Voters are more likely to make decisions based on intuition, personal prejudices, and what they consider to be just plain common sense, than on any rationale analysis of a candidate’s ideology, electability and how their election will affect their own lives.
By David Todd McCarty | Wednesday, March 4, 2020
A majority of reliably-partisan voters that decide elections in America are what are known as low-information voters—a designation defined as a reliance on intuition, collective thought or media bias, rather than on any rational policy analysis or strategic thinking.
A heuristic technique, or a heuristic for short, is an approach to problem solving that uses a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal or even rational, but which is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term decision. Examples include using trial and error, a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, a guesstimate, profiling, or common sense.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret facts in a way that confirms or strengthens our personal beliefs about the world. It’s not a short-coming per se, in that it’s not indicative of any one group, because we are all guilty of seeing the world as we wish to see it, as we are all subject to our own prejudices.
When you add these cultural phenomena together it’s no wonder that your average voter makes decisions based on a combination of confirmation bias and heuristic techniques that render their judgements arbitrary at best, and incongruous at worst.
It’s why marketing is effective at getting you to buy things you don’t need for more than you want to spend, and that eyewitness testimony should be considered sketchy at best. Most human consciousness is fairly low-level. We are on cruise control with our monkey brains, glancing up now and then at the shiny object in the distance. There are actual spiritual and religious practices based on this very concept that are as old as time. We might be evolving, but it’s a very slow process indeed.
You need look no farther than how working-class, non-college educated whites rallied around a common, country club conman and reality television celebrity because they believed he fought for them, to see that people are more than willing to vote against their own best interests, if they believe the narrative. Even if the narrative is not supported by facts. They don’t need facts if they think the narrative tells a larger truth that they are predisposed to believe. They just need a good story.
“The president has made politics about culture—not just policy,” said Peter Hamby in Vanity Fair. “He found a way to attract new voters, particularly rural and non-college educated whites who previously thumbed their nose at conventional politics. Because he’s a pure attention merchant, he doesn’t care what screen he appears on, as long he is there. Because he lacks an ounce of shame, it all works, with or without the blessing of the legacy press.”1
But it’s not just rabid Trumpers who are victims of being low-information voters. Older and less educated voters who might rely more on television or Facebook for their news. Less educated voters who aren’t paying attention until the last minute. Poor Voters who might not being paying attention at all. Disenfranchised minorities, especially poor and immigrant voters who might be more likely to view English as a second language.
The problem is, college-educated, white voters—who are most likely to be high-information voters—have an unrealistic view of the power of the information they consume. Most voters are not consuming dozens of hours a week of political programming, newspaper stories, magazine articles and essays. They are watching The Bachelor and The Voice or catching up on Better Call Saul and Fleabag. Nothing wrong with that. Entertainment is good for the soul. Sometimes the more mindless the better. Some of it is clearly rotting our minds, but that’s an article for another day.
Some of you might be feeling angry right now, thinking, “I’m very involved and so is everyone I know. We are not low-information voters.”
The problem is, if you’re reading this, you’re most like already a high-information voter, otherwise you would have kept scrolling for a good cat video. The people you meet in political circles, and who show up to committee meetings and candidate forums are not representative of the larger electorate in America—not even the ones who actually vote, which is still only about half of America. You are the select few and you might influence a vote or two, but you are not the people who make or break elections.
Low information voters decide elections in America. They do because they get their information from TV sound bites, late night talk shows, talk radio and social media misinformation and quite frankly there are more of them than you. It’s not based on class, race, religion or gender. It’s merely a fact of our society that political awareness is not valued.
But we are not powerless about this, and we do have to do something about it.
We need to at least start with our education system and ensure that when our young people graduate, and they should graduate, that they actually understand how government works, and maybe more importantly, how the decisions that our elected officials make, will affect our everyday lives and that of our children. That government can work for the common good. That government has a track record of improving our lives and making us great.
Then we need a national news service that can provide unbiased, taxpayer-funded, non-partisan news about what our government is doing here and abroad with our vast resources that they throw around like trinkets, and what we can do to influence their decisions.
We need more than just facts, we also need truth, which takes more energy and patience to ascertain and requires doing your own research and making informed decisions. The truth is complex.
The fact is, you need to be more responsible as an American adult, because it’s reliant on all of us to do a better job. A much better job.