Expressive voting – three case studies

Obama won nearly 80% of the Jewish vote. He and the Democratic Party are rather divided on support for Israel. The Republicans are more in favour of Israel.

Now see Expressive voting and identity: evidence from a case study of a group of U.S. voters, A review of Norman Podhoretz, Why are Jews Liberals? by Arye L. Hillman, Public Choice (2011).

Podhoretz describes behaviour that backs up the hypothesis that people vote expressively to affirm their identity. Podhoretz was concerned that liberal Jews vote against their self-interest.

Most of the Jews who voted for Obama did care about Israel but downplayed his anti-Israel associations; they voted for him anyway. The expressive behaviour hypothesis explains why many Jews do this. As a single vote is not decisive in most elections, the main benefit from voting is its expressive value:

  • Liberal Jews, manifesting a rational behaviour, choose the expressive utility from voting against the “Right”, which is identified with past prejudice against Jews and contemporary privilege.
  • The identity of a person who opposes privilege and cares about social justice is confirmed through the act of voting for the “Left”.

Liberal Jews support liberal principles through the low-cost actions of voting and rhetoric, so as to place themselves at the centre of society despite their higher-than-average incomes.

People also vote for parties that will never win elections for expressive reasons. Since maybe 1945, up to a quarter of UK voters knowingly vote for the Liberals and now the LDP knowing that it is usually a wasted vote. But is it?

  • Voting for a third party that will not win is a way of being a middle-of-the-road voter without voting for the socialists or the Tory party.
  • Third party votes change the identity of the median voter. The swinging voter in the UK is often an LDP voter.

To win this LDP vote, the major parties must change their policies or these voters will park their vote somewhere else while still signalling their vote is up for grabs to both sides. These voters affirm themselves as sensible middle-of-the-road voters without voting for either Labour or the Tory party.

The same happens for third-party candidates in America. They are protest votes. The major parties spend a lot of time wooing back these voters at the next election. A protest vote is very affirming to an expressive voter.

Expressive voting also offers much insight into why some democratically elected governments continued to pursue terrible wars of attrition. The unwillingness to discuss peace terms in World War I is an example. A voter might prefer peace to war but showing patriotism might outweigh this. One candidate offers a policy of appeasement, recognising the enormous cost in lives that further fighting might involve. The other candidate stands for national pride, not surrendering to bullies, and avenging past losses. A careful reflection on the costs and benefits of war or peace is what the voter does not do. What is relevant is showing patriotism and strength of purpose.

The main point is that expressive voters are not disciplined by outcomes, and that democratic choice is suspect for this reason even on the biggest of issues.

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  1. Trackback: The working class is missing from US political discourse | Utopia - you are standing in it!

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