Saturday, October 28, 2006

Michael Kinsley: The electoral end of piety - Guardian

David Seaton's News Links
The election appears to heading toward a referendum on the Republican party. I wouldn't get my hopes up too far though, as with gerrymandering and electronic voting equipment this could end up as a horrible brawl the day after. Stay tuned. DS

Abstract: One of the axioms of democratic piety in the US is that you vote for the person, not the party. People love to say, "I evaluate each candidate on his or her own merits" - even when it's not true. A related form of democratic piety is to refrain from voting at all if you know little or nothing about the candidates. But this year does seem to be different. You hear people say - though rarely as forthrightly as the Times - that they are voting for the party, not the person. Well, more accurately, they say they are voting against the party, not the person. The Republican candidate for the Senate or House may be saintlike in general, no worse than muddled on the war in Iraq, and good on stem-cell research. Meanwhile the Democrat may be a grotesque hack just inches from indictment, whose views on Iraq are equally muddled with less excuse (since loyalty to the president is not a factor). Nevertheless, many people are voting for the Democrat simply out of anger at or frustration with the Republican party. The pious view is mistaken. There is nothing wrong with voting for the party, not the person. In other democracies, such as Britain, this person-not-the-party piety is unknown and would be hard to comprehend. A candidate for parliament runs on a party platform promising various things, and if that party wins a majority of seats it "forms a government". You would be silly to vote for the person and not the party. The party's views are what counts. The person's own views are almost irrelevant. Even under the American arrangement there is nothing ignoble about voting the party line. It is an efficient way to minimise your information costs. Voting is an irrational act: your vote does not matter unless it's a tie. And even 2000 was not a tie. The more effort you put into learning about the candidates, the more irrational voting becomes, and the more likely you are not to bother. A candidate's party affiliation doesn't tell you everything you would like to know, but it tells you something. In fact it tells you a lot - enough so that it makes sense to vote for your party preference even when you know nothing else about a candidate. Or even to vote for a candidate that you actively dislike.

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