The Curious Mind of the American Voter

The Democratic Party's national headquarters. Source: The Japan Times.

Politics is an odd activity, filled with useless crusades for moral and physical control we never seem to realize last no longer than our time spent on the campaign. The winners are few and the losers are numerous. Unfortunately, the losers tend to be the voters and participants in this game; so many, including the average American, mistake America for a democracy, which, in fact, it is not. God help us if our system of government ever changes to fit that misconception.

The rules of the game are simple for the voter, but for the strategist and politician, it can be a nightmare. This is particularly true in America because even though a political landscape is always bound to shift, in the U.S. it doesn’t happen every couple of decades; it likes to go through this evolutionary process during the course of a single presidency. It only took four years of Hoover to launch the Democrats on their path to stardom. It only took four years of Carter to give birth to a new conservatism. It only took four years of Adams to murder conventional federalism. And, perhaps most impactful, it only took eight years of Obama to completely reshape the Republican Party. Change in America isn’t simply a far off cry from a populist bogey man threatening the rich and famous in the night; it is the fundamental building block of an integrated and equal society, based upon the merits of an individual’s worth and not their value in the overall scheme of an identity tied to a nation.

It’s what makes America, America.

It was the price we accepted for being free from the tyranny of our European brethren, who did, in fact, provide stability when they weren’t fighting over an obsolete tribe of natives or a fort up north in some vast expansion of wilderness. Stability wasn’t worth the price of mercantile and philosophical enslavement, and thus we decided it wasn’t in our best interest. We fought a war, several actually, and chose freedom over stability.

Clearly, we have strayed from that long ago cry of “No taxation without representation!” to a more modern interpretation: “No taxation without representation! You know… unless it’s for roads… then we cool. Or you know, healthcare is pretty rad too.”

It is not my intent to judge any philosophical or political notion laid out or acknowledged in the course of this paper, only to judge where it fits in the confusing and diverse mind of the American voter. The fact is America has strayed very far from her original philosophical roots, but anyone who fights for her to return to the good ol’ days will be very disappointed in the outcome of their intrusion upon today’s American lifestyle.

The left will have you believe we are a religiously cultish and bigoted nation who needs to perform artificial justice and morality to make America “better,” while the right will tell you America has strayed far from the light of a religion that we originally acknowledged had no place in the governance of any nation, much less our own. However, these are the extremes of the competing opinions and even though it might be unpopular, the moderate within me holds strong to the notion that we are essentially a little bit of both.

The mind of the American voter is an odd organism, crowded by the wants of a socialist and the independence of an anarchist. Depending on the circumstances of a given election, these two competing philosophies cancel each other out, leaving only the philosophically steadfast keeping to their side of the political shore, with a large deterring ocean of the undecided between them and the banks of philosophical Jordan.

America, at one point, was extremely favorable to the ideals the fiscal extremists on the right point out to us, but we were never a nation of socialists or social justice warriors. Historically, modern liberalism has no precedent in America. But, if you’re a conservative or a libertarian, I would not exactly be cheering, because that sentence single-handedly made the political propaganda used in your parties null and void. There is no fear of socialism rising up in this country because there is no major infrastructure to do so. The American equivalent of socialism doesn’t even exist, lest it be in far off corners of an abandoned coffee house in California where the legal meetings of the extremely small chapter of the American Communist Party take place.

It’s not as if there is an entire establishment waiting behind the curtain of the next election to steal power away from business owners to the degree many advocate. Political dominance takes generations. It takes the brainwashing of millions, which is extremely hard to do in America, to even get close to an actual threat from becoming the Soviet Republic of America. Yes, we are more on the left than we have ever been. Yes, our next generation, like the one before that, and the one before that, will be more liberal than previous ones, but that doesn’t mean we are socialist in the slightest. If Bernie Sanders was President and the People’s Party and held all the seats in Congress we would still be a relatively centrist nation compared to the rest of the world.

This leads me back to my original point: American voters, essentially, can be described in their current form as moderates who illogically pursue goals they cannot accomplish because of the philosophical roadblocks they themselves put up. People want freedom as much as they want Medicare, welfare, and government interference in the marketplace. Presidential elections are not presentations with the aim of convincing people to support a set of policies; it is the art of mastering the ability to emphasize one part of their philosophical stance that appeals to everyone. That’s why you rarely hear in-depth specifics from a candidate in a debate, stump speech or inaugural address.

Even when they do offer some insight at what they will do as leader of the free world, it is usually connected to their overall theme everyone can agree with. This can be called the philosophical bridge, the overriding principle each candidate and party scream through a bullhorn to the voters. For Democrats, this is usually some type of social equality or government program. They preach about it so much not because it’s the pivotal part of their agenda, but because it is the part everyone can agree with, at least a little. Everyone wants something from the government, so someone who effectively conveys the message that government will help you can connect with most people (hence how Republicans and Democrats almost always cross the 40% threshold in elections)

For Republicans, it used to be freedom; now it’s morality, fiscal responsibility, and the mother of all panders, tax cuts. Everyone likes a stable morally superior society, everyone likes a tidy government, and everyone likes their taxes lowered.

This is one of the reasons smaller parties don’t have much of a chance at winning races. Republicans and Democrats have had a lock on these core issues for so long anyone else who attempts to copy them looks silly.

America’s most visible and viable minor parties, the Greens and the Libertarians, have one other problem: they are simply too philosophical. I have said many times and I’ll say it again: neither the Greens nor the Libertarians sound very logical or practical. Libertarians do have a slight edge in the fact that freedom is extremely attractive to any voter in some form whether it be politics or morality or finance, but they have not found a way to communicate it successfully. Gary Johnson, no matter how much we may poke fun at him, was very successful because he was able to sound more moderate than most (if not all) libertarians who had previously ran for president. If only he could have found Aleppo, you guys could have made it.

But that’s the issue with a party that needs to modify itself in order to win. Usually, if they need to change in order to have a chance at victory, it’s because their leaders screwed over the party in the first place. So, it becomes hard, if not impossible, to change a party within a generation to fit a more electorally friendly position.

Thus, smaller political factions, usually made up of extremists in the first place, are caught in this never ending cycle of keeping true to their faith while scaring off the very people who could allow them to practice it at the highest levels of government.

If Americans were generally liberal or conservative, one of those parties would be dominant. But, America, as I have said before, is fundamentally centrist and philosophically confused, thus why voting patterns are so random and interchangeable for most of our history. This is important because if we can pinpoint the reasons why we are like this, we can adopt a different method on how to win. Instead of educating the people to your point of view (seen as arrogant by moderates and independents), you would be much more successful in trying to do what they want and if you can’t, don’t talk about it. This isn’t an exercise in philosophical enlightenment, it’s one of political stratagem. You win elections by understanding voters.

* Caleb Mills is an analyst, journalist, and political strategist from the American Midwest.

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