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James Seidelman and John P. Watkins: Republicans exploit people’s biases to win elections

Behavioral economics explain why people vote against their own interests.

(Dennis Cook | AP photo) This Jan. 28, 1986, photo shows President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office of the White House after a televised address to the nation about the space shuttle Challenger explosion.

Since the Reagan years, social scientists, political pundits and media types have questioned why many people vote contrary to their economic interests? Such behavior is irrational, a preference for lies over facts, fake new over real news.

Apart from a new disciplinary strain known as “behavioral economics,” economics assumes people act rationally maximizing their satisfaction, voting in ways that serve their economic interests. Behavioral economics was born with the work of Richard Thaler who won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics.

Reality, however, differs. Behavioral economics suggests individuals are often influenced by biases that lead them to make irrational decisions. People purchase things they never use, make investment decisions following the herd, act with overconfidence in making key economic decisions and allow irrecoverable costs to affect current decisions – the sunk cost fallacy. Marketing and advertising enhance this irrationality, playing to people’s biases.

Presidents Reagan, Bush and Trump all promoted policies intended to reduce the government’s social safety net while promoting sizable tax cuts for the wealthy. The latter is known as “trickle-down economics,” a fairy tale still propagated by Republicans to justify the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

How do Republicans promote globalization and free trade, tax cuts for the wealthy, de-regulation and shrinking the federal social safety net while opposing raising the minimum wage, mitigating climate change, opposing policies that benefit lower-income workers? How do Republicans convince these voters that Republicans best represent their interests?

Psychologists define bias as an inherent inclination for or against an idea, object, group or individual. While economists study bias in the context of irrational economic decisions by consumers and investors, bias permeates society through differences in socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity and educational background. In the U.S. there is a significant schism between the social classes in terms of wealth, education, occupation and social networks.

Globalization and technological progress have bestowed significant benefits on the U.S. economy. Unfortunately, the benefits and costs are not equally distributed. For those who did not share in the benefits, structural change through globalization and technological change reduced real incomes and eliminated many higher-paying working-class jobs, exacerbating the schism between mainstream elites and the less educated and less skilled, fueling their alienation.

Unfortunately, bias is pervasive in America. When effectively exploited for political gain, it can merge the biases of racial prejudice, Christian and traditional family values, disdain of urban elites, nationalism, fear of immigrants and mistrust of science and government. It’s a Republican base that feels left behind, afraid of the inevitability of change and looking to assign blame.

In recent years, Republicans have been skillful in cultivating biases and demonizing their opponents, an adeptness that resonates with individuals of lower economic status. This has enabled Republicans to distract voters from their other policies that run counter to the interests of those who have been dislocated by structural economic change along with those fearful of losing the last remnants of white superiority and privilege. Adeptly, Republicans recognize and exploit class distinctions and the power of biases better than Democrats, enabling Republicans to develop a base that ignores its own socioeconomic interests when going to the polls.

The 1995 movie “The American President” provided a preview of an effective Republican strategy in using bias to win elections. In responding to his opponent’s attacks, President Andrew Shepherd tells a press conference that his opponent Bob Rumson was wrong, “Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it, Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it.”

Shepherd goes on to say, “Whatever your particular problem is I promise you; Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only. Making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it.”

Unfortunately, Shepherd got it wrong. Republicans are doing an excellent job of selling it and that’s how exploiting bias wins elections.

James “Cid” Seidelman | Westminster College

James “Cid” Seidelman is distinguished service professor of economics and former provost of Westminster College.

John Watkins | Westminster College

John P. Watkins is a professor of economics at Westminster College.

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