WHY THE POLITICAL PARTIES CONFUSE RATIONAL VOTERS
The last two articles in this series were an attempt to convince readers that the voters really are rational. If the voters are only doing the thing that most reduces internal conflict for them (reduces anxiety), then they are each responding to the world around them in a way that, to them, seems rational.
If we make that assumption then it should help to make the political choices they make actually make sense. And, their choices will make sense, but only if we also understand how dysfunctional both political parties have become.
You may recall a college class which dealt with American political parties. One of the things that you may have been taught in that class was that political parties as organizations are almost unique because they are organized from the bottom; the real power is at the local, even county level. Local party organizations dictate upward.
You may also have learned that in the period around 1900, Progressives in Wisconsin and elsewhere, angered by the machinations of party bosses, ushered in a period of reform. One of those reforms was the introduction of party primaries. The primaries were party elections in which ordinary party members were allowed to choose their party’s candidates themselves. Power was taken away from nefarious party bosses.
If ordinary local party members ever controlled things as much as your college instructor might have hoped, that certainly is not true now. The local party organizations which often served as a social outlet for members (before 1920 the local party organization was also a social club for men) have pretty much died of neglect.
There are several reasons for that: Thanks to advances in technology we have become a kind of entertainment culture. We have become more comfortable as consumers than we are as participants. Politics has become another part of our diet of constant entertainment, with its own villains and heroes
People who need love and anger symbols (as we suggested last time) now become emotionally involved with political symbols (they really hated Hillary). Once people adopt something as a symbol, they usually have little reason to learn more. The result is that voters often will appear to be much more interested in politics and in the government than they really are.
Local organizations have also atrophied because real party membership seems to be a thing of the past. If we were following politics in the United Kingdom (Britain), or in Germany, we would hear about votes held by party members relating to changes in leadership or in organization. We couldn’t do that here because no one knows who the majority of party supporters actually are.
The truth is that most of avid Democrats and Republicans have no real connection with “their party”. For them, there are no membership cards, no fees paid, no meetings attended. Most “party members” have no formal connection with their party at all.
Still, those primaries, after more than a hundred years, in which the “members” choose the parties’ candidates continue on. Anyone getting petitions signed can usually get their name on the ballot in the primary. In order to win in those primaries, prospective candidates have to create their own private campaign organizations. And, after the primary is won, and they have become the candidate of “their party”, it makes sense to go ahead and use the organization that they have already created.
Their campaigns are an attempt to get the attention of disconnected party “members” who know almost nothing about the government and often are not really interested. So, for office seekers to talk about what they will do in office in any detail is clearly a loser (Most know that Donald Trump won in 2016 over sixteen better informed opponents by not talking about anything serious at all; remember that Great Big Beautiful Wall!).
So, instead they hold up symbols. Republican audiences, as they have for the last one hundred and thirty years, hear about the imaginary dangers of socialism. They also hear about the dangers posed by the “radical left” with dangerous groups like Antifa (Antifa is imaginary; it doesn’t exist!). Democrats have an advantage right now because they have a slim majority in Congress which makes it impossible not to deal with real problems. Still, even they, avoid giving voters any real detail. By attacking the “hard right” they sometimes deal in symbolism too.
So the voters rationally do the things that reduce conflict for them. Many decide to pay no attention to anything political at all! Traditional Republicans often have effectively made being Republican a part of their religion. They often will have less anxiety keeping the faith despite the fact that their elected members of Congress appear to be on strike and are doing nothing. Donald Trump’s supporters try to keep the faith too. They wait for their hero to reemerge triumphant. What else is left for them?
So, we have members, who are not really members, supporting parties which officially do not choose their own candidates. Once those candidates are chosen most of them carefully avoid talking about what they actually will do in office and, instead, try to terrify those non-members with socialism and other imaginary horribles. We should hardly be surprised if voters sometimes seem irrational. They are not!
H.J. Rishel 10/10/2021