Understanding the irrational voter

By Francisco Dao , written on October 30, 2012

From The News Desk

Regardless of which side of the political divide you’re on, you probably look at the opposition with confusion and disbelief. For many, trying to decipher the choices people make when they seem to vote against their self interest is an exercise in frustration, but voters aren’t as confounding as they appear. In order to make sense of a seemingly irrational body politic, one need only ignore the rules of economics and apply the rules of fashion and branding.

Fashion is almost always economically irrational. It has nothing to do with what’s good for us and everything to do with defining how we see ourselves and what image we want to project. Women buy expensive shoes that hurt their feet, and men make lease payments on cars they can’t afford, all in the interest of feeling like the type of person who wears Louboutins or who drives a Porsche. The benefits, like perhaps more dating options while the car is new or the shoes are in style, are short lived compared to the long term foot damage and empty retirement accounts but people do it anyway.

If you think you’re above such illogical behavior, ask yourself if you’ve ever felt compelled to order the new iPhone the day after it launched. You didn’t need it the day before it was announced, and truth is you didn’t need it the day after, but you wanted it because having the latest iPhone sends the message to other people that you’re a hip early adopter unconcerned about the cost of early termination fees. From an economic standpoint, upgrading every year is almost surely a bad decision, but you justify it, because it helps define you, just like the fashionista or the guy with the Porsche.

This same reasoning explains why many people vote the way they do. People vote their self image. Arguments about what’s good for them or who has a plan for the nation fall on the same deaf ears that ignore long term consequences in favor of Louboutins, Porsches, or iPhones. When it comes to voting, many people view their political affiliation as part of their identity and wear it the same way they would their wardrobe. Considering voters through this lens also makes it easier to understand why political discussions are so contentious. Challenging someone’s political beliefs is akin to telling them they dress like a clown and their car is a pile of junk. It’s a direct personal attack on their identity.

At the core of virtually all fashion branding is the promise of immediate gratification. Wear these jeans, drive this car, use this phone and you will be cooler, smarter, and more attractive. Whether or not the product actually solves the problem is irrelevant as long as the brands can keep us hooked on believing that the next version will deliver. It is in this manner that we end up stuck in an endless cycle of buying the next style or model of whatever elixir they’re selling even in the face of broken promises.

If this pattern sounds similar to the pattern of politicians, that’s because it is the exact same system. Because we vote based on the irrationality of fashion over the necessity of utility, those seeking public office have no choice but to play the role of fashion pitch man. Aside from the obvious problem that this decision process has nothing to do with addressing the real problems we face as a nation, it has also turned politicians into eager-to-please brands as disposable and fleeting as last year’s trend. Politics, like fashion, has become defined by advertising and imagery, where nothing endures and substance only lasts until the sale is made or your vote is cast -- and we’ve bought into it, hook, line, and sinker.

We love to blame politicians, and I am not naive to their failures. But I believe we, the voters, bear more responsibility than we care to admit. Perhaps if we vote with an informed conscience instead of treating the candidates as little more than a short-sighted "purchase" of some brand that we think defines us, our leaders will find the political will to start solving our nation’s challenges.

Until then, election day is really just a vote on who had the best fall fashion show.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]