In the wake of an election, pundits like to ask, What was the message from voters? What do voters want? After all, this is a crucial question for politicians. It is important for a politician to know what his or her constituents want, if that politician is to properly represent their interests. Even a politician who just wants to get re-elected, regardless of what he or she intends to accomplish legislatively, wants to know what his or her district is thinking.
In addition, the idea that the government and its policies should reflect the will of the people is paramount to democracy. The whole point of voting is that those who get elected will basically do what people want, right?
So what is the will of the voters, based on this most recent election? Some say that this was a referendum on the President – that voters think he has gone too far to the left and that he should govern from the middle. Some say that this was a rebuke of the President by his own base, and that his voters stayed home because they think he has not defended their values aggressively enough. Others say that voters want to have divided government, or different parties controlling different branches of government, hoping that this will force the parties to work together. Of course, it could also be the economy or something else entirely.
Politicians have some skin in the game when it comes to characterizing the results of the election. It is to the Republicans’ advantage and would serve conservative causes if the voters resoundingly protested the Obama administration and its policies. It is to the Democrats’ advantage and would bode well for liberal causes if this election was largely driven by the bad economy, rather than a rejection of their agenda over the past two years. Whether it is wishful thinking or the belief that repetition will help their story stick, politicians tend to frame election results in the way that serves their interests best. I propose an alternative approach:
There is NEVER an unambiguous, coherent message from voters in an election.
I don’t mean that historically it has been difficult to parse an unambiguous, coherent message in any given election. That would suggest that, in theory, there could be a message and it is just too difficult to figure out what that message is. I mean that formulating an unambiguous, coherent message based on the votes of a large group on a poorly-defined and multi-faceted matter is logically impossible. There is no “will of the voters.” There are millions of wills of millions of individual voters, and to choose some way to define their wishes in aggregate is necessarily an arbitrary and inconclusive exercise.
First, there is the problem of determining what a voter’s will is in voting for one particular set of candidates. One voter may share the same issues and viewpoints as another voter, but vote for a completely different set of candidates because they perceive that those issues will be better addressed by their favored candidates. For that matter, two voters can vote for exactly the same set of candidates for completely different reasons. This is because it is unclear exactly how particular policy positions map to particular candidates, and how those candidates would perform once in office. Different people can have different opinions about which candidates would best promote a given cause, or even which causes lead to a given desired outcome.
Even if we were able to understand exactly why each voter chose to pick a given set of candidates, it would be impossible to aggregate their wishes in order to form a coherent idea of what the collective wants. These are complex issues, with multiple dimensions. If we were to take the results issue by issue, and choose the majority’s opinion on those issues, we would end up with a mess. We might be able to come up with some seemingly fair method to prioritize their wishes, but any method we choose would be arbitrary and provide arbitrary results.
Finally, before you put too much stock in someone’s claim that the voters had a given message this election, ask yourself this. What did you want, and did your vote reflect that? When you sit down and think about it, it’s a more difficult question than it sounds. A lot of people may have no idea or may be conflicted. Issues are not the only complex things here. People are complex, too. A lot of us have no idea what we want out of our politicians, or how exactly a given politician would achieve those things. Sure, some Democrats voted for Democrats and always will, and some Republicans voted for Republicans and always will, but the voters who actually cause the variation from one election to the next are the ones whose voting behavior is more complex.
Here’s an example of what may be going through the mind of an independent voter. We’ll call him Bob: “Should I vote for someone who makes the parties work together more? Well, yeah, I guess, if that works. But who is going to work together with who, and for what cause? I hope they lower my taxes, and create lots of jobs, and balance the budget, but preserve valuable entitlement programs while encouraging personal responsibility … Maybe I’ll just stay home. Those Democrats are not getting anything done, though I do still kinda like that Obama guy. Maybe I should vote for the Republicans. I mean, this stuff really is not working out lately and my cousin doesn’t have a job. What am I gonna make for dinner? Oh, no, I’m late to pick up the kids from soccer practice!”
So what does Bob want? It is not clear that even he knows, and it seems that the issues he is wrestling with will not be resolved anytime soon. So let’s say Bob votes, and he votes Republican (as most voting independents did this year). Bob’s Republican representative might claim that Bob wants Congress to repeal health care. Bob’s Democratic Senator might claim that Bob was just upset that his cousin does not have a job, and people like Bob always vote out the majority party in a bad economy. Neither would be right.