Flagging Voters

Elections depend on votes. What do votes depend upon? Well, flags, for one thing.

There’s a lot of other studies that show that many seemingly trivial or even irrelevant factors result in perceptible movements in people’s tendency to vote for one party or another or for incumbents versus challengers.

As well as exposure to national flags, these factors include the effect of weather on Fourth of July celebrations (for Americans) during their childhood; sports results; candidate height; and, facial similarity between the voter and candidate. It might be some relief, though, that male hair loss in (male) candidates does not seem to affect voting behaviour.

Before anyone gets too depressed about these studies, there are two points that are important to remember.

The first is that, usually, the effects are relatively small (1.6% in favour of the incumbent for the sports results effect – that could be crucial, of course, but still isn’t a reason for despair. In knife-edge circumstances small, irrelevant influences can be seen as ‘deciding’ but, really, they are less responsible for the knife-edge than more fundamental factors).

The second is that they appear to be more prominent amongst less ‘partisan’ voters, as might be expected. Generally, there are significant proportions of the population for whom these kinds of features have little impact on voting behaviour.

But there’s an important – and perhaps more depressing – caveat to that last point. Fewer people now appear to be ‘partisan’ in the sense of having a well thought out political opinion or allegiance to a political party. The ‘swinging voter’ is no longer a relative rarity. In America, prior to the recent 2010 mid-term elections it was reported that:

“An estimated 37 percent of all American voters now call themselves independents or unaffiliated voters, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. This is a bigger group than those who say they are Democrats (34 percent) or those who identify themselves as Republicans (28 percent). The percentage of voters who say the are independent is the largest in 70 years.”

From the same link, the claimed reasons for becoming an ‘independent’ or swing voter are:

“Disaffection with the American two-party political system is a big reason for the growing number of independent voters. Many of them say they have been driven from the Republican and Democratic parties by what they perceive as extremism and a failure to focus on the issues they consider most important. Others say they simply have lost faith in the two-party system and do not want to be affiliated with either party.”

In Australia in 2004, John Quiggin argued that the proportion of swing voters is much higher than usually thought:

“the number of “rusted-on” major party voters has declined drastically. Both sides have recorded votes of 35 per cent or below in their worst recent outings, which puts an absolute upper bound of 70 per cent voters committed to one party or the other. But even within this group, there are almost certainly some who changed over time, or voted on a specific issues.”

In fact, here in New Zealand, not being ‘political’ is often seen as a virtue when it comes to politics and voting. Sometimes referred to as “common sense”, the trust in a relatively unstructured response to politics and politicians seems to have increasing status.

It is, of course, a strange world when not having a principled framework or body of knowledge and history within which to make judgments and decisions and, instead, relying on momentary impulses is seen as something to be admired, but that seems to be the world that voters are increasingly creating, perhaps in response to what they see as the hollowness of party politics.

It’s also perfectly defensible to claim that tribalism in politics is something to disdain and its rejection by electors as something to feel positive about. An alternative account of this loss of political convictions, however, is that the population has progressively become politically ‘dumbed down’ in a general sense. People have given up on being political.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, public debates, newspapers, book clubs, pamphleteering and general working class political activism were commonplace within the supposedly ‘illiterate’ working classes of Victorian Britain and America.

Further afield, in 1848, there was a series of revolutionary movements and protests in European and Latin American countries generated, in part, by that growing political awareness of both the working class and the educated middle classes.

Popular and mass movements of ordinary people increasingly bore upon – even drove – political processes. More importantly, they also expressed a strong interest in the population at large to participate directly – rather than via parties – in political ‘decisions’.

The contrast with the populations of current day democracies could hardly be starker. It appears that even the exercise of one’s vote is not, in most people’s minds, a significant enough act to generate a desire to know and understand the likely consequences of voting choices.

Active people determined to participate in the processes that deeply affect their lives have become reduced simply to voters. And, as voters, their heart – increasingly – is not in politics.

The modern voter is now so unmotivated, it would seem, that their flagging interest can be wafted hither and thither by the flap of a flag in front of them.

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4 Responses to Flagging Voters

  1. Douglas says:

    Active people determined to participate in the processes that deeply affect their lives have become reduced simply to voters. And, as voters, their heart – increasingly – is not in politics.

    In practice, the difference between the two main parties has largely disappeared. Where do they differ? Mostly, in how they treat other people: Sick? I don’t need reasonable grounds to demand a doctor’s note any more; Not performing? I don’t need reasonable grounds to fire you any more; top tax rates; democratic processes – National Standards? Because we say so.

    The enormous modern middle class is served by two large main parties that don’t really disagree over economics, health, education, social welfare, or even the environment, so this enormous middle class is voting on issues that don’t affect them.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Douglas,

      Good point about the main parties – the differences on the main areas that affect the ‘enormous middle class’ are reasonably marginal (although even marginal differences can make a difference for particular individuals or sub-sets of the middle class).

      I suppose I was thinking that there are issues that do deeply affect people, including the middle class, but perhaps not immediately or proximately – and these issues are ones that we are, in effect, ‘voting on’, whether or not we realise it in the voting booth.

      When we vote in our immediate (middle class) interests I’d argue that we often stack up a lot of longer term consequences that are not in our interests, in terms of a less functional society, allowing opportunities for people with considerable resources to further control the structures and forms of our daily world, and the like.

      I’ve often claimed that I don’t think I’ve ever cast a vote in my interests – but, of course, what I mean is that I haven’t cast a vote in my short-term interests (e.g., to get a tax cut) because I have the sense that it is in my – and my family’s and others’ interests – that our society is not too unequal, too harsh, too dominated by the pursuit of wealth at all costs, etc..

      You’re ultimately right, though, that the middle class are hardly likely to go ‘into the streets’ and demand more active participation in decision-making when they perceive that their interests are being pretty well met anyway.

      • Douglas says:

        Good point. I had never thought about that. This is the elephant in the room of the English riots, of Cameron’s “criminality pure and simple”. Ideas of social justice are not entirely selfless.

        • Puddleglum says:

          Ideas of social justice are not entirely selfless.

          You’re right. Of course they aren’t and neither they should be.

          Existential martyrdom shouldn’t be the wages of social justice. ‘Enlightened self-interest’ as enlightenment philosophers called it.

          On the other hand, just being a bit compassionate would help (nature’s ‘built-in’ calculator of our ‘self-interest’).

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