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Voter behaviour

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It’s a familiar routine. Another federal or state government election is being held. You have endured a long election campaign with each side telling you why they deserve your vote. Election day has finally arrived and you’re standing in the polling booth ready to discharge your democratic duty. How will you vote?

We like to believe that voters evaluate the evidence put in front of them over the course of a campaign and then make an informed decision on election day. This, however, is fantasy as the average voter is surprisingly unsophisticated. Most citizens don’t make their voting decisions based on policy questions.

Consider the election of Donald Trump which left many people perplexed. His campaign – described in one critique as “a toxic mix of exaggerations, lies, fearmongering, xenophobia and sex scandal” – succeeded in elevating an unsuitable and unpopular nominee to the office of president.

That voters are poorly informed and make irrational decisions is no surprise to renowned political scientists – Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels. These two academics co-authored the acclaimed book – Democracy For Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government.

The book is promoted as containing “ingenious original analyses of topics ranging from abortion politics and budget deficits to the Great Depression and shark attacks, to show that the familiar ideal of thoughtful citizens steering the ship of state from the voting booth is fundamentally misguided”.

The authors’ core belief is that people cast their votes for no particularly good reason and that incumbents often get rewarded or punished for events beyond their control. They illustrate this point by tracing the electoral impact of a random event – a dramatic series of shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916.

In what has become the most famous example in the book, they note that voters on the New Jersey seashore blamed President Woodrow Wilson for the shark attacks in the summer of 1916. As a result, Woodrow Wilson lost his home state in the presidential election.

The beachfront towns – which relied on tourism – were negatively impacted by the attacks. Even though Wilson was obviously not responsible for the string of shark-related fatalities, he was the incumbent, and people vote against incumbents when things are bad.

This, of course, is illogical. As Achen and Bartels declare, “punishing the incumbents for events beyond their control makes no more sense than kicking the dog to get back at a difficult boss at work” … yet “… governments are punished willy-nilly for bad times”.

At the polling booth, election-year natural disasters (droughts, floods, etc.) and the performance of the economy in the months prior to the election, have a major impact on whether an incumbent or challenger wins an election. If things are going well, whether they’re controllable or not, they’ll reward the party in power. If not, they’ll look for someone else to lead them.

Achen and Bartels assert that most citizens are unable to evaluate sensitive information to reach an informed opinion whether times have been good or bad under the incumbent government:

Citizens are unlikely to know whether crime has gone up or down, only whether gruesome murders appear in the local news. Their judgments about the seriousness of environmental threats are virtually uncorrelated with those of experts. Even in the domain of the economy, where detailed statistical information is plentiful … voters may fixate on current conditions to the neglect of the incumbent’s full record.

The book lays waste the comforting view that citizens cast votes based on rational choice – the so-called “folk theory of democracy”. Voters don’t have anything like coherent preferences. Most people pay little attention to politics and vote irrationally and for contradictory reasons.

In a 2016 article titled “Americans – especially but not exclusively Trump voters – believe crazy, wrong things”, Washington Post columnist, Catherine Rampell, cited research showing that more than a third of the public believed that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and that Hillary Clinton was involved with a satanic paedophilia ring (“Pizzagate”) – among many other things. Rampell concludes:

Some of these misperceptions and false beliefs may seem laughable. To me, they’re terrifying. They result in misused resources, violence and harassment, health risks, bad policy, and, ultimately, the deterioration of democracy. Good governance becomes more challenging when Americans live in parallel universes of facts.

Inaccurate simplifications and downright misrepresentations have always plagued politics, and this holds true in Australia as well. During the last federal election, Australians were falsely told that the Liberal Party was going to privatise Medicare and that the Labor Party’s carbon price would lead to $100 lamb roasts.

As few expect politicians to tell the truth, we are not particularly surprised when lies are exposed. But when allegedly rational politicians act irrationally we lose faith. One of our challenges in Australia is to overcome our leadership change addiction. Discarding state and federal leaders has become a national sport.

Since 2013, we’ve had five changes of prime minister in Australia, so the electorate is understandably annoyed that we overthrow our leaders with regular monotony. The rate at which we burn through prime ministers has made Australia the coup capital of the Pacific.

The rise in party-room leadership spills and relentless political infighting has tarnished Australian politics. But as citizens, we are complicit with falling standards. As a society, we would rather read about the sordid private lives of celebrities than have a serious debate about the long-term benefits of public policy.

We all have a say in voting governments in and politicians should be worthy of the people they serve. Equally, we have an obligation to behave responsibly and avoid short-term community hysteria if we don’t get our way on a particular issue.

It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s largely our fault if we end up with poor political leadership. Politics is nothing if not a mirror of the society it serves. As the French political philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, observed: In democracy, we get the government we deserve.

Paul J. Thomas, CEO


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CEO Paul Thomas