our vulnerability to fear is perhaps also a reflection of a deeper anxiety about a world increasingly unfamiliar and out of our control.

But progressives and centrists must take the issue on: they need to be realistic about the threats and measured in their responses, opting for prudence over paranoia, even when it’s hard; they will have to explode the myths that needlessly and dangerously intensify our fears; and they will need to explain the costs of over-reaction not only financially, but to our rights and freedoms, to our openness, to our international relations, and to the kind of country we are and are seen to be. They will also have to address our deeper anxieties and show how government can be important in helping us to manage the changes over which we have no control. Making us afraid of the future is not the way.

2) We don’t like being told what’s in our interests

Politicians who don’t believe in a positive role for government don’t need to engage us in any great national project or policy initiative. Indeed they have it much easier; they can, for example, simply ridicule the experts and point to past government failures. There always are plenty of examples. When we try to do great or even good things, individually or collectively, we will sometimes fail. Those who want to inhibit such endeavours have simply to feed cynicism and distrust, both of which sap all the energy out of collective enterprise.

But centrist or progressive politicians have not learned how to combat this, how to engage Canadians in designing the future in a way they can believe in. Instead, too often they seem to be deciding for us what is “for our own good,” and making promises we just don’t believe any more. Most of us don’t much like being lectured in our everyday lives and dislike it no less in our politics. “Who are these people, these so-called experts, to tell us what we need or ought to want? What do they know of our circumstances?” Perhaps earlier in our history we were more deferential to authorities, to experts, and expected others to shape our collective destiny on our behalf. Today, not so much. We want to be asked. We want to be engaged. We want promises we can believe in. Or we want to be left alone.

The new anti-elitism is, I believe, profoundly misplaced, strangely focused on politicians, public servants, experts, and knowledge workers rather than on those who have all the money and power. That’s certainly good news for those who have all the money and power. There is something unseemly and even dangerous about the assault on evidence and experts especially coming from our political leaders. But it has resonance with many because government seems distant from and irrelevant to our lives, a “foreign thing” where decisions are made about us but without us. The distance between citizen and state must be reduced. Democratic revitalization has to be at the centre of the agenda if we are to restore the balance. Experts and policy professionals are not the enemy here. They are part of the solution and among our best protections against the blind certainty of ideology and raw power. But so long as people feel shut out they will distrust the evidence and the experts.

Simply, all the best expertise and knowledge won’t matter unless we do something to revitalize our democratic institutions and the tools we have to engage Canadians. In that context, the experts take on the support roles rather than the starring roles. Such an agenda could include: electoral reform so that our votes matter; institutional reform so that Parliament can be a forum for the big debates, and can more effectively hold government to account; and harnessing new media tools and old fashioned town halls to bring citizens back in.

3) We prefer stories to policy

Conservatives don’t have to talk policy because they tend to trust to a combination of tradition and the wisdom of the market – so it’s easier for them to talk a language we all understand. Progressives and pragmatists inevitably talk policy but will have to learn to do this in a way more relevant to our lives. There was a defining moment in a Bush-Gore debate when Gore cited some pretty impressive statistics explaining how health care reform was both necessary and workable and Bush responded simply and to great effect. “Look,” he said, ” this is a man who has great numbers.” His message: statistics lie and experts can’t be trusted. They don’t talk our language. He then proceeded in a folksy way (and with some of his own numbers) to tell a story about families in America, a story we could all relate to and he won the debate, though not among the experts. I heard a Canadian politician not long ago complain about his opponents that they just use “words, words, words.” Words and numbers don’t do it unless they are part of a recognizable story.

We are not full-time public policy professionals. We have lives and jobs and family responsibilities and even if we are very engaged in public life, the time we can devote is limited. And frankly fewer and fewer seem so engaged. So what many of us are looking for in the little time we have to engage is a narrative, stories and examples, “straight talk,” authentic conversation. That doesn’t mean spin and oversimplification. Or at least it needn’t mean that even though that has been its direction. But it does mean clarity about the trade offs inherent in public policy, the moral choices I have as a citizen. It also means some humility about what’s on offer and some notion of why some particular idea will work when other ideas have not. Above all, it means a narrative that links public issues to our private troubles, that makes policy relevant to citizens and our everyday lives.

