Monday’s Mtg: Why Do We Vote The Way We Do?

Have you ever noticed how shallow the discussions tend to be about why people are voting one way or the other in this crucial election?  It’s all about the campaign advertising, or the candidate speeches, or debates, or gaffes, or budget deficits.  Please.

Of course, no one outside of the dimmest pundits really believes that voters are homo politicus, calmly weighing candidates’ positions as if they were think tank experts.  Even fewer think that we’re all homo economicus, dispassionately calculating the expected financial utility of tax cuts or spending increases.  But, the stuff we hear every day on politics is pretty shallow and approaches this level of sophistication far too often.  Even worse, IMO, is the elite media’s explanations of how “regular” voters think, which to me resemble Margaret Meade trying to explain Samoan customs or something.

We can do better.  At Monday’s meeting, I’ll open us up by summarizing some of the basic findings on why people turn out to have the political views they have, and then we can discuss it and/or  the next day’s election

Pick Your Favorite Social Science

At the risk of causing actual social scientists’ heads to explode, we probably can think of the motivation for voting a particular way as some combination of political in nature (understood by political science), culturally derived (sociology), and psychological.

As Bruce mentioned last week, the reasons for political beliefs run deep, and are much more than a matter of listening to the right” or “wrong” information.  I find this both comforting (people may be ignorant in the voting booth but they know their own minds) and disquieting (political differences are so hard-wired that they are very resistant to new information or other ways of thinking).

In fact, this meeting will get to one of my biggest worries about our country’s political future: Our growing division into two, diametrically opposed camps.  As we’ve discussed many times, the GOP and the Democrats already are splintering along racial and  ethnic lines; as well as religious (faith vs. non), regional, and – especially dangerously – class lines.  How much worse could things get if we also divide by cultural worldview and even psychological makeup?  At some point, aided by partisan news media, will we even be unable even to understand each other?


  1. Are political opinions and loyalties based on self-interest or something else?  What interests lie beyond material interests?  How sophisticated an analysis do most people make of these interests?
  2. How do loyalties to one political worldview or party form?  How persistent are they and what makes them change?
  3. What role do cultural factors, family circumstances, and psychology play?
  4. Are any of these processes different for different types of people; e.g., low-information versus well-informed voters, religious versus non-religious people, etc.?
  5. If political opinions and loyalties are so fixed, why are they spending $6 billion (not a typo) on the 2012 campaign to persuade us of what we supposedly already believe?  Is anyone’s mind being changed?
  6. If voters know what they want and vote their interests, then why are they always so unhappy with what politicians do?  Why aren’t politicians more responsive to voters, if indeed they speak so clearly?


See you all on Monday!


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