Why Voting On "The Issues" Is Stupid And It's Fine If Voters Are Uninformed

There are tropes popular among elite watchers of electoral contests that are treated as self-evident and that I think are self-evidently wrong and portray a misunderstanding of how democratic elections and governments work.

The first is the idea that voters should vote based on “the issues” and that voting for/against a candidate based on her character is silly.

The ideal voter, in this scheme, would print out all the 10-point plans on the various candidates’ websites, read them, and then make an informed decision as to which policies she likes more. Conversely, she should utterly disregard attack ads pointing out that this guy is a philanderer and that guy is a hypocrite.

This is completely backward to me, and here’s why: what determines policies enacted by a head of government are her political coalitions and managerial/political skills, not her position papers.

Remember when Barack Obama stood apart in the Democratic primary by coming out with a mandate-less healthcare plan? And we ended up with a healthcare law that includes a mandate? It’s not that Barack Obama is a “flip-flopper” or had a change of heart or what have you, it’s that the healthcare plan that ended up being enacted was a function of political debates and coalition-building in the Congress. Conversely, whatever differences there might have been to a plan enacted under President Rodham Clinton would not have been due to the differences in whatever was on her campaign website, but to her managerial/political skill at navigating Congress and public opinion. And the reason why there was a universal healthcare bill to begin with was that the liberal/progressive movement had been chomping at the bit for decades for political circumstances that would allow for such a bill. What mattered was not any candidate’s “issues”, but the political context and the managerial/political skills of the chief executive. And anyone who expected otherwise betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of how American (indeed, democratic) government works.

“The issues”, in other words, are merely positional signaling, ie marketing, ie akin to the TV ads that sophisticated political watchers so disdain.

And yet, to most higher-educated politics watchers, a voter who had said “Well, I’ve read Clinton and Obama’s position papers on healthcare, and I’m going to vote for Clinton/Obama because I’m for/against a mandate” would have been applauded as sober and reasonable, while a voter who had said “Well, I’m going to vote for Obama because he seems more, put together, you know, more charismatic” would have been the subject of Twitter snark. But it strikes me as a much sounder basis for choosing a chief executive to point to their level-headedness and charisma—character traits that one assumes useful to running a government—than any 10-point plan, which is by definition a list of things that won’t happen.

Beyond broad strokes (are they “conservative” or “moderate” or “progressive”—in other words, what kind of coalition will they put in charge of the executive?) and a handful handful of litmus tests (it’s completely reasonable to refuse to vote for someone who advocates something you find abhorrent, whether that’s bank bailouts or foreign wars or what have you) “the issues” are useless in picking a candidate.

As I’ve written before, 99% of what presidents do is appointing and firing people who do the actual work of government. The remaining 1% is the most intangible and the most important—the Cuban-missile-crisis-type decisions, the do-we-go-to-war-with-Iraq-type decisions.

For determining who’s better at either of those, “the issues” are useless. And character, on the other hand, that thing that we are told should be irrelevant, is (nearly) everything. It’s very hard to judge a person’s character, but looking at their biography, their public appearances and so forth is going to give you a better indication than “the issues.”

Famously, George W. Bush campaigned on a “humble” foreign policy, and gave us anything but. Is it because “Bush lied and people died”? Of course not. It’s because 9/11 happened. If you cared about foreign policy, the relevant question wasn’t “Do I agree more with Bush/Gore/McCain?” but “Who has the character to respond more intelligently and competently to the unknown crises that are bound to happen?”

Deciding that based on TV ads, campaign appearances, little details like whether they seem honest, and so forth, is highly imperfect. But it’s a heck of a lot more reliable than “the issues.”

This brings up the broader question about whether voters should be “informed”. Yes, they should be!, we are told. A popular “contrarian” view we see once in a while is that uninformed and apathetic voters should just stay home if they can’t bothered to make an “informed” choice. But, again, this seems to me to miss how democracy works.

Democracy, as a political regime, is worthwhile because it has given us over the long run much superior policy and economic outcomes than alternative regimes. Yes, Singapore is better run and richer than Greece, but on the whole and over the long term, democracies tend to be freeer and more prosperous than non-democratic regimes.

The main reason for that is quite simply the following: leaders who deliver bad outcomes get fired, no excuses. That’s it. It’s the only regime we know where, at regular intervals, if most households feel that things are getting worse, whoever runs the government is out. The “no excuses” part is important, too. What matters is how implacable it is.

In the corporate world, e.g. Cisco CEO John Chambers has been given a free pass for over a decade by supposedly sophisticated investors for not lifting the company’s stock price because he came in during the tech bubble and so has to deal with circumstances out of his control. Supposedly unsophisticated voters, meanwhile, are much too clever to grade on a curve. It doesn’t matter that you “inherited the recession from Bush”—fix it, and fix it now, or you’re out.

This is a wonderful spur to providing good outcomes, and on the long run, in most cases, it works. If we could invent a regime that chose leaders any other way but had the crucial bad-performance-gets-you-fired feature, it would deliver superb outcomes over the long run. (Arguably, this is what the Chinese Communist Party is trying to build, at least if they’re smart.) People talk about a “democratic deficit” in Britain because the constituency, first-past-the-post system “underrepresents” some parties in Parliament and causes a relatively low number of swing voters in key constituencies to decide the fate of the country, but the system works nearly flawlessly: there was an economic crisis under Labour, and now Labour is out, and if the Conservative-LibDem coalition doesn’t fix it, they’ll be out in the next election, as they are well aware. Same thing with the Electoral College in the US.

Therefore, the only question you need to be able to answer when voting in an election is this: Do I feel better now than I did last time I voted? That’s it. You don’t need a PhD. Heck, you don’t even need to be 18. It’s the famous Reagan appeal.

Over the long run, it’s probably better to have a more informed polity, as many political decisions need to be made with the assent of the governed and it helps that the governed have good ideas/notions, but for the specific duty of voting for a president/governing party, these things really don’t matter. Not to mention the fact that being “educated” correlates with positions on social and other issues that are moral/aesthetic/tribal and have on the merits nothing to do with how educated one is, and the fact that the highly educated tend to have a bias toward believing that other highly educated people should run things, a bias which in my view the last decade has thoroughly debunked (in this sense, I would much rather be governed by the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty).

So, in sum, I hope I’ve disabused you of a few notions and convinced you of the following:

  • Don’t vote on the issues, vote on character.
  • Don’t complain that fellow voters are uninformed, it means the system’s working.