voting decisions - a hand with a string puppet

It’s Election Day, and Pinocchio decides of his own free will to go and cast his vote. Despite the multitude of strings that seem to be causing his movements and directly influencing his decisions, he insists that his free will, matured conscience and well-informed, balanced opinions are the variables that together determine how he will cast his vote. When asked how he can be so confident that he is in control of his voting decisions, given that everyone can see the strings that manipulate his limbs, Pinocchio replies with a frown, “Am I the only one with strings?”

Citizens in democratic societies are largely ignorant to certain realities and facts about how their electoral systems function. They often believe they’re making informed, willful voting decisions, and that they’re largely in control and contributing toward the direction in which their democracy heads. They’re not entirely wrong, but they’re also not entirely right. Voters are often completely unaware of the factors of conditioning and constraint that affect their choices. People instead feel empowered by an illusion of control and free will. This illusion regarding the voting mechanism upon which democracy hinges may be the only thing that preserves citizens’ faith in the concept of democratic governance.

Conditioning, Constraint and Agenda-Setting Influence Voting Decisions

According to Miller and Niemi, there are two categories that determine how voters reach their conclusions: long-term predispositions, such as values and identifications; and short-term predispositions, such as issues, candidates, media coverage, etc. While data indicates that maturing countries with rising living standards show both declining levels of party identification and class voting, “values may provide a particularly significant foundation for voting choice in the absence of strong social cleavages or long-established partisan identities” (Miller and Niemi). But values don’t simply auto-apply themselves to every scenario, only to those with which they’re presented. People may not consider that actions and events take place before they begin applying their values and judgments to an issue, and that those actions and events are the very things that now cause them to address that particular issue instead of any variety of others. This is why the media is so powerful.

The media is an extremely significant source of voter conditioning. It plays a role in agenda-setting (their agendas determine what people talk about) and priming (after determining what people talk about, they determine how people think about those issues), according to Miller and Niemi. Even people who don’t watch the news or read the newspaper will end up encountering the media’s influence in others, which can then spread to them by proxy. By repeatedly covering a single issue, the media effectively informs the mass population what they’re supposed to be concerned about.

The manner in which the media covers certain issues informs the population as to how they’re supposed to be concerned about it. A look at the following covers, from the popular American magazines Newsweek and Time, shows how multiple media outlets told Americans to think about the OJ Simpson trial. Both use the same picture (though one notably blurred and darkened for dramatic effect) and both have strong words written in red, giving their readers enough visual assistance to know how they should be feeling about the topic.

voting decisions - a time and newsweek cover

Media Power in American Politics: Agenda-Setting, 2014. Using under Fair Use.

Issue-ownership, or the belief that certain parties are inherently superior in their handling of specific types of issues, is another aspect of conditioning that is oft understated. These beliefs are rarely founded upon any sort of facts or conclusions derived from evidence and intelligent observation, yet the beliefs can persist unchallenged for a voter’s entire lifetime (they might think that one party is better at handling “moral” issues, while another is better at handling “economic” issues, etc.). Conditioning operates upon most of us without alerting us to its presence: “Much of the time, conditioning and constraint are invisible to the voter and almost as invisible to the analyst” (Miller and Niemi). If we could detect the threads of conditioning as they influence our voting decisions, we would most certainly be having very different dialogues and creating different political climates.

At least constraints are much easier to see than conditioning, but when taking the conditioning into mind, adding constraints on top may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. First-past-the-post systems, like America’s presidential election races, carry the implication that anyone voting for a third party is wasting their vote because their candidate is clearly not going to win the winner-takes-all race.

Ultimately, people like to feel like Pinocchio did when he received his wish to become a real boy, free and completely in control of their own destiny. Unlike us, however, it didn’t take Pinocchio long to realize that getting rid of a few strings didn’t give him the complete control over his own life that he’d first anticipated. There are many strings playing upon us, influencing our lives, our shopping habits, and even our proud voting decisions. Of course, this case has no need for a puppet-master to be pulling those strings from above (though there sometimes is). These strings are the complex strings of causality, and the more we’re aware of those strings, the better we’ll be able to operate within, and more correctly perceive, reality.

Written by Space Cadet Dan
Space Cadet Dan has a BA in English and an MA in International Relations. Born in New Jersey, raised in Southern California and now a Colorado resident in the Denver suburbs, he enjoys traveling and getting in over his head debating controversial subjects.