Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Voters have good reasons for choices they make

Steven Friedman, Business Day

WAS a recent cartoon’s real "mistake" that it was too honest about the contempt in which many opinion-formers hold most voters?

The African National Congress’s (ANC’s) present battle with media is largely politicking: its ANC Youth League marched on a weekly newspaper because a mild editorial suggested that readers vote for other parties. Publishing cartoons that are rude about politicians is a democratic right and public figures should expect to be ridiculed. But, when cartoons express a deep prejudice against millions of people, we should worry — particularly when their bias is deeply ingrained in the national debate.

The cartoon was published by Eyewitness News: it depicted ANC voters — their faces darkened lest we forget their race — as clowns. The doyen of local cartoonists, Zapiro, labelled it an unfortunate "mistake". It is not clear what he meant. But the cartoon was no impulsive slip of the pen: its message, that most voters are irrational fools, who vote without thinking, is one of the most enduring myths in our politics.

On one level, the prejudice is straightforward bigotry. It assumes that those who don’t vote the way you do are fools because only you and those like you know what is best. That is the way authoritarians think and in our society the thinking often has a distinctly racial tinge. But on another level, looking down on most voters is deeply rooted and it crosses racial and political barriers: across the spectrum, those who shape the debate often assume that the poor are ignorant and irrational people who need coaching.

We are often told, in a variety of ways, that poor people do not cast a considered vote and that they therefore need education, that they are fooled into not doing what is good for them, or that they are "bought off" by social grants. Many of these stereotypes are held by people who think it irrational to vote ANC but they are shared by elites in the governing party: how else can one explain the universal enthusiasm for "voter education"?

Like all prejudices, this one doesn’t square with the evidence. A look at results at voting district level shows that the caricature that sees suburban voters as free-thinking individuals and people in townships and shack settlements as voting fodder is plain wrong. On average, the ANC wins about 80% of the vote in its township strongholds, but the Democratic Alliance (DA) wins slightly more in the suburbs. And, when we remember that suburban voters include a minority of domestic workers who probably don’t vote DA, the official opposition may be winning 95% of the vote or more among suburban homeowners and tenants. So there is more political diversity among people who live in townships than in the suburbs.

More evidence against the stereotype is a recent University of Johannesburg study that found that people living in poverty do not hold uniform political views: some even share some of the prejudices against social grants held by affluent people.

If voting in a bloc is a problem, the suburbs are the places we should worry about. But bloc-voting patterns aren’t a problem: all they show is that South Africans, like voters in most democracies, vote for the party they think speaks for people like them, whether they live in suburbs or townships and regardless of their race and whether they are poor. The study also demolishes the myth that poor people are simply voting fodder, who give a blank cheque to those for whom they vote. Most of those interviewed access political news and comment regularly. Many were worried about corruption and critical of the police. For a minority, that meant supporting opposition parties; the majority voted for the ANC because they felt it was most likely to offer them a better life. And, while receiving a social grant did influence voting behaviour to some extent, the effect was fairly minor.

Whether you agree or not, these are not the responses of an unthinking herd — or of clowns. They are the views of citizens who are making thought-out choices that are every bit as valid as those of people with a university education. Whether people live in shacks or suburbs, there is nothing irrational about voting for a party because you feel it speaks for you even if there is much about it that you dislike. Nor is it irrational to care more about how you feel about a party than whether it increases your material wellbeing: people are not calculators and so their emotions matter. And it is certainly not irrational to vote for a party because you receive a social grant — in fact, that is surely how those who think it is rational for voters to behave like calculators feel they ought to behave.

So people do not vote the way they do because they are clowns or sheep — they have good reasons for their choices. Those who comment on the challenges facing democracy here would have more to contribute if they tried to understand the majority of voters rather than simply labelling them.