Messengers, Messages, and Voters: Part 2

by Bruce Thornton



At their retreat in Williamsburg a few weeks ago House Republicans continued the post-mortem of November’s debacle. A big topic was how to better market the Republican brand. A Domino’s Pizza executive gave “a well-received talk about selling a damaged brand to a modern audience,” asNational Review Online reported. But professional marketers start by understanding their target audience. Music companies don’t spend a lot of money trying to sell rap music to senior citizens, and denture cream manufacturers pretty much ignore the 18-35 demographic. When it comes to politics, we forget this critical dimension of marketing. We just assume that a critical mass of voters, including the millions who voted for the other guy, want to buy our product.

Party activists and operatives, of course, publicly can’t address this issue. As Romney’s leaked “47%” comment shows, it doesn’t do to insult the people you want to buy your goods. But that pragmatic consideration doesn’t change the reality that the interests of voters that frequently determine how they vote will not necessarily be trumped by more effectively or skillfully presenting facts and principles.

Nor is it exceptional to observe that citizens vote their interests. Starting with the earliest critics of democracy, the tendency of voters to put their private interests over the long-term well-being of the state was a consistent criticism. Around 425 BC, the “Old Oligarch” made this fact the basis of his attack on Athenian democracy: “It is my opinion that the people at Athens know which citizens are good and which bad, but that in spite of this knowledge they cultivate those who are complaisant and useful to themselves, even if bad; and they tend to hate the good. For they do not think that the good are naturally virtuous for the people’s benefit, but for their hurt.” In other words, it wasn’t a question of just not knowing who was good or bad, ignorance to be corrected through more knowledge. The point was that self-interest was more important than sorting out the noble and base.

Likewise, Thucydides in his history of the Peloponnesian War shows us the Athenian Assembly making decisions based on their own interests no matter how obvious the long-term damage to Athens. The famous recreation of the debate over invading Sicily — one of the worst military disasters in history — shows the Athenians enthusiastically voting for the expedition even after Nicias documents precisely the dangers that doomed it. Facts weren’t as important as the benefits various citizens thought they would acquire from the war. For other critics of Athens, state pay for public service and attending festivals was the best evidence that the people saw the state as a source of personal gain and advancement. Such indulgence of self-interest at the expense of the state, Socrates claimed, made the people “idle and cowardly, and encouraged them in the love of talk and money.” The citizen became, Aristophanes sneered, “as mercenary as the stonemason.”

We may dismiss such criticism as the complaints of disgruntled elitists, but the American Founders in the main agreed. They shared the ancient view of human nature as motivated by passion and self-interest, and similarly feared democracy as the form of government that gave the widest scope to those passions and interests. Thus, the Founders crafted a mixed government in which democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy — the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Presidency — created, along with the judiciary, a balance of powers that would limit the pursuit of self-interest on the part of citizens by balancing “faction” (our “special interests”) against faction, so that no one group could dominate the government and weaken political liberty.

In Federalist No. 10, James Madison wrote that this “factious spirit” is the consequence of the human propensity to form “factions” — “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who areunited and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Moreover, Madison points out, faction is an inevitable expression of human nature and political freedom itself, and so cannot be eliminated without “destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence,” a cure “worse than the disease.” The other cure would be to give all citizens “the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” But this is impossible given human nature, for “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.”

Madison concludes, “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man . . . A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” The solution of the Founders is the balance of power defining our government: “The balance of a well-ordered government,” John Adams wrote, “will alone be able to prevent that emulation [rivalry for power] from degenerating into dangerous ambition, irregular rivalries, destructive factions, wasting seditions, and bloody civil war.”

Our problem today is that our government has evolved to something closer to ancient Athenian democracy than the Founders ever imagined. Universal suffrage and the popular election of Senators have subjected politicians more directly to the will and aims of the people. The expansion of the federal government’s power and reach through entitlements bestowed on citizens has given them a powerful self-interest that frequently determines their votes (see Nicholas Eberstadt’s Wall Street Journal column for a succinct description of just how extensive — and expensive — entitlements have become). And modern communication technologies, particularly the internet and 24/7 cable news and commentary, the endless political campaign, and multiple daily polls have intensified the direct impact voters and “factions” can have on their representatives to make sure their interests are served. All these developments have made cogent the criticisms of Athenian democracy that so influenced the Founders of our political order.

So unless one believes that human nature has evolved beyond passion and self-interest so that today a critical mass of voters will consider principle and the good of the whole even at the cost of their own interests, we still face the same problem that troubled earlier critics of democracy. Of course, this doesn’t mean that conservatives should adopt the fatalistic attitude that there’s nothing to be done. By all means, identify talented leaders, and think about more effective ways to communicate. But let’s not pretend that it won’t take the folly of progressive policies hitting hard people’s material interests and political freedom — which will happen, without question, under Obama and the Democrats — to make voters receptive to those messengers and messages.

©2013 Bruce S. Thornton

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