4) We have a bias towards politicians who like our country as it is

Conservatives also have an advantage because the evidence shows that in normal times we have a strong bias for politicians who we think will defend our country and preserve its essential characteristics. Mostly we don’t want change; we often find unsettling those who keep urging reform – from either the left or the right. Of course there are exceptions to this, but those most hungry for change have often given up on the political process altogether. And there are points in time – crises for example – when we may be far more open to change – but only if there is a convincing narrative. Most of the time, however, and increasingly I think in these uncertain times, we want to know that our politicians will protect our country and us from the threats that change seems to bring with it. That’s why politicians of all stripes have increasingly learned to make big changes in small invisible steps while they emphasize how well things are going (except of course for the largely external threats to our way of life.)

Mostly we choose the status quo. But, the status quo is not available. It is a deception. Inaction on the environment means deterioration. Inaction on social policy means deeper inequalities. Inaction on the economy means lost jobs and diminished sovereignty. Progressive politicians will need to make clear that the status quo is not an option. The desire to stop the change is often nothing more than a nostalgia for a Canada that never was because we are fearful or cynical about the future. And politicians can easily get caught up in a contest about who loves the country best, and they may become reluctant to propose great change because this will be portrayed as not just dangerous or doomed but unpatriotic. But the only possibility is change and our only real choice is about the direction of that change within the limits of our freedom and knowledge. The debate should be about that, about the Canada we want and what the best information and expertise tell us about how to achieve it.

5) We are looking for moral content and find it much more readily in some conservative parties

The other area where ideologically conservative parties may have an edge is in the moral discourse that many of us are looking for in our politics. Progressives and centrists are often uncomfortable talking about religion, and they value diversity too much to allow for doctrinaire moral aphorisms. In fact, progressive and big tent parties seem to have abandoned all moral discourse in favour of often sterile policy largely focused on the economy. And yes, I know, it’s the economy stupid, and jobs, jobs, jobs, but it’s always more than that and here conservative parties have the edge.

In Canada, the “non-right” parties have tended to point to their great contributions of the past – medicare or the Charter, for example – and at worst hide behind the courts on key moral issues. When they do talk about morality they tend to focus on the individual, on individual rights and freedoms and the importance of mutual respect and accommodation. Of course, these are absolutely crucial issues, fundamental to a pluralistic society and need to be vigorously defended. But progressives need not run away from a discussion of what a noble life, a moral life, would entail. They are right to reject approaches that are exclusive, that do not embrace the diversity of family forms, or that put punishment ahead of safety. But they need to be clear that there are prerequisites to a diverse pluralistic society, that they value the rule of law, gender equality, and the peaceful resolution of conflict. And equally, they need to embrace the importance of family, community and country as a counterweight to unbridled individualism, as well as duty, sacrifice, and conservation as a counterweight to unbridled consumerism.

The case for change may be harder to make but is no less urgent for that. In many other countries, politics is polarising, becoming more ideological. Historically, Canadians’ pragmatism has protected us from the worst excesses of ideology. If the polls are telling us anything it is that the majority of Canadians – or even a definitive minority – has not yet rallied around the political choices on offer. Perhaps many are just waiting for a narrative they can recognize and believe and, most important, one they helped to build.

2 Responses to “Why We Vote Against Our Interests”
  1. rabbit says:

    “This kind of research and analysis will of course often betray some political bias, some assumptions about what is “really” in the interests of the poor, say, as opposed to what the poor themselves think.”

    That statement was a sound start. It’s a pity that the rest of the article didn’t take it to heart, as the article presumes throughout that the progressive agenda is in the interests of the poor.

  2. So much information, misinformation and sheer fluff flying around, it sometimes seems impossible to put things in the proper context and separate what’s important from what isn’t. Analysis like this is invaluable to our understanding.

    We can all read about what’s going on. This tells us about why.

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