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Beyond the myth of the rational voter



Politics is often described as the business of persuasion, the crafting of assent from the governed. It means the democratic ideal is one of informed choice.

Ballot box in front of Australian flagThis requires rigorous prosecution of ideas which, in the era of 24-hour news and social media, has made professionals of our politicians. It also requires an active citizenship: an attitude of discernment that sifts between truth and salesmanship, short and long term benefits, values and priorities, individual and collective costs.

Yet the rational voter has always been a figment, the myth upon which democracies are built. Voters, like consumers, have limited attention and are prone to herd mentality, risk distortion, loss aversion, instant gratification and other impulses. This is the complicated algorithm social advocacies have to deal with.

It is an insight borrowed from behavioural economics, which is currently resurgent — perhaps in time for us to make sense of recent political developments.

Behavioural economics challenges the concept of homo economicus, the rational, independent, self-interested individual who makes decisions based on utility or profit. Federal budgets are pitched at such creatures, and perhaps to a lesser extent, election campaigns.

Quite obviously, things other than logic shape choice. People have cognitive and social biases that filter out information essential to decision-making. They are susceptible to anecdotes and conspiracies. They are sentimental. They can be unreliable. Unpredictable.

The UK referendum on EU membership and the rise of Donald Trump are clear demonstrations. So are 'truthers' and denialists. In other words, homo politicus is completely capable of making choices that carry no internal or contextual consistency, sometimes even acting against his interests.

It's called being human. Which is fine for individuals, but not for polities. We live in polities. Our lives are bound by objective realities that no degree or form of individualism or tribalism can overcome. This is a serious problem for our shared future, and not just a political one.


"Measures that pushed more people further into the margins -such as post-GFC austerity policies in the UK - were constructed by an overeducated, privileged class."


Climate change, refugee crises, atomised terrorism, emboldened far-right movements — these problems are systemic in nature and demand systemic solutions. Nuance is everything.

Yet the defining sentiment of this decade seems to be: 'have had enough of experts'. This was British Conservative Michael Gove's rebuttal to warnings against leaving the EU. It is not untrue; people have come to associate expertise with being screwed over. Measures that pushed more people further into the margins — such as post-GFC austerity policies in the UK, former US president Bill Clinton's welfare and law enforcement laws — were constructed by an overeducated, privileged class.

This has engendered the sort of anti-government hyper-scepticism that could unmake societies. When the democratic exercise is no longer the aggregate of informed, reasoned choices, but a matter of mood, then the business of persuasion — politics — becomes far less about ideas and more about momentary catharsis. This shifts the function of politicians and government, from leading and dispensing equity to masturbatory aid.

Perhaps this is not entirely a bad thing in circumstances where people have valid grievances. The growing currency of independents and micro-parties in Australia, for example, says something about the intense dissatisfaction that voters continue to feel about the Coalition and Labor.

Even so, there are questions worth asking. At whose expense are public moods assuaged? After catharsis, what happens next?


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister .

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Election 2016



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Existing comments

After catharsis, comes "cathead" noun. a horizontal beam at each side of a ship's bow, used for raising and carrying an anchor. (Concise Oxford English Dictionary). At least, "caterwaul" came before catharsis.

Pam | 30 June 2016  

Your view of the voting Australian public strikes me as singularly Olympian, Fatima.

John | 30 June 2016  

I think it's worth clarifying what people are weary of because not all evidence is of the same quality, and not all of it is agenda-free. Then, of course, there's the political spin and the use of evidence... Thanks for your article. I'd welcome hearing your responses to your closing questions.

p31 | 01 July 2016  

Q1. Public moods are assuaged at the expense of the hardworking, honest tax payer. Q2 After catharsis you tend to lose your appetite for a couple of days.

john frawley | 01 July 2016  

"When the democratic exercise is no longer the aggregate of informed, reasoned choices, but a matter of mood, then the business of persuasion — politics — becomes far less about ideas and more about momentary catharsis. This shifts the function of politicians and government, from leading and dispensing equity to masturbatory aid." Ironically, this is also what the austerity, small-government people would say.

Roy Chen Yee | 01 July 2016  

Fortune is like glass the brighter the glitter, the more easily broken.

AO | 01 July 2016  

This is a very thoughtful article, but I wanted to make a comment on its title. The rational voter is not a myth. On election day, voters who care about the environment will put the Greens and the Renewable Energy parties first, the ALP and the Nick Xenophon Team second and the "Liberal", National, Family First and other parties of the extreme right last. By the same token, wealthy Australians who vote solely to ensure that they advance their profits will vote the opposite way to the above. Now some might argue that, given the state of climate change and environmental pollution that is poisoning our air, water, soil and food, it is only rational to vote for candidates who will give a high priority to making decisions for essential environmental action. The profiteers are still being logical in that they are voting to advance their self interests. Many are brilliant at making profits, but are not so well informed about science, environmental or social issues. The important task for progressives who care about the welfare of people and the health of the environment is to ensure they increase the numbers of rational voters who support their aims and not the rational voters who vote for vested interests.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 01 July 2016  

It is not unknown for reforming governments, especially but not exclusively those of the right, to press ahead with implementing substantial change whilst failing to clean up the mess that their reforms have left behind. A little reading of the social and economic history of England through the nineteenth century illustrates that point well. Where the coalition has failed this time is not only to explain the nature of the changes that it is proposing but also what, if anything, it will do to assist those who will be adversely affected to cope and adapt.

Ginger Meggs | 03 July 2016  

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