Messengers, Messages, and Voters, Part 2

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,” as NRO 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 B.C., 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 are united 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.

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  • john butala

    The Democrat elites have convinced their constituents that life has not been fair to them. There was always a huge envious element among many Dem voters, but in the last fifty years the elites added the twist that not only was life unfair, most of them (the typical Dem voters) were victims. Therefore, it's totally justified in Fearless Leader Barack's words to establish fairness by redistributing all that "stolen" moolah and give it to the deserving Dem faithful. Of course Dem voters won't admit it. But underneath everything, they vote for Dems because they, the takers, expect to get something out of it. And that something is wealth created by the producers. It's for "fairness" don't you know.

  • Rifleman

    The left will blame the failures of their policies on wealthy reactionaries. When their high income and investment taxes decrease or kill growth and shrink revenue, the left will say it's because those greedy rich people are hoarding their wealth and starving the economy. That's when they pass laws to go after their accumulated wealth.

    The left's monetary policy is doing a fine job of looting bank accounts as it is, but open-ended QE will be wholesale looting.

  • PhillipGaley

    "Sadly, voters will learn their lesson only after being hit hard by the folly of progressive policies."?

    No, they will not learn, not at all, wake up, my friend, . . . for, the fool walketh in darkness, . . . and as even now they are doing, the worse things appear for their darling, the more certaintly they exclaim their ideas of manifest blame in previous administrations: "He can't clean up this mess in just four years.", and: "The Republicans have got to get behind him instead of complaining all the time.", and so on, . . .

  • slickdemetrius

    There is excellant reading out there if anyone is interested in the Peloponnesian War and the actors involved. First, A New History of the Peloponnesian War by Lawrence Tritle and then the old classic Thucydides : History of the Peloponnesian War (translated by Charles Forster Smith) which comes in four volumes I believe. Some libraries may have them still.
    Learning that all this garbage with corrupt governments has gone on long before helps muzzle the anger a bit, realizing that we are just the recent victims of those who work the world's third oldest profession – politicians.

  • David Olds

    I can guarantee you they won’t learn. Human nature / Cognitive Dissonance / intellectual dishonesty will prevail.
    They have too much tied up in protecting a self-righteous self-image. To give it up would take too much real character. To admit they have been wrong all this time? Nope!

  • patron

    Commentators disregard the motivation to elect the first black president, which brought out a lot of voters. Nothing was going to stop that regardless.

    Also damaging was the Republicans refusal to address the big government advocates lies that low taxes created the subprime crisis, and the split of voters with Ron Paul and Gary Johnson.

    I do not see Washington capable of any solution to solve entitlement spending, especially in the next four years. Getting people off drugs and welfare will have to be done through the private sector.

  • fiddler

    Barak Obama's method is SEDUCTION. A seductive message stating that the rich "stole" their wealth and "we'll get it for YOU" is more appealing than, if you apply yourself and realize your own potential in this free society YOU can build your own future.

    Nope, better to inflame jealousy and envy and appeal to our "lesser angels" by saying, "If you own a business, you didn't build that, someone else made that happen". That coddles the disgruntled and salves the spurned; and if done so often enough, especially on little pop-ups placed before your eyes online often enough, the seductive message and the emotional aim wins out. Most of us learned in one generation not to be jealous of others; that it was impolite to point. We learned to RESPECT what others had build and to believe the best about them.

  • fiddler

    This president willfully fans flames of discontent similarly to other "influential" miscreants of history's past. Hey if it gets you popularity and power — go for it! Your "goal" is more important than societal virtue isn't it? The arrogance and lust for power cannot be overstated. It is about collapsing and rebuilding, because "IT'S ME!!!!!", that's why, and I KNOW BETTER THAN YOU!

  • liason

    The cycle goes like this…slavery leads to the thirst for freedom, the thirst for freedom leads to courage and a fight for rights, the fight for rights leads to freedom, freedom leads to wealth, wealth leads to comfort, comfort leads to complacency and complacency leads us right back to slavery. where do you guys thibnk America is on this cycle?? Not a pretty picture!!


    While Thornton mention our system of checks and balances, in my view he doesn't give enough attention to the strictly limited form of government the Founders intended. If the Constitution were adhered to, there would be no income redistribution and thus no rise of pressure groups each trying to steal the most money from their fellow citizens. That's why it's important to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate self-interest: I have a legitimate interest in voting Republican to keep my taxes low; the public sector union member does not have a legitimate interest in voting Democratic to keep my taxes high so that he can get his hands on more of my property.

    Checks and balances only works with limited government; with unlimited government, as ours is becoming, it only produces endless fights between makers and takers, leading ultimately either to collapse or civil war.

  • Flicker1

    "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."

    I don't care what you say. When you tell people who make $29,000 a year on the dole eating and smoking cigarettes and watching their 47" flat-screen all day that they can make $27,000 a year working 40 hours a week, they will NEVER vote for you!

  • fiddler

    "consider principle and the good of the whole even at the cost of their own interests" Wrong premise. Their interest should be the honor of supporting themselves. Again, this is seductive and this way of thinking is encouraged by this government. This government is morally bankrupt. Let me say that again, THIS GOVERNMENT IS MORALLY BANKRUPT. To deliberately allow people to subsist off the government "teat" while destroying initiative is corrupt to the core and is insidious. It needs to be stopped, because it prolongs the societal disease: comlacency and lack of push and the eventual further decline of the family. The Biblical statement is "if a man shall not work, neither shall he eat". Our government will accept votes from the caring and informed and from the lazy vagrant. They LOVE ignorance and dependency, because they forment it. Utterly discusting and discouraging.

  • Questions

    What we need is immigration restriction and abolition of all affirmative action. Until we think in racial terms, we're going down.

  • Adolf Hitler

    Dont worry so much, this country is going to collapse upon itself soon anyway. Multiplicator effect of many diffrent pressures upon it at the same time. Including this mass amnesty from barakus obamanationis.

  • tanstaafl

    If you are dependent on the government, you are a slave to it as well.

  • Alan

    at least we can all agree to stop whining about Obama the big spender, ok?


    Did the people follow Hitler, Mussolini, et al out of self interest?