How should I vote?

English: US President Barack Obama and British...

US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron trade bottles of beer to settle a bet they made on the U.S. vs. England World Cup Soccer game (which ended in a tie), during a bilateral meeting at the G20 Summit in Toronto, Canada, Saturday, June 26, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Elections are upon us again. In the USA it’s Romney or Obama, and in the UK we have our first ever police commissioner elections. For some people the choice will be easy: they will vote the way they always vote, even though, as fixed voters, it means that their political influence is minimal. But what if you are a floating voter? Or what — as, for many Liberal Democrat voters facing the police commissioner elections — your party or favoured candidate is not on the list?

We once organised a meeting on this subject in the city of Ghent, Belgium. Unfortunately, most people who came to it did not want to know how to vote, but what to vote. They were not intersted in the principles for making up their own minds, but simply on an instruction  as to which candidate they should select.

If you’re a fixed voter, and your candidate is available at the next bout of elections, you’ve probably already made up your mind. But, even then, there are a large number of things in modern life which call us to make a choice where there is no party candidate standing. X Factor votes may not be particularly significant, but choice of school governors, staff reps in a job negotiation and even club elections are potentially substantial choices which will shape the future.

People vote for essentially four reasons, two of which (I argue) are good, and two of which (I maintain) are bad. This isn’t just me. Aristotle, in his Politics, describes six kinds of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and polity, versus tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. Monarchy he saw as one ruler ruling for the benefit of all. Aristocracy was the noble ruling for the benefit of all, and polity was the citizens ruling for the benefit of all. Tyranny, by contrast, was a single ruler ruling for their own benefit, oligarchy was the powerful ruling for their own benefit, and democracy was the people ruling for selfish purposes.

Most modern thinkers would argue that monarchy and aristocracy inevitably lead in time to tyranny and oligarchy. However, we have appropriated Aristotle’s demeaning term democracy to describe the polity which he recommends: citizens, deciding together for everyone’s good. Equally, though, we recognise the tyranny of the 51% vote where the majorrity rule at the expense of the minority, and we deplore it.

My belief is that people vote for four reasons:


  • Rationality
  • Reaction
  • Prejudice
  • Self-interest
Rationality is when we vote because reason tells us to. We examine, perhaps, the policies of the candidate, or their track record, or their expertise, or documented actions which inform us about their character, and we vote accordingly. Essentially we are asking ourselves: will voting this way further the common good, based on my interpretation of what that is?
Reaction is when we vote because of a gut feeling. This is by no means counter-rational. Every day every one of us increases our experience of people. We observe what they say, how they say it, what they then do, and what the result is. These observations are tiny and unnoticeable, but they build up into a coherent model which we use without thinking about it in millions of ways. It tells us who to trust, when to get out of trouble. When making a political speech, we all know that a candidate will make the best possible case for his programme and his candidacy. If we agree with the programme, we still have to ask ourselves, ‘do we trust him?’ Better a candidate who is honest about what they can and cannot do, than one who will promise the world but deliver nothing.
Prejudice is the debased form of Reaction. It can be prejudice about gender, ethnicity and religion, or it can be more subtle things: we don’t like someone’s accent, we don’t like the car they drive, we don’t like their job, we don’t like where they live. Barack Obama was attacked by many because he had an Islamic sounding middle name, and an African sounding surname, despite all the evidence that he was an American from an at least nominally  Christian background
Self-interest is the debased form of rationality. There are laws in most country against overt  attempts to buy votes, which is considered to be a form of corruption. Appealing to people’s self-interest, though, is the key to the difference between Aristotle’s polity and democracy. This self-interest appeal is fundamentally an appeal to what benefits you over what benefits everyone, including you. This is not a left-right issue: conservative voters are perfectly capable of voting for the good of all, even when it will cost them something, and socialist  voters are equally able to vote for the good of a particular union or community against the wider good. Historically, I don’t see a greater pattern of altruism on the left or on the right, though people on the left tend to be more concerned with social morality and those on the right with personal morality.
It’s very easy to get tricksy about these things. Demagogues can effectively present an appeal to self-interest  as an appeal to the greater good. Fascist parties and extreme nationalists are skilled at dressing up their appeals  as more virtuous and honest, in order to create an impression that you are responding instinctively to their character whereas you are really responding on prejudice. Even highly skilled and perceptive analysts are susceptible to flattery.
You may be responding to this by saying that it is your vote, and you are entitled to use it in pure self-interest. You are certainly entitled to cast it any way you want, but there are certain  ways of casting it which, in the long run, will result in there being no society to cast it in. Rational voting may well be enlightened self-interest, but pure self-interest logically results in societal collapse, since it was the principle of collaboration and seeking the common good which enabled societies to function in the first place.
You may also be responding by saying that you always and only vote rationally. If that really is what you think, then most likely you are voting out of prejudice or self-interest. In a series of seminal studies, Drew Weston showed in his book The Political Brain that those pre-committed  to a particular view go through a series of mental exertions when confronted with facts that run against their view. However, they quickly post-rationalise, and come out more convinced of their original position than ever. It’s one of the marks of rational voting that the voter is willing to reconsider when new evidence emerges — and also prepared to recognise that often the evidence is insufficient. The truly rational voter is humble about that rationality, and looks to support it with human reactions.

You may yet be saying that you always vote with your gut instinct, and you can’t trust the politicians anyway. Unfortunately, being nice and being honest don’t necessarily equip someone to lead a country, or even a police authority, any more than being nasty and brutal do. It’s still necessary to ask the question: what will they do?