Always Shuck your Tamales: on the rationality of voting

Two recent essays treat the issue of the rationality of political affiliations from very different methodological angles. Both are short pieces intended for lay readers, so it’s probably unfair to take potshots at their simplicity… but I’m going to anyway.

Steven Johnson (author of Emergence) wonders here whether perhaps brain chemistry can explain the tendency of “liberals” to be more sensitive than others to human suffering and more averse to retributive justice: Democrats, a study suggests, “think more” with the amydala (part of the limbic system), the seat of the emotions. Right away, my balderdash-detector buzzes: I can think of many leftist positions (Whig progressivism, Marxism) that we associate with the denial of emotionalism in favor of analytical calculation, and many rightist tendencies that prefer strong, “gut feelings” to logic (nearly all forms of fundamentalism, for instance). Correlating amydala activity to political positions seems quixotic, at the least, to me. But what Johnson giveth, he quickly taketh away: “One thing is certain: evidence of a neurological difference between liberal and conservative brains would not be another instance of genetic determinism, since patterns of brain activity are shaped by experience as much as by genes.” This would seem to retract much of the explanatory power Johnson promised, and we are left with the somewhat tautological conclusion that emotional people’s brains are emotional, however they got that way. At this point Johnson retreats to this position: perhaps people choose their political party by sensing temperamental commonality between themselves and peers of their party, which is interesting but again strongly reductive. As with much neuropsychology, my sense is that the levels of complexity intervening between neurological and social phenomena need far more elaborate treatment.

Louis Menand, in this piece, comes at the issue from the perspective of an intellectual historian reviewing sociological analyses of voting behavior. Menand refers extensively to the work of political scientist Philip Converse, who concluded in a 1964 article “that ‘very substantial portions of the public’ hold opinions that are essentially meaningless.” Menand then provides more figures that bespeak the utter insufficiency of rational choice theory to account for voting behavior: “In 2000, eighteen per cent said that they decided which Presidential candidate to vote for only in the last two weeks of the campaign; five per cent, enough to swing most elections, decided the day they voted. …Seventy per cent of Americans cannot name their senators or their congressman.” Adducing various theories (election results are arbitrary, they are oligarchical struggles amidst the “elite”), Menand finds one with the potential to salvage some civic belief, namely, that voters may respond to irrationally chosen cues, but that these cues are nonetheless accurate heuristics ( a primary example being Mexican-Americans’ support for Carter in ’76 after Ford tried to eat the corn husk of a tamale – a different kind of gut response, I guess). Menand rightly is skeptical of the rather Panglossian heuristic theory, but follows with a pretty unsatisfactory conclusion: “For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.” Surely the political is always a subset of the social, unless by social Menand means the restricted sense of immediate interpersonal relations. Oddly, in begging the question, he has arrived at a similar black box to Johnson, that of the social roots of behavior, only from the opposite epistemological starting point.