Pundits and political scientists often criticize voters as “irrational,” or “voting against their own interests.” But who determines voters’ interests, and which interests are most important? (More)

Voting on Character, Part I: Those Irrational Voters

This week Morning Feature considers whether and why voters should base their decisions on character issues. Today we look at so-called “irrational” voters who are said to “vote against their own interests.” Tomorrow we’ll see why character issues, not proposed policies, are and should be central in voters’ decision-making. Saturday we’ll conclude by contrasting the characters of President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Meet Frederick

Frederick is a 48-year-old union worker at a defense contractor, building parts for a prototype jet that Pentagon officials don’t think they’ll ever need. His wife works in the financial aid office of a local college. Their 26-year-old daughter is a graphic artist engaged to a 27-year-old undocumented immigrant whose parents moved here when he was three. Their 23-year-old son graduated from MIT in June with a math degree and is now in Wharton’s MBA program. They’re proud of their children but worried about his mother, who is in a nursing home.

Frederick hasn’t decided who he’ll vote for in 2012. As a union worker, he should favor President Obama and Democrats, who are more supportive of union rights. As an employee of a defense contractor building a prototype jet the Pentagon doesn’t really want, he should favor Mitt Romney, who would overrule Pentagon officials to keep contracts like the one that currently keeps Frederick’s employer in business. On the other hand, his wife has a good job that might be cut by the Romney education plan. His future son-in-law benefits from President Obama’s DREAMers Rule, but his son is on a path toward a Wall Street trading career and thinks the Dodd-Frank Act may limit his future bonuses. Frederick’s son is still on Frederick’s health insurance plan, thanks to Obamacare, and Frederick is young enough that he would be affected by Romney’s proposed changes to Medicare. His mother might also be affected by their planned cuts to Medicaid, which supports seniors in nursing home care.

Frederick is not quite our archetypal median voter Fred. Indeed his life illustrates a core problem with median voter theory. Like most of us, Frederick has multiple interests, some of which are better served by Democrats and others, arguably, by Republicans. Of course it’s easy enough for you to decide that most of Frederick’s most important interests would be helped by President Obama and Democrats. But what if he disagrees on which are his most important interests? What if he’s also a devout Catholic who thinks abortion is a grave sin?

Is Frederick “rational?”

How much does Frederick know about politics and the two major parties? He’s busy, after all, with his job and his family. Maybe he also volunteers at his church, and is one of those few Americans who still bowls in a league. Maybe spending an hour a day reading and watching the news seems like more effort than it’s worth to him, what political scientists call “rational ignorance.”

Or maybe Frederick does read the news and is reasonably well informed about the two parties, their platforms, and their candidates. Even so, whichever vote he casts, the other parties’ supporters could tell stories of Frederick as an “irrational voter” who “voted against his own interests.” An economist who knew him and was so-inclined might even use Frederick as an example in a book titled The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. (Note: I haven’t read the book and have no idea if it includes examples like Frederick.)

Indeed the root word of “rational” – ratio – implies that Frederick should list his interests, weight them by priority, carefully the parties and candidates and estimate which would help or harm each of his interests and by how much, and base his voting decision on that aggregated calculation. But I don’t know anyone who votes that way – I certainly don’t – and I’ll go out on a limb and say Frederick won’t either. In that very specific sense, his vote will be “irrational” … as was mine, and probably yours.

One more detail….

Oh, and Frederick lives in New Madrid, Missouri, about halfway between St. Louis and Memphis. What he doesn’t know when he goes to the polls Tuesday – indeed what no scientist can predict with current theories and data – is that the New Madrid Fault will flex in the summer of 2014 …

… and Frederick’s other interests will seem trivial compared to which candidate’s budgets and staffing decisions mean the fastest, most effective response from FEMA when he and his family need the help.

Is “rational voting” even possible?

Of course I made that up, as I made up Frederick’s entire life. But his fictional story is entirely plausible, and consistent with Realworldia. The idea that we can predict which issues will be most crucial in our lives over the next four years, weight them by priority and likelihood, evaluate the parties and candidates’ positions, estimate how much each would help or harm each of our interests, and reach a calculated, “rational” voting decisions is … patently absurd.

That’s not to say we should be “rationally ignorant” and just flip a coin. Issues do matter, as do the candidates’ and party’s positions, and we can roughly estimate which will best serve at least some of our interests. But if we’re honest with ourselves, and if we listen respectfully to Frederick, we may discover that not all of his (or our) interests tip the same way, nor can we be certain which of his (or our) interests will be most critical over the next four years.

We can’t be precisely “rational” voters, but we can be “reasonable” voters. And as we’ll see tomorrow, the most compelling reasons for our voting decisions may be less about specific issues and interests and more about the candidates’ personal qualities … their values, integrity, and decision-making methods. In short: their characters.


Happy Thursday!