Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Why We Vote Against Our Self-Interest

We claim to be rational beings. We believe it fervently, noting the many logical reasons for why we think the way we do, why we act the way we do. Other people are nuts, sure. We see it all the time. But we are brilliant.

The truth, of course, is more complicated than that. When we vote against our own interests, we don’t believe we’re doing so. Each election involves many issues – guns, health care, immigration, taxes, the environment, abortion, national defense, business regulations, foreign policy, LGBTQ rights. The list goes on and on.

And when we vote, we tend to focus on one or two big issues. We usually vote the economy and one other large issue. We also tend to vote for the people we like more than the people we dislike, even though the truth is that we don’t really know the candidates at all (and never will) so our affinity for one person over another is actually not very rational. It’s subjective. Arbitrary. Based on things we’ve heard from other folks.

We like what Al Franken says about the environment. Or we hate what Al Franken says about the environment. But we have an emotional reaction to every candidate, either good or bad, and we then use our brains to craft logical arguments to justify our gut instincts.

When people say they don’t know who they’re going to vote for in an upcoming election, they’re usually either lying (to themselves or to you) or they truly haven’t decided on a candidate because they’re waiting for some sort of divine guidance, which never comes.

Regardless, not much careful consideration goes into the calculus. In the last presidential election, for example, I heard many people say that they hated both candidates and they planned to vote for the least objectionable one.

Is that rational?

Maybe, but it’s definitely not ideal. What it leads to is people picking candidates based on the hot buttons that really get them riled up. We believe what we want to believe, so we’re easily led to identify with one candidate or another based on their statements concerning whatever topics we feel most strongly about.

Candidates know this. They know they can’t win, for example, by talking about tailoring regulations to maximize economic efficiency as well as societal good. Yawn. Instead, they mention guns or abortion or some other topic that elicits strong feelings because that’s the only way to attract ardent supporters.

And when we vote based on those hot button topics, ignoring the many smaller issues we don’t deem critical, we often find we’ve acquired leaders who do things we never thought they’d do.

They usually can’t make the changes they promise on the big issues because the country is split right down the middle on most of them. So what we’re stuck with is little successes that nibble around the edges of what we want, little failures that erode our confidence in government.

And the next candidate (or more likely the same candidate) tells the same story in the next election cycle, promising what cannot be delivered, and we buy it. Meanwhile, the only ones who win are the big spenders, the companies or individuals with the deep pockets and the united fronts.

We occasionally get change, but generally not the change we desired. We believed their promises because we wanted to believe them, but our logical brains knew they were false. So we get what we deserve.

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