Why Good People Vote For Bad People

Stephen H. Unger
March 24, 2015

Almost two thirds of all eligible voters did not vote in the 2014 congressional elections [1]. A majority of Americans agree that public affairs are going badly, and that politicians are not trustworthy [2][3][4][5]. There are virtually no well known politicians who are not greatly distrusted by substantial numbers, usually by majorities, of the population. There are no undisputed, highly regarded leaders of either major party. Nowadays, the winner of an election is usually a bad candidate, whose principal opponent is considered by most voters to be even worse. What accounts for this dismal situation?

What's the problem?

Many decent, well meaning, intelligent, educated people, hold various invalid, or harmful, or irrational beliefs. They often vote for candidates whose behavior in office is inconsistent with their own views. Why?

It isn't that people are stupid, or uneducated, or mean, or corrupt. Most ordinary people not in politics, are decent, and intelligent enough so that, if reasonably informed, they are likely to arrive at valid conclusions with respect to public affairs. But, in practice, a majority of people seem unable to act intelligently in the realm of politics, even when their goals are sensible and benign.

It is quite common to find intelligent, honest, well intentioned people disagreeing with one another on their election day choices. Since they can't all be right, it follows that many good people pull the wrong levers (archaic language; they are putting X's in the wrong boxes, or pushing the wrong buttons).

One fundamental problem is that, in the area of human relations, there are no precise, objective, means for determining what is the "best" course of action. This is very different from the fields of science and technology, where there are well established, effective, methods and traditions for evaluating ideas. These work very well, tho there are rare cases where errors remain undetected for considerable periods of time. The field where filtering out errors is most effective is mathematics, where there are precise methods for determining the validity of assertions. (There are, however, mathematical problems with no known solutions.)

That does not mean that there is no such thing as right or wrong with respect to morality. Over the ages, philosophers have clearly established, for example, that, with minimal exceptions, truth telling is important in human relations. It is obviously essential for progress in science and technology. There is wide agreement about the importance of certain kinds of behavior in promoting amicable relations among people. Dishonesty, selfishness, cruelty, greed, are generally understood to be incompatible with amicable relations among people.

While most people are generally decent, there are, unfortunately, some nasty people around, including some who are cruel, greedy, selfish, dishonest. Sadly, a disproportionately large number of politicians are power hungry, greedy, dishonest, and often gutless.

Ends and means

We need to distinguish between disagreements over principles and goals, versus disagreements over strategy and tactics for achieving these goals. I suspect that there is much more agreement about basic principles, and less agreement about application of these principles to particular issues. And still less agreement about strategy and tactics. People may fall into different categories with respect to attitude toward risk, willingness to compromise, and patience, which may lead to differing willingness to support various policies or candidates.

Inherited views

One factor greatly influencing people's views is their family backgrounds. Most people tend to take positions similar to those of their parents (tho there are many exceptions who, for better or worse, take different paths). Once on a certain political path, perhaps due to family factors, people tend to stay there, since they usually listen to and talk to, and read material produced by, people with views similar to their own.

The mass media mess

Another basic problem is a lack of high quality, publicly available information about, and intelligent public discussions of, controversial issues. The most common sources of information on current events and politics are TV and, to a lesser extent, print media. Both are almost aways badly biased, mainly serving the interests of the very small, wealthy minority who control them. There are few, if any, intellectually honest commentators on TV. The print media are almost as bad. On the internet there are some decent commentators and sources of information (along with a lot of nonsense). So most people are ill informed, and insufficiently exposed to sensible arguments in the realm of politics.

Problems with our election systems

The difficulty in getting decent people elected is further exacerbated by three characteristics of our election system. One is the increasingly dominant role of money. Without access to large sums of money, victory in any meaningful election, is seldom achievable [6]. This is one of the ways in which the wealthy exert grossly disproportionate influence.

Another problem is the traditional plurality voting scheme, whereby each voter chooses one candidate, and the winner is the one receiving the most votes, This is very simple, and sounds reasonable. Until one considers carefully what can happen when there are more than two candidates. Sadly, a major reform effort has focussed on instant run-off voting [7], which, tho it looks good on the surface, is actually even worse than plurality voting. Fortunately there are good solutions, in the form of score (also called range) voting [8], and approval voting (the simplest form of score voting) [9]. Unfortunately, these methods have, thus far, not been used in significant American political elections.

A third problem with our system is the widespread use of sophisticated voting machines, i.e., e-voting. As compared with reasonably well run elections in which votes are manually cast on paper and tabulated manually, e-voting is subject both to failures due to error and machine malfunction, and, even more important, to sophisticated fraud that may be almost impossible to detect [10].


Perhaps when the deterioration of the life styles of enough Americans exceeds some critical point, enough people will be jolted into rethinking their political views, recognize what happened, and act to turn things around. We can only hope that this process begins before irreparable damage has been done to the environment, or to our social structure, and that the reversal takes place nonviolently.

As a footnote; a study of various ways that people acquire wrong ideas is the subject of a very interesting, concise book by social psychologist Thomas Gilovich [11].


[1] Michael P. McDonald, "2014 November General Election Turnout Rates", United States Elections Project, 12/30/2014

[2] Jim Redden, "Duh! Poll says most voters unhappy", Portland Tribune, 22 November 2012

[3] Jeffrey M. Jones, "In U.S., Perceived Need for Third Party Reaches New High: Twenty-six percent believe Democratic and Republican parties do adequate job", Gallup.com, October 11, 2013

[4] Jay Newton-Small, "Pollsters Say 2014 Will be a 'Pox on Both Their Houses'", Time, March 25, 2014

[5] AP, "Exit Poll: Voters Unhappy With Obama and GOP", The Associated Press, Nov 4, 2014

[6] Stephen H. Unger, "Money and Elections: Can People Beat Dollars?", Ends and Means, November 3, 2012

[7] Stephen H. Unger, "Instant Runoff Voting: Looks Good--But Look Again", Ends and Means, March 26, 2007

[8] The Center for Election Science,"Range Voting.org"

[9] The Center for Election Science, "Approval Voting"

[10] Stephen H. Unger, "E-Voting: A Closer Look", Ends and Means, 3/1/07

[11] Thomas Gilovich, "How we know what isn't so", The Free Press, 1991

Comments are welcomed and can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu

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