Saturday, August 30, 2008

What Voters Want

I've been preparing this topic for some time, but the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for VP brings it more into focus.

The presidential campaigns have discussed many issues over the past year and half — energy policy, the Iraq War, Georgia, the economy and the mortgage 'crisis', and on and on.

Each side stakes out a position, often one that is nearly indistinguishable from the other as the campaign progresses and each tries to woo voters in the middle to his side. But at the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of voters are not fooled and they are not interested in policy statements. What voters want, on all points of the political compass, is a President who shares their core values.

That is as true of Democrats or so-called liberals as it is of Republicans and the broad spectrum of conservatives. (Note: I often use the qualifier "so-called" in front of "liberal" because I've yet to find an actual liberal commentator or politician in the past 40 years.) It is also true of Libertarians, Greens, and everyone else whether they even have a widely-recognized label (like me).

Voters recognize — as is proved by the frustration one can read on dozens of blogs 'Left', 'Right', or otherwise — that they are unlikely to find someone who reflects those values consistently.

The far Left becomes frustrated with Obama as he compromises to move to the 'center' and win swing states with lots of faux Independents, feeling-betrayed conservatives, blue-collar Democrats, and others.

Social conservatives show annoyance when McCain doesn't wear his religion on his sleeve and libertarians fret over his advocacy of carbon dioxide emissions legislation, abrogation of free speech in the form of McCain-Feingold, etc. Many Libertarians decry his support for the Iraq War.

But after all, how could a politician reflect those values consistently when they are so inconsistent within even those groups and often the individuals themselves, not least among them the politicians. That is why we see politicians so frequently trying to be all things to all people.

But for voters who fall under most of the bell curve, they are simply looking for someone who is like them in important ways. They want someone who would make the kind of choices they would make, were they in the absurdly powerful position of today's Chief Executive and Commander in Chief.

This is a reflection of many factors.

In part, it is simple human nature. We want things to be run our way. That can be good or bad depending on what "our way" means in given circumstances. But good or bad, it is an inescapable fact. Each wants his values to triumph when a choice has to be made.

In part, it is a reflection of the ominous political reality of America today, in which government is in a position to so easily decide things that ought to be outside their purview. For example, with the weakness of respect for property rights, each major side will want the government to decide what to do with natural resources — something that ought to be left entirely up to private hands. With so much at stake, and aware that the government is the ultimate arbiter, it's understandable that there is so much pressure group lobbying.

And, as you can see, I want the government to be shaped in the image of my values, insofar as I want them the hell out of the way on this and thousands of other things.

[None of this is to suggest that the issue is subjective, that each group or person is equally right or wrong, or that there is no such thing as objectively good or bad, true or false. Facts exist and don't depend on who recognizes them. Ethics is not a matter of opinion, not even mine.]

Yes, it's values that matter most.

That's why political experience does not carry the day.

Kennedy was green. Few cared that Carter or Clinton had been Governor of a small state, and not very competent ones at that. Obama has galvanized millions despite the fact that he has little more than a few months of national political experience, and didn't do much even during that period.

That's why policy does not matter very much.
  • Bush Sr. lurched from one crisis to the next sometimes taking the correct action sometimes not, but never with any kind of intellectual consistency. That could have easily been predicted from his past experience and he was elected anyway.

  • Clinton was given a pass on dozens of important issues, such as doing nothing about the bombing of the World Trade Center, giving missile technology to the Chinese, and grabbing many thousands of acres of land for the Feds in Colorado.

  • People were willing to overlook the fact, twice, that George Bush never has had any policies (apart from a tepid commitment to lower some taxes).
"Policy" would imply a conscious, principled view and few Presidents in the past 100 years have had that, and then only some of the time did it inform their actions.

But much as we might wish for elections to be more explicitly about basic political principles, and for the concrete issues of the day to be debated in terms of them, it is values that trump all. It has been so for at least the past 100 years, and I suspect longer than that.

Most voters know that, even when they don't consciously recognize it. They will vote for whichever candidate makes them believe that he more closely resembles them.


VH said...

Voters always end up choosing a "package" of political issues with candidates; no one ever gets exactly what they want.

Michael Moeller said...

I agree that most people will vote according to their hierarchy of values. However, I am not sure it is meaningful to discuss 'values' outside the context of 'principles'.

Let me put this in the political context for a second. I can say that I value my health. But does that mean the I should support free market healthcare or nationalized healthcare?

I can say that I value prosperity. Does that mean I should support capitalism or socialism?

On the recent energy debate, Sean Hannity stated he supported "all of the above", including drilling, conservation, and renewables. While Hannity may sincerely believe in the promotion of energy, his lack of principles do not enable to separate the good from the bad. He is not able to grasp the contradictions between these different courses of action.

Principles provide the link among our values, and the guidepost for the actions necessary to achieve them. Without principles, our actions--the means--are buried within a fog. Its like saying I want to drive to California, and then refuse to consult maps on how to get there.

That is why consistency is so important in our own lives--and in the voting booth.

Jeff Perren said...

That's a very interesting post, Michael, and I'll have more to say about it in the future.

For now, the one immediate reaction I'm willing to respond with is this:

I am talking about what people actually do, on what basis they actually choose. You are talking about what they should do.

That said, I'm a firm believer in thinking about one's values, basing them on fact, and operating on rational principles to make choices. On that, we agree.