Voting with instinct

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Emotional Politics During an election campaign, it is rare for parties to tell voters that they should simply trust their instincts. This would be tantamount to giving them permission to vote with their hearts rather than their heads. Candidates tell voters that there is a 'right' or 'responsible' thing to do. This patronising approach implies that voters' own emotional judgements are less reliable than the knowledge of the political experts.

Liberal Senator Marise Payne has pointed out that men and women bring different skills to politics. Research suggests that IQ, the traditional predictor of aptitude and skills, should be supplemented by EQ. And while the correlation is not exclusive, men, whatever their intelligence quotient, seem less likely than women to have a high emotional quotient. Emotional skills include empathy, compassion, understanding, patience and respect.

Various arguments were employed during the torrid debates about women's suffrage across the English speaking world in the 19th century. Some opponents insisted that women would vote twice because they could hide extra ballots in their voluminous clothing! (This seems silly today, and yet a conservative politician recently said something similar about Muslim women's clothing and weapons.) Other opponents reckoned that women would be hysterical or irrational.

The debates over legally enfranchising women are long over. Yet if we denigrate voting according to the heart, we could debilitate a special female skill and so disadvantage women electors particularly. In the 21st century we know that while men and women might have strengths in some gender-specific areas, men do not dwell exclusively in the head nor women in the heart. Most men have well-developed emotional lives and any process that disparages allegedly 'feminine' skills debilitates male electors as well.

When experts tell us that the only sensible vote is a vote for them, they face a potential paradox. In an increasingly complex world, neither major party takes a neat ideological position. To attract sufficient support to form a government, the parties compromise, move towards the centre ground, and sometimes adopt policies more traditionally associated with their opponents.

Because electors face a variety of issues, it is impossible to assign these a weighting that facilitates a rational choice among them. Consequently, the experts try to make electors forget some issues and cast their ballots according to others — forget the environment for example, and concentrate on economic management. The head, then, is constrained, contained and confused.

By contrast, the heart has a natural ability to assign priority to issues. Intensity of feeling about some issues makes them impossible to ignore. The elector might know that other issues are important, but the final decision has to sit neatly with the elector's conscience.

Sometimes, positive emotions dominate. So, if an elector is ecstatic about the promised tax cuts, the hand holding the pencil will not hesitate as he or she votes for the government. Sometimes however, negative emotions dominate. An elector who is angry about detention of asylum seekers, the erosion of civil liberties, tardiness to act on climate change, industrial relations chaos, patients dying in hospital waiting areas or the inhumanity of Centrelink will punish the government.

An emotional attachment to the ideals of democracy can also lead voters to seek third alternatives. Many electors sleep more soundly when the government lacks a Senate majority.

It is slightly dangerous to trust everyone to vote according to their feelings. We would prefer that voters considered their choices carefully rather than judging candidates according to the cut of their clothes or the warmth of their smiles. We would also prefer that voters considered the good of the country as a whole rather than be persuaded solely by personal benefit.

There are some objective criteria that should be considered, but in the privacy of the voting booth, the final choice is subjective. When people vote they exercise the will, which is not exclusively an intellectual exercise or a venting of emotions. Those of us with degrees in political science have no more right to a vote than the newest citizen, and that is the way it should remain.

Some political professionals would like to see the state behave just like the market, operating as a heartless machine for maximising outcomes. However, truly rational electors realise that if the system is to be imbued with compassion and humanity, the heart must play a role no less important than the head.

Voters should approach the polling booths on 24 November with a swing in their steps. Even if they are not sure that they know what is best, they must surely feel it.

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney.




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Existing comments

Thank you, Tony. As a woman and a religious, I found this article helpful. I have been trying to keep myself informed, so that I could vote responsibly, but i have found this increasingly difficult, the closer the election comes. I shall have more confidrnce now in taking my instincts into account!

Maryrose Dennehy | 04 November 2007  

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