Rationality and Politics


Richard W. Crockett


It is a fundamental premise of democratic government that its citizens are rational creatures, capable of discernment and deliberation.  In spite of this assumption, political appeals invariably prefer as targets the intellectual shallowness and emotional biases of the electorate.  We vote in elections on the basis of psychological attachments to political party and candidates alike, but when it comes to issues as the basis of our voting we may even vote against what could be called our enlightened self-interests in favor of issues with high emotional appeal. 


The Washington Post recently called attention to this tendency in an article by Shankar Vedantan entitled, “In Politics, Aim for the Heart, Not the Head.”  The writer of the article called attention to the results of a 1935, Columbia University study of Allentown, Pennsylvania in which they made a systematic comparison of two types of voter campaign appeals in the race for mayor, a rational appeal and an emotional appeal.  They targeted for their study the Socialist Party, because it had no chance of winning the election.  Keep in mind, that the country was in the middle of the Great Depression in 1935, and in that day socialism may have been an inviting alternative to the more economically oppressed voters.  The upshot of the study was that in precincts where rational appeals were used the Socialist Party votes increased by 35 percent.  In precincts where emotional appeals were used the Socialist Party votes increased by 50 percent. The study reached the conclusion that rational appeals to the voter are weaker than emotional appeals to the voter. 


Present day politics has taken notice of this tendency and it is a truism of politics that the average voter is much more likely to vote against something or somebody than to vote for something or somebody.  Accordingly millions are spent on negative campaign advertising.  This tactic is called the “campaign of doubt.”  One doesn’t need to prove anything about one’s opponent.  All that is needed is to create doubt about the opponent in the mind of the voter until the day after the election. 


In the case of the Republicans a common tactic is to create fear and the War on Terror is useful for this.  In the case of the Democrats the awareness of this irrationality among voters is shown in the reluctance of Democrats to vote against the war plans for Iraq, even when they opposed it in their bones.  It has taken almost six years to convince the American voter through both rational discourse and political cajolery that the war was a stupid mistake.  Now sixty percent of us recognize this, but it would have been political suicide for anyone to assume that position in 2002. 


George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright living in England during the First World War, in the famous preface to his play, Heartbreak House ridiculed the response of the British electorate to that war against Germany.  Shaw lamented the loss of lives at Neuve Chapelle, Ypres, and the Gallipoli landing, and that in Briton it was seen as a “cinema show at the front” that “was going splendidly, and that our boys were the bravest of the brave.”  In contrast, he was outraged at the reaction to the sinking of the Lusitania when “men up to that time had kept their heads now lost them utterly.  ‘Killing saloon passengers!  What next?’”


It is as if he is telling us in our time that in the publics view the soldiers be damned, but protect the drunken elite.  The inequality of the burden of the war and of the misfortune of its costs offended Shaw greatly.  He wrote, “I even found a grim satisfaction, very intelligible to all soldiers, in the fact that the civilians who found the war such a splendid British sport should get a sharp taste of what it was to the actual combatants.”