We are constantly told that we live in the Information Age. “Everyone has a smart phone.” “Over 25% of Americans have college degrees.” “Over one-third of the African-American community now lives in the Middle Class, with a high school or better degree.” “Over 95% of the population has a TV, 99% a radio.” In other words we have the education and the information tools with which to access a great number of facts on any topic, including about politics. But do we?
History books read largely by the public and used in schools would seem to confirm the same notion. The US Constitution provides for freedom of speech. Congress established the Post Office in 1790 to insure the distribution of newspapers so that the public could be informed to make sound judgments as citizens and voters. Federal regulators and legislators encouraged the free flow of information across all manner of media, from printed materials to radio, television, and now the Internet. Economists and government officials have reported for over a century on the continuous increased consumption of printed matter, radio, television, computers, PCs, smart phones and smart watches as proof that we consume vast quantities of information. They are right, of course, as the evidence is overwhelming that as the nation prospered and innovated, they could afford to buy these and knew how to consume greater amounts of information over time.
So, it must be true about American elections. Right? Actually, wrong. When looking at the historical record of how Americans used information over the past two hundred years, the area in which they most did not use hard facts involved elections. Newspapers did, of course, so too agencies providing economic and social data, and pollsters since the 1820s. There always existed a kluge of “political junkies” in every election cycle—I am one of those as are most members of my family—but these are the exceptions. The historical evidence for every national election cycle suggests that rational, informed opinions, and voting practices were not as well exercised as perceptions of what conditions existed.
Political scientists for over a century have told us that voters respond to what was in their best economic interests, but these experts have done a poor job in demonstrating that truth. In the past two decades, economists studying the psychology of economic behavior—known as freakonomics—have provided overwhelming evidence that people do not make rational decisions in their best interests. They vote based on their perceptions, not through rational thinking and based on facts.
What the historical record demonstrates is that the new generation of economists have much to teach us. Americans have gone to the polls over 50 times to elect their president in the past 200 years. Each time, in the majority, they voted for candidates who seemed more like themselves, who shared their perspectives about labor, immigrants, the economy, law-and-order, and the world at large. They did little or no fact checking, nor did they invest much time in understanding the nuances of issues important to them. Andrew Jackson appealed to the rough-and-tumble frontiersmen of the 1820s as much as Donald Trump to white men with a high-school education. More issue-oriented presidential candidates struggled in that kind of a world, from Thomas Jefferson to Hillary Clinton. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate who ran against General Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, was seen as too intellectual, while the good General, who led the successful Normandy invasion in 1944 that led to crushing Hitler’s German state, beat him, although his rival was a highly experienced senior public official, even a governor.
People voted their hearts and prejudices. You voted for Lincoln if you were a Northerner thinking the South should just eliminate slavery and stay in the Union. In the early 1900s, Teddy Roosevelt won because enough voters thought the nation needed to control the behavior of corporations and take its rightful place in the World. In 1932, they voted in his cousin, F.D.R., because they thought Herbert Hoover had not done enough to fight off the Great Depression. In fact he had done a great deal to do that. Roosevelt was able to launch his New Deal based on the work done by Hoover to figure out next steps in attacking economic problems. Kennedy was seen as fresh, Nixon as old school and “tricky.” Johnson’s important social and civil rights accomplishments were dismissed, because too many Americans saw the Vietnam War as purposeless and too many lower and middle class families were attending the funerals of dead soldiers.
Today, fact checkers constantly go after both Trump and Clinton, with Trump being caught on misinformation by a factor of almost 4 to 1 over Clinton. Yet it did not matter, as he spoke to the emotions, fears, and perceptions of over 10 million voters. Clinton, with her issue-based campaign, too, spoke to the pre-existing worldviews of moderate Democrats, although had to contend with an even more emotionally riled up far left represented by Senator Bernie Sanders.
The evidence lies all around us of emotion over facts, although hidden. All presidential candidates in the Information Age feel compelled to publish a book-length statement of their vision for America. These tomes are publishing flops, hardly bought, rarely read, and quickly the inventory of second-hand bookstores. Talking heads on television align by political orientation, MSNBC and FOX for example. The media’s own watchers acknowledge that Republicans largely watch FOX to reinforce what they already believe, rarely pay attention to liberal media, while Democratic-oriented voters, ignore FOX and listen to liberal TV hosts. For nearly a hundred years, political scientists have observed how young potential voters ignored election issues and when they voted, did so without having done their homework on such issues as the content of a party’s platform, biographies of the candidates, or their views.
While we think we live in an Information Age that does not mean Americans rely on information for all that they do. That is nowhere more the case than in how they respond to presidential elections.
Featured image credit: “N.Y. parks – bench warmers, Union Sq.” by George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress). No known restrictions on publication via Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.