Voters and Consumers

I recently read an interesting article in the Globe and Mail (a major Canadian paper). This talked about the political marketing techniques used by Canadian parties. The assertion was made that “Canadian politics have moved into an era where voters no longer think of themselves as citizens, with duties and obligations and longer term perspectives….” (Simpson 2013)

Given journalists have tight deadlines I’m very forgiving of their logical inconsistencies. Still I’m not convinced this view of voters makes sense partly because the article starts with this story. “In 1971, after nine years of polling in Canada for the Liberal Party, American expert Lou Harris reported that “sometimes we instinctively forget that human beings are basically and instinctively selfish”.” (Simpson 2013).

Apparently Canadian voters were never the high minded citizens some might like to believe. It is an important lesson. It isn’t the rise of “political marketing” causing voters to cease being high minded saints — they were never that. It is nonsense to suggest that the bribe taking voters of 19th century England were focused solely on their civic duty. Extension of the franchise has often been resisted by people claiming that the “quality” of the electorate will be reduced but this always turns out to be self serving nonsense.

Voters can be selfish but sometimes they surprise you. Sometimes they adopt a high minded, or long term perspective. Voters are sometimes altruistic but often selfish as they have always been and always will be because they are people. Inspirational leadership often involves persuading the electorate to have a good day.

The rise of modern political marketing techniques has changed the basic rules of politics less than people think — campaign managers have just got better at their jobs. In the last 42 years cars have changed for the better, phones have changed for the better, it is not surprising political appeals have got more sophisticated. That said I’m pretty sure voters haven’t changed as much as the technology and techniques.

Read: Jeffrey Simpson (2013) Canadian politics, where the customer is always right. The Globe and Mail October 5th 2013.