Thursday, January 31, 2008


On November 4, American voters — nowhere near all of those eligble — will go to the polls and cast their ballots for the President of their choice. Many voters believe that they are educated voters who understand the issues and that they reach a measured decision. As is often the case, voters want change. The following video clip (about two minutes in length) shows various Presidential aspirants repeating the message of change, an oft-cited reason for casting one's ballot:

YouTube link

According to this "The Science of Presidential Complexity," an article from the January 28, 2008 edition of the Washington Post, however, most votes are cast without much consideration as to agreement with a potential leader's views and, instead, are based on voting for simplistic solutions, even though those proposed solutions are much the same as campaign promises unkept over and over again (emphases mine):
The question is not whether we agree with these views: Politicians stake out such positions precisely because they strike a chord with many voters. The question is why we like our bromides so simple -- especially when the same promises have been offered to us time and again in previous elections.


"Low complexity wins elections," said psychologist Lucian Gideon Conway III of the University of Montana at Missoula, who published his analysis of the presidential speeches in the journal Political Psychology. "People like simple answers, and someone saying, 'I don't have all the answers and here are five possibilities' is a hard sell compared to someone who says, 'I have a plan and it is going to work and my opponent is completely wrong.' "

The result is a paradox. Politicians offer simplistic solutions in order to win elections. But to govern, they must quickly ratchet up their complexity because they confront costs, consequences and compromises. But when up for reelection, it's time to dumb things down again.


So the next time you hear presidential candidates say simplistic things that people want to hear, remember that they are merely responding rationally to the incentives that voters give them. The disturbing question is not why politicians pander, but why pandering works -- and for that we need to look in the mirror.
According to the article, past leaders have campaigned on simplicity, but once in office, have gone on to offer solutions which were more complex:
Those who changed history -- a group that included leaders from George Washington to Fidel Castro -- invariably had simple ideas as they went about winning power but quickly increased the complexity of their thinking after they obtained power. Revolutionaries who offered complex ideas to begin with or those whose complexity did not quickly increase after wining power usually were failures.
Over and over again, voters, those who don't become cynics and disenfranchise themselves, desire that the promises made to win elections and how elected leaders govern be consistent and related — an assumed connection on the part of voters for as long as I can remember. But maybe hoping for that consistency is as elusive as chasing a rainbow. Perhaps once in power, leaders suffer a reality check and are forced to govern in a manner quite different from their original promises and ideas. Then again, that explanation as to why leaders once in office so often disappoint the citizeny, including those who once staunchly supported a given candidate during a campaign, may be a simplistic rationale, too.

In my view, citizens often do not get the government they voted for. Nevertheless, in the next election, the desire for change sends the diehard voters, hopeful once again or detemined to vote against a particular candidate, to the polls. This cycle, dating back to the earliest days of self-government is self-perpetuating. So far, however, mankind has not come up with a better idea than the imperfect system of electing leaders who almost inevitably disappoint the governed.

(Crossposted to THE ASTUTE BLOGGERS)

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posted by Always On Watch @ 1/31/2008 08:03:00 AM