Why People Vote the Way They Do

I finished a book recently and thought I might write about it here, but was too lazy. Then I read a comment after an article at Three Quarks Daily:

A crucial question: how does the party of oppression and social inequality get away with parading its commitment to liberty, and capture power with the votes of those whose interests it totally neglects?

That was the motivation I needed to write something in response:

Two political scientists, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, cited a lot of surprising evidence in their book “Democracy for Realists” (2016) that “voters mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues” and that “voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties”. They concluded that most voters are remarkably ignorant about politics, but that even well-informed and engaged voters usually choose parties and candidates this way (in fact, more often than voters less interested in politics).

They admit that people do change their political identities sometimes, but say that, for the most part, the issues take a back seat to identity and partisanship.ย Once you see yourself as, e.g. a Democrat in the US or a Conservative in the UK, you will tend to vote and think a certain way. The subtitle of their book is “Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government”. It was both informative and depressing to read.

It’s depressing because one of our political parties makes a serious effort (sometimes successful, often not) to address issues and enact policies that will help average people’s lives, while the other mostly ignores real problems and policy, but gets their supporters (the non-wealthy ones anyway) riled up about things that didn’t happen or don’t matter (see, for example, how they got millions of people upset a “stolen” election). One might conclude that the party that tries to make our antiquated government work is at a permanent disadvantage. It’s so much easier to invent a “controversy” about Critical Race Theory in elementary schools than to replace all of their old lead pipes.

So when we hear that it’s the Democrats who are all about identity politics, we should keep in mind how important identity is to politics, even to coal miners in West Virginia, farmers in Nebraska and cops in New York City.