The myth of the rational voter

By the time you read this, it is very likely that Jacob Zuma will have been elected President of the Republic of South Africa. Just to recap: a man who believes a quick shower after intercourse is a suitable way to deal with possible HIV infection.

By the time you read this, it is very likely that Jacob Zuma will have been elected President of the Republic of South Africa. Just to recap: a man who believes a quick shower after intercourse is a suitable way to deal with possible HIV infection.

Mind you he will be taking over from a man who confidently claimed the HIV Virus was the white man’s way of enslaving black people and to that end, appointed a Health Minister whose idea of an AIDS cure was potatoes and beetroot.

I know this is a cliché, but it’s astounding how truth can be so much stranger than fiction. Some of these stories read like rejected ideas for a Wole Soyinka play.

Aside from his unorthodox approach to safe sex, Zuma has also found himself up to his neck in corruption scandals. Somehow he has shrugged off everything and is now poised to become the most powerful man in Africa.

Many of us will be puzzled. How can Jacob Zuma be the most suitable person to lead South Africa? Are we missing something here? And while we are on the subject, what do Italians see in Silvio Berlusconi?

We assume the average voter is rational, but it seems to me a lot more likely that the average voter is irrational and full of biases and prejudices. They might be geniuses in their day-to-day lives, but once it comes to elections and political allegiance, rational thinking often flies out of the window.

After all, Mugabe did lose the Zimbabwe election, but he still won a substantial amount of the vote. Had the entire affair been conducted in a free and fair manner, it’s quite likely that Tsvangarai would just about have squeaked past by a few percentage points.

Strangely enough, virtually destroying your country and carrying out a campaign of terror isn’t actually political suicide.
Of course Zuma isn’t a Mugabe figure, but he still presents a convincing argument for the myth of the rational voter.

Zuma knows that that come what may, there are millions of people who will vote for him-enough to win him an election comfortably. He has a core constituency who probably go to sleep at night dreaming of their candidate walking on water.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising- a cynic would argue, with some justification, that the human race has always had an uncomfortable relationship with reality. What prevents voters from being rational?

The ‘Blame someone else’ complex: If things get bad, the trick is to blame someone else. We saw it during the Zimbabwe elections when the country’s problems were blamed on the white man who wanted to re-colonize Zimbabwe.

With Zuma, those who offer their undying support to him see the real outrage as political shenanigans by the opposition. Confirmation Bias: This is something we all suffer from in our everyday lives- the tendency to interpret things so that they conform to our own opinions.

We tend to assume that someone’s actions will vindicate our opinion of them and this applies to voters’ view of politicians. Behaviour that would have been condemned if it had come from a rival candidate becomes celebrated if it comes from the candidate that the voter supports. We don’t like to be proved wrong and confirmation bias provides an easy way out.

Straw men: This is basically attacking your opponent for an argument he has not made or presenting a distorted version of his actual argument.

You get to demolish the argument and then feel smug about it irrespective of the fact that you are attacking a ‘phantom’ argument. It also provides another get-out clause which prevents voters from having to change their minds or actually deal with the arguments put forward by others.

The Higher power argument: From President Museveni to Robert Mugabe and George.W.Bush, some voters tend to assume that their candidate has been chosen specifically by God to lead their respective countries to the Promised Land.

Such voters do not bother with trifling things like ‘proof’. They FEEL that God supports their candidate and that is enough. With this mental anchor in place, nothing will make them change their minds. I wasn’t surprised to see some South Africans say this about Zuma when I turned on the news the other day.

Cognitive dissonance: This is the mental discomfort that comes from having deeply held beliefs or prejudices challenged by new information that appears to contradict those beliefs.

If you are pro-Zuma and you are confronted with the possibility of him being corrupt and morally dodgy, how do you reconcile your belief with the new information?

Many people merely cling even more stubbornly to their original views. Strangely enough, proof of their error only vindicates their opinion that they were right. The facts are made to fit into their opinions and not the other way round.

Many of the responses I’ve discussed above actually arise from this, but in this case I’m talking about voters who don’t even bother with the fancy stylings of straw men or confirmation bias. The mental reaction is simply to cling even more stubbornly to the original idea without attempting to even justify it.

Priorities: Voters give priorities to different things so for example Mugabe’s anti-imperialism crusade would impress his supporters who value that more than his terrible economic policies.

It’s the same all over the world- voters have their own set of priorities and these are usually unlikely to be the more pressing issues.

Symbolism: Sometimes voters vote for what the candidate represents- for Zuma, there is the sense that he is ‘one of the people’ in a way Mbeki was not.

Likewise, many people voted for Barack Obama because he represented the chance for a black man to finally reach the white house and for history to be made. I think voters are a lot more attracted to symbolism than they would admit to themselves